Amherst Magazine

He's Got Game

By Charlene Dy '03

jay moore
Jay Moore '94 and Jamie Moore have decorated their living room with enlargements of cards from their game. 

A game usually relies on at least one of three things to keep a player’s interest: luck, skill or strategy. Poker, chess, Ping-Pong—these classics have come to define our understanding of the word “game.” It was with some consternation, then, that I opened the acid-yellow box of Living Life, the new game created by Jay Moore ’94. I gazed at the rainbow-colored pile of cards in front of me and the phrases emblazoned on the box: “Living Life: The game about you” and “An exciting new reality game about living life to the fullest.”

The instructions advised, “Starting with number one, work your way through the deck in numerical order without looking ahead to future cards. Try not to complete more than one card a day.” “Book clubs and friends can play at the same time and share their experiences.” It all seemed very suspicious. Where were the board and the teensy plastic game pieces? Where was the list of rules? This game seemed to have no discernible winner, thus no means for competition—so why, exactly, was it a game?

Despite the instructions, I reasoned that journalistic license would excuse me if I went ahead and took a peek at some of the cards. Card number one was titled “Watch the Sunrise” and asked me to “reflect upon its significance and beauty,” suggesting that because “all that it symbolizes can give you a new sense of power” I should consider incorporating the sunrise into my morning routine. Other cards suggested reading a 400-page book or asking someone out on a date.

card 3When I arranged to meet the game’s creator, I wasn’t sure what to expect: perhaps a touchy-feely motivational guru with big hair, or a business executive in a sleek sedan? After doing a bit of research on other game inventors, I was more convinced that he’d be a slightly nerdy oddball, pale from playing too much Monopoly in his basement, with a car that he’d inherited from a great-aunt. Instead, Moore drove up for the interview in a sporty cherry-red coupe and greeted me with a large smile, steady eyes and an even steadier handshake. Exuding confidence, he quickly pulled out a list of places we could go and people we could talk to about the game, a list so detailed that it included people’s contact information and how they were involved with Living Life. He was all business, but throughout the day repeatedly marveled at how much he enjoyed being able to talk about his game—it reminded him of card 24: “Take the afternoon off.”

At Amherst, Moore was a double major in economics and psychology and a star basketball player who made multiple appearances as Bub’s Player of the Week. After graduation, he went straight into a Ph.D. program in economic development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With both parents in academia and very happy with their careers, getting a Ph.D. seemed like a logical choice for Moore. But he very quickly realized that a life devoted to study was not what he wanted. In the business world, most things are done on a project-to-project basis, and recognizing that he most enjoyed fulfilling short-term goals, he decided that the practical face of economics was more his, well … game. In a bold move, he left Chapel Hill to work for a year as a marketing intern in Minneapolis, then pursued an M.B.A. from the University of Michigan. Immediately after graduation, he took his current job, planning Internet strategies for a large bank in Bos­ton (he works on the game at night), something he says he really enjoys. (To avoid any appearance of the bank’s endorsing his game, Moore prefers not to have the bank named here.)

Moore came up with the idea for Living Life shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, when he was preparing for his marriage to Jamie Eslinger, a Smith graduate and fellow basketball player whom he met during his second Amherst Homecoming. He describes the months preceding their wedding as a period that inspired both introspection and exhilaration in their lives. On the one hand, global events were encouraging them to question how they wanted to spend their lives, but on the other, they were in the midst of celebration. They were contacting old friends with invitations to the ceremony, planning a honeymoon in Greece and, as they tell it, having a lot of fun. Wondering why he had to wait for an occasion like a wedding in order to live life so exuberantly, he started thinking about how to sustain this way of living on a day-to-day basis. The idea of writing a book crossed his mind. Inspirational self-help books had always appealed to him, but he didn’t want to add to the glut of books on the market. He adds, “My impression of those—and I’ve read tons of them—is that people don’t really read them to have fun.” Moore wanted to stay away from the prescriptive attitude found in many self-help books; rather than dictating how someone should live a better life, he wanted to offer exciting activities that would “generate this feeling of living life to the fullest.” Creating a game seemed to be the most effective way to do it.

card 2Moore came up with about 50 different activities that he thought best fit his theme, and friends and family helped him edit that total to 30. Certain cards that were not included have become notorious among their friends. Between fits of laughter, Jamie explained the concept behind one card that did not make the cut. “It said, ‘Take a problem you’re having, come up with a list of solutions, decide which one is most viable, go to the library and research it as a business idea, then write a business plan.” Jay explained that since he came from a business background, this project sounded so fun and satisfying to him that he hadn’t really considered how long it might take or whether it would be viable as a project for less experienced people.

