Exploding Kittens' Elan Lee on future games, community plans and ruffling industry feathers

Billy Langsworthy

By Billy Langsworthy

January 21st 2016 at 11:52AM
UPDATED January 21st 2016 at 2:23PM
Exploding Kittens' Elan Lee on future games, community plans and ruffling industry feathers

Exploding Kittens became Kickstarter's most backed game project of all time last year, with 219,382 backers pledging over $8m to make the card game a reality. Billy Langsworthy talks to the game’s co-creator, Elan Lee, about not fitting in with the traditional side of the industry, the importance of community and its plans to become a publishing company.

You’ve created one of the biggest card games of recent years and made history on Kickstarter, but do you feel like you’re a part of the toy and game industry yet?

No, I don’t feel a part of it. I feel I’ve been welcomed in, absolutely. But the toy industry feels very traditional and we are really not traditional.

When we first started, everything being presented to us, from the business models to the distribution plans, was so old. People wanted to license our game and when we asked them what their community plans were, they said “what’s a community plan?”

It was clear that these were friendly, lovely people that wanted to work with us, but we didn’t feel comfortable with them being the custodians of our product because they were looking at this in a way that felt 30 years old.
That hasn’t been our approach so we knew we’d have to do it ourselves and create a new model. That new model is entirely community based.

We’ve had to unfortunately ruffle some feathers to say ‘this is the way we want to do things’. Luckily, because of the success of the game, we have the leverage to do so. Everyone’s been reliant on an older system and thankfully, with the advent of Kickstarter and our success there, we have no reliance on that. We can do everything ourselves, try a new model and live or die by our own skills and talents.

Did any of the major companies look to snap up the game?

Yeah. Most of the big ones came to us.

One day, if there’s some other super shiny thing that we want to take a run at, we’ll put it in the hands of custodians that we trust, but for now, no-one out there answers the question correctly. And the question is simple: What is your community plan?

Are you sticking around in this industry?

We have an expansion deck that we’re working on, we have an iPhone app coming out shortly and we do have a second game on the way that I’m really excited about. Those three projects will carry us through the next six to eight months and it’s certainly a full time job. It’s so much fun, I’m learning so much and I’m excited about this.

What we will do, because it’s so much fun, is transition into a games publishing company. It will be under the banner Exploding Kittens because that has massive audience recognition at this point, but we want to find other amazing experiences.

Some may think that any new launch from you will be a hit, seeing as you have a 219,000 strong community hungry to try your next product. Will it be that simple?

We’ll live or die by the quality of the games. While it’s a wonderful, enthusiastic audience, it’s also a fickle one. If we put out a lemon, we’re not going to be forgiven for that.

We only put out things that we love and with the luxury of this success, we don’t have to rush. We can nurse something into maturity, or at least into a phase where the audience can start giving us feedback and shaping it to what they need it to be.

Licensing-wise, I’d imagine you’ve had people knocking on the door wanting to launch spin-off toys?

We get licensing requests daily and have been for the last eight months. We haven’t found anyone who thinks about it in the right way yet. It’s all so traditional.

Here’s an example: a company came to us and wanted to do Exploding Kitten plush toys. We asked them to show us designs and they sent us designs for a stuffed Enchilada Cat and a stuffed Beard Cat. We were like ‘who cares?’ This is the same stuff that the industry has been doing for 30 years and I’m sure it would sell but then it would disappear and who cares? They asked ‘what do you mean?’

So we said, we have a card featuring the Rainbow-ralphing Cat. It’s a cute little white cat who vomits a rainbow. We thought the plush toy could look like a white cat, and inside there’s a rainbow you can pull out of its mouth. The rainbow is still attached so it becomes a beautiful rainbow scarf you can wear with the Rainbow-ralphing Cat dangling in front of you, like a fashion accessory.

We made three of them and sent them out to people we trust and we cannot get the things back. It’s a cute toy that you can play with in all the ways you’d play with a plush toy but it’s also an interactive experience because that’s what the world is craving.