For game designer Elan Lee, business is about more than profits; it’s his own personal redemption.
After spending 20-plus years in a career that took him from crafting special effects at Industrial Light & Magic to lead game designer at Microsoft’s Xbox console, he realized he didn’t want to work anymore on anything that contributed to consumer addiction to screens.
“I finally got to this point where I realized, I am very much a part of the problem,” Lee admitted on the latest episode of the Variety podcast Strictly Business.
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But a project he embarked on as a lark with a group of friends one weekend in 2015 enabled him to apply the storytelling skills he honed in service of screens to a very different application: a quirky card game called Exploding Kittens that has gone on to sell over nine million units in 26 countries. Five years later, that memorable name is also what Lee calls his Los Angeles-based company, which now boasts six different games with cult followings, including Throw Throw Burrito, which is releasing its “extreme” edition later this month.
The breakout success of Exploding Kittens attracted a $30 million investment last year from TCG Capital, an arm of the Chernin Group, the serial investor behind other entrepreneurial sensations from Barstool Sports to Meateater. That will enable Lee to take his venture to the next level, including figuring out how the intellectual property he’s minting in game form can translate to entertainment from TV and movies to theme-park rides.
“The next phase is to turn this from the product into a brand,” said Lee. “I don’t know how to do that stuff and clearly it’s the next step.”
Of course, the irony isn’t lost on him that a venture he began to get away from screens is coming full circle.
“All our games are anti-screen,” said Lee. “And the reason is we want people to come together with their friends and family and have fun. But you get to a certain point where we’ve hit as many people as we can. And in order to broaden that audience, we have to go where those eyeballs are.”
“Strictly Business” is Variety’s weekly podcast featuring conversations with industry leaders about the business of entertainment. Past episodes include conversations with Discovery CEO David Zaslav and Dana Walden, co-head of 20th Century Fox Television and Fox Television Group. A new episode debuts each Wednesday and can be downloaded on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher and SoundCloud.