Winning as a game maker |

Winning as a game maker

Janice Podsada
The Hartford Courant
Hank Atkins demonstrates a game he designed and built in his Bloomfield, Conn., workshop. He has sold dozens of his games to large companies. Illustrates GAMEMAKER (category f) by Janice Podsada (c) 2008, Hartford Courant. Moved Friday, Oct. 17, 2008. (MUST CREDIT: Hartford Courant photo by Michael McAndrews.)

BLOOMFIELD, Conn. – It took two years and a journey of more than 15,000 miles for an electronic word game invented by Hank Atkins to show up at a store just 7 miles from his house.

A full-time game designer, Atkins has sold dozens of board games to companies such as Milton Bradley, Hasbro and Fisher-Price since he started in the 1970s. He had his first success in 1982 when he sold a game called “Razzle” to Parker Brothers.

A lot of people have been tempted to quit the rat race with dreams of turning the game they developed into an international best-seller. “Almost everyone has a game they think will be the next Monopoly,” Atkins said.

But creating games isn’t easy, and the odds of a game ever hitting the shelves is extremely low, he said.

Atkins designs 10 to 12 new games every year in the hope that one will catch the eye of one of the larger game companies. It takes a 40-plus hour week to come up with that many new designs, he said.

“I don’t get emotionally involved in a game. I’m not surprised if it gets rejected,” said Atkins, who said he earns about $100,000 a year as an independent game developer.

In recent years, he has had success with Educational Insights, a specialty toy and game company based near Los Angeles.

Of the more than 50 games that Educational Insights sells, six were designed by Atkins, said Mark Mallardi, the company’s vice president of marketing. Educational Insights and its parent company, Learning Resources, employ more than 150 people. Learning Resources posted a reported $7 million in revenue last year.

Like the publishing industry, the toy and game industry depends on independent producers like Atkins, Mallardi said.

“The innovation of people like Hank produces business opportunities. All the way down the chain, it funds jobs and employment,” he said.

Each year, Educational Insights receives more than 1,200 game submissions from around the world. “They come in batches every week,” Mallardi said. But the company produces only five or six new games a year. Other game companies have similar production schedules.

“In this economy you have to be judicious,” Mallardi said. “One game represents a substantial investment and an 18- to 24-month process in terms of the design, manufacturing, production and shipping cycle.”

Atkins submitted a prototype of the electronic word game he had designed to Educational Insights about two years ago. After an intense evaluation, the game, which the company named “Freeze Up,” was approved for production.

Once the game was manufactured in China, it was shipped back to the company’s Illinois warehouse, a 15,000-mile trip.

A few months ago, Geraldine Talge, the owner of The Chalkboard in West Hartford, was shown “Freeze Up” by a representative from Educational Insights. The Chalkboard, which also has a store in Bristol, sells educational games and supplies, a niche market that gives it and other independent toy sellers an edge over the large toy retailers.

The battery-powered talking word game randomly picks a letter and a category. Players must think of names or objects in that category that begin with the letter in an allotted time frame.

“The rep showed us how to play it. I thought it was neat, a really nice concept, so I bought it for the store,” said Talge, who this week learned that Atkins, the game’s designer, lived 6.9 miles from the West Hartford store.

“You love to support local people. I’m really happy to have his games in my stores,” Talge said.