“My mission? Make products for the world to enjoy!” Courtney Wood on creating Bubblegum Stuff games

Courtney Wood, Bubblegum Stuff

Courtney, you have a new game out which – it’s fair to say – is somewhat lavatorial in nature… I’m going to come back to that. But I want to start by asking about ‘gift games’ and board games. From your perspective, what’s the difference between those product types?
Interesting question. The thing that I try to make different about Bubblegum Stuff from a lot of other companies in the gift industry is that I want a product that has a great name, great packaging and great content inside. Just because something’s a gift game, I don’t think, “Oh, we’ll just make nice packaging. It’ll sell!” It matters to me what’s inside, so I try to design both types of product with the same level of attention.

Right. So with you, a product might be themed to appeal to a particular demographic, and it may have that grab-and-go feel… But the game inside has to be great?
Exactly. So there’s no difference on that side of things. However, for me, if something’s going to be giftable, it’s got have a theme that’s either immediately funny or relatable to someone. People have to be able to understand the product a lot quicker. And actually, Deej, something you often say is relevant here…

Hard to believe, but go on!
You often say – when talking about packaging – “Grab with the front, sell with the back”… Meaning that you need to grab people’s attention with the front of the box, and sell the product with the back. I agree with that, but maybe in the giftware market you need to grab AND sell with the front! It’s far more impulsive. So someone might, for example, see our new game, Poopy McPoopface, and just think ‘It looks like the poop emoji! That’s hilarious. Grab that.’ They may not care AS much about the detail of the gameplay at that point.

Courtney Wood, Bubblegum Stuff

So the packaging for a gift, in your experience, absolutely has to grab attention with the front, but largely sell in that instant as well?
Right. And this goes back to your first question too… When we’re selling to gift-store buyers at UK and US trade shows, they just want simple games that they can understand really quickly. They don’t really want me going into the details of the gameplay. They just want to know why someone would buy it: what the hook is, what the general idea is and how you win. So that’s why whatever’s inside really does need to be simple to understand and play well.

And they’re not saying that through laziness, are they?! They’re saying that because they know this is the way most of their customers are going to buy a game?
Yes. And remember, a lot of their stores stock – at Christmas time – these small, fun interesting games for around the £10 price point; a price point people don’t tend to think too much about. It’s stocking-stuffer product that the toy and game market doesn’t reach so easily with the bigger box stuff.

But you do also sell those at Bubblegum Stuff?
Yes, but that’s not so easy to sell into gift stores because maybe the price point’s too high, or the gameplay’s a little too complex to sell to someone in 10 seconds. And if the buyer doesn’t understand it, they automatically wonder if the customer will.

Well, on that, let’s talk about Poopy McPoopface. When you explained it to me just now, it was enormously compelling: part explanation, part sales pitch in a way!
Ha! Well, there’s a reason for that. We’re doing this interview exactly a week after UK Games Expo… I think I just showed it to you that way because I’ve been doing so many of these sales. For those that don’t know Games Expo, I’d describe it is Comic Con, but for board games. The people that go to it can be really hardcore gamers; they like the real strategy-based stuff…

Courtney Wood, Bubblegum Stuff

The tabletops…
The tabletops, exactly. But our stuff is more lighthearted, kind of breezier. And it’s hard for any company to really stand out in the crowd at Expo because it’s so big and so busy. But what I always tell the Bubblegum team is that each game demo is also a live sales pitch; every demo is an opportunity to try and get people excited and have a good experience while playing that game.

That’s true of all games though, surely?
Yes, it is – at Expo, though, people are surrounded by games costing 40, 50, 60 pounds. We’re pitching much more affordable games, and really simple games, but we still want to get someone excited. We want them on our stand thinking, “I get it, it’s great and it’s only a tenner…” They’d be stupid NOT to buy it!

And if it isn’t an impertinent question, then, how did you do at Games Expo?
Better than ever! It was a massive success for us; we were busy demoing from the moment the doors open right through until six each day… And we sold 180 Poopy McPoopfaces in those three days. Because that audience, I think, knows that games like that are a really good icebreaker. They’re good to start a serious games night, or just play after dinner.

