May 6, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Marcus Ross can frequently be found at Spielbound, one of Omaha’s hottest spots for board game enthusiasts. While Ross thoroughly enjoys board games, he’s not content just playing them—he also designs them. With three games officially published and more on the way, this Omaha native has taken his gaming passion to the next level.

As Ross describes it, his “real job” is working as a programmer for HATCX, an app that helps consumers compare prices between different medical services. His duties consist of back-end programming, which means while other programmers may be concerned with an app’s appearance and interface, Ross is focusing on the actual data the app provides to users.

Ross first took the plunge into game development several years back. He had been working long hours at a job he didn’t like, and his father had recently passed away.

“I thought ‘What would I be doing if I was just doing what I wanted to do?’” Ross says. “And I thought, ‘Game designing.’ So, I started just trying to spin up something like that.”

The first leg of his journey began in 2012, when he roped his cousin, Cara Heacock, into a “startup weekend.” This event required small groups to come together and pitch a business idea. Thus, Ross’ game development company, Water Bear Games, was born. Of the eight groups participating, they placed fifth. Despite the rough start and most of the other group members quitting, Ross kept moving forward with his business idea.

“I think we’re the only company that’s still going,” Heacock says.

She says she admires Ross’ determination. Even after experiencing several hiccups, Ross kept moving his vision forward.

Designing board games isn’t as glamorous—or as simple—as one might think. Countless hours of critiquing, crafting, and redesigning are poured into each of Ross’ projects, and some of them never even make it out of early development.

“I was just playing games, appreciating them, and saying ‘I think I can do this, it should be fun,’” Ross says.

Ross’ mid-development demos look far different from their polished, final forms. Game prototypes are a mishmash of various game pieces, homemade cards, hand-drawn boards, and just about anything else needed to make a board game function.

Ross’ first big break came in 2013, when Water Bear Games submitted a game design to a development contest hosted by the creators of Cards Against Humanity. Out of 500 contestants, Ross’ game, Discount Salmon, rose to the top. With guidance and publishing provided by Cards Against Humanity, Discount Salmon became a reality within a year.

As a joke, Ross had said he would wear a fish costume to promote the game if they won. Discount Salmon’s victory was a surprise, but that didn’t stop him from wearing a full body fish costume at the country’s largest gaming convention to promote it.

“The fish costume did the perfect thing,” Ross says. “The game is absurd. If the fish costume would bring you over, you’re already the right audience. The game sold itself.”

Spielbound guests pulling one of Ross’ games off the shelves might find themselves meeting the creator. He’s not shy when it comes to introducing himself or his games.

Ross is looking to the future of his game development career. He’s putting the finishing touches on his latest game before sending a prototype off to the publisher. If they choose to pick up the game, Ross could have his fourth game hit the shelves in 2019.


Visit waterbeargames.com to find more games from Ross and Heacock. 

This article appears in the May/June 2018 edition of The Encounter