Personal Development

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 (#653)

Illustration via 99designs

“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.

Please enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Podcast Addict, Pocket Casts, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, Amazon Musicor on your favorite podcast platform. You can watch the interview on YouTube here.

Brought to you by Athletic Greens’s AG1 all-in-one nutritional supplement, Helix Sleep premium mattresses, and Shopify global commerce platform providing tools to start, grow, market, and manage a retail business. 

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

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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.



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  • [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.


“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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