John Bell, the Storyteller


Anyone who knows John, knows he always carries a notebook to doodle down ideas and he loves stories. In addition to games and puzzles telling stories, he is a huge music and movie buff. I don't suggest taking him on in a challenge. I once designed a movie game, capturing thousands of lines, and I would not attempt! He dispenses great advice in his interview!

What do you love about your current role?

Story and play.  I am a storyteller, and thrive on the idea of bringing new stories to life.  As the head of design at Buffalo Games I am fortunate to have the opportunity to create stories on so many platforms that shape an experience for the audience.  

Whether through the roll of a die, sentence on a card, the look and voice of the game, packaging, or marketing campaigns the idea of crafting an experience that viewers, players, or readers not only see, but ultimately feel is what drives me and our team.  I live for those moments when players or puzzlers are plugged into the play, and more importantly the moment.  That’s the stuff.  And it will live on well after the game or puzzle is put away.   

Jigsaw Puzzles? Really?

Absolutely.  We’re in the entertainment business. Games and puzzles are vehicles for play and smiles. Off the cuff, a puzzler spends 10-15 hours assembling a 1000pc puzzle. That’s a chunk of time in todays over scheduled, Candy Crush world. There is something to be said for the power of puzzle play.   

I discuss jigsaw puzzles with inventors and challenge them to stretch their thinking in terms of how can we create unique and exciting puzzle experiences.  Initially, a lot of inventors would express that puzzles is not a category they’re familiar with. But, I believe that’s the best place to be.  Here’s an opportunity to take some of the most creative minds in the world and ask, “What would make jigsaw puzzles exciting to you?” It often leads to them questioning when was the last time they puzzled, and even bigger, why they stopped. It sparks up their internal innovation machine and leads to something fresh and new.   There’s been some really exciting things, and you’ll be seeing some of them from Buffalo Games very soon. 

What trends do you see in the toy and game industries? 

Similar to other entertainment industries like movies and music, toys and games are risk averse at the mass market level.  There is a tendency to pursue properties with built in audiences or have high visibility.  With that said, everyone is always looking for the next great game changer.  However, there is a lot of room in other channels for new and exciting voices, especially in games.  Strong games will build word of mouth and work really hard, sometimes even over years, to become an overnight success. 

What advice would you give to inventors?

Know what kind of inventor you are.  Are you interested in creating one idea and taking it to market, or creating several ideas and licensing them out?  Then understand the market place realities that you are creating toward.  The idea needs to be something a retailer will want to put on their shelf. If they do, then what will it take the place of? Then once it’s on shelf, is it something that an audience will want to put in their cart? 

Inventing is an ongoing process, and there are always ebbs and flow in the market place. It’s critical to understand what makes your ideas different from everything else out there, and ultimately who the audience is.  

What’s on your playlist? 

Well, I don’t necessarily have a playlist. I still listen to CDs, mostly when I’m driving. I do my best thinking when I’m behind the wheel, and the music becomes a soundtrack to my thoughts.  My car CD player currently has in rotation: The Black Keys, the Dark Knight Rises soundtrack, Bob Marley, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, John Coltrane, and Vampire Weekend.  When I listen to music I’ve always made up movies in my head to go with, or are inspired by the music.  

I’ve seen some great films. 

What is your favorite gadget, App or piece of software that helps you every day?

The coffee maker… and Google. 

When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

A few seconds ago. My wife’s sense of humor - she makes me laugh out loud all the time. 

What else do you do when you aren’t working on films or toys or games? 

I love being home with my family, playing with our puppy, working around the house, and taking photographs.  My wife and I enjoy going on photo safaris.  It’s a chance to explore someplace we haven’t been before and take pictures of anything that inspires us.  It’s always amazing how each of us has a different point of view on the same subject matter, and how our points of view make us look at the world in a different ways. 

How did your upbringing influence what you do today? 

Growing up in my family, movies and games were our vocabulary.   In fact, they still are.  They bring us together and make those times we get together an event.  Because of it, I do feel a great responsibility for creating products that will hopefully provide a similar platform for others. 

What is one mistake you made, and how did you learn from it?

Go for the corners in Othello.  That, and hit save every 15 minutes.    

What device couldn’t you live without? 

In today’s world it’s not really a device per se, but at some point it was.  It would have to be a pen and my notebook. It’s a step up from a quill and parchment I guess. 

I always carry a notebook with me where ever I go.  I use it to capture thoughts and ideas throughout the day.  I can’t wait to cobble together a couple of minutes of free time to jot, sketch, or doodle the idea down and take it further. It’s exciting really, because on that blank page anything is possible.  It’s my sandbox.

When it comes to pens I like, I’m a bit obsessive – bordering on becoming a hoarder.   My weapon of choice? A simple blue roller ball with a smooth draw. Nothing fancy, but the ink needs to flow smoothly, and not blot.  I prefer writing longhand to a keyboard.  There’s something to be said for the time it takes to write something out because it gives my brain a chance to think thoughts through as I write.  

What’s next? 

You ain’t seen nothing yet.  (Big smile.)  

Thanks, John, for a terrific interview!