Friday, September 2, 2016


Where to begin? There’s a lot more to this story than I’ll have time for here but if I ever want to get to my point let’s start: Back in the 1980’s the President of Mattel, Ray Wagner set up a small group of creative types as a ‘think tank’ or what would later be known as an incubator. These were his words to our little group at our first meeting.

“I want you to confuse the company!

What I mean is this," he continued. “We already have very talented design groups in place to service and grow our existing core brands like Barbie, Hot Wheels and Masters, so if you come up with ideas that fit into their brands, you’re definitely NOT doing your job. What I want to hear is marketing saying This is a great idea.... but what do WE do with it?’ I’ll take it from there. Maybe we’ll form a new division, or maybe we’ll license the idea to someone else.

And think of your mission as ‘fun’, not just ‘toys’. Grow our business. Your group won’t have rules or schedules, and maybe other design groups will be a little jealous of your freedoms, but your group will always report directly to me so your ideas will definitely be heard.” It was more than exciting to be one of those young designers listening to this. It was amazing.

This was a fantastic mandate until about three months later when, in some kind of disagreement with the Board of Directors Ray was fired (and immediately hired by Hasbro). The new president was what we called a ‘bean counter’ who came from finance and his mantra was ‘Back to Basics’. For Mattel, basics were dolls and (hot) wheels and so now the LAST thing the company wanted was to ‘be confused’. Shit.

Anyway, the head of our group, Susannah Rosenthal was able to walk that fine line that gave the company the kind of products they wanted while still allowing us the freedom to explore new and exciting ideas: the future of fun.

Some of those ideas the company actually produced like the Nintendo Power Glove (the first
commercial ‘gesture’ controller and Captain Power, a toy that interacted with regular broadcast television. But Mattel saw these products, not as new directions in play, but more as one-time novelties. Behind our closed doors geniuses like Rich Gold, Novak, Caleb Chung, Dave Hampton, Jeff Corsiglia and others had actually created a working Virtual Reality System and were exploring robotics and the first drones (remember this was about thirty years ago). Nevertheless in the then current corporate wisdom our group was unneeded and disbanded.  We were all let go.

(A small footnote: The following year or so Caleb and Dave came up with a little product called           'Furby’ that became, and still is, a phenomenon, only now for Hasbro)

But that’s all just a precursor to what I want to talk about. One of the most amazing designers in the group was Jurgis Sapkus. He took the little wheel-lo toy that many of us played with as a kid

and from it conceived MagnaMan (code name”MAGOO). As you’ll see in the following video it was part construction set, part physical video game and part racing set. Here’s the actual 1986 Mattel presentation:

Jurgis’ first demo was controlled thru the track. Our summer intern from MIT, Eric Frische, added a remote control giving the player wireless individual control of his (or her) little robotic characters. Beyond being a 3-D buildable Pac-Man, the gaming possibilities were endless.

In our presentations we had the opportunity to also include what marketing called a ‘sizzle’ film showing the coolest features of the product. With Clark Dugger and our great Audio Visual Dept I made this video. I may have gone a bit too far interpreting the word 'sizzle'.

In any event the presentation was a ‘wow’. Our group’s job was to show ‘proof of concept’ and develop something to show kids for testing. You have to understand that we were limited to using off-the shelf components (not custom chips) which made our little prototype  robots heavier and slower than they would be in an actual product. In fact, our Engineering group later made a ‘real’ production version of Magoo and the little robots were smaller, more colorful and zipped up and down that track really fast!

Magoo tested really well with kids. Of course it would, it was so cool. So what do you think happened to it. Nothing. Mattel just decided that it was too expensive or it just didn’t fit into their marketing plans. I’ll never know. The simple fact is that this was a fantastic toy that will never see the light of day.

We’re getting close to my point. I’m still on the list of approved designers who can submit ideas to Mattel on their portal. So here’s what I did. I showed them the videos, making sure I told them this was already their product, their ‘intellectual property'. I made no personal claim to it. I just wanted to bring it to their attention because probably none of the current staff even knew of its existence. I wondered whether this was a product that Mattel might reconsider, but if not, I offered two options. The first was that they license it to some company that might have the desire to market and produce it and the second was that they let Jurgis and I put the video and story up on Kickstarter and see if we could raise the money to develop and sell the product. Of course we’d be willing to work out any financial  or strategic arrangements Mattel deemed appropriate.

Never have I gotten such a quick response from any company. No. Just No. No reason.

I’ve been to Mattel and listened to all the buzzwords about being disruptive and taking chances etc. etc. Here I was offering them a no risk opportunity to cash in on intellectual property they already owned. No risk, all reward. And thinking about this product (exactly) thirty years later makes my head explode with ideas. Sure, now you’d probably use your cell phone to control the games and the Maker movement would probably be designing new trick-tracks to augment their custom layouts and 'characters'.  If I was Mattel maybe I’d have a meeting with Lionel, a company that has conceptually run out of track. I read where the average age of their Railroad Club member was something like 60. This might be their digital future, with royalties to Mattel.

But it's not my call. Not at all.  I just think it’s a crime to let a beautiful piece of intellectual property (and fun) lie fallow. Ray would have understood.