Four years ago, Elan Lee left his job as the Chief Creative Officer at Xbox to start his own tech company.
But along the way, Elan and Matthew Inman, founder of The Oatmeal, created Exploding Kittens, a tabletop game they launched on Kickstarter with a $10,000 goal... and wound up raising almost $9 million in just 30 days.
So Lee returned the capital he had raised for his tech company to focus on tabletop board games.
And that turned out to be a great decision: Exploding Kittens has sold over 8 million units, is among the top-selling games on Amazon, Walmart, and Target... and still holds the record for the most-backed crowdfunding project in history.
Lee and Inman's company (also called Exploding Kittens), has also created Bears vs. Babies, a game that raised $3 million and is the sixth most-backed project of all time on Kickstarter. And created You've Got Crabs, a game launched through their own site. (More on that decision in a bit.)
And now they're launching Throw Throw Burrito, a game that combines cards with throwing and dodging foam burritos. (Which turns out to be even more fun than it sounds.)
Throw Throw Burrito hit its Kickstarter target of $10,000 in just 16 minutes, and as of this moment has raised over $1 million in just a few days.
All of which made it the perfect time to talk with Elan about developing hit games, the power of Kickstarter, and advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Before we talk about game development, let's talk about crowdfunding. You're a experienced businessperson who knows how to raise capital. I'm sure there was more to it than "Let's use Kickstarter to raise some money."
See the word "crowdfunding, and most people focus on the "funding" part.
Funding is secondary; we focus on the crowd. It's relatively easy to find the money, to find the right retail channels... when you launch anything, the hardest thing to find is the crowd.
Kickstarter is where the crowd lives. It's like a nursery where games are born.
Trying to launch games separate from that environment, from that community... it just feels like the wrong thing to do.
Yet you decided to launch You've Got Crabs without crowdfunding.
With that game, we decided not to go through Kickstarter mostly as an experiment.
We wanted to see what options were available. We wanted to explore launching natively. We wanted to see what impact our huge following would have.
What we realized is that while that launch was very successful, and that game is very successful, it was missing the enthusiasm and excitement that happens on Kickstarter.
People go to Kickstarter because they know that we, as designers, are asking the community for that last push: We've prototyped the game, tested the game, we need your help to make it perfect... and the only way to do that is through a giant community.
So if you launch yourself, you're saying, "Please buy it." Whereas when you launch on Kickstarter, you're saying, "Please help us."
Exactly. We learned that if we launch ourselves, the underlying vibe feels wrong. "Here's a new game. Please buy it." Instead, "Here's our new game. It's almost done. Please help us finish it."
We rely on the truth of that statement. We know our games are better when the people that got us here, the people that we love.... our games are better when they help us finish them.
We can design games all day long. We can create card art all day long. We can create instruction booklets all day long.
But still: Living in that vacuum we never result in making a perfect game. We genuinely rely on fresh eyeballs and fresh opinions. We rely on people looking at our game from a blank slate and telling us if an element is fundamentally broken -- and telling us why it's broken.
Which can be tough to hear, because by that point a new game has become your baby.
True. It's never fun to hear you baby is ugly (laughs).
But since we want everyone in the wrold to adopt our baby... we need their help to ensure our baby is worthy of adoption.
You started with online channels, but eventually decided to sell games like Exploding Kittens via traditional retail. Was that a tough decision? Your core audience might have seen that as 'selling out.'
That's the funny thing about the whole 'sell out' thing. Very few people walk into, say, Target and browse the game aisle.
Here's how it almost always works. You have a friend that loves games. You go to his or her place for game night. You play an incredible game. Now you want it. You go to Target armed with that knowledge.
That's the big box audience and the big box experience. You don't go for discovery -- you go because you've already discovered.
There's also a sense of satisfaction that comes from being an early adopter, from being a trendsettter... it's fun for people to see a game that they discovered become extremely popular.
Any advice for entrepreneurs who decide to distribute through major retailers?
Storefront retail is a whole 'nother business. (Laughs.)
But it's just one of the things that is really challenging. When we started selling Exploding Kittens we had no idea what we were doing, and the degree of success we experienced caught us completely off guard. We had to learn about Kickstarter, learn about manufacturing in China, learn about fulfillment, learn what goes into selling an item on Amazon...
Those were huge lessons that took us a long time to learn. And the only way you learn is to mess up every imaginable way. Whether that's in product development, or crowdfunding, or working with major retailers...
We've made every imaginable mistake... but luckily the successes have outweighed the missteps. (Laughs.)
