Products and Design

PlingPong, From Dream to Doorbuster: An Interview With Mike St. Martin

Mike and Amy St. Martin

We love it when people who create with Shapeways become successful. And sometimes just how big that success can be blows us away.

Case in point: Mike St. Martin, creator of the brand-new board game PlingPong. In just about a year, he’s gone from 3D printing the prototypes of his game on Shapeways to signing a publishing deal with one of the biggest toy companies in the country. PlingPong is set to be a doorbuster at Target this year for Black Friday. In the obvious whirlwind that he and his wife Amy’s lives have become because of this success, we took some time to sit down with him and talk about just how it feels to become an overnight sensation. 

How long ago did you decide to start creating tabletop games, and what was the impetus?

Game development was not hobby or a passion; it started on a total whim. I’m a civil engineer – I work in site development and construction. In February 2016, I just started brainstorming on how to monetize bag toss (cornhole); it’s a great game and so common, but it’s not really monetized by any one brand. 

I settled on a condensed four-sided version that looked like a Mayan Pyramid or the old Q*Bert video game. Players scored by tossing hacky sacks that landed on levels versus shooting into a hole.

How did the idea for PlingPong come about?

It became apparent that this version was over-engineered. As my wife Amy pointed out: ‘That’s way too much. People don’t want to sit there and do math while they are playing a party game.’  She’s been key when it comes to reviewing game ideas for playability and marketability – as a realtor, she specializes in putting everything’s best foot forward.  

I added removable cups to make keeping score easier, but the real “A-Ha!” moment came when I inverted the game’s shape from a pyramid to a funnel. Now the dreaded black cup was the easiest to hit. That’s when the game really felt like it came together – it felt like I really had something.

Original handmade PlingPong Prototype

Did you have experience in 3D printing before creating the PlingPong prototypes?

No, but I’ve been fascinated by the technology for years. I had a sample 3D printed part from another company sitting on my desk for a few years, waiting for an excuse to design and print something.

How many iterations did it take before you settled on a prototype?

This all happened in a few days on paper and in SketchUp. I then worked out the dimensions and toyed with various sizes of round cups before nixing them entirely, since whatever size of ball I’d use would land in-between the cups as much as in them. Using square flower pots solved the cup gap issue, with the flexible thermoformed pot winning out.

Then it was off to the garage to build the tiered bases out of wood. Then I stapled partial flower pots as a tray hold the game pots in place.  And there it was — my prototype.

An early wooden prototype

For such a simple concept, you’ve added a lot of complexity and depth with the game’s rules, notably the black cup and the determining which cups get removed at the end of the game’s rounds. Did figuring out the game’s rules come before, after, or during the initial construction of the physical game?

We used the original hand-built prototype for several months to play the game with friends and family and finalize the rules. We realized that bouncing shots brought the game closer and allowed tabletop play in smaller spaces. The black cup was key to make the game geometry work and became the rule twist to make it unique with the removal of the shooters cup. Everyone loved the game, so I kept on developing it further to see how the bases and cups could be molded from plastic and stack neatly for packaging.

Friends playing PlingPong at a lakeside cabin

Why did you decide to print your prototype on Shapeways?

I researched many 3D printing services and considered buying my own printer. I had a competitor print an early version of the cup and was quickly disappointed when the side of the cup broke from the impact of a ping pong ball! It was clearly too brittle and useless to be my game prototype. I then found Shapeways and was impressed with the website platform. What especially intrigued by the “strong and flexible” material and knew I had to try it.

When I received my first sample cup, I was blown away with how tough it was! I kept drop testing it. After a while, I was just throwing it at the floor, but it never broke. I couldn’t believe it! From there, I was confident that Shapeways was the best fit for prototyping our game.

What would you say is the best thing about the Shapeways community?

I originally sought out Shapeways just as a prototyping source, but quickly learned about the community of talented creators that share their ideas. It’s a great concept: enabling designers to connect with buyers on a seamless platform, and to offer so many materials for printing.

How has our customer service been?

Phenomenal. I’ve ordered various prototypes and was always kept abreast of order status and timing. When we were negotiating with two different toy companies, we needed to be ready for an urgent printing of a possible second full prototype game. James stepped up with personal service, walking me through the entire process.

3D models of PlingPong prototypes

How did you use CAD design and Shapeways 3D printing to perfect your design?

I designed and printed five versions of the cup to perfect the “ball capture design” feature of the cup. It might look like it’s more for style, but it was born purely from function. The resulting cup design and tray sockets  have a unique and cool look, which is a big part of our brand.

Finally, after all the time you spent creating a game, workshopping it, fine tuning it, and getting it just right, how did it feel to finally open up that box from Shapeways and see the finished product?

I was like a kid on Christmas: opening the Shapeways box with the full prototype, assembling the trays and cups, all the parts fitting perfectly, looking better than I ever could have imagined. My CAD drawing had come to life and the game was sitting on my kitchen island ready to be played.

What an amazing feeling!

Original 3D printed PlingPong Prototype

Once you had the prototype ready to go, how did you go about getting it published?

We ran a Kickstarter campaign in December 2016 that featured the prototype game, including all of the gameplay footage.

The Kickstarter failed, but we got offers from two national toy companies before it ended. We partnered with Buffalo Games shortly afterwards. Key to closing the deal was sending the Shapeways prototype to Buffalo Games so they could play the game live. They loved the game and were impressed with the quality of the parts and how they performed.

What has the general reception to PlingPong been?

It’s been amazing! We’ve been blown away by the positive feedback it’s garnered, and it keeps on coming!

What’s the most satisfying thing you like to see when other people play it?

When a game ends between a group of players, and the first thing they do is hurriedly re-rack the cups to play again. PlingPong may be simple, but it’s different every time you play it. That brings out people’s competitive nature, hoping to get that one perfect bounce or move that they can talk about at work the next day.

What was your reaction when you found out your game was a doorbuster at Target?

I received a call from the President of Buffalo Games to break the news, he wanted to tell me directly to reiterate how big of a deal this is. He said this is a dream for anyone in the toy business, especially for a brand-new game. I could not agree more, I was floored!

Buffalo Games’ relationship with Target and our exclusive launch there was key to our partnership because Target is based here in Minneapolis, so we were excited to be aligned with our hometown heroes.

Mike spots PlingPong on a shelf at Target for the first time.

What’s the future of PlingPong?

We are riding the wave this holiday season with Target and will look for expanding our reach with Buffalo Games in both the US and abroad in 2018.

Finally, what does the future hold for you? Do you guys already have the next big game figured out, or are you just still grappling with the success of PlingPong?

For now we are just wrapping our heads around this crazy year we have had and enjoying the ride. To put it in perspective, we received our full prototype from Shapeways on 11/17/16 and we are a Black Friday Doorbuster at Target on 11/23/17! We consider ourselves extremely fortunate!

Check out local news coverage of Mike and Amy’s gaming success:

You can find more on PlingPong over at their website, but if you’re like us and need to get your hands on PlingPong, you can order it from Target right now. Once again, we’d like extend our warmest congratulations to Mike and Amy for their success. For our small part in this success, we’re extremely honored. 

All Images via Mike St. Martin

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