” I don’t want a game to be in the spotlight. I want the players to be in the spotlight.”
— Elan Lee
Elan Lee (@elanlee) is the co-creator and chief executive officer of Exploding Kittens, a leading gaming and entertainment company. Under his leadership, Exploding Kittens has expanded its portfolio to nearly 30 different games with more than 20 million games sold in more than 50 countries since its founding in 2015.
Before founding Exploding Kittens, Lee was the chief design officer at Xbox Entertainment Studios, where he led the Interactive Entertainment Portfolio. Prior to that, he was the founder and chief creative officer of Fourth Wall Studios and co-founder of 42 Entertainment. He began his career at Microsoft Games Studios as a lead designer on the original Xbox.
Lee has won a Primetime Emmy for the series Dirty Work; Game Innovator of the Year for Exploding Kittens; a Peabody Award for the world’s first alternate reality game, The Beast; and an IndieCade Trailblazer Award for a distinguished career in interactive entertainment, among others.
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The transcript of this episode can be found here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.
#653: Elan Lee, Co-Creator of Exploding Kittens — How to Raise Millions on Kickstarter, Deconstructing Mega-Successes, Secrets of Game Design, The Power of Positive Constraints, The Delights of Craftsmanship, and The Art of Turning Fans into Superfans
This episode is brought to you by Athletic Greens. I get asked all the time, “If you could use only one supplement, what would it be?” My answer is usually AG1 by Athletic Greens, my all-in-one nutritional insurance. I recommended it in The 4-Hour Body in 2010 and did not get paid to do so. I do my best with nutrient-dense meals, of course, but AG further covers my bases with vitamins, minerals, and whole-food-sourced micronutrients that support gut health and the immune system.
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Would you like to hear another podcast episode that features an alternate reality game designer? Have a listen to my most recent conversation with Jane McGonigal, in which we discussed video games to play for quieting your mind before bedtime, why Tetris is uniquely effective at treating PTSD, eerily prescient 2020 predictions from a 2010 simulation, politics and cryptocurrency, urgent optimism, trust warfare, emergency preparedness, and much more.
#579: Jane McGonigal — How She Predicted COVID in 2010, Becoming the Expert of Your Own Future, Trust Warfare, the 10-Year Winter, and How to Cultivate Optimism
What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.
SCROLL BELOW FOR LINKS AND SHOW NOTES…
SELECTED LINKS FROM THE EPISODE
- Connect with Exploding Kittens:
Website | Twitter | Instagram | TikTok | YouTube
- Poetry for Neanderthals NSFW Edition | Amazon
- How to Play Poetry for Neanderthals | Exploding Kittens
- Is It Neander-TAL or Neander-THAL? | Discover Magazine
- Elan Lee | Think Like a Game Designer with Justin Gary #20
- Hand-to-Hand Wombat | Amazon
- How to Play Hand-to-Hand Wombat | Exploding Kittens
- Hand-To-Hand Wombat Developer Interview | Exploding Kittens
- UNO | Amazon
- Why the Core Gameplay Loop is Critical For Game Design | Game Developer
- ORD Camp
- Alien | Prime Video
- Jaws | Prime Video
- Jaws in Space: Powerful Pitching for Film and TV Screenwriters by Charles Harris | Amazon
- Exploding Kittens NSFW Edition | Amazon
- How to Play Exploding Kittens | Exploding Kittens
- Russian Roulette | Wikipedia
- Exploding Kittens Is the Most-Backed Project of All Time | Kickstarter
- Alternate Reality Game | Wikipedia
- Comics by Matthew Inman | The Oatmeal
- ‘The Oatmeal’: An Eisner Surprise | CBR
- Tacocat Spelled Backwards | Amazon
- How to Play Tacocat Spelled Backwards | Exploding Kittens
- 1,000 True Fans by Kevin Kelly | The Technium
- Appetite For Destruction by Guns N’ Roses | Amazon Music
- Elan Lee: Exploding Kittens & The Key to Running a Successful Kickstarter | Talks at Google
- Moneyballing the Movies: How the Box Office Became a Sport | The Ringer
- Secrets and Cost to Make iPhone Box Revealed | Process Minted
- Producer of Custom Dice, Poker Chips, Dominoes, and Game Sets and Parts Since 1906 | Game Parts
- The Direct-to-Consumer (D2C) Model: A Complete Guide for 2023 | The Motley Fool
- Connect 4 | Amazon
- Monopoly | Amazon
- Iron Chef | Wikipedia
- What It Truly Means to Be a Manga Artist | The Rift
- Apostrophe Games Blank Playing Cards | Amazon
- Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Real Workout Plan | Steel Supplements
- The World’s Greatest Roleplaying Game | Dungeons & Dragons
- AD&D Player’s Handbook by Gary Gygax | Amazon
- AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide by Gary Gygax | Amazon
- Stranger Things | Netflix
- Chess | Amazon
- Backgammon | Amazon
- Shogi | Amazon
- Go | Amazon
- Pokémon GO
- Cards Against Humanity | Amazon
- What Do You Meme? | Amazon
- Joking Hazard | Amazon
- Apples to Apples | Amazon
- Dominion: 2nd Edition | Amazon
