Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Reflections on Deflexion

Engineer-turned-game designer Luke Hooper takes The Game Table through the creation of this unique boardgame.

by Ward Batty

Three engineers from Tulane University have combined work with play and created Deflexion, one of, if not the first board game to utilize the special properties of the laser. The game is by Engineering Professor Michael Larson and graduate students Luke Hooper and Del Segura who were awarded a $12,680 grant from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance. With this seed money, it was decided to self-published Deflexion, which is now available in a second printing and appears to be a hit.

Deflexion is a chess-like game played on a board with a ahort black wall around it. Players capture pieces by hitting them with the fixed laser, built into the wall on the far right side of their side of the board. Most of the pieces have at least one side that is a mirror, angled so to redirect the laser beam so it turns 90 degrees right or left. In this way, the laser will continue a path until it hits the un-mirrored side of a piece or the wall. A turn consists of moving a piece and firing your laser. If it hits a piece on an unmirrored side, it is removed. Each player has a Pharoah piece and you win by capturing your opponent's Pharoah.

Luke Hooper took some time to share the process of creation of Deflexion.

Which came first, an idea to do a game, or the laser idea and it was decided a game would be the best application of the idea?

Every kid seems to have this fascination with lasers and I was no different except for the fact I never really outgrew mine. Originally, I was working on another design that involved a laser application for a desktop toy and was having a lot of problems coming up with an economical and manufacturable design. So I had a bunch of laser pointers lying around my room that I would play with and would love to just point at the mirror and see what kind of wacky bounces I could get. Inspiration stuck one day at lunch when I was thinking about how to make the original product work when I just sketched out the origins for this game.

Was the chess model your first idea for a laser game?

The game model did originally look a little chess like and to be honest we started testing with chess like setups (i.e. all the pieces starting together on one side of the board) before realizing that the game worked best starting it in much more open configurations. However, in the design we tried to separate ourselves more and more from chess to try to overcome what a lot of people have trouble with such as the complex initial rules that intimidate many people from trying it. The goals of this game design were to incorporate

How did the Egyptian theme come about?

There was a lot of debate about this, but ultimately we decided the natural link between the Egyptians and their use of light as well as worship of the sun made sense with our game. Plus it gave us a distinctive theme to separate Deflexion from chess.

How did you build the first prototypes?

Being engineers focused on product design, (Larson, Luke, and Del teach the class at Tulane) we luckily had some experience here. Of course it started out with the pieces of paper and a lot of imagination, then moved on to chessboards with clay pieces. However, to get a working prototype was quite a challenge due to the very tight tolerances or dimensions needed to make sure the laser bounces straight. Our first attempt entailed us actually milling out an aluminum mold and casting one ourselves, which didn't ultimately work out because we still couldn't align the laser well enough within the board. We then went to FDM (Fused deposition modeling) which is a form of Rapid Prototyping (RP) technology that is like a big 3d printer. This gave us tolerance within .005 inches and by making the board in four sections we had a working prototype just in time for the Tulane Business Plan competition. However, it was over a year from the time I first had the idea until we had a working version.

Why did you decide to self-publish?

Originally, we just didn't have the contacts to try and get somebody to license it from the start but since we were all engineers with design experience and Del had some manufacturing experience we figured we could do it on our own. This took some creativity and with the help of friend Yi who was a fellow mechanical Engineering grad student we were able to use his friend as a sourcing agent and get all the components identified, negotiate with a manufacturer, and get it all shipped. After the 2005 New York Toy Fair we had one solid licensing offer but at that point we figured we were far enough along and we believed in our concept enough that would go at it ourselves. Its been great because we've done it on such a tight budget that its been all learn as you go... from graphic design for the packaging, manufacturing issues, PR and marketing, we've done it all ourselves, made a few mistakes along the way, learned a lot, and saved a lot of money in the process.

How did the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance grant come about?

Dr. Larson had actually been by one of their exhibitions they do every year for the top inventions they sponsor when he was at a conference in Washington, DC. He figured our product would be a perfect fit so we all spent a day hammering through the application, which was easier to do since we already had a nice proposal with our business plan and we got the grant.

$12,680 is a lot, but you can't produce a full game for that amount. Were the molds for the pieces custom-made? Can you walk us through the development process?

You are very right, $12,680 isn't nearly enough to produce a full game, especially one that introduces technology in a way not previously done. After finalizing our design through FDM RP models, we sent over our CAD files to the mold manufacturer in China who made us low volume aluminum molds usually good for 10-30K shots depending on quality and volume. They then begin making early production pieces, which had problem after problem. Most people realize the mirrors have to be aligned but there are so many more variables in this game for it to work right, it's a little mind-boggling. Not only do the mirrors have to be set in perfectly upright and at the right angle, the base must fit the same, the board has to be aligned right and not warp in any significant way and, of course, the laser housing must be lined up nearly perfectly or its off from the beginning. However, even if the laser is lined up physically that doesn't mean the beam is coming out perfectly straight, so a separate adjustment had to be designed in to allow the individual adjustment and tuning of each laser within the board.

