Michael McGinnis -- The Creator of the World's Greatest Toy
“I didn’t lose, because … this is about the experience of trying and gaining skills as you go, and if you fall off, you just get back on again. It’s like what you’ve got to do in your own life when things aren’t going right.” - Michael McGinnis
Nothing comes out of the void and simply falls into your hands. Today’s inventions are the products of what has come before. Creating a new idea comes from the curiosity and the desire to solve a problem. One such idea was brilliantly molded by Michael McGinnis, from the nearby town of Petaluma, California, who, as just a high-schooler like you and me, had the idea to create one of the greatest and most clever puzzle toys of all time: Perplexus.
In the late 1970’s, Michael McGinnis and his friend Dale shared a knack for creating mazes which allowed a player to only move in one direction. Dale was extremely smart: he only received one B grade in his entire grade school career, which was in P.E., and he was subsequently given permission to skip a grade of high school. He grew up to find a job in electrical engineering of semiconductors, or, as Michael describes them, “electron mazes with one-way arrows that can change direction.” Fitting, right? On the other hand, Michael flunked kindergarten and maintained a GPA only in the high twos. Still, by high school, he had become passionate about art, and found himself drawing cruise ships, spaceships, aliens, architecture, and abstract 3D shapes. At one point, he had even designed an entire miniature golf course! Additionally, Michael loved to play board games. His favorites as a young boy were Labyrinth, a game in which you use a board to guide a ball around holes and walls by tilting it; and Pathfinder, a two-player Battleship-type maze game.
When Michael entered 11th grade, he and his family moved from Illinois to Petaluma, California, where he attended Casa Grande High School. In art class, he was assigned a project to design a board game, but due to his deep interest in mazes, his teacher allowed him to create a 3D maze instead. Michael’s first idea was to create a marble race game, in which four players would compete to guess which marble would reach the bottom of a track first. However, this initial idea had too many problems. For example, how would you ensure that all four balls were released at once? If so, how would that contraption work? How could creating four completely different, curved tracks guarantee equal length? Ultimately, Michael decided that this idea was too boring and hopelessly random.
Flipping the paper over to sketch out his next idea, Michael brainstormed a 3D maze that would have a small BB roll around in it. Instead of trying to guide the ball in order to avoid holes, like in Labyrinth, however, he planned to have a continuous balsa wood path glued to the inside of a 3-inch-wide transparent plastic cube, which the player would tilt to guide a BB along the path into an end zone. Later, he also added arrows and railings to the path so that players would never get lost along the way. Still, the maze was quite crude and ugly, and to my knowledge, Michael still has never been able to complete it!
Michael named this first model the Equilibre Hable, which sort of means “balance skill.” The toy was an instant success both within his family and at school. At one point, the principal of Casa Grande even asked to borrow it for a month! Happy about the popularity of his creation, Michael entered Equilibre Hable into the Santa Rosa Artist’s Toy Show in October of 1979, but he was so fearful that it would get stolen that he never showed it to participants, choosing instead to hide it under the docent’s desk. Naively, he had anticipated that a big toy company visiting the Show would simply understand his idea, design a smoother, quality product based off of it, and commission the new product into mass production. As he realized, however, nothing ever comes that easily.
Still, Michael was eager to see his ideas reach their full potential. After joining Santa Rosa Junior College, his sculpture teacher, who would come to play a large part in shaping McGinnis’s life, encouraged him to start contacting American toy companies. At the time, the freshman was still debating whether to sell independently, a choice to manage all parts of the design, manufacturing and marketing of the product, plus everything else; or to partner with an established, reputable toy company, even if it would take most of the money for itself. Once before, Michael contacted Hasbro, but they hastily declined to consider Equilibre Hable, refraining from challenging the Rubik’s Cube for dominance over the cubic toy market. Continuing to work on his design throughout his busy college years, Michael was suddenly hit with a stunning realization about his work: if he were to succeed in his plans to create an amazingly popular new toy, he would be massively contributing to the prominence of plastic, hurting the environment drastically. With the conviction that his toy would be a success with help from the right people, Michael knew that he had to continue until completion--before anybody else came up with the same toy idea themselves.
Once married and out of graduate school at the University of Kansas, Michael started teaching a Figure Sculpture class near his home, at Santa Rosa Junior College. During school holidays and weekends, McGinnis continued to work on Equilibre Hable, now called “Over the Edge!,” which had the motto, “This game will drive you Over the Edge!,” just like “This game will drive you bananas!,” from Bananagrams, (which I wrote about earlier this year!) Apart from the name, he focused on deciding whether to continue with the cube-shaped design or to go all-out with a spherical shape, which would allow for more internal designs for arced and circular paths, rather than just straightforward, rigid roads for the ball to travel on. He also worked on the logo and came up with some creative ideas for TV commercials, such as:
In a New York subway, a crowded train car with many different cultures and ages moving along. All but one are playing the games. This one is a woman with the snob look. She rolls her eyes as people get off the train and more get on with more games. The next scene is of her getting off at the next stop. [In the] next scene, she opens the apartment door, takes off coat, fixes drink and goes to a fancy box and opens it taking out one of the games.
