Elan Lee is the creator of Exploding Kittens, the most-backed game in Kickstarter history, by number of backers. He started as an intern at Industrial Light and Magic, working on Star Wars Episode I, before moving on to working with legendary game designer Jordan Weisman at Microsoft. His interview is filled with incredible design insights, so get your notebook out and be prepared to take some notes and have some fun.
Check out this episode and the previous ones here:
“What do you know? How do you know it? Who needs to know it? Have you told them?” (9:00)
Elan talks about reading these questions on the wall at a military base. It’s a profound set of questions that Elan says is always in the back of the mind in regard to communication in life. In this section, Elan talks about interviewing for a job at Microsoft and helping get XBOX off the ground. In this section, we learn about Elan’s history and the lessons he learned coming up from an intern at Industrial Light and Magic, through his years at Microsoft and onto designing his own games.
“The thing that I keep in mind whenever I’m starting anything new is […] Anything you do is going to fail. Everything you work on is going to have mistakes. Everyone is going to laugh at you, they’re all going to make fun of you—it’s going to be horrible. If you just accept, for a second, that it’s part of the process, and everything successful, in the history of mankind, has gone through that process, then it’s not so scary.” (18:00)
Elan talks about an initial failure in Hollywood and a culture of people who are trying not to take risks, who work to keep their jobs, not to try something new. Figuring out how to lean into risk-taking, and building a company culture where risk is rewarded is vital to creating new and amazing stuff. He goes on to talk about a series of games developed for Steven Speilberg, which all had to be canceled, and how he and Jordan Weisman were able to pivot into a new type of game company.
“I believe story is 50% of any video game you work on, I think the other 50% is the game mechanic. […] I think that the game mechanic is the mechanism by which your story is delivered.” (33:00)
Here we talk about how Elan thinks of the weaving of story and mechanic into a game. He speaks about the difference between writing stories for TV and writing stories for games and how they differ. He goes on to discuss the innovation he brought to television and the issues that came up after the success of his first show.
“Not only do you want to play again, but you’re stealing my game from me, you’re not going to give it back. That’s awesome.” (1:11:00)
One of the games Elan created is called Poetry for Neandertals, a game where you have to use only single-syllable words to get someone to guess a specific word. Elan talks about the iteration process of reducing the goal from guessing complex sentences to a single word, and how that changed the playtester feedback from not wanting to play again, to not willing to give him his prototypes back—a huge success. We speak here, in detail, about Elan’s ideas about iteration and game development.
“Games should not be entertaining, games should make the people you’re playing with entertaining.” (1:16:00)
In the final section of this episode, Elan and I speak about creating games that develop communities. He tells the story of building a vending machine for a convention that could deliver random items that were perfectly created for anyone who stepped up to the machine, it’s a story you have to hear.
I’d also love to hear what kinds of questions you’d ask our guests and what designers you’d like me to have on the show. Until next time!