- Pokémon Assorted Cards | Amazon
- Magic: The Gathering 2021 Arena Starter Kit | Amazon
- Throw Throw Burrito | Amazon
- How to Play Throw Throw Burrito Original Edition | Exploding Kittens
- SET | Amazon
- Catan Base Game | Amazon
- Settlers of Catan Is One of the Best Family Board Games | Playtonic
- BattleTech: A Game of Armored Combat | Amazon
- Crimson Skies | Wikipedia
- BattleTech Center (1992) | Discovery Channel Beyond 2000
- Xbox Games | Xbox
- Industrial Light & Magic
- Star Wars: The Phantom Menace | Prime Video
- Jar Jar Binks Was Nearly a Practical Suit and a CG Head | Befores & Afters
- Halo: Combat Evolved for Xbox | Amazon
- edoc Laundry Interview | The Guardian
- edoc Laundry | Shane Small
- Hey! What’s That On Your Shirt? | Wired
- 2024 Starts Now | Rock the Vote
- A.I. Artificial Intelligence | Prime Video
- The Beast, A.I. Transmedia Experience | The Peabody Awards
- The Beast (Game) | Wikipedia
- Candy Land | Amazon
- Pixar Animation Studios
- Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, on Steve Jobs, Stories, and Lessons Learned | The Tim Ferriss Show #22
- Russia Prohibited and Restricted Items | FedEx Cross Border
- Exploding Kittens: Interview with Game Designer Elan Lee by Meagan J. Meehan | Medium
- TCG Invests in Companies That Define Culture | The Chernin Group
- Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-Head | Prime Video
- King of the Hill | Hulu
- The Office | Prime Video
- Office Space | Hulu
- ‘Exploding Kittens’ Game and Animated Show Coming to Netflix | Netflix Tudum
- Exploding Kittens Official Game Trailer | Netflix
- Food Community, Recipes, Kitchen & Home Products, Cooking Contests | Food52
- Your Link to the Food Chain | MeatEater
- Steven Rinella on Hunting (and Why You Should Care), Reconnecting with Nature, Favorite Trips, and More | The Tim Ferriss Show #470
- Barstool Sports
- Rooster Teeth
- Hello Sunshine
- Support | Exploding Kittens
- [06:00] Poetry For Neanderthals and collaborating with creative cohorts.
- [16:41] Kitty Test Pilots and core gameplay loops.
- [22:21] Crowdfunding, alternate reality games, and internet archaeology.
- [25:54] Matthew Inman and The Oatmeal millions.
- [32:18] The perils of operating faster than the speed of Gmail.
- [34:06] Converting casual fans into superfans.
- [34:51] What not to do when your Kickstarter goes better than expected.
- [36:51] The budget of production needs to fit the fun.
- [43:01] Does size matter?
- [44:44] From direct-to-consumer sales to being featured in big box stores.
- [47:07] Building a game from scratch quickly.
- [52:26] Guiding principles.
- [56:37] Foundational game recommendations for beginners.
- [1:05:10] Is Settlers of Catan the game you think it is?
- [1:07:35] Lessons learned from game design veteran Jordan Weisman.
- [1:08:50] If you built Jar Jar Binks’ neck, they practically let you run the place.
- [1:11:38] If you can’t rock the vote, then clothe the vote.
- [1:15:35] Other practical Jordanisms.
- [1:16:55] Steven Spielberg and The Beast.
- [1:23:19] Hate playing Candy Land with your kids? Design new games with them.
- [1:28:02] Growing Exploding Kittens from a game into a company.
- [1:32:56] International shipping nightmares.
- [1:36:13] Why an open-door policy had to be shut.
- [1:38:27] Employees and their roles.
- [1:41:50] Milestones.
- [1:43:06] When big asks get big results.
- [1:47:18] Investor expectations.
- [1:52:15] What kind of retirement does someone who makes fun for a living envision?
- [1:56:07] Dance partners, algorithm defiance, and other parting thoughts.
MORE ELAN LEE QUOTES FROM THE INTERVIEW
“When I was growing up, the biggest frustration I had with games was, first and foremost, the instructions. I don’t have the patience to even read 20 minutes, let alone the seven hours to get into those crazy games. And so I really wanted to make games that 10-year-old me would really get a kick out of.”
— Elan Lee
“A game should be beautiful. You should look at a game and smile. It should be a source of joy. These things should be dopamine engines, and part of that is you want to hold the thing and show it to all your friends.”
— Elan Lee
“I don’t want a game to be in the spotlight. I want the players to be in the spotlight.”
— Elan Lee
“I once took a week-long skydiving course, and at the end of it, I asked the instructor, ‘Do you ever get bored of this?’ And he said, ‘Do you ever get bored of having sex?’ And I thought, that’s exactly it. That’s how I feel about games. That’s how I feel about this job. It’s not a thing with an expiration. It’s a little dopamine factory for me and the people who get to have these experiences. I don’t know how you get bored of that. That’s just eternal.”
— Elan Lee
“I only care about one question. In fact, we do all these play tests, we don’t even give out surveys anymore. There’s only one question we ask, which is, ‘When you finished playing the game, did you want to play again?’ And a game is done when 100 percent of the people say ‘Yes.’”
— Elan Lee
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