Jo Smedley is an ‘Experience Designer’, according to her LinkedIn profile. I prefer to think of her as a Games Maestro. Jo creates murder mystery games (and escape games) which can be played in-person or online, in groups or alone. She is the founder and driving-force behind Red Herring Games – a Grimsby-based business that has gone global.
Jo makes entrepreneurship fun. But, she knows better than most, that running a successful business can be murder!
I first met Jo about ten years ago, at a networking event. I introduced myself as a writer and she pounced. At that time she was already successfully writing bespoke murder mystery game scripts and she supplied me with some examples, with a view to me writing for her.
My first thought was how ferociously complicated these mystery games are to write.
Each game has a range of characters. They all have to serve like moving parts in the complex machine of the game. And each part, each character, has to interconnect with other characters in order to move the game forward. But, then, these characters aren’t just cyphers, they actually have to have personality and dialogue and, preferably, jokes that are in-character. It needs to be fun, it needs to keep the players guessing and it all needs to work like a homicidal Swiss clock.
The planning of all that was just mind-bogglingly complex to me. But, in common with most stereotypical blokes, I’m particularly poor at multitasking. Jo, of course, can keep all that in her head when she’s planning a game. That’s some ‘Rain Man’ level of mental gymnastics, right there!
But, even for Jo, creating a fully-scripted murder mystery game from scratch can take over 70 hours. That’s two weeks of solid work.
No one ever said that running a creative business was easy.
The Motive: How it all began
It all began in her hometown of Aberdeen, when her family would enjoy getting together for murder mystery games. It was, therefore, the most natural thing, when Jo moved south to Grimsby, to use these same games as a way to meet new people. It gets you past that awkward small talk thing.
Then, a local church youth group got in touch. They’d heard that Jo was arranging these games and wanted her to do the same for their young members.
There wasn’t anything suitable for young people – so Jo said: “Don’t worry, I’ll write one that’s age appropriate”. We tested it with the parents and they loved it and said: “Right, let’s have another one”. And other people were asking “Ooh, can we have one set on a train?” or “Can we have one set in the Poirot period?”
As Jo had enjoyed creative writing since childhood, she happily created several games like this until, at some point, somebody said: “Why don’t you try selling these?”
So, Red Herring Games was born. It’s the classic hobby that became a business.
The Means: running a creative business
As a child, Jo was always told that writing never pays. Would-be writers are still being told this, today, as this recent news article demonstrates. Every writer gets told that early on. So, Jo hedged her bets and trained as an Occupational Therapist, because that does pay!
But, quite by accident, she found a kind of writing that does pay. Although, as she admits:
“Running the business takes up most of my time. The actual writing tends to be consigned to the weekends or the evenings. I spend the days doing marketing and replying to emails, customer service, proactive sales, stuff like that. I spend less time doing the bit I enjoy than I used to, because I’ve got a bigger business. But that’s the way it goes.”
Fortunately, Jo has a great team around her including a team of writers who she mentors. And, of course, the company now has a bank of hundreds of already-written games, which can be customised to a new client’s needs without too much difficulty. But if Red Herring is commissioned to create a particularly large and complex job, Jo will tackle that herself.
For example, a Scandinavian business centre was opening and wanted a four-piece custom-written project for their launch. This required four inter-connected scripts to be written from scratch. They approached Jo particularly because of her track record. And, to be fair, if there’s one thing Scandanavians understand, it’s good crime writing!
But, even when her team is adapting an existing game from their library, they find that, by the end, they’ve changed the murderer, the victim, the characters, the plot, the location. It’s like Trigger’s Broom – (referencing the road-sweeper from Only Fools and Horses who, proudly claimed he’d used the same broom for twenty years, by repairing it with seventeen new heads and fourteen new handles) – by the time the adaptation process is complete, the whole game has changed beyond recognition but, internally, they still think of it as the same game.
The Opportunity: Putting game theory into practice
I wondered if creating bespoke games like this meant that Jo could give them multiple endings. Bringing her 15 years’ of experience to bear, she didn’t even hesitate: “We tend not to offer different endings for our games.”
As with every part of Jo’s business, this isn’t because she doesn’t feel like it, this is a decision based on solid market research and customer feedback.
Having several endings sounds like a great idea, in theory, because one could play the game multiple times. But Jo has found that, in practice, she can’t write a satisfying solution to the conundrum when the answer is different every time. She can’t create a clear plotline.
And, also, she has found, if a group of friends play the same game again, it ceases to be about spotting the murderer and becomes all about spotting the differences from the last time you played it. You notice a certain character says something different from last time – so they must be the murderer. Jo has discovered that playing the same game twice is not actually as much fun as people think.
Then there’s the boredom issue to consider. If you’ve played a 1920s game, do you really want another 1920s game with the same characters in it? So, multiple endings is an interesting selling point that clearly works for some video games, but it’s not something Red Herring pursues in their experience games.
The unusual suspects
There are four key elements to Jo’s business. Four weapons in her arsenal, if you will.
1: Interactive Party Games
Not so very long ago, these were called ‘dinner party games’. But very few people host dinner parties now. That’s changed a lot since the pandemic. So, the backbone products of Red Herring’s business are now known as ‘interactive mystery games’. It’s exactly the same thing. But now people play them over Zoom.
