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    • Elan, so excited to have you join us for a Cake Panel today!

      A bit of background on you: Elan is known for having created the genre of video games referred to as Alternate Reality Games (ARG games), and began his career as a game designer at a company called Industrial Light and Magic. Shortly thereafter Elan moved on to Microsoft Game Studios and in 1998 became their lead game designer. In this role, he designed and created a variety of games for computers and Xbox. Having founded three companies including an entertainment studio, a design company and a company that specialized in Alternate Reality Games, most recently, Elan is beloved for helping create (along with Matthew Inman from The Oatmeal and Shane Small) the smash-hit game Exploding Kittens, Kickstarter’s most backed campaign ever. Elan again partnered with Inman and Carly McGinnis for the 2017 game Bears vs. Babies, 2018's You've Got Crabs...and now Elan has a brand-new Kickstarter that people can back RIGHT NOW, Throw Throw Burrito.

      Without further ado - welcome Elan!

    • So Throw Throw Burrito is the world’s very first “dodgeball card game.” Where did the idea come from to combine card games with throwing soft, squishy burritos?

    • We had this really interesting problem when we finished Exploding Kittens and the huge success. The problem was: we started getting all these incredible letters from fans, even family therapists, who kept saying this is amazing! We now have a weekly game night. We put down our screens, we discover the joy of being together, and we owe these experiences all to your game. We have a wall of thousands of these messages, I print them all out, and you read them and start crying, they're incredible. It does 2 things: the good thing is omg, we're changing people's lives, getting them away from screens. But the problem is: what the hell does act 2 look like? So we spent a long time thinking What do we do? What does the next game look like? And one day, a friend of mine named Brian Spence, he came to me and said “I have an idea for a new game. It’s exactly what happens when you mix a card game with dodgeball. Would you want to check it out?" IMMEDIATELY fireworks started going off in my brain, and I was hoping this was as good as it sounded, because it could be PERFECT. He sent us the prototype, and what I realized in playing was: one, this game was amazing, but it’s not quite done, it needs some work. And two, it feels like the natural sequel to Exploding Kittens, because if Exploding Kittens is responsible for having everyone sit down around a table for game night, Throw Throw Burrito says “Ok, now stand up!” And it’s SO MUCH FUN. It’s such a great sequel, a second chapter to the story that Exploding Kittens started telling. 

    • You know, this has been a strange one, it’s been 99.9% positive - which is unheard of. Any game we’ve ever made, there’s always the haters out there who are like “OMG I HATE THIS I HATE YOUR ART THIS FEELS TOO COMPLICATED I’D RATHER SIT AND WATCH TV.” But this one, because it’s so unique and so new, you can go read the comments on the Kickstarter page, the response is just PHENOMENAL, there’s an outpouring of support around creating something new in the tabletop industry, all these delightful lovely emotions put forth by an audience that’s normally half skeptical! 

      It’s amazing. Running a Kickstarter campaign is so hard. All of us are in the office until midnight every day, managing the community, updating the page, making sure everything is working properly. And it’s stuff like that - I wouldn’t say it makes it easy, but it makes it so you’re excited to go in the next day and get back to it. 

    • As you and Matthew Inman from the Oatmeal continue to collaborate, what do you think it is about your unique partnership that makes it resonate with people?

    • That’s a fun one! I think what works best between us is each of us is really good at a lot of things that have almost no overlap. And what that does, in this really very pretty kind of way, because we’re so aware of that, it makes it so that whenever the other person says “Trust me,” there’s ZERO, zero doubt in that statement. So when Matthew says “Trust me,” I know I don’t know that stuff, so I trust him 100%, and vice-versa. And it makes it so that collectively, we’re like one smart person. And that makes for a pretty good collaboration!

    • When designing games with Inman, are there any specific times where his unique and zany art style and humor have changed the way you designed the mechanics? Or do you usually solidify the basic mechanics first, and add the art and humor later?

