Like most children of the ’80s, Rosie Roberson ’99 enjoyed classic board games such as Monopoly and Life.
But it wasn’t until 2005, when she started buying for her own children, that she realized the market had expanded beyond a few mainstream bestsellers. Today, people can choose from thousands of games, many invented by independent designers and produced by small publishers. Roberson had been looking for a creative outlet, so she decided to try her hand at game design.
An Oregon-based software designer by day, Roberson has now created nearly 100 games — mostly unpublished and geared toward children — in her spare time. Several of her 12 published games have won awards, and she was nominated for a Toy and Game Inventor Excellence Award in 2012.
The former Willamette art major enjoys game design because it marries her artistic, problem-solving, writing and math skills. She says, “It gives me a reason to create art but also engages the part of my mind that makes me successful in software design and systems analysis.”
Games can teach skills such as teamwork, strategy and how to handle failure. Smaller children learn basics like taking turns, simple math and counting skills, and color and shape identification, as well as the fine motor skills needed to maneuver game pieces. Roberson’s “Say The Word” blends charades and silly words to test players’ memories, while “Shapetigo” requires players to use strategy to recreate a picture card.
But Roberson says she doesn’t design with learning in mind. “I think the learning just happens,” she says. “I create games for fun, laughter and time together with family and friends.”
Roberson usually finds inspiration in everyday life. Her husband’s fishing hobby led to “This Big!” while her dog, Piccolo, sparked the idea for her latest game, “Cha-Cha Chihuahua.”
After creating a basic prototype and writing the rules, Roberson tests the game on family and friends to gauge the “fun factor” and to identify problems. When she feels good about the gameplay, she creates the “pretty” prototype, with full illustrations and polished components, worthy of a company pitch.
Roberson may pitch a game to one or several companies. Some companies want an online pitch, while others prefer a Skype conversation or even a 90-second video. If a company likes a game, Roberson sends it a prototype for testing and to make a final licensing decision.
Roberson and the company may continue joint product development to perfect the game for market by tweaking the rules or finding alternate options for the components to minimize manufacturing costs. The publisher engages an illustrator and has the final say on the end product. Roberson says, “One of my favorite parts of the process is getting my samples in the mail, so I can see how it all turned out.”
The final product may be published within a year, although others take longer. The idea for “Cha-Cha Chihuahua” came to Roberson in 2009. After about 30 iterations by the company and Roberson, the game finally hit shelves in 2017.
This article was originally published in the spring 2018 issue of Willamette magazine.