Interview: Jason Santa Maria, founder of IN8 Games

Interview: Jason Santa Maria, founder of IN8 Games

Yesterday I posted about my favorite game release of 2014, Clever. Last week I had the opportunity to speak with the inventor of Clever, Jason Santa Maria. Jason has been creating games for nearly 30 years now; from drawing up simple little board games to play with his younger sister, to larger more complex games to play among friends. In 2010 he entered a game he created into a game-concept contest held by Microsoft and Frito-Lay. Out of 1500 submissions, his game was selected as one of the top 3. It was at this point he came to the realization that not only does he have a passion for creating games, but he just might have a knack for it. From there, it was a relatively easy decision to pursue his dreams of bringing a game of my creation to the public. Clever is his first game release. Take a look at the video below to preview Clever.

Sam: Can you describe the process of creating Clever?

Jason: The genesis of Clever came about because I have always toyed around with designing games. I’m a big video game player and I love video games but I don’t have the wherewithall to write code. I’m not that guy.  I wanted to do something really simple and it kind of just came to me on a long car ride. I was like, alright, well, what’s simple? And when I think of simple I think of being a small child again and some of the first things I came across, one of which was flashcards, which is why the cards kind of look the way they do. And then I remember always enjoying playing with a regular deck of cards with my parents, like gin rummy or old maid or all the games you can play with a regular deck. And I always thought it was cool because I felt like an adult when I would play those games because I was using the same deck of cards that you would see your dad and his buddies playing poker with or your mom and her friends playing pinochle or

Jason Santa Maria at one of his playtests for Clever.

Jason Santa Maria at one of his playtests for Clever.

whatever. I always liked that feeling and I wanted to try to create the same things for kids where they’re learning but at the same time they think it’s cool because they see adults playing the game as well. 

And really it was just a matter of, alright, how is a standard deck of cards put together. And I immediately thought of the ace of spades. What is a spade anyways? Who came up with a spade? And you know I was talking in my head, why isn’t it an A if for an apple, that would be cool, A for apple, and how about rather than matching that apple to three other apples in the deck, what if you matched it to bananas and oranges?  And from there, it just kept going. What else could I do? Well, you could do the sequences if I started using all the letters, like ABC, then it became apparent that using letters, I could do words, you can spell with this. And from there it became I had the categories, I had the spelling, I had the sequences, and of course the color. You know, apples are usually red, and then you could match it to a stop sign and a firetruck because they’re all read. That’s cool, too. Let’s do that. And then I was sitting on that for a while in the car, and I thought, you know this game would be perfect if I could somehow incorporate numbers, but I don’t know how to do that. And then I realized, oh wait a second, this is my game. I can put numbers in the deck! And that was really it, and then I had it. I’d say in about an hour in the car, and I thought of the game and I got home and was all excited and you know started hammering it out. 

Sam: I almost always play test games with adults first so I really know the game before introducing it to my students. I played Clever Rummy with mom.  After we played a round, I said, “Okay, what do you want to play now.?” And she said, “I want to keep playing this!” She liked it that you’re looking at multiple categories, and she actually felt it was more challenging than a regular rummy game.

Jason: Yeah, that was kind of what I was shooting for. Keeping in mind simple games, I was thinking about games like Uno. Everyone likes Uno. But it’s so simple, there’s not a whole lot of thought that goes into it. So I wanted to have something where you actually do have to think. 

Sam: When I first got the game, I was looking through the instructions and I saw the rules for different games. Hearing your process of creating the game, when you first started did you envision it being something that you could play multiple games with or did that grow over time?

Jason: It kind of grew over time. I initially designed it around gin rummy because that was the closest to me. That was the adult game, but as the deck developed and I got it closer to the current form it became pretty obvious to me that you could play other games with it. So from there, it just became about looking at other card games and asking if they would work with Clever. And then taking it one step further and saying, well those game already exist and that’s great and anybody can play those with Clever, but I sat down and tried to come up with games that were exclusive to Clever, like the game Threes. And the Tic Tac Took game, you can’t really play those with a standard deck of cards.

Sam: Tic Tac Took is a very popular one with one of my students in particular. It’s something that she requests to play often as a reinforcer or a break after we’ve been working for a while. And the fact that she’s practicing skills I need her to practice but she’s having a blast doing it  is another one of the reasons that I’ve been so excited about it. 

Jason: You’re touching on the reason I carried forward with this whole process. When I was testing it, I was in fourth grade classrooms and such, I wasn’t really sure what I had and how it was going to be received. The first few times I watched kids play by themselves and you see kids teaching other kids new words and pointing things out to the other players just by themselves, I was like, I have to get this game out there. It’s too cool.

“I want to encourage other people to come up with new games. Sometimes, the first time they see the deck, they make up their own games. Which is fun to watch.”

Sam: One of the things I wondered if you saw during play testing, because I’ve seen it a little bit with my students, it almost reminds me of Monopoly in that everyone seems to have their own house rules for how it’s played. I see that emerging with my students, and I try to be flexible and encourage their creativity with things like that. They’ll create new rules about adding on to words, or what does a sequence mean in math. Is it 1,2, 3 or can I do 2, 4, 6, 8?  Did you see that while you were playtesting or since you’ve been traveling with it after the kickstarter campaign? 

Jason: Yeah, I have. I see that all the time and it’s something I’m kind of excited about. What I want to do ultimately is create a community online of the stuff that other people are coming up with. I want all the games that are possible to be available to everyone. I want to encourage other people to come up with new games. Sometimes, the first time they see the deck, they make up their own games. Which is fun to watch. I’d say in the  next few weeks I’ll be putting that together, so I’ll say hey, submit your games and then I’ll actually publish them on the site so you can print them out at home and play all these games different people are coming up with. I think that’s something special about the deck.

Sam: What is the immediate future for Clever?

Jason: Right now, in all honesty, I’m preparing for the holidays just based on the response I’ve been getting without even launching the game. I’ve got to be ready for the holidays. What I’m thinking of doing, I’m making a few changes that are aesthetic, they’re all aesthetic. And I’m going to place my next order. And I’ll possibly be doing the game in a tin box for the holidays as opposed to the cardboard that you see now. So there’s that, I’m also working on a couple of other versions of Clever. As you can probably tell, it’s very conducive to themes.  I’m doing a Clever Astronomy, a Clever History, a Clever Geography, and I’m working on something I’m calling Clever String Theory. Which is more advanced. String Theory is just really exciting for me because that’s the most adult version you could get and I think it’ll cause a lot of arguments, you know those friendly arguments you have over games, which I’m a huge fan of. 

Sam: Beyond Clever, are you doing to stick to the Clever model right now, or do you have other ideas brewing?

Jason: I have all kinds of ideas brewing, but I want to focus on Clever for the time being. I’d like for this to do pretty well so I can set myself up to do some of the other things I want to do.

Sam: For people out there who are thinking about designing games, going through this process do you have any advice for them, or anything you’ve learned along the way?

Jason: Sure. I’ve learned a ton along the way. I had no idea, I still honestly have no idea, what I’m doing. (laughs) So my number one piece of advice to anyone who asks me that question is just to do it. I know that sounds kind of cliche, but really I think the Nike ad campaign had it right back then. You just have to do it and it’ll grow. The first time I played Clever, I sat down with my wife, I was all excited, and I explained the game and we played and it did not work at all. It was terrible. But that allowed me to go back and see why it didn’t work and fix it. You just have to do it. 

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