Myles Nye is one of the founders of Wise Guys Events, a company that specializes in experiential play. Many of the games he develops are designed for large groups of people to complete in very short periods of time, and many of his customers look to him for team building.; his clients have included huge companies like Google, Intuit and CDW. He also works as a challenge consultant for the Survivor TV series and is a marvelously talented improv artist... if you have the opportunity to catch him in a live show at ComedySportz, don't pass it up.
(He also has great taste in local delicatessens. In LA near Hollywood? Check out the Tamarind Ave Deli.)
How do you describe what you do to people completely unfamiliar with the concept?
First I tell them my job is a game designer. Then they assume that I work in digital games. I have been involved in app development, yes, but that's not strictly what I do. Then I explain I work in non-digital games, for which there isn't a great name or category. People in the space call them "big games," but that's not many people. I tell them I create games for people to play together in real life, like scavenger hunts. Then I tell them I design challenges for Survivor and they sort of start to get it.
How did you start in the business?
I worked for a company based in San Francisco that sold cell phone scavenger hunts to corporate clients. I worked for them as an actor, then as an MC, and then as all-around game master for all the Southern California events. Business was good and my buddy Greg joined me and helped me write and produce the games all across the country. After 2008 the business changed, the bosses were having to make tough decisions, and I was approaching the conclusion that I wanted to work for myself. So Greg and I hung out our shingle and Wise Guys Events has been our full time job ever since. It was the first time starting a business for both of us. But we had evidence that such a business model was feasible.
Did you come into the business with a wealth of contacts, or did you start "cold"?
We for sure started cold. Greg and I are both connectors in life, so that helped: we booked a game for Google thanks to a friend of Greg's, while a friend of mine helped us book a game for Toyota (thanks Rebecca!), but other than that we do all the things a new business does to get clients: SEO (Search Engine Optimization), networking events, and reaching out to weak ties.
What are some of the more effective ways you've been able to acquire clients?
Most people who find us don't know anything about team building and don't even really want to: they've been tasked with finding a few choices, usually with the guideline that the boss wants "something different." We deliver something different: in spades! One way we like to connect with clients is through Destination Management Companies, who handle large multifaceted events for corporate clients. If those clients are in the mood for a game of some kind - from a pub crawl to a Minute to Win It game show - then we want them to call us.
Tell us about some of the mechanical challenges you have in implementing a game for 300 people?
Many of the things you do to set yourself up for success are the same as you would do with any other kind of game. You want to make sure the barrier to entry is low. Whatever the game is about, you want the players to do that first. For instance, Clockwise - our flagship cell phone scavenger hunt game - is about object hyper-linking, so we have the teams do a practice scan at the start line so they understand how to do it.
Beyond that, you have to think like a producer, and since my background is in theater, that's been a real asset. How many people are you moving around the room? Bigger teams means you can have fewer game stations, but you have to make sure everyone is engaged and participating. Don't have a group of 10 face off against a group of 10 and have them play a game that's best suited for 2v2, or you've got 16 people twiddling their thumbs.
It's important to have good helpers, and we've been really lucky that we've got a stable of our Wise Guys game masters who help us deliver challenges to the teams and in many ways are the face of the company.
How do you playtest challenges for large groups?!?
That's another instance where being connectors helps. I'm in the improv community and Greg belongs to the roller derby community and also the Burning Man community, so if we send out an email blast we can usually get some friends to show up and take a flier on something new and unproven. We had a great playtest earlier this year on a beautiful January day overlooking the Hollywood sign play testing about a dozen games that were for two teams of 10. We needed to find the 5 worst games leaving us with 7. It was really easy to do. We could tell which games were stinkers in the first minute. And then we could iterate on the good ones to make them even better.
What cues do you look for in your playtests to know you've got something good? How many playtests do you run before you go live?
That's somewhat easy because you're running physical games for groups of live people, so if they're laughing, smiling, trash-talking you know you've got something good.
One of our newer games is a between-the-pages scavenger hunt using back issues of National Geographic. During our playtest, we determined pretty quickly that the game was viable - people were gasping as we were handing out the magazines and explaining the rules - but when we tried to cut it off early to move to another play test they said, "No, we want to keep playing and find out which team wins!"
Since we produce a high volume of events, we seldom play test something more than once before putting it in a client's hands, and some times we will put a game into an event without playtesting. That sounds really arrogant and risky, and it is, but we put a new card game into a pub crawl event we ran earlier this year that was an iteration on an existing game but had never been playtested in its current form. The feedback we got from the players listed that game as the best part of the experience, so I guess our instincts were right!
