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'Thwack Factor': San Francisco DIY Game Inventors on the Brink

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Kooba inventors Scott Shanks and Stephen de Zordo (Anthony Bedard)

After toiling for more than a decade in the garage of new proverbs, next month two San Francisco musicians-turned-DIY inventors are releasing their next-wave target game, Kooba, to the states.

The creation of Stephen de Zordo (a former pro bodyboarder already responsible for a toy industry all-time monster hit) and Scott Shanks (a sculptor and 78rpm deejay), Kooba is a game of physical skill that’s sorta kissing cousins to darts except, in this case, one uses a pair of sticks to launch magnetic projectiles at the wall-mounted game board. Eyes and hands are coordinated, competitions are mounted, and fun not staring at a screen is had.

What started out as an unexpectedly dangerous prototype created out of repurposed materials went on to become an early crowd-funded Kickstarter project. It later became a consumer-safe, crowd-vetted hit at Maker Faire, that “science fair meets county fair” of someone’s do-it-yourself fever dream. Newly armed with the prestigious 2014 American Package Award, Kooba will be making the leap this June from hand-built labor of love to a high-quality, impeccably designed, mass-produced must-have consumer item available across the country at specialty boutiques, chain toy stores of the anthropomorphic giraffe mascot variety, and even the hallowed shelves of SFMOMA’s museum shoppe.

I recently interrupted Stephen and Scott’s heated lunchtime game of Mousetrap to get the lowdown.

How did you guys get into this racket in the first place?


Stephen de Zordo: I invented a toy back in 1989. After coming back from surfing one day, I was playing with tops on the floor in my friend’s garage. I was spinning them in a large spiral patterns, and began wondering how you could capture or trace the spin patterns. I was very into graphic design at the time. Then I realized you could put a pen into the end of the top and boom! I got together with some family members, we sold the idea to a distributor and launched DoodleTop in 1990. It immediately found success. DoodleTop was the toy industry’s #1 Stocking Stuffer of 1993. We ended up selling tens of millions of them.

DoodleTop - in action
DoodleTop – in action (Courtesy of Anthony Bedard)

There’s a toy industry Stocking Stuffer award?

de Zordo: There is! And we won a bunch of other awards for it like Top Impulse Toy. It’s still in production to this day.

Scott Shanks: Stephen and I knew each other from George Washington High School here in San Francisco. In the late 90s, we’d been collaborating on various art, music, and creative projects together. I was sick of working in web design and wanted to get into designing toys. Meanwhile, Stephen wanted to get out of the toy business and involved in the digital world. So we were coming from completely opposite directions. We started inventing stuff on lots of cocktail napkins.

What was the genesis or creative spark for Kooba?

de Zordo: We were trying to invent a whole new way to propel things – but not by kicking, or throwing, or bouncing them.

Shanks: We started slinging metal rings off the end of sticks with terrifying velocity. Once we started breaking bottles and sending these steel rings deep into walls, that’s when we knew we had something. Danger being one of the greatest elements of all successful physical toys.

de Zordo: Think about a SuperBall. The first thing you want to do is throw that thing right back into your face off the ground. That’s the kind of stuff we grew up with. We love things that have elements of surprise and danger.

Kooba packaging (recipient of a 2014 American Package Design Award, designed by San Francisco firm Stapley Hildebrand
Kooba packaging (recipient of a 2014 American Package Design Award, designed by San Francisco firm Stapley Hildebrand (Courtesy of Anthony Bedard)

Why did you decide to invent a physical game instead of creating a mobile app?

Shanks: They didn’t exist when we started this project! We started developing early versions of Kooba in the late 90s, way before the iPhone.

de Zordo: People weren’t touching their computer screens yet, just getting pissed off at them.

Were there any historical precedents for your game?

Shanks: After we had our fun destroying everything, we did patent searches and found a sticks-and-hoops game from the 1800s called Game of Graces (‘meant to help preserve young ladies’ femininity by instructing them on the art of graceful movement’). But that was a game of catch and we’d already been playing ours as a target game. Target shooting is way more fun. At that point, we had to figure out a way to make our game physically safer to play so we lightened up the materials and then asked ourselves how we could make the projectiles stick to a board, like darts but with magnets instead. It became sort of a target game mixed with a board game.