Even with a final count of 30 questions, the Moores still had a long way to go. The game needed to be designed, they needed to find manufacturers, the idea needed to be patented and, most importantly, the game needed to be sold (in other words, they needed to do what that deleted card suggested). Jay admits that his first attempt at designing the cards and game box was an unmitigated disaster. When he displayed his prototype in their living room, Jamie “walked in, saw the design for the cards and literally almost had a heart attack.” With a grin, he explains that he had designed the game on Microsoft Word by placing the words “Living Life” inside a text box. He adds, “I’m not even sure if it was lined up 100 percent or if the sides were equal.” His grin widens, and he mentions that from a sales perspective, his terrible design couldn’t have been more effective in encouraging Jamie to be fully involved with the project. She now devotes her full time to the game, after working as a marketing specialist for several Internet companies. Says Jay, “The second she saw that card design, things started to get very formal. She was the head of design.” One class away from an art minor at Smith, Jamie has always had a love of graphic design. Using Adobe Illustrator and sifting through thousands of fonts and colors, she came up with the game’s distinctive look, which is stylish and brightly colored, sporting bold retrograde fonts.

When deciding how they wanted the game to look, the couple also took size into consideration. According to Jay, the metric for sales is a dollar per square inch. With a large box, they couldn’t guarantee that shops would display their product, because it would take up valuable space that could be occupied by other items. The couple came up with a list of stores that they themselves enjoyed: stores that were unique in their product selection, stores with a reputation for being edgy or stores that were just plain cool. They called and visited each store, showing Living Life to owners and buyers. To these efforts was added publicity from an article in The Boston Globe and an interview that was aired on many National Public Radio stations.

Indeed, Jay’s game plan for Living Life resembles not so much that of the nerdy gamers who dream of creating their own version of Magic: The Gathering, but a plan for a successful small business. His story echoes that of Whit Alexander and Richard Tait, founders of the Cranium Company, home of the award-winning Cranium game. Alexander and Tait were not gaming buddies who stumbled on a good idea. These two were former Microsoft executives whose game was informed by the product development methods they had learned during their days at Microsoft.

When Moore speaks of Cranium, the word “ingenious” surfaces every few sentences. “Cranium is a game that is made up of five different games,” he says. “It’s a little bit of Pictionary, where you draw something; it’s a little bit of sculpting, so you have a piece of clay; there’s a trivia/spelling aspect of it as well, where you have to do something that involves verbal skills. It seems like just a game, but their patent is based on the five levels of intelligence.” What interested Moore more than the game itself, however, was the business strategy behind it: “The thing that they did that was ingenious is they started off selling the game through Starbucks. When someone walked into Starbucks at that point, the only noncoffee product that was on the shelf was Cranium. So people would play the Cranium game while they drank their coffee. Other people would walk in and see Cranium, and it was just tremendous from a business strategy standpoint. You’re always trying to match the demographic you’re going after with the retail store’s demographic. And younger to middle-aged people who are willing to spend $4 for coffee at Starbucks are the same people who are willing to spend $30 to $40 to buy Cranium.” Getting visibly more enthusiastic as he ponders Cranium’s marketing, he reveals some of his background as a psychology double major. “From a buying standpoint, we all want to find that cool new thing. It’s great to say that you were a Pearl Jam fan back before Pearl Jam was a huge hit. It’s similar to games in that way. There’s a major grassroots effort where it starts off, and then there’s this tipping point, where it really takes off.”

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The Moores wanted to support local businesses and emphasize that this was a grassroots endeavor, so they used small, Boston-based manufacturers and began by selling their product in local stores. One would expect his game to be sold at gaming stores or even Toys “R” Us, but Jay prefers Living Life to be sold at gift shops, stores like Newbury Comics and, in a move that surprised even himself, places like Massachusetts General Hospital. “We never thought of hospital gift shops as a potential retailer,” he says. “When we were at a trade show in Cape Cod, a person from the Cape Cod Hospital gift shop came up to us and said, ‘This would be the perfect game for a hospital patient, because the average hospital stay is only two or three days, and when the person comes back out into the real world and are healthy again, they’ve thought about this concept of what is living life to the fullest.’ So we’re currently seeing hospital gift shops as potential retailers. We’re in some of the major ones right now,” he says, rattling off names like the Tisch in New York.

To demonstrate this point Moore took me to Massachusetts General Hospital, where the gift shop is a revelation. Accustomed to hospitals selling a few, sorry-looking teddy bears, racks of spy novels and anonymous bouquets of pink carnations, I was surprised to find thyme-scented face creams, candy-colored sweaters, greenhouse-quality bouquets, fanciful straw hats, sectioned book displays and shiny boxes of Godiva chocolates. We wandered over to the game section and found Glitterama, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus—The Game and Mighty Mega Bouncing Zoom Balls, but no boxes of Living Life. Moore politely asked a salesperson where he might find it, and she said that if it was not on the shelf, it was probably sold out, but that she would look in the stock room to see if there were more. Moore whispered, “This is a good problem to have,” then steered me to the book section and gave me a crash course on product placement.