However, licensing and patent companies still did not share the same interest in Michael’s work as he and his wife did. In yet another naive fashion, they spent hundreds of borrowed dollars from family members and hours of precious time to end up getting nowhere. The couple ended up both exhausted and embarrassed. With nowhere else to go, Michael returned to teaching for the next ten years, until he met a student named Erin, who, out of sheer luck, was able to introduce Michael, through her brother, to an executive named Dan Klitsner at KID Interactive in San Francisco simply by asking, “Do you know anybody in the toy industry?” What makes this opportunity even more amazing is that Erin was the only student that Michael ever asked this question to. Ask and you shall receive!
Finally Michael had found a toy producer that was interested in his idea. Over the Edge!, as it was now called, was so different from KID’s other products that Klitsner just had to give it a shot. Eventually, they settled on a deal that would allow KID to help in dramatically refining the concept, as well as taking over all presentational and promotional support for the product. Soon, McGinnis and KID started to produce various prototypes and designs, such as “Training Wheels,” one of Michael’s personal favorites; “Cascade,” “Mahogany,” and “Child’s Play,” which all added new features such as funnels and challenging, wavy surfaces called “speed bumps”to the Over the Edge! system of play. New challenges arose in this process of development, such as area efficiency, or how many fun sections the team could add into as small a space as possible; the final product had to seem worth the money and space to the consumer, and making the toy’s series of pathways more compact was the way to achieve that goal. When they came out of the development phase and into more worthwhile designs, the team tested more durable materials, such as styrene, a common plastic used in architectural models, rather than wood and super glue. They also definitively made the decision to move away from the cube design and on to a more simple sphere. All at once, it was finally happening. The little sphere was being molded into the toy we all know and love today: Perplexus.
In September of 1999, Dan Klitsner and KID communicated with NeXT, a team from Playmates Toys, the studio responsible for the Rubix Cube. Together, with Mr. McGinnis, their goal was to show off Over the Edge! at the prestigious American International Toy Fair in New York City, which was only five months away. Models were rapidly given the go-ahead to be created, but, for the first few weeks, Michael could only work on the project for three hours a day because he was still attached to his teaching job. After twenty five hours of work, however, he finished making a prototype model, and it was subsequently shipped to NeXT for the show. Now, all that was left to do was to choose the name. They started with keywords, such as “labyrinth,” “entanglement,” “gravity,” and “dexterity,” and came up with creative names such as these. Eventually, Becky, Michael’s wife, discovered “plexus,” the root word of “perplexing” and “complex,” which, by itself, meant a “complex, interconnected network:” an exact definition of his product. As the Toy Fair drew closer, the team of Playmates shifted to calling it “Perplexus,” an even more perplexing name than before. At last, it was time to fly to New York.
New York was a success! NeXT had reported that Perplexus was garnering the most attention at the entire show and the line for pre-orders went out the door! Pleased, both Michael and NeXT began expansions: they wanted to make perplexus into a series. The goal was to make a second Perplexus—a Super Perplexus—which was larger and more difficult. Things were going great. Designs and commercials were being made, armies of emails were being exchanged, and friendly, in-person discussions between Michael and the team at Playmates were frequent. At least, that’s how it went until Dan Klitsner was given the unfortunate task to inform Michael that NeXT was closing, and all of their progress was being transferred to another subsidiary of Playmates that had no further interest in Perplexus. Again, like so many times before, Michael felt heartbroken.
Still, all the hard work that Michael had devoted to Perplexus had paid off. Perplexus was now actually so popular that only KID was necessary to continue their project into completion and mass-production either way. In 2002, Superplexus, the predecessor of the recolored and more widely distributed Perplexus, which you can still find in stores today, was released. Today, other varieties include Perplexus Epic, Perplexus Warp, Perplexus Rookie, Perplexus Twist, Perplexus Go!, and even more extreme spinoffs. There is even a hybrid Rubik’s Cube and Perplexus toy, which only shows how far Michael’s idea from high school has come in terms of admiration and popularity. Today, he writes frequently on his website and uploads to his Youtube channel, the resources from which I learned all of the information for this article. If you would like to learn more about Michael McGinnis, please check them out!
In short, what makes Perplexus the greatest and most clever toy ever created, in my opinion, is the fact that anyone can become fully focused and immersed into a simple yet complex puzzle about a steel ball rolling along paths. What makes Perplexus greater than say, the toy monolith Lego, for example, is that it attracts people of all ages, something I have seen Lego fall short of being able to do in recent years, at least as I myself grow older. Additionally, it’s fully electronic-free, so no battery is required, yet it still helps in the same way a video game does to improve both your spatial awareness and fine motor skills. More important, still, is the story of Michael McGinnis, a rather shy, eccentric person with not the best grades, who brought his high-school brainstorms into the international spotlight through hard-work, dedication, teamwork and had the conviction that his concepts for a radically engaging toy would be enough to beat all the challenges and setbacks he would face.