Exploding Kittens: Interview with Game Designer Elan Lee
“Exploding Kittens” is a card game that is quirky, hilarious, and fun to play. Illustrated in a frantic illustration style resembling animation, the randomness of the world three game builds is trippy, weird, bizarre, and completely captivating. The object of the game is to avoid drawing an Exploding Kitten card which ends your game. Try to prevent the explosion by drawing “defusing” cards that feature oddities of all sorts such as catnip sandwiches, special-ops bunnies, and a wise goat wizard. Despite its somewhat grim title, the game is kid-friendly, fast-paced, and very easy to learn.
“Exploding Kittens” was born from the mind of game designer Elan Lee. Elan heads a company by the same name — Exploding Kittens — and has overseen the development of eight games which have sold more than 11 million copies in more than 45 countries. While Exploding Kittens was only founded in 2015, Elan Lee has ample experience in the entertainment and gaming industries, especially related to startups. He started his career at the Microsoft Games Studio where he served as a Lead Designer on the original Xbox. He also worked at Fourth Wall Studios and is the co-founder of 42 Entertainment.
Elan has won a Primetime Emmy, the Game Innovator of the Year award, and an IndieCade Trailblazer Award. He has also won awards for Best Web Game of the Year, Best Advertising Campaign of the Year, and Best Idea of the Year, and Most Innovative Retailer.
He recently discussed his games and career via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you initially get interested in games and how did you break into the industry?
Elan Lee (EL): I started at Microsoft Games Studio as a Lead Designer on the original Xbox about 20 years ago. I was fresh out of college, and Microsoft basically told our small team to take a few hundred million dollars to build a console…and please don’t screw it up. After working at Microsoft, I started a series of companies in the tech-based story telling industry. Each was a success in one form or another, but after a while I started having conflicting thoughts about constantly putting screens in people’s hands for entertainment. Six years ago, I decided to try designing a game to encourage interaction with the people around the table. It was just a side project, but eventually grew into Exploding Kittens.
MM: How did you think up “Exploding Kittens” and all of its zany and hilarious cards?
EL: The original idea came out of a discussion I had with my friend Shane Small. We were both fascinated by the concept of a card-based version of Russian roulette and so we created a prototype game called “Bomb Squad”. The basic idea was that there were a few bad cards in the deck (the bombs) and the point of the game was to use all the other cards to avoid drawing the bombs and exploding. It was a pretty compelling game, but when we showed it to Matt Inman (creator of “The Oatmeal”) he said two important things:
1. It’s too obvious to be scared of bombs. Everyone is scared of bombs. What if instead, you were scared of adorable, fuzzy, kittens? We could call the game “Exploding Kittens”!
2. Can I join your team and help you create this game?
My answers to these two questions were, “Yes” and “Hell Yes” respectively.
MM: How did you come up with the artwork and style to match the gameplay?
EL: This was mostly a result of Matt’s creativity. As I designed each card to facilitate a new kind of interaction, Matt would invent characters, names, and humor to match the card’s function in the game. Now that we have a company of almost 50, there are a lot of people involved in crafting the perfect mix of gameplay and art, and it’s such a delight to work with a team that can produce such incredible games, but Matt and I still find time to craft our own games as a duo from time to time.
MM: How come you decided to start your own game company of the same name?
EL: We started this as a weekend project and put it up on Kickstarter just for fun to raise enough money to get it developed. We never expected so much success or that the game would remain the most backed Kickstarter campaign of all time. When we had the thought to convert that single game into a company that could create more games, we decided to leverage the notoriety we had already achieved, and named the company after the game. Exploding Kittens still remains our flagship game — and it’s fun and silly just like our company.
MM: What’s your favorite thing about this game and which card prompt do you regard as the funniest?
EL: All of the games you love have at their heart, a core gameplay loop that drives the game forward and directly contributes to you loving it. The first few versions of Exploding Kittens were missing that loop. In the game, you would still try to avoid drawing the Kitten, but it felt mostly like luck of the draw, and there was no way to get better at the game. This changed when we introduced the “Defuse” card into the game. This card allowed you to draw the Exploding Kitten but instead of exploding and dying, you could put the Kitten back into the Draw Pile anywhere you’d like in secret. If you wanted to screw over the player right after you, you’d just put it right back on top of the deck. Instantly, the game loop was born. Where did you put the Kitten? Do you trust the player to your left? Should you spend some of your precious cards to shuffle the deck before you draw, or do you trust that they wouldn’t set you up to explode? The game became psychological, deep, and TENSE. As a result, the Defuse card is my favorite part of the game, because really, it defines the game.
But I also have to say that Tacocat is my absolute favorite card in the game. Because when you spell Tacocat backwards, you still get Tacocat. Every time I show that to a new player, I delight in watching their brain slowly drip out of their ears.
MM: What’s the best feedback you’ve received about the game?
EL: I think what I’m most proud of is the community we’ve built. Because we originated on KickStarter, we’ve had this amazing community that’s been with us since the beginning. They give us product feedback on new games, expansion packs etc. And it’s just grown over time. Exploding Kittens has been translated in 29 languages and has millions of fans around the world. Earlier this year, we surpassed 11 million total games sold which is incredible given this was just supposed to be a weekend project.
MM: How do you find your game designers and select what to publish?
EL: We have a completely open-door policy when it comes to new games. Designers pitch us games in person, through our website, via email, and over Zoom every day. When we hear pitches, we’re looking for games that have that strong gameplay loop, are simple enough that we don’t get overwhelmed, and make us want to play over and over again. But more important than all of that, is the notion that we do not make entertaining games. We make games that make the players entertaining.
MM: What other games have you produced under this label and what are they about?
EL: Today, we have eight games available and more coming soon! Exploding Kittens- our original card game, Bears vs. Babies- a highly strategic party game where players create fantastical creatures for battle, You’ve Got Crabs- a team-based party game based on keeping secrets, Throw Throw Burrito- a dodgeball card game, and our first game designed by an outside designer — the wildly talented Brian Spence, On a Scale of One to T-Rex- a game for people who are bad at Charades, Throw Throw Burrito: Extreme- like the original but with huge inflatable burritos, Poetry for Neanderthals- a competitive word-guessing game where you try to get your team to guess words using only single syllable words, and our newest, A Game of Cat & Mouth- a head to head competitive pinball played with slingshots.
MM: You’ve won many awards for your work, so what has been the highlight of your career so far?
EL: I was at an airport waiting at the gate for a delayed flight. Everyone was grumpy and frustrated…everyone except for a group of four kids sitting in a circle on the floor playing a game. When I walked over, they were playing Exploding Kittens. The only thing that kept me from standing there beaming, was the fear of being the creepy guy at the airport smirking at a bunch of kids.
MM: What are your ultimate goals for the company’s future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
EL: More games! I have a few notebooks filled with hundreds of game concepts and Matt has ten times that many notebooks of sketches and comics. Seems like we ought to do something with them. We want to keep building a place that puts great games out into the world and gives other inventors the tools to do so as well. Every time we convince a family to put down their screens for a night and celebrate the people in the room with them, we get one step closer to the future we’re aiming for.
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To learn more, visit the official website: https://explodingkittens.com/