“This is actually the section where we prefer them to place our game,” he said. “Here’s a bit on customer psychology: You really want to separate yourself from the crowd. Upon entering the book section, a customer might look at three products. Then suddenly you see this bright yellow box over here to the right that’s on the ground, and you say, ‘What is that?’ Mentally, you might have finished with the books, but with a game in the book section, I think that the likelihood that you will pick it up is much higher.”

Back in my office, I was fairly sure that Moore’s Living Life would have no problems with product differentiation. In fact, I wasn’t even sure that it could be called a game. For those in the know, game playing—specifically board games—has evolved into something of a global subculture. The best games often come from Germany, where game inventors like Klaus Teuber are held in such high regard that it is not unusual to see their names displayed on game boxes. Serious amateurs sometimes decide to try their hand at creating games, with mixed results. Some will send major toy or game companies like Hasbro a product submission, but few find success with this route. Large companies receive thousands of ideas a year and generally decline to consider unsolicited product concepts. In addition, they usually support their own research and development departments. Some inventors decide to manufacture the game or product themselves. K.T. Gelwick, the director of trend buying for Newbury Comics, wryly observes that most people who want to sell their game ideas or products are less than prepared. “A lot of people will put something out,” she says, “and then they won’t know what to do; they just call up and say, ‘How’s this product?’” But, she says, when asked for a sample, their reply is too often, “‘Well, it’s kind of an idea, I haven’t done it yet.’ They don’t have a game plan, they don’t have a catalogue, they don’t have the product, they can’t e-mail me.” Her frustration mounts as she reels off lists of things that ambitious, but somewhat disorganized, hopefuls have done wrong, including having the product made in small runs, overpricing the item so that it sells poorly in stores or being unable to provide reorders. When she talks about Jay Moore, Gelwick’s tone of voice changes from one of exasperation to relief. “For somebody who really wants to make something out of it, he’s doing all the right things,” she says.

Kristen Keefe, owner of Ampersand Design, a gift store that carries Moore’s game, says, “I don’t sell a lot of games here. It’s not a game store. Living Life is intriguing to people, so it generally has sold with another gift. We sold quite a few as engagement gifts, wedding gifts, along with something else. People just like the concept of giving it as a turning-point-in-your-life gift.” She herself speaks very warmly of the game. “I have two small children, and it’s so difficult to find a toy or game that doesn’t make electronic noises. It’s so refreshing to see something that is about having you live your life. It’s giving you these suggestions, and all of these are things that we know to do, but we overlook. This is saying, ‘Find time, set the time aside with people you care about and get out there and do this stuff.’”

The product doesn’t always elicit such an enthusiastic reception. When one Amherst resident heard the description of the game’s cards and purpose, he pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes in confusion. “Wait, wait, wait,” he said, “so this game is just a bunch of suggestions? Like on a calendar?”

Moore speaks of an “Aha!” moment—a moment of conversion, if you will—when people who formerly did not “get” the game suddenly understand it. He compares Living Life to reality television. Shows like The Real World have no plot and do not use formal actors; 30 years ago, that format would have been unthinkable. As Moore puts it, “Who wants to sit back and watch normal people going through normal-type activities?” As it turns out, the answer is most of America, which might explain why Moore is so optimistic about Living Life.

Lisa Roe, who works in graduate admissions at Augsburg College in Minnesota, was growing tired of ineffective icebreakers at meetings that encouraged staff to do things like “bring a poem that you like.” When Living Life came out, she introduced it to her boss, who immediately decided that they should use it during the meetings. Roe says that there was “some reluctance initially,” with discontented murmurs along the lines of, “This is how we’re going to get to know each other? Why don’t we just go to happy hour?” After a few rounds of test-driving dream cars and trying out new restaurants (cards 13 and 18 respectively) and attempting even bolder activities, like writing their own eulogies, Roe says that employees began to complain if meetings were cancelled, saying things like, “No staff meeting this week? But I got a new card!”

Whether the rest of the world will catch on is still uncertain, but Moore is optimistic. The game is already in 44 stores nationwide, and less than a year after hitting the market, the first production run of roughly 1,100 games has almost sold out. Moore has already ordered a second run of between 2,000 and 5,000 copies, and he has also hired two sales representatives to help him promote Living Life. That trend would make any entrepreneur happy, but for Moore success means much more than profits. His real interest, he says, lies in making a product that “makes lives better and creates fun.” “I’m not selling cigarettes,” he quips. Indeed.

Photo: Frank Ward