    • Wow, you’ve put some work into these questions, this was a great one! That’s a really good question. So let me compare EXPLODING KITTENS and BEARS VS. BABIES. In EXPLODING KITTENS, I had the core concept, Russian roulette in Card Form, and then Matt came onboard, and drew all the art for it. So it was very much core mechanic first, then the art gets applied to it after. In BEARS VS. BABIES, Matt said “I’m really getting bored of writing one-panel comics.” If you look at every card in EXPLODING KITTENS, every card is funny, every card is a one-panel comic. And he said “It’s exhausting, and I don’t want to do another card game where I have to come up with another 50 or 100 one-panel comics. What if I let the audience do it for me? I want to do a card where every card has an incredible body part, and something about the cards allows you to mix it up to create brand-new fantastical creatures that have never existed before. Can we do anything with that?” And I thought I LOVE THAT! It’s so beautiful! So I took that concept, and built a core mechanic around the idea of monster construction, and what it would mean to build these crazy things, and following that, what you’d do with them. So yes, both those 2 games have been incredibly successful, but for me, those are 2 great examples of how both versions of the creative process work, they just yield very different results, and I love that we’re capable of both. 

    • You’ve built a career helping people have fun, explore new ideas, and play. Is that emotionally rewarding? Do you ever hear from someone who’s been inspired by your work to pursue their own creativity, and if so, can you share that?

    • Wow, yeah. So going back to the family therapist thing for a second, because it’s been really interesting: about once a month, we get a note from a family therapist, that says “Hey, just so you know, we love your game. We use it in therapy sessions where communications have broken down between parents and their kids. Because each of your cards initiates an interaction between two people, and it forces people to talk, or interact. Communication suddenly happens along this weird interactive script that’s made up through the cards in the game.” It’s been really incredible, because our game is making the rounds in these family therapy communities, where they are using it to literally make families’ lives better. So that’s been as wonderful as anything could possibly be. Never in a million years would I have dreamed that a game we made would help repair family relationships. But what a wonderful thing, that it makes all of this worthwhile. 

      Zero thoughts crossed our mind that we were designing a game to help people communicate with each other. And the fact that it's been repurposed for that? It makes me smile every time I think about it.

    • Hahaha! Wow. So let’s see… I was in my early 20s, 21 or 22, and I was the intern at Industrial Light and Magic. And what happens when you’re the intern is that you get all the shit jobs nobody else wants to do. One of my first jobs there was to work on TITANIC, and at the end of the movie, the 2 of them are clutching on debris from the boat, and it’s freezing cold water, and they’re having their final scene, you can see their breath, and eventually Leonardo DiCaprio falls between the water.

      Here’s the problem: they filmed that on a studio in Mexico, and the water was about 70 degrees. It was not NEARLY cold enough where you’d be able to see anyone’s breath. So guess whose job it is to go back through that footage and hand-draw every single particle of breath they take so it’s visible?


      Yeah. It takes months. Nobody appreciates it, and even if they see it, who cares?

      So I did that, that was how I started. And then they put me on the Phantom Menace. And my job on the Phantom Menace was Jar Jar Binks. But a very specific, horrible part of Jar Jar. 

      So the way Jar Jar worked was you have an actor walking around, being Jar Jar, and that actor is the body, but he’s wearing a green bag over his head, because it’s somebody else’s job to build and animate Jar Jar’s face. And THEN, the connective tissue between those is literally tissue, his neck, and it has to connect a head, that was NOT Filmed, with a body that WAS filmed, and make it look like an actual living, breathing character.

      And animating and chaining together that neck was my job.

      It was so horrible.

      That’s what you do when you have an intern around who doesn’t complain very much. 

    • Out of the various ARGs you’ve worked on, ranging from The Beast to I Love Bees to The Vanishing Point to Year Zero, what are some of the lesser-known bits of trivia or behind-the-scenes knowledge you’d want to share with others interested in the field?

