Kittens, Cards, and the 8 Million Dollar Explosion

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I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Elan Lee, co-creator of Exploding Kittens. In case you didn’t follow their phenomenal campaign, it was one of the largest backed Kickstarter for Tabletop gaming, reaching over $1 million in the first 24 hours and ending at a mighty $8,782,571 with 219,382 backers. Elan Lee, The Oatmeal and Shane Small broke a lot of records with this Kickstarter, including doing some exciting contests during its run. Check out his interview to hear his thoughts after the campaign is all said and fulfilled to backers.
Photo Credit: Exploding Kittens
Looking back on it, as it was your first Kickstarter, was there anything else you would have done to prepare yourself or the campaign before the launch? 
Right before the campaign launched, I opened a bank account for Exploding Kittens.  As I was chatting with the customer service rep, she told me that I had to set an amount of incoming money which when exceeded, would trigger a fraud alert.  I told her our goal was to raise ten thousand dollars, so let’s set the limit somewhere around there.  She looked at me and said, “come on, don’t you want to stretch a little bit?  Be optimistic!  You can do better than 10 thousand!”  “Fine,” I said, “let’s set the limit at fifty thousand dollars.”
At the end of the campaign, I got a fraud alert email.  I printed it out and hung it on our office wall.
The gameplay for Exploding Kittens is fun, quick and great to get new players into playing games. What was the inspiration to have kittens exploding as the game concept and was a card game always the goal for the game?
I’ve been building video games and massive real-world games for the past 15 years.  I love them.  I love the scale, and the immersion, and the story.  But often playing those games is a solitary experience.  Long hours spent alone in front of a screen is the norm.  There’s a lot of interaction, but those interactive elements are most often with players not physically present.  I love laughing with my friends.  I love making eye contact, and eating foods, and giggling over ridiculous inside jokes.  Luckily, I think my own longing for a return to more social and present gameplay intersected with a larger board-game renaissance.
Today, board games are better than they’ve ever been, and the game nights we host for our friends have blossomed into the centerpieces of our weeks.  I love the notion that we’re ending the isolation, that we’re playing games with each other face to face, and that these games facilitate stronger human connections. I made a card game after so many years of making video games because I wanted to help the renaissance instead of just watching it.
From a creators perspective, I am sure you did lots of playtesting for the game. Do you have a favorite moment when you were playing and designing the game?
I think my favorite playtesting moment was the night I met Matt, creator of The Oatmeal, and co-creator of Exploding Kittens. I had been working on the game for a while with my friend Shane Small and carried a deck with me everywhere I went.  I would often steal any spare moments my friends would tolerate to test and retest the rule set.
In November, I ended up in the same room as Matt and there was a break in the conversation.  A mutual friend asked if I would show the new game.  I said there were surely better things to do then play the prototype, but after a while I was persuaded to demo for five minutes before we went out for dinner.
It was a really good game.
Those five minutes turned into ten, and those ten turned into an hour.  When three hours had passed (and we were all starving), we agreed to take a break and play again the next night.  This turned into a ritual for the next week.  It was the most flattering playtest result I could imagine.
At the end of the week, Matt asked if he could join the team to create the final version of the game. In case it’s not clear, the correct answer to this question is, “HELL YES.”
The campaign has been fulfilling to backers and many people have received the game already. How has that experience been since the campaign finished?
We had a good plan before we started the campaign.  We had a print facility lined up to print out 500 decks for us.  We were going to pack the boxes in my garage, and then mail everything out to our backers by May.  I decided to list the Kickstarter “expected delivery date” in July just so that we could celebrate delivering early.
We made the decision to forego t-shirts, stickers, or any other distractions that could compromise our focus.  We had a good plan.
Seven hours into our first day, we had raised a million dollars.  Three days in, and we had three million.  Our good plan was becoming less good very quickly.
Luckily we have a lot of friends and I’m very good at scrambling.  I called up Max Tempkin at Cards Against Humanity and asked for help.  He introduced me to his printer, Ad Magic, and offered to make us the first customer of their new fulfillment and shipping company called Blackbox.
We used the remaining months to coordinate one of the largest launches in indie-game history.  We ramped-up card production plants, box manufacturing facilities, shipping companies, freight brokers, fulfillment warehouses, tax lawyers, community managers, playtest coordinators, survey engines, instruction manual copy editors, website developers, copyright lawyers, digital artists, customer service reps, and producers.  More than 800 people were brought on board to deliver over four hundred thousand copies of the game to 122 countries.  And we did it all by July 31st – because celebrating delivering early is overrated.

Do you have any quick advice for gamers who would look to use crowdfunding to create the game?

The initial success of our campaign was decidedly due to The Oatmeal fanbase.  They made our game successful, and far exceeded any expectations we could have possibly had.  But after the first week, we saw our backer numbers start to plummet.  It became clear that we had tapped out The Oatmeal resource and could either go quietly into a successful kickstarter project or we could set our sights on something much much bigger.
We’re big fans of bigger.
We decided that the key to success would be to focus 100% of our efforts on the “crowd” in the phrase “crowdfunding”.  We had already hit our funding goal so the funding part was no longer relevant.  We decided we would never again speak about money, and would instead host the largest Kickstarter party in history and invite EVERYONE.
The final three weeks of our campaign were devoted to our backers.  We built activities for them, promoted their artwork, talked with them, and bought them pizza.  We helped animal shelters, hosted worldwide playtest parties, and put everything else in our lives on hold to ensure that our crowd had a reason to celebrate every day.
In the end, we had more than two hundred thousand backers.  More than double the previous record holder on Kickstarter.  Our backers made us crazy on some days, and made us want to hug every one of them on others.  Ultimately, they are the ones that made Exploding Kittens real.
So that’s the advice I would give.  Don’t do crowdfunding for the funding — do it for the crowd.

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