What this all ultimately means is the first molds had to be completely scrapped after our initial run wasn't up to our standards to sell. We were back at the drawing board and made a number of adjustments and went to high quality steel molds. However, at this point the $12,680 was long gone so all three of us checked our guts and each put in the max we could at the time ($20K each, $60K total) to pay for the new molds, produce 3,500 games, and get them shipped to Del's garage.

Is this your first entrepreneurial venture? How did you decide on 3,500 copies? There are obviously lots of unknowns in something like this. Was the number a scientific guess, or more of a hunch?

I come from a family that is involved in the restaurant business, which has given some good experience in hard work, but nothing like this. I just finished my masters degree and am only twenty-four, so I admit I've had to learn a lot as a I go, but the expertise between the three team members has proven to give us a great dynamic. Shipping containers from China come in standard 20ft and 40ft length sizes. Obviously the bigger one is more economical in terms of shipping per game. So we ran the calculations and figured we could fit 3500 games in a 40ft container. We did the science behind it, complete with a 3D CAD model based on the size of the case pack accounting for the extra space needed for loading and such.

You must have learned a lot more about manufacturing in China than you would have ever imagined.

Oh, we've learned much more than we ever imagined or wanted to, at least time-wise. It took us eight months to get to the point where we actually ordered the games, so you can imagine our disappointment when the first twenty they expressed us off the line were not up to our expectations. From the first design, we had to design in a cheap and easy laser adjustment fixture into the game and another fixture to make it easy and quick to manually align each game after the laser is inserted. We also changed the design of the base and fitting since originally we thought we had a very clever system that turned out to be just too hard to make work within the tolerances that were being produced. There were endless midnight phone calls due to the time difference to discuss problems and solutions.

Now that Deflexion is available, has the reaction exceeded your expectations?

It's been a bit of a rollercoaster. Everyone thinks they have the next big thing on their hands or else they wouldn't be spending every bit of their free time when they start out devoted to making their idea work. However, we had read enough and talked to enough people to know the odds of succeeding are very low, so we tried to keep a healthy skepticism about us. Plus we were very worried that since we had all developed the game from an engineering perspective and tested it with a lot of "science" and "engineer" types, it might not fare as well with the general public so we worked a lot on the look and making sure that anybody could learn it in a minute or so. We would pull janitors in out of the hallway, walk over to the financial aid office and make the receptionists play it and anybody else to get people from all walks of life. We figured if we worked hard enough we could definitely sell this case and take it from there. However, selling those first 3,500 within the first two months was great.

What are your plans for the game? It seems to me this technology would be adaptable to other games as well.

You're right, there are definite possibilities to apply it to other games as well as plenty of cool expansions on the current concept. We are working on beam splitting pieces, one-way mirror pieces, and random shot pieces (you're not sure which way the laser will fire out) in addition to a possible multiplayer version. However, we have to get a handle on the current concept before we can really push out any new stuff.

Have you been contacted by any other publishers?

Not as of this point

I assume that you all have other day-jobs. Is anyone thinking of going into toy and game design instead?

Yeah, this thing has taken all of us away from our normal lives a lot lately but in a very exciting way. Interestingly enough, Del is actually "retired," although his drag racing hobby could be considered a full time obsession (he built and races his own dragster, like the ones you see on TV). Due to the hurricane Dr. Larson, is out of a job at Tulane at the end of the semester since they are eliminating our mechanical engineering department but he already has plenty of offers. I do sports engineering consulting work for Nike currently, coach a track team, and work part time for a product design firm (I interned with them for three summers previously) which pays my bills while giving me the freedom to work on Deflexion, which requires more than a full time job most weeks. I love product design in general and definitely plan on continuing in the field. The idea of taking an idea from paper into the hands of some consumer you've never met and having them truly get entertainment or make them think about something in a way they never had previously really excites me. So I definitely plan on continuing to design whether it is games, sports products, or medical devices (I majored in Biomedical Engineering for undergrad).

My thanks to Luke Hooper for his extensive insights into a unique design process. More information about Deflexion is available at their site.

Ward Batty is a long-time game-player who has been with the same weekly game group for over twenty years. "I understood there was a pension." is his excuse. He writes a monthly column on the business of board games for Comics & Game Retailer magazine and has written articles and reviews for The Games Journal, Scrye, Knucklebones and Games International.

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