Before discovering that I hadn’t pressed the “record” button on my iPhone for this interview, you were discussing how Kooba is a new type of “play pattern”.

de Zordo: I’ve always been interested in new and inventive ways to do stuff. When we came up with this idea, I realized it was an innovative play pattern – play patterns are what the toy industry talks about when you physically do something. We didn’t set out to invent a game. That’s not it. We set out for a whole new play pattern, found one, and then had to figure out a way to make it into something that wasn’t going to kill you. Rather than coming up with something to slap Spongebob’s image on or some other licensed property, the play pattern is key for us. Not just filling another hole on the toy store shelf.

Shanks: Doing it on a target board opened up a lot more possibilities than just getting something into a hole or knocking something over.

Close up of Kooba "aero" magnetic game piece
Close up of Kooba “aero” magnetic game piece (Courtesy of Anthony Bedard)

What was the first prototype like?

de Zordo: We went on a sourcing binge. Scott created a prototype out of arc welded metal rods, cardboard, felt, headliner from a car. We were repurposing materials from everywhere. The shooting sticks, for example, used to be antenna rods. And there was a big moment when we found shower curtain grommets and repurposed the button snaps for the aeros (the flying magnetic pieces one shoots at the game board).

Shanks: We were trying to find a way to fasten the magnets to the neoprene. I found a tool to pressure fit the magnet into the female end of a button snap with a little dab of epoxy for good measure. I was doing this at the desk of my old web design job.

You left an early prototype behind at someone’s house by accident?

I brought the prototype home, left it in a bag in my room and then went on a month-long trip. When I came back, the board was up on the wall and my roommates were playing it even though they’d never been shown how. At that point in the project we were being super-secretive so I was angry they had played it but they were telling us how rad it was and their enthusiasm was so inspirational that it motivated us to take it to the next level. At that point we decided to try to license it to one of the big guys and we re-ignited all my toy industry relationships.

How’d that go? Were any of your old contacts interested?

de Zordo: The people we showed it to liked it but didn’t know what to do with it. Once the big guys turned us down, we shelved it for a little bit and tried to figure out our next move. Then Kickstarter came along and we realized it could be our funding platform. We raised about $3,000, a tiny sum by current Kickstarter standards, and got to work on the next generation of the prototype. And that dovetailed with the Maker movement – the design philosophy promoting repurposed materials, thinking differently about design, designing for environment.

Unlike bands trying to fund their albums, a game prototype actually seems like an interesting use for Kickstarter.

de Zordo: A few years ago, you never went through these channels because they didn’t exist. The Maker movement, Maker Faire, and Kickstarter, those crosshairs all aligned for us. We rethought the entire thing. We said, f*** the big guys, we can do this ourselves. We re-shifted our focus onto how we could do this and make it ourselves.

Kooba board - hanging
Kooba board – hanging (Courtesy of Anthony Bedard)

Is “screen time” Kooba’s biggest rival?

de Zordo: To compete with screen time, you have to create an engaging experience. Our product gives people feedback. We’ve designed that into it. You can see the excitement in players’ eyes when they actually hit the board after physically manipulating this object. When we take it out to the public, which we’ve done numerous times at Maker Faire and other events in the city, people really latch onto it. People love it. The games get really competitive. It’s purely because of the physicality of the product. We put a lot of thought into the thud and thwack. The thwack factor (laughs).

Shanks: Every time we take it out people start coming up with different ideas for games they can play. We felt we should make a relatively nondescript board that allows people to come up with their own ideas for games, something that would be more of a physical gaming platform.

de Zordo: People used to invent games and toys that you play with. Now, everything plays for you. It’s generally, hey do this, tap this and it guides you along the way. And if it’s tied to a licensed property, you already have a predisposed dialogue. But with our game, there is no narrative. It’s wide open. We tried to design for the experience, not necessarily for the market. The market would tell us to do things very differently. But we designed it for the consumer.

The burning question our readership has been waiting all interview for me to ask: Is Kooba the next Hula Hoop?

de Zordo: That would be awesome.  I would hope it ramps up a bit slower than that but it does have that “back to the experience” factor.

Shanks: Playing Kooba is an addictive experience. You can get good enough to make a decent shot, but it’s challenging to make a perfect shot and do it consistently. It’s hard to do and I’ve been playing versions of this game for 10 years now.

Where would you rank Kooba among other noted San Francisco/Bay Area inventions such as the bendy straw, the Popsicle, the squeegee, television, and Eggo’s?

de Zordo: No question: somewhere in between Eggo’s and television.



Stephen de Zordo and Scott Shanks will be doing live demonstrations of Kooba and displaying all of its prototypes at the Maker Faire Bay Area 2014 at the San Mateo Events Center on Saturday, May 17th.

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