We wouldn't do something that risky if we didn't have good reason to believe the game is a winner. We are both game players ourselves, as hobbyists, so we're pretty good at determining if something is fun enough or not. Most of our games are made up of a series of mini-challenges, so if a game isn't connecting with a particular team or group they'll be doing something different in 15 minutes, or they can skip. We don't want anyone trapped doing something that isn't fun.
Describe a typical day or week to me; if nothing is "typical", pick an interesting day and break it down for me.
Sales is the most important part of the work, even though producing events is the most fulfilling. So much of a typical day is spend talking to clients who found us by Googling and explaining the benefits of our services and the pricing. Then there's the day-to-day business of packing up and preparing for an event: writing scripts for actors, gathering plush snakes and Alka-Seltzer, phoning ahead to make sure we have permission to put a clue around a dummy's neck in a boutique window. And at any given time we're usually working on something big and ambitious for around the corner. Right now we're putting a lot of time (too much probably) into developing a haunted house game for October of next year.
You attempted to KickStart an interesting Los Angeles tour game and it didn't hit its goal. What convinced you to try, and what were the key factors in its failure?
That game, The Augmented Detective, was something we'd been brainstorming for years. At various times we'd have a partner saying they'd pay for it or furnish the technology, but they were all talk so we decided to see if the game was going to connect with a wide enough audience for it to make sense for us to bootstrap it. As it turned out, the appetite wasn't great enough for the game or, and perhaps also, we didn't adequately communicate what we were trying to do. You can't show someone what an experiential game is going to feel like. We wanted to create something like The Games of Nonchalance or Why So Serious or Sleep No More but, significantly, none of those games were crowdfunded. When you're trying to do something with no easy precedent or analog, it's hard to convince people to give you money for it because they can't really understand what it is. Also we were asking for more money than a typical non-celebrity, non-tech Kickstarter tries to raise, so that worked against us too. But we'd done the arithmetic and knew that there was no point in doing it unless we were doing it right, and the budget was just that.
So I understand you and Nick Metzler are both challenge consultants for the TV show Survivor?
John Kirhoffer, the challenge producer on Survivor, gave me my first job in TV. For a couple weeks a year, I'm part of the team that sits around the room and comes up with new variations on puzzles, obstacle courses, and mazes for the contestants on Survivor, my favorite show. Nick is a bright up-and-comer in the world of game and challenges and it's clear he's going places. I just hope he remembers me.
(Nick Metzler is a ChiTAG and TAGIE Young Inventor Winner for Squashed)
How do you overcome a creative block?
The most common reason for creative block is naming a new game. Naming a game is really important. We had an intern last year and we asked her to create an intern game that future interns would play. She did a great job: the game was an orientation to the workspace and the intern's responsibilities and was about rescuing our missing mascot, an anthropomorphic clock named Clocky. The game was called Saving Clocky. However, as a seasoned game designer, I made the editorial change to name the game Save Clocky. I know it's a minor difference, but I feel naming a game is really important. When I'm stuck on a name, I just fill a page with scores of names because I know one of them will be the least rotten. I have no idea which one it will be. But that's how I came up with the name for our team mental game Flipperoni Pizza.
If I'm stuck for an idea, like we have a mental and creative challenge for a group but now we need a physical one, usually I'll look to YouTube and watch Fort Boyard or look at the Hide & Seek Tiny Games app or games from R&R or Lone Star or Gamewright and look for something to inspire us. It's also useful to think of games you played as a kid. John, my boss on Survivor, likes to talk about how, if you put two kids in a field, they'll find and anthill and pick up sticks and make a game out of who can throw a stick that lands closest to an anthill. It's good to make your game resemble the kind of behavior that your players would be doing for fun on their own if there were no game, because then it's easy to get them to play.
Where do you find your inspiration for new games?
See above. James Ernst and Mike Selinker are also role models to me, as well as Jane McGonigal, so I love seeing what they are up to. Some day I hope to have them all over for tea.
Have you tried designing traditional toys and games as well?
Yes, and game shows too. All I think about is games. It's kind of sick. But I have some "million dollar ideas" for games and toys that I haven't tried to pursue publication or representation for because that seems like such a difficult way to make money: like deciding you're going to write a best-selling novel. Maybe once my kids have grown up and moved out I'll focus more on the tabletop and toy ideas.
Thanks for the terrific interview, Myles!