    • Let’s see, I can tell you a behind-the-scenes thing that was a very good life lesson for me, which is “always have a plan B.”

      I was working on the Nine Inch Nails campaign, Year Zero. It’s really hard to end a campaign like that, because you have millions of people who are analyzing every aspect of the album, they are looking for clues in the music video, the t-shirts, the lyrics, and it’s reasonable, because we’ve hidden clues in all those places that unlock new bits of the story. But the question then becomes “How do you END something like that?”

      So what we did was, we had about 60 of the most hardcore fans congregate on a street corner in Los Angeles, they knew where to be at what time, and then we loaded them onto a bus, and we blocked out all the windows, drove them around for a while, and unloaded them at a warehouse. They thought they were very far away, but in reality it was just a block away, we just drove around in circles for a while. But we unloaded them into a warehouse, there’s a big curtain, and then the curtain drops, and Nine Inch Nails is there, and they’re doing a private show for about 50 people.

      The reaction was amazing. People lost their minds, because Trent Reznor in person is just… it’s a force. He commands your attention in a way that you are not accustomed to. All eyes are on him, and it’s the most incredible, energetic performance ever. And there’s so few people in the room that you are getting individual attention. But then the question was: how do we end THAT?

      The story of Year Zero was of a dystopian future where people have lost a lot of their rights, the government has too much control, and they have to all band together as a community to take back their lives. That was the whole story, embedded in all of the songs, and it was really Trent’s message. So we ended the concert halfway through one of the last songs, and one of the walls exploded, and a SWAT team comes POURING in - wearing full SWAT gear, bulletproof vests, throwing concussion grenades, it’s terrifying. Everybody gets really scared and runs toward the one door, where the bus was waiting for them.

      And that worked perfectly, except for 3 guys. There were these 3 guys who just stood there in the middle of this oncoming force. They just sat there with their arms folded, because they knew, in the back of their minds, that this was fake. They stood there, ruining the whole story. So one of the SWAT members pushed one of them up against the wall, punched them, and the guy crumbled, and then the 2 other SWAT team members started kicking him. And the other 2 guys turned and ran for the door like how they were supposed to.

      The guy was a stuntman, and we placed him on the bus since the very beginning. That was my plan B. I was very happy it worked. 

      That’s the kind of thing you have to do to run a successful ARG game. Live events are just so hard. 

    • Microsoft has played a big role in your life, and I was fascinated to find out that you headed back to Microsoft as Chief Design Officer for  Xbox Entertainment Studios in 2013-2014, only to find that your side gig, Exploding Kittens, literally exploded until you could no longer keep it as a side gig and had to make a difficult decision of which to pursue. What was that experience like?

    • Microsoft hired me back the second time to run a television studio for the Xbox, and build the tech platform for them. It was a very flattering thing, really challenging, and I went back because I wanted to try that. Who gets the opportunity to build a tech platform that will run a television studio with hundreds of millions of people on it? I couldn’t pass it up, had to give it a try. My boss was this woman named Nancy Tellem, and so we built it, and then we made six shows for it - everything was ready to go, and then Microsoft switched CEOs, and Steve stepped down, and Microsoft made an interesting decision that they no longer wanted to be in the television business. We hadn’t launched anything yet, we were about to do a big grand unveiling, and it was basically you had to find new divisions to work at. And I got very discouraged, because it didn’t feel like the right ending for that story. And it also felt that I had this weird awakening - even in success, all I was really doing was pulling people closer to their screens, and it felt bad. It felt like success sucks, and failure sucks, so why am I gonna even try to push on this thing any harder? So I decided to resign, and treat myself to a year off. And I was literally going to do nothing. And one of the nothings that I had planned was “Let me try to develop a card game, try to do something to pull people away from their screens and towards each other instead.” I did that in week 2 of my yearlong vacation, and that also meant the end of my yearlong vacation, because that little game did really well on Kickstarter so I had to start a company instead of taking a break. 

