The[Crafty]Gamer: Shawn Smith (Shawnimals)

by Annette Gonzalez on Mar 13, 2010 at 06:00 AM

Welcome to Shawnimaland! Population: 400-plus unique creatures created since Shawnimals began in 2001. The Chicago-based company is led by former Electronic Gaming Monthly staff member Shawn Smith, who has gone on to produce toys, apparel, comic books, and hit DS game, Ninjatown, under the Shawnimals brand. We got a chance to interview Smith about how the company began, tips for other crafty gamers to get into the industry, the future of Shawnimals, and more.

Business Name: Shawnimals

Years in Business: Started as a hobby/business in 2001. Went full time with it in 2006

HQ: Chicago

What can you tell us about yourself, your art/gaming background, etc.

I've always been interested in art and design, but of course growing up I read comics, watched cartoons and played video games. I eventually worked my way toward some semblance of adulthood, and worked at EGM for six years or so, some of that time as a game reviewer. I loved it, but it was time to move on in 2000. I went back to college (a move many called crazy), and obtained my art degree in painting. The planets aligned around that time and I started making these weird stuffed animals based on the weird creatures in my sketchbook. A culmination of my various interests in a lot of ways. Fast forward to them becoming Shawnimals, and the business slowly took shape.

Where did the idea to create Shawnimals come from?

As I made these stuffed things from my odd assortment of creatures, I realized some of my favorites were based on everyday objects (a sign, a bottle, a broccoli floret), or in other cases just imagined simple shapes with eyes. It seemed that needed a unifying theme outside of looking similar. Shawnimals was born from that, and slowly, over time, the world was populated.

Why the emphasis on Ninjas?

We made lots of characters, including the original Wee Ninja in 2002 or 2003, I think. That character had a natural arch-enemy back then in the Wee Devil, not to mention Mr. Demon masterminding the whole battle. This simple good-versus-evil setup stayed in the back of my mind until I released the full story of Ninjatown and the original lineup of characters in 2005. Because of this amount of development, and the array of characters we've created since, it's creatively energizing to keep going. Of course, the amount of creative work we put into the DS game didn't hurt.

Ninjatown for DS was incredibly well-received. What was that experience like going from being a game reviewer to putting together a game of your own? Any future plans for Ninjatown?

It was a very interesting experience because being on the other side so to speak was so vastly different than I imagined. There are so many factors to consider, not to mention the sheer complexity of making the game itself (thanks to Venan Entertainment on that!). It was eye-opening to say the least, but mostly rewarding. Even mind boggling. I remember the first demo we received that felt like a real game. It blew my mind! I think being a game reviewer for so many years helped the project immensely. I was able to provide a critical eye as a reviewer, as well as the owner of the Ninjatown brand. Luckily, the process was highly collaborative, and I loved working with Venan, Jeremy from Cashmere, SouthPeak, as well as the guys at Pickle King Productions. As for future plans, well, there's a lot we want to do, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to happen. We'll let you know if and when we have something in the works!

What were some of the challenges (if any) faced when you decided to push forward with Shawnimals? Any challenges now?

There are so many challenges in business! It can be very frustrating, especially for folks like me who simply want to create things, but I'm not going to complain. I love what I do, and the pros always outweigh the cons. That said, going full time on Shawnimals was scary as hell! No safety net anymore, so if I screwed up, well, you know. Bills have to be paid. Groceries have to be bought. Once we got over the initial hump, and started selling more and more products, we had to figure out how to have things manufactured instead of everything being handmade. We also needed copyrights and trademarks, not to mention legal help with contracts (like the one for the video game). It's almost always more complicated than it seems, but at the end of the day it's fairly easy to stay focused since we love what we do. The challenge now is finding time to deal with all of the aspects of our business. We're only four people, so we all have to wear a lot of hats.

How much time does it take to create your handmade items?

Depends on the complexity, but it can take an hour per item in some cases. We have the process fairly streamlined from a production standpoint, but that doesn't include brainstorming, concept drawings, prototypes, tag design, etc. It's hard to quantify the total time, but it's most definitely labor-intensive. We like it though, because it's our roots and there's something really satisfying about offering something that we make in-house, especially when it's limited edition.

Which of the characters in Shawnimaland do you most identify with?

Ol' Master Ninja some days, Business Ninja on others, Enraged Hotdog King on others. I'm probably secretly schizophrenic, and the Shawnimals are all aspects of my personality. Wow... that's really, really scary to think about!

Any fun, memorable stories regarding your business that you’d like to share?

Thanks in part to the game, our fan base has grown over the past couple of years, and with that the e-mails and letters we receive have increased. Some are simple questions, but a lot of the time they're basically fan fiction, or amazing drawings of new characters, or any number of other hilarious things. I even received a birthday gift (twice now) from fans! It's hugely flattering and humbling all around.

What are some of your most popular products? Any future products you want to talk about?

The Ninjatown stuff usually gets the top honor in terms of popularity, but our line of Moustachio plush (see above) takes a close second. Beyond that, we do well with anything limited edition and handmade we make, not to mention some of the artwork (painting, sculpture, etc) I make. We always have new stuff on the horizon, the newest of which at the moment are the Ninjatown Zipper Charms (see below). Sixteen designs, blind box, with a clasp and a cord so you can use them as a zipper pull or a cell charm. Outside of that, we have a few things coming up that I can't quite talk about, but I can tell you we're very excited about all of them!

Any advice for other crafty gamers interested in getting into the toy industry?

Focus on creativity (which hopefully should be easy!), focus on your craft and make professional stuff, be thankful if someone buys what you make, and don't be stupid about the business side of things should things go from a hobby to something more. Take a class if need be, but at least become aware of some basic business thinking. You don't necessarily need your MBA, but some idea of what goes on in business is very helpful.

What lies in Shawnimals’ future?

Hopefully many more characters and bags of money (preferably with dollar signs printed on them). But in all seriousness, we want to stay focused on what we do best creatively, and want to always engage our fans and thank them for being awesome. You'll see many more products, more handmade plush, and hopefully, someday, more games. Ninjatown and otherwise.

For more information on Shawnimals, check out the official website.

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