From ink to app: Exploding Kittens

How Substantial took the Kickstarter conquering card game to mobile

Card game Exploding Kittens basically set fire to Kickstarter when it arrived on the crowdfunding platform, hitting its funding goal in just 20 minutes.

After that success a digital version of the game was inevitable, and digital product studio Substantial took on the challenge. Founder Paul Rush actually knew one of the creators of the original card game, game designer Elan Lee, but said that didn't guarantee an easy ride.

"I don't think any creative process is easy, even being friends with someone you have no idea what it's like to work with them. We had some stumbling blocks in the first month, getting out of the gate about how to direct the project but we figured it out," he told

"We've worked with dozens and dozens of clients in the past so you kind of get a feel for how to get relationships off the ground and healthy as fast as possible. After some of those initial stumbling blocks it's been great. When you can work with your friends and it actually works it's amazing. When it doesn't work it can be one of the worst things you can do, but this has been fantastic."

The digital version of the game was released last month and is a local, peer-to-peer party game with its own exclusive set of cards.

"We actually spent a lot of time thinking about ways to make this a very different game, but based on some of the concepts that are central to the game. Then we gradually gravitated towards making it something that had this model, but we explored all the other obvious options that you could think of for how to make it work," says Rush.

He admits that one of the biggest frustrations has been the audience reactions to the game's peer-to-peer set-up. Despite it being very clear in the game's description on the App Store that this a multiplayer title, some people still feel they're being duped.

"To be honest it's been a difficult because the medium is so used to working in single player mode that if you read the comments it's either love or hate," he explains. C"People do this all the time, people feel that it's OK to be able to give a rating on something even if they haven't even used the product or for things that are not related to the product at all. Yelp has this phenomenon, almost everywhere in every single restaurant, even in the best ones. Someone couldn't find parking so one star. So it's a problem we're working on and how we're going to address it in the updates coming to the app. We're likely going to be adding some way to play solo."

"It seems like there aren't that many price points necessarily available for a lighter weight game"

The exclusive cards for the digital game not only add a differentiator for players but allowed Substantial to deal with some of the intricacies of translating a physical game - where you can steal and peek at cards - to a digital medium.

"Clearly if we were going to launch a game that could be theoretically competitive with the deck we wanted to do something that was different right? So it was a good idea for us to be able to do that consciously and it's also fun creatively. There's also the reality that there are certain cards from the physical deck that you can't play.

"You have to build a lot of interface to make them feasible in a mobile version and then there's lots of things in the mobile version that you can't do in real life card games. It gives you more creative opportunities to work with and some restrictions to work with. There's tons more cards coming for the game that we've been thinking of that we'd like to add in there."

Beyond the design challenges of building the game the company also struggled with deciding on the right business model and price point for the title. They settled on a one off purchase price of $1.99, which certainly compares favourably to the real world deck's $20 price tag.

"We spent a lot of time agonising over business models, single player versus multiplayer, internet play versus local play, pricing, price points, strategy for additional content. It's not easy - particularly when you're coming from a position of not having done a lot of games before - to know what the right move is," he says.

"We did everything we could including brainstorming, thinking about the audience, trying to figure out who they might be, as well as getting advice from friends of mine who are in the games industry. It seems like there aren't that many price points necessarily available for a lighter weight game. We also have this problem of like how you monetise the game across multiple devices. Do you make one person buy it and then everyone else can play for free? Or do you have everybody buy it? That was a huge one and it was difficult to know what the right way to go was with that because the messaging can get confusing and there's complications. So we just settled on something that would be simple and hopefully not too much of a barrier mentally to making a purchase."

He's pleased with the sales so far, even if he can't put a specific number on those sales, but you can still sense a frustration with the competition from free-to-play titles on the store.

"The one thing that I'll say is that we've heard that the numbers that we've gotten have been pretty good for paid apps but I think paid apps as a category... it's kind of one of those sad realities of mobile gaming that it would be nice and a more authentic experience to just charge up front for a game and have it be something that people like, but the free-to-play model just dominates revenue right now. But it feels inauthentic, it feels like someone is trying to take advantage of you so it doesn't feel good but it actually works better," he says, exasperated.

"If you want to put a lot of effort into making a great game that costs real money, because developers are not free"

"We've done OK, we've done well and we're very happy with a lot of things about the release but if you want to put a lot of effort into making a great game that costs real money, because developers are not free."

So Substantial is planning more games in its future and also more content for the Exploding Kittens app, new features and content, all with the trademark mix of addictive play and dark humour firmly in mind.

"We're going to try everything that we can, we're going to be as creative as possible. We have some really cool things coming with audience engagement. The creators of the game, Elan and Matt [aka The Otameal], they want to be as good as they can figure out how to be to the core audience that has been supporting them. I think there's going to be a lot of different updates and extensions and add ons."

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