Ironically, Jo sometimes gets asked if it’s possible to play these games over dinner. “Funnily enough, yes!” But, by and large, people are now used to playing them without the need for a meal.
2: Event Management
Again, since the pandemic, these are now delivered virtually, more often than not. But this has meant that Jo can now open her business to customers all over the world. She is regularly hosting events for clients in Canada, America, Australia, Dubai, France, Germany or Sweden. Sometimes this involves having everyone on the same call at the same time.
Jo recently ran one weekend-long event for a multinational business and realised that, whilst she was sitting there in GMT, some people on the call were on opposite slides of the planet, some 12 hours apart from each other. That’s how you take Grimsby Global!
3: Cosy Killers
These are about as far removed from digital interactive games as you can get, because these games are delivered -old school – in a physical box, full of documents relating to the game. Many of Jo’s customers prefer that manipulation of real artefacts, that feel of real things.
4: Escape Room Games
Red Herring has pioneered virtual escape games that are – as the name suggests – virtual. These took off during lockdown. Players can join in with a group of people on Zoom, or they can play solo, run through the various puzzles by themselves and see who gets out first.
Jo also offers mobile escape games that they take to clients’ places of work, in bags.
In most escape room venues, you can really only get a maximum of six people to a team. Some venues have multiple rooms which are, usually, different. But this does mean that, if a workplace has several teams, they can’t all play the same game.
With Jo’s Mobile Escape Rooms, her team can turn up at a venue with ten bags, for example, all identical, and all the teams can therefore play at once. The challenge then becomes about who can get out first.
A series of Fortunate Events
One of the many projects Jo has in the works is an online interactive game set in Grimsby’s secret weapon – the Time Trap museum.
It’s a sort-of sequel made in the style of a game Jo created for Grimsby’s Fishing Heritage Centre.
When I asked Jo about the original game – which is still online here, if you want to have a virtual trip down memory lane – she admitted that it all happened by accident.
Red Herring was working on a project for the Museums at Night initiative, to create a murder mystery within the Fishing Heritage Centre. They peppered the place with clues and set-up possible suspects in the areas of the museum that are set up to look like streets or pubs or houses. People would walk through the museum and solve the case.
The local photographer, Chris Lynn, approached Jo and said he could turn the museum-based murder mystery into an interactive game where players could virtually travel around the museum, click on objects and open them.
So, they videoed everything from the museum, took photographs of the clues and turned it into an online game. Local sponsorship helped to pay for it all, and there it was. Jo describes it as “a very Heath Robinson sort of affair, held together with duct tape.” But, it was online and free for people to use.
Jo couldn’t have predicted the next part of the story: Yet another happy accident!
Grimsby Goes Global
Without Jo or her team realising it, the site began to receive incredible levels of traffic from the education sector. She still receives emails from all over the world about it, at least once a week, and now they are all telling her the same thing: “We’ve been using your game with pupils for years, but now parts don’t work because of the old Flash software. Can you upgrade it?”
The game is being used by schools all across Europe and China as well as in Canada and the USA. They’re using it to teach forensic science, or they’re learning the history of the period, or they’re learning English as a foreign language.
Although this was never the intention, it has proven to be a brilliant learning resource that teachers can leave their students with, knowing they’ll have fun while they learn. It’s also a brilliant way of carrying the great name of Grimsby around the world.
But, the original software has become problematic. The 360 degree imagery it uses is not easy to host or to use and, whilst Flash was the state of the art software for playing animations at the time, it has been phased out and replaced by HTML5.
Crowdfunding is the Business
Given the immense difficulty of updating core software, bringing the Heritage Centre game up-to-date simply wasn’t practical. So, Jo thought the time was ripe to create a new one.
Hence her plan for ‘The Time Trap Crime-Solving Game’. This time it would have educational use purposefully built in from the beginning, rather than it being there by happy accident.
To (literally) kickstart this project, she’s decided to use crowdfunding. Red Herring has successfully crowdfunded the last five releases of Cosy Killer. Their first crowdfunding campaign didn’t work, but Jo and her team learned from that and, since then, every single season of the Cosy Killer has been fully paid for by crowdfunding. So, it works when you use it properly.
Kickstarter, particularly, works because the business only gets the money if the project gets fully-funded. And you reward people pledging by providing them with the game and possibly other rewards. Crowdfunder is more of a GoFundMe kind of platform. It’s designed for sponsorship.
The hard truth about soft touch marketing
Jo uses crowdfunding at least once a year, now, because she understands how to make the best of it.
“Principally,” she explains, “you need to be sure that your crowd actually wants what you’re offering. If not, they won’t fund it, simple as that.” As Jo sums this up: “If you don’t know your crowd, you’re not going to get a crowd.”
“The key is marketing,” Jo continues, “but – and this is crucial information for anyone considering this – it’s not about how well you market the crowdfunding project, it’s how well you market to your crowd the rest of the time.”
Jo maintains that crowdfunding works because of your existing crowd. As she explains:
“You need to be close to your customers. How much do your customers know about you? All that soft touch, engagement marketing you’ve done right up to the point you try to sell to them is what matters. Any amount of marketing you do once a crowdfunder has launched … is too late.
“Whether you do it organically or through paid marketing, you should start introducing the product long before it’s available for funding. Get your crowd excited about it before you actually try and take the money.”