Diving into the game itself, where does the name come from?
We originally wanted to make a kids’ version of the game Shithead. But obviously, we needed a new name… We took inspiration from the time someone ran an online vote to name a polar exploration boat… Somehow, the name Boaty McBoatface got voted in – which they obviously didn’t go with. They eventually named it after Sir David Attenborough. We took our lead from that because it’s just stupid and feels fun. And we styled the packaging around the name – keeping in mind what I said earlier about grabbing attention.

And then for the show itself, you didn’t just stack them high and sell them cheap, did you?
No, we decided to give a bit of pizzazz to the display, so we went to B&Q and bought a new toilet. And we filled the bowl until it was brimming over with the product. Because then adults are curious, and kids like to lift up the toilet seat and reach in and pull one out a bit like a lucky dip. Ha! It just creates that moment when people just stop and wonder why the hell you’ve got a toilet! It stops people in their tracks and makes you think twice.

Courtney Wood, Bubblegum Stuff

And it grabs attention from further away, does it not? You see the toilet and you see a crowd of people before you see the packaging… And actually, I have what might be an indelicate question, Courtney: I’m curious… It would be very easy, wouldn’t it, for some publishers to be slightly sniffy towards a stand that’s always busy because it’s selling shit-shaped games out of a toilet bowl! Ha!
Ha! Well… yes, maybe…

It just crosses my mind that there’s going to be an element that looks at it and say, “Oh my God, this is really harmful to kids… You’re creating a generation of scatophiliacs!” Is there any concern on your part there?
Well, I’m aware of that thinking… I imagine someone has talked about toilet humour being the lowest forms of humour. But I think it’s got its place. First, you mention kids… Kids are always learning, and they’re very quick to realise that what goes on in toilets is socially unacceptable. They know you’re meant to keep it all private. So they find all that being being spoken about or acted out in public is funny…

But does that in itself make it fair game?
I think so, but if a child’s parents disagree then that’s the end of it! So it would be silly for us to not acknowledge that need in the market. This is something that kids – and some adults – do just find funny. But it goes back to what we were saying at the very start of our conversation, Deej: inside the packaging, there’s a very simple and very good game that they will enjoy! You know, my mission statement is to make fun products for the world to enjoy. But obviously, there’ll be some people that just look at Poopy McPoopface and think it’s not right. But I’m a light-hearted guy; I like making light-hearted products.

Right. And people who are lighthearted – and I would count myself among them – aren’t walking around pointing at educational games and saying, “Too cerebral. Just let kids play!” Alright… We do need to start wrapping this up, Courtney, but I realise I’ve not yet asked you to describe the gameplay! Let’s do that!
Poopy McPoopface is based on the traditional card game Shithead, also known as Palace or Shed. It’s a simple game where you just have to play numbers from cards in your hand that are higher than the number the last player put down. You have to get rid of your cards as fast as possible… Theme wise, each card is a toilet bowl with a poo making a number inside. There are some action cards as well, such as flush and plunge. Then there are a few more intricacies to the game toward the end of the game, which – as you now know, Deej – can throw the game on its head.

Courtney Wood, Bubblegum Stuff

Yes, worth explaining that when we played just now I was winning quite confidently right up to the moment that I wasn’t! Ha! And I’m glad I didn’t win actually, Courtney, because – at one point – you looked like a beaten man and… Well, put it this way: you’re the second-most competitive person I know…
Second? After who? You?

Well! Ha! That’s the question everybody wants to know when I say they’re second-most competitive person I know… “What?! Who’s the first?” Ha!
Oh! Ha! I really stepped into that, didn’t I? Ha!

You handed me the bullets, Courtney, I just took the shot! Now… Is it worth mentioning the highest card in the game?
Yes, thank you. The highest card of the game – number 10 – is Poopy McPoopface himself. We’ve put him in a golden toilet bowl to make him extra special. It’s a really simple; really fun game.

Agreed. I picked it up in 20 seconds flat. Alright, last question: What’s next for you Courtney?
Actually, we’ve just come towards the end of the cycle this year, so we’re not working on new products just yet. If you look at that screen behind you, you’ll see the packaging we’re working on for a kind of TikTok-inspired video. I won’t say more than that. But I will show you something a guy just pitched to me… I love it! Can you play a hand of this?

I certainly can! Let me sign off, then, by saying this is very typical of you Courtney: you’re always looking to do a test, find a strapline, change a name… improve a product! Great stuff! Thanks for joining me.

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