I know several people convinced they could develop a game. but of course they never do. Talk me through the game development process.
You're right. Lots of people have a game idea, are convinced it's the greatest game ever... but they never create it. Just like everyone has that great idea for a screenplay they've never actually written.
Creating a game is really hard. Testing destroys what seemed like great ideas for games. There's an insane amount of discipline -- and luck -- required.
For us, we probably build 100 games for every successful game. Our floor is littered with destroyed games that seemed like great ideas, but don't survive actual game play.
So where do you start?
We pick something that is very important to us... and then iterate on that as a core concept.
Take Throw Throw Burrito. When we looked back at our initial launch of Exploding Kittens, our underlying mission was fostering an exodus from screens: Spend time with family, spend time friends... just get away from screens one day a week.
We loved the idea of enjoying each other instead of a screen. And we delivered on that concept: The game is all about interactions between people.
So then we went a step farther, using that as an underlying concept and then raising the bar by adding a degree of physicality. We've stepped away from a screen... what if we could also move around a little?
Which turns the game into a spectator sport of sorts, too. Most games are fun to play... but hot death to watch other people play.
(Laughs.) My games are as guilty of that as other games. Sitting and watching people play board games can be tough.
We're making Throw Throw Burrito fun to play and a spectator sport, too. It's literally like watching a sport where people are laughing and ducking and diving...
One event in the game called a Burrito Duel. Two people grab two squishy toy burritos, stand back-to-back, take three paces... and turn and fire. Everyone gathers around to watch because it's crazy. One night we were playing and a guy runs to the couch, takes off the pillows and build a pillow fort... and in the meantime his girlfriend bolted out of the room and locked herself in the bedroom... and everyone was cheering.
I really feel this is the next evolution of bringing people away from a screen. It's for people playing and for people watching.
Which is an extension of that core mission you described.
I started on this journey when I was the Chief Design Officer of Xbox and I walked into my brother's apartment. He has two kids I love dearly... and they wouldn't even acknowledge my existence because they were staring at a screen.
The ironic part is they were playing a game I helped make. (Laughs.)
It's ironic, but it was also kind of devastating. Here's this successful game I helped create... but these kids are sitting there "alone" in a room filled with loved ones.
Within weeks I resigned from Microsoft and said, "It's time to do something about this." As I love creating digital assets, digital media... I love making things that take people away from screens and brings them together.
Back to Throw Throw Burrito: What was the "Aha!" moment.
We started throwing ideas around and finally, with the help of Brian Spence, came up with the idea of mixing a card game with dodgeball. Not scary dodgeball, but moderated and safe. Hence foam burritos. (Laughs.)
That's when the sparks started flying. We chipped away and chipped away until we finally developed a version that was simple to play, simple to explain, and left people smiling and laughing and enjoying themselves and each other... which is the holy grail of successful game statements.
'Simple to explain' is key for me. I hate complicated games. If I have to spend much time learning to play... I won't even try to play.
We apply two important tests to all of our games.
When we test with our families, we insist the youngest player reads and explains the rules to everyone. That approach means we have to create an instruction set that is easy to understand and in no way overwhelming.
And the second premise is that if someone messes up the rules, the game still survives. If three rules get skipped, the game still survives.
That's a fundamental premise of our games. People don't want to spend a lot of time reading rules. And if they mess up the rules, they still want to havde had fun.
Which of course is really hard to do... but is what gives a game broad appeal.
That means you have to be the kings and queens of editing.
Ideas are of course important, but editing and refinining is much more important.
For example, the version of instructions for Throw Throw Burrito we're currently testing is version number 47. And those aren't final. We'll go through another three months of editing.
But the fun part is the next round of editing will be with Kickstarter funders.
They really do dive in to help us. We say, "Help us finish this product, and because of you this game will be amazing." That's what they sign up for.
If you want, you can just wait 6 months and buy the finished game. Or you can take this journey with us.
Imagine I'm an aspiring entrepreneur, you run into me in an airport lounge, and you have a couple minutes to give me advice. What would you say?
In general, go with crowdfunding. Why? If your idea is good enough to attract investment of any kind... raise that money in a way that doesn't reuire you to give up equity.
Of course that means you can't just have a good idea. You have to be able to express that idea in a way that people understand and get behind.
The ability to express a good idea in a way that it becomes viral... that's what helps make you a successful entrepreneur. And crowdfunding is a great way to not only test your idea... but develop skill in sharing that idea, and engaging potential customers.
Which, of course, are skills every good entrepreneur needs.