By @SimonCocking

Interesting interview with Murray Heasman @MurrayHeasman,  a modern day inventor and games designer, creator of Tara , @tailtengames  Ireland’s Royal board game among others.

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How long have you been inventing & developing games?

Started at the age of 13 when I was heavily into Airfix models.  I wrote to them to with the idea of producing model birds.  Got a letter back thanking me for the idea, but then went away to boarding school and forgot about it.  When I was let out four years later, I was alerted to the fact that they had indeed done this, but not even sent me any free samples!!!

How do you get into doing this?

I used to play a classical lute-back mandolin.  A friend suggested I buy this electric mandolin.  Always wanted to be a rock star, but never had the talent, I bought it anyway.  But I couldn’t find a short guitar strap – all the standard ones were too long.  I was lent a copy of George Bain’s Celtic Art – Methods of Construction and started carving and fretting my own.  The first one was a single knot, crossing 712 times.  I did a few heavier ones suitable for guitar.

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The mandolin strap

One day I got a call from a guy called Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin.  He loved my straps and wanted me to meet at their rehearsal studio – which I obligingly did 🙂 .  I really had to pinch myself – my own gig by the biggest gods of rock.  That was a seminal moment for me – I thought “blimey – there’s something in this Celtic knotwork, what else can I do?”  At the time I was a woodcarver and cabinetmaker, designing one off commissioned furniture.  It was always up and down, and I was looking for something that I could produce as a ‘bread and butter’ line.  Two weeks after the gig, I woke up at 2am and said “I’ll design a game”.  My wife found me cutting up pieces of cardboard the next morning and started getting worried!  This developed into Tara, as it is now.

Along the way, I was play testing with friends who said that they knew someone in the games business.  I gave this guy a ring and he turned out to be the marketing guy behind the Rubik’s Cube.  He liked the game so much that he signed me – I now had an agent, with the idea to license out the game.  No results after six months, so he handed it back to me – back then it was really under-developed, so nothing like it is today.  But he introduced me to a few important people in the German games industry at Spiel in Essen, notably Alex Randolph, the grandfather of game inventors.  He loved it and took me under his wing and showed me around, introducing me to the people that mattered.

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What are the challenges of being a 21st century inventor?

For kids, with a physical product, you are almost fighting the digital world, to make it as engaging (if not more) to get them off the screens, but also using digital media to get a fully immersive experience.

There are huge benefits for all of us, adults and children in playing with physical toys and construction sets. It’s great for hand to eye coordination, developing our creative side, our brains, self revelation and confidence, and simply having fun and sharing in a physical world.

How many iterations do your games go through before being ready for market?

I lost count! Tara took 12 years and countless iterations before it was ready.  Although I played a lot of games when I was a kid, I wasn’t what you call a gamer now in my early adulthood.  I came to it as a furniture designer and woodcarver, so I approached the challenge from a perspective of being true to the subject matter and it needed to be beautiful.  I was also without the constraints of being totally immersed in any particular game, e.g. chess – there are hundreds of thousands of chess variants around the world.  It had to stand out from the crowd.  One of the key moments was visiting the Hill of Tara and soaking in the history and atmosphere of the place – the two conjoined ringforts was the turning point in the development.

I have made many knot-themed handcrafts, from woven knots in guitar straps to celtic knotwork puzzles, jigsaws, games and Christmas decorations. I have NapkinSketches, cardboard cut-outs, basic 3-D versions and now a life-size fully-functioning prototype of a knot construction set. Next stop is contract manufacturing and the launch which I am aiming for Q1 2016. Fingers crossed.

What are the particular challenges, if any, of being a games developer in West Cork?

Always having to travel a long way to conventions; there aren’t many of us around here!  However, we did start up the Clonakilty Games Festival last year with much success.  The internet of course makes it all possible – I could be anywhere, but I love it so much here, I couldn’t move.

What tips would you give to other inventors / developers starting out now?

Start listening to the weirdest music you can find! I have done for years.  It opens your mind to think laterally, outside the box.  Maybe my brain is wired differently – my family cannot stand being in the same house when it’s on 🙂 , they don’t even consider it music!  You have to believe wholeheartedly in what you are doing, BUT step outside and look at it from others’ perspectives if you can.  Accept criticism constructively, and then fine tune it.

You may have heard this before but it’s still vital to keep listening to customers, and testing, testing, testing!

How was 2014? Wins? Anything you’d do differently?

The last four years have been very tough – I lost my business like so many others in the country because of the credit crunch.  If you’re a lone inventor, try bringing other people in to complement your skills – you can’t do everything yourself.

Plans for 2015 & beyond?

We are bringing my latest knot based game to the world, the culmination of 30 years work!
It’s a beautif!ul, modular, knotty, sculptural THING.  In a basic set, with just four different types of pieces plus a joint, anyone can start to construct the most amazing interweaving knotwork.  What seemed like the impossible to most, now is totally possible to all.  You can follow the patterns given to learn the principals behind it, then when you are comfortable you can create forms of your own.  With just a single additional piece, what was traditionally a two dimensional decorative art form, now in the 21st century, becomes a three dimensional playground.

I shared the prototype with a well known knot artist recently. She described it as an “artistic revolution that will bring knotwork into the 21st century”. I was delighted to hear this, as I hope to do to knots what Riverdance did to Irish dancing!

Life work balance, your strategy on it?

I’m probably the worst at this – I’m thinking all the time.  My switch off is tennis and cycling – I’m aiming to cycle every single road, both highways and by-ways in West Cork!

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