      It wasn't pick one or the other. It was now that I have some time to breathe, now it's time to try something else.

    • You know, we knew we were going to make a throwable game. The original idea was mangoes. That was what Brian showed up with. And we went through this whole big long process of changing the characters: we asked “How about blowfish? Then we could call it ‘blowfish throw fish!”’ We experimented with poodles, with cats, all these things. And what we realized building these mockups was that none of us were comfortable with throwing a small animal, ANY animal. We got so absorbed in the idea of making it cute, and making characters, that we lost sight of the fact that we were hurtling small animal mockups through the air.

      So we thought it has to either be a food item, or something devoid of personality, and we can put the personality in the cards instead. And then the process went really fast, we because we did an inventory of the planet of “things that are approximately the size of 2 fists that are fun to throw and inanimate.” It’s really a short list, and burritos are at the top of it.

      They are the right heft. We are making them out of super-squishy foam, so that getting hit in the face with a burrito will feel like nothing.

    • Oh! Yeah, ok! So my absolute favorite game EVER is called “Happy Salmon.” It is a game that start to finish is about 90 seconds long. But you will play this game for two hours, because the moment it’s over, you’re going to want to play again. It triggers adrenaline, and endorphins, and I believe that the BEST games in the world are not actually fun. The best games in the world are the ones that make the people you’re playing with fun. And this game does this perfectly. Perfectly.

      The other game I love, which is more of a mental exercise game, is called “Set.” And it’s one of those games that just makes your brain grow. When you play it with friends, somebody will inevitably be amazing at it, and everyone else will suck at it. When I started to play this game, my sister was 12, I was in my twenties, and to this day, I haven’t beaten her at this game. It’s one of those games that makes you think in a completely different way, and some people will discover they are EXTRAORDINARY at this skillset that they didn’t know they had!

      So those are my two favorites. 

    • The big one, I think I already mentioned, is don’t think about the game being fun. Think about the people you’re playing the game with being fun. What that really means is most games should inspire interactivity. You want all games to celebrate the people you’re playing with. If ever you find that you can play your game without other people, or you might as well play all the parts in a game, then you’re designing the wrong game. It’s SUCH an important thing.

      And the next one, and the only other one I have, is that when the core game mechanic of a game is successful when you stop doing it, you want to do it some more. So for EXPLODING KITTENS, the idea is Russian roulette, you draw the top card, you hope it’s not an exploding kitten, and you want to do it again. So when you hit that mechanic you just start building the game around that. 

    • Having made a transition from video games into board games, what are your thoughts on many table top games making their way from the table into video games? For example, many classics have become available as popular mobile games like Settlers Of Catan, and games like Hearthstone and Slay The Spire are wildly successful video games that emulate board games with no real world counterpart (at least originally).

    • I think what we’re seeing right now is this really interesting and beautiful renaissance of table top.

      Because people WANT to hang out with each other. They want to laugh, and celebrate, and maybe more so than ever, there’s a need to take a moment, put down our screens, stare at each other in the face, and have fun - because we’re friends and family, and unless we do something about it, the trend of being pulled apart by screens will continue. And nobody is enjoying that.

      So I’m seeing this INCREDIBLE resurgence of games. Everyone is building more and more games, one, because you can, there’s mechanisms by which you can build games easily and cheaply right now, and two, because there’s a market for it. People are willing to spend money on games that allow them to have a weekly or nightly game night. So all that’s really good, and really fun. And we’re seeing a market overlap. Videogames are looking at this HUGE multibillion dollar table top industry blossom, and table top games, when they start to do well and build an audience, they look at the HUGE video game industry and want to be a part of that. It’s rare when a game is successful across both delivery platforms, but there’s certainly businesses in both those spaces, and I hope, I think, that they will stay separate. Each serves a very specific role. One is the thing you do alone, and the other is the thing you do when you’re with people, and there’s room for both of those things to co-exist.