The Reality Escape Pod Episode 1: Trailblazing Game Designer Elan Lee (ARG, Exploding Kittens)

Episode 1 is an interview with trailblazing game designer Elan Lee, creator of the first ARG and founder of the Exploding Kittens company.

We cannot imagine a better first guest. Elan is brilliant, funny, and so giving of his knowledge. Interviewing him was an utter delight, and I think that it shines through in every segment.

Elan sitting cross-legged on a stool.

Episode 1

Episode Summary

In this episode, David and Peih-Gee chat with Elan Lee, one of the creators of the ARG (alternate reality game), and co-creator of Exploding Kittens – the most backed campaign on Kickstarter at the time.

David manages to surprise Elan with interview questions that he’s never been asked before. Elan talks about creating the world’s first ARG and shares stories about what happens when you don’t properly define borders in immersive gaming. We also talk about escape rooms (of course) and Elan’s post-game ritual. We find out that Elan is a huge fan of Survivor and he tells us why he considers Jeff Probst to be one of the world’s best game designers.

Elan tells us that the best-designed games aren’t entertaining in and of themselves, but rather, that the best-designed games make the players entertaining.

Reality Escape Pod mission patch logo depicts a spaceship puncturing through the walls of reality.

Topics Discussed in this Episode

  • Elan talks about the connective tissue in Jar Jar Binks’ neck. (1:40)
  • Elan tells us about his mentor, creative director at Xbox Jordan Weisman, and the most valuable correction he gave Elan, including how that launched his gaming design career. (3:00)
  • Elan talks about being one of the creators of the ARG format. (7:15)
  • Elan tells his favorite story from his first ARG, a promotion for Steven Spielberg’s movie A.I. (10:30)
  • We discuss what happens when the rules of the game are contradicted by the rules given to you by a gamemaster. (14:30)
  • Elan discusses his escape room post-game ritual. (18:35)
  • Elan discusses his indicators for a poorly designed escape room. (22:22)
  • We talk about the possibility of having save-points in escape rooms. (22:58)
  • We talk about resetting escape rooms and Elan shares a story about how one company games their players into resetting the room for them. (24:07)
  • We ask Elan about his favorite emotional buttons that get pushed in well-designed games. (26:42)
  • Elan talks about working with Matthew Inman, creator of The Oatmeal, on Exploding Kittens (31:02)
  • Elan tells us about a viral video with which he was involved. (33:55)
  • Peih-Gee finds out about Elan’s Survivor connection. (34:37)
  • Elan tells us why he considers Jeff Probst to be one of the world’s best game designers. (36:02)
  • Elan fanboys over Peih-Gee. (39:22)
  • We talk about a mutual friend, Myles Nye, who will be our second podcast guest. (39:40)
  • Elan talks about why he loves Survivor so much, what makes it so entertaining, and how the best games are toolsets that make the player entertaining. (39:51)
  • Peih-Gee talks about twists in Survivor and why they create interesting gameplay (41:10)
  • Peih-Gee talks about the twist that had her fruitlessly searching in the jungle for hours. (42:57)
  • Elan discusses his new game A Game of Cat and Mouth (44:37)

Resources Mentioned in this Episode

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Support REPOD

Thanks for listening!

Guest Bio

Elan Lee, Co-Creator and CEO, Exploding Kittens

Elan Lee is the Co-Creator and Chief Executive Officer of Exploding Kittens, the hit tabletop game company. In this role, Elan oversees the operations of the company as well as the development of new games and other corporate initiatives. Under Elan’s leadership, Exploding Kittens has expanded its portfolio to eight games and has sold more than 11 million games to date in over 45 countries since its founding in 2015.

Lee’s pioneering work in entertainment has spanned everything from multiple startups raising millions of dollars to creating the Alternate Reality Game (ARG) genre. Before founding Exploding Kittens, Elan was the Chief Design Officer at Xbox Entertainment Studios, where he was responsible for the Interactive Entertainment Portfolio for XBOX Entertainment. Prior to that, he was the Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Fourth Wall Studios as well as co-founder of 42 Entertainment (the company behind ARGs: I Love Bees, Nine Inch Nails- Year Zero, and The Dark Knight). Elan began his career at the Microsoft Games Studio where he was a Lead Designer on the original Xbox.

A 20 year veteran of the games industry, Elan has served as an international expert on the future of gaming and storytelling. He has won a Primetime Emmy for the series Dirty Work, the Game Innovator of the Year award for Exploding Kittens, and an IndieCade Trailblazer Award for a distinguished career in interactive entertainment. He has also won awards for Best Web Game of the Year, Best Advertising Campaign of the Year, Best Idea of the Year, and Most Innovative Retailer.

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