Exploding Kittens CEO Elan Lee and co-founders moved fast to iterate their tabletop card game so … [+]
Maximilian Motel | Exploding Kittens
Sales surged 500% last week. The bad news: Stockouts. More inventory is coming from overseas but what can a young company do in the interim?
Exploding Kittens, the Kickstarter wunderkind with more than 200,000 financial backers, did what it’s always done: harness the creativity, irreverence and humor that rocketed its eponymous tabletop card game to success among those who enjoy gathering for Game Night. Launched in 2015 and appropriate for players as young as 7 years old, the card game is described as a cross between Uno and Russian Roulette.
The COVID-19 pandemic delivered a one-two punch to Exploding Kittens.
First, consumers self-isolating at home and families looking for kid-friendly entertainment placed Exploding Kittens game orders en masse, driving sales up 300% to 500% last week, depleting all inventory in the U.S. and Canada, Exploding Kittens co-founder and CEO Elan Lee told me in an interview on Tuesday.
The company is among a small group of retailers (12%) experiencing a run on merchandise in recent weeks, according to a survey of 99 brands conducted March 17-25, 2020, by Forrester on behalf of Narvar. The report, “How Retailers Are Pivoting During the COVID-19 Crisis,” found that 28% are experiencing fulfillment delays and most brands are adjusting sales forecasts down to address the COVID-19 crisis.
At the same time orders were surging, Exploding Kittens fans who already own the game and regularly gather to play (including the less-kid-friendly NSFW adult edition) could no longer congregate in groups due to widespread “stay at home” orders needed to contain spread of the virus.
The solution to keep consumers engaged, both longtime players and those new to the game, came last week with the unveiling of Quarantined Kittens, a free game whose development was fast-tracked big time.
“This is a cool pivot even though they are not making money on it,” says Jay Dunn, CMO and partner at Chief Outsiders. “You have to applaud the effort into brand-building. It lines up nicely with what people are seeking right now, which is interaction. It is tough to be quarantined.”
Need for Speed
While game development cycles typically span six to 18 months, Lee says, the new game went from concept to release in record speed.
“The full time frame was about two weeks,” he told me. “The first 10 days were so bizarre because it was all failure. Try something. Fail. Try something. Fail. We were making zero progress.
“Normally, when you fail at something, you learn a little bit. Here? Nothing. It was an impossible problem and all we were doing again and again is proving that, yes this is an impossible problem.”
The seemingly insurmountable challenge was to re-create in a virtual setting the face-to-face experience of card-playing and all the intrigue and suspense that goes along with that. It’s essential to see opponents’ faces in real time in order to spot a “tell,” those facial tics that expose fear, a bluff, arrogance—and even reveal who’s holding the dreaded, game-losing “Exploding Kitten” card. Players draw new cards from a shared deck and steal cards right out of each other’s hands, two more dynamics meant for players gathered around a table, not for players located remotely.
“When I want steal a card, I can’t reach through the screen. Impossible. That’s a big problem,” Lee says. “Huge desire, big problem—that’s my favorite kind of situation,” he adds with a smile.
To better appreciate Lee’s glee about such a quandary, it helps to know his background and the company’s philosophy about games. While Lee was chief design officer for Microsoft MSFT ’s Xbox and created alternate reality games using multimedia, it’s an old school, analog approach that Exploding Kittens embraces with games like Throw Throw Burrito involving a Nerf-like foam burrito players lob at each other across a table.
As Lee explains, the game is not about the game itself but rather about players interacting. “We don’t build entertaining games. We build games that make the people you are playing with entertaining.”
Three-Card Monte Unlocked the Answer
It was clear that video chat platforms such as Zoom, Facetime or Google Hangouts would be necessary for players to see opponents’ facial expressions in real time. Still, the underlying dynamics tied to physical cards remained perplexing—until an epiphany occurred.
“I thought, what if the reason we are failing is that all we’re trying to do is plug in Exploding Kittens?” Lee says. “What if we mixed Exploding Kittens with something new? What if we mixed Exploding Kittens with Three-Card Monte,” the con game (or “shell game”) played on urban street corners and subways.
“Which is exactly what solved the problem,” he adds. “The missing ingredient that solved everything turned out to be Three-Card Monte. For the first 10 days, zero progress. Then in one day, in 24 hours, we went from zero to 100% complete game and it was really amazing. I love when that happens and when it does, you jump on it, smile and try to share with everybody.”
Quarantined Kittens was unveiled April 2 and Exploding Kittens is already working on what it calls expansion packs, which are product extensions to enhance the new game.
“Their solution here is creative and irreverent,” says Dunn. While some companies hit the pause button in times of crisis, waiting for some sort of certainty or guidance on a path forward, others are more proactive. “They hit a wall in their normal business and they are thinking creatively. That is the tip of the hat to these guys.”
Adds Lee, “If we can all connect with each other, crises like these won’t be as horrible or as lonely as they could be.”