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Making Games Is Awful, I Love It: A Conversation With Exploding Kittens’ Carol Mertz

Carol Mertz is a Senior Game Designer for the tabletop game company Exploding Kittens, makers of the game and company namesake Exploding Kittens, Throw Throw Burrito, Poetry For Neanderthals, and many others. Mertz began game development as a hobby she did with friends, but would eventually go on to earn her MFA in Game Design from the NYU Game Center in 2019. She has toured the country with HELLCOUCH: A Couch Co-op Game, and has also released With You, a cooperative two-player puzzle-playground game, and We should Talk, a short-form narrative game, which are available on Steam and itch.io.

Minus World: You started doing game design as a hobby, right?

Mertz: Yeah, in 2010 with other friends from college, I graduated with a major in interactive media with emphasis in animation, and that meant that I was surrounded by a whole bunch of other dweebs who were really into animation and video games. And we were like, “Hey, let’s be dweebs together, and work on these things together.” And in Saint Louis, you probably know this, but especially 15 years ago, there was not much of a visible video game scene.

MW: Did you get swarmed with people who were interested in game design wanting to work for you?

Well, no, we were working in isolation, like, you know, we weren’t marketing ourselves or anything. Nobody knew what we were doing and we didn’t know what anybody else was doing. And so we were working in this little bubble of not knowing what we were doing. I had a tiny bit of experience or at least exposure to the industry because I went to my first GDC in 2007. Like I convinced my employer at the time to send me and I have no idea why or how; I wasn’t making games at the time. I was just like a student and they were like, “Yeah, sure, this seems relevant.” Me, a web designer, was at GDC, rubbing elbows with Miyamoto. So I had some minor exposure to the industry, but no experience making games. No idea what the fuck I was doing. I just knew that I liked the industry and was interested in learning more about it. And so when we started getting together and talking about what we wanted to do, we were just like, “Well, let’s experiment, Let’s just play around.” Let’s take an established idea and develop it into something more. So we developed a Simon clone that we made for iOS, and that was when iOS apps were not a common thing to be making. We actually wound up getting quite a lot of downloads. It wasn’t paid or anything, so we didn’t make any money on it, but we were like, wow.

And so we kept kind of experimenting and playing around. The team eventually shrunk down to me and the two friends that I formed the studio with, and we were just doing this sort of hobby approach. And eventually a Game Jam approach where we were just going to local game jams. Once we did find a scene and you know, making games on a weekend and just like trying to churn out as much shit as we possibly could so that we could start making good stuff and we did that for several years.

And then I finally made my own mobile game where I was the lead developer. Like I had been in a support role doing art or doing production. But I finally decided to be lead designer and lead developer on my own title in 2014 I think. That was when I was just like, “No, I really want to keep doing this. Yeah, I want to keep doing this for good.”

MW: Now, how long after you started doing it as a hobby, did you feel like, “Hey, I think this is what I want to do with my life”? Was it immediate or did it take some more time to get to know that for certain?

Yeah, like even when we started as a hobby, I never really saw it even as a viable career path. It took me four or five years of getting to know the industry better, getting to know other indies, and seeing other indies find success and recognizing that this is a viable career path. If I can figure out what I’m doing and can win the lottery ticket of either getting a job that can sustain me or making a game that can sustain me or whatever.

And so I think it was around 2014, 2015 when I was like, actually, this is legitimately what I want to be pursuing. Yeah, because up until that point I had been really focused on web development, like I’m a great web developer. We were making enough doing that for clients that we were sustainable and we were independent, but it was boring.

MW: And it’s not how you want to spend your life.

Exactly. And so in 2016, I left my studio, and it was super amicable. They were interested in maintaining their design direction, and I was interested in moving full time to video games or to games in general. And so I went to work with another full time game studio here in St Louis for a few months. it wasn’t the right fit for me, but it made me realize that yeah, video games are still like the core focus of my life. And at that point I was delving more into like, community stuff.

MW: Stuff like the Pixel Pop Festival?

Yeah, I started Pixel Pop Festival with some friends in 2014, but then I took it over as the executive director in 2016. Because again, I was kind of refocusing all of my energy toward games at that point. And I shifted into teaching. So I was teaching game courses at Lindenwood in Saint Louis and eventually somebody on Twitter reached out and was like, “Hey, NYU is offering this scholarship for women. Maybe you should check it out”.

I had literally never in my entire life, in my entire career, considered going to grad school. But this person reached out, and I feel bad because I don’t even remember who it was. It was essentially a stranger. Like just a random follower was like, “Hey, I saw this and thought of you.”

MW: Isn’t it funny that little things like that happen to us? The little offhand comments that just make you think about something that you’ve never thought about in that way or never even giving consideration to, and suddenly change the course of your life.

Yeah, it was wild. And I appreciated it so much that they thought to send me this thing and they probably didn’t even think that much of it, but it legitimately changed the direction of my life after that.

MW: So you go to NYU and you’re there for two years, right?

I was there for two years. Yeah.

MW: And what was that experience like? I listened to a little bit of another interview that you did a few years ago. It sounds like you had a pretty remarkable time.

Yeah. I mean, this is where we get into. “It’s terrible. I love it” territory. I knew what I wanted going in: I knew that I wanted the mentorship I couldn’t find in St Louis. I had kind of risen to the mentor position in Saint Louis, but there weren’t any mentors who could help me. And so I was desperate for guidance from people who knew more about what they were doing than I did.

And I got that there. I was also desperate for the space and the freedom, but still some structure to make creative, expressive work. And I got that there. But because I got those things, I went into super brain mode and burned myself the hell out within those two years. But I made a ton of work that I’m so, so proud of.

But by the end of it, I was like really…

MW: Almost a dead body?

Yeah, I was just barely trudging through. And I was suffering a lot from mental health issues and stuff like that, not realizing that it was burnout. Like neurodivergent burnout that I was experiencing. I was nonfunctional and I was really, really hurting.

MW: With the projects, were some of them collaborative? Were you on your own? Were you doing the programming, the art, and everything for the games? Or was it a team effort?

A little of both. It really depended on the class and the project and everything. Most of the timethe way that NYU is structured is that they essentially train you to be an indie powerhouse. They give you a background in game design and all of the tools to support that game design.

So you really have to be able to make your own projects, and I excel at that sort of thing. But there were a bunch of projects that I did, like We Should Talk and Hell Couch and Chroma that were all collaborative. Whereas my thesis project With You was a solo project.

That is another example of “Making games is horrible, I love it,” but it was that strange process to me.

MW: But then you had this beautiful thing that you can look at and share with everyone. So has the payoff always outweighed whatever trials and tribulations that you’ve gone through when you’re making a game? At the end are you satisfied?

There are moments where I’m satisfied, but I think, as is the nature with any artist, I’m never satisfied with my own work. It’s like really like I have to decide that something is done, because otherwise it’s never going to be done. I think a lot of us struggle with that, and for something like With You, I look at it and I think about all of the things that I wish I would have done or I wish I had the knowledge to tackle or I wish I had the energy to tackle. And I look at all of the things that I’m afraid that my players are going to see and think that I half assed it.

MW: All the things that you notice that the player probably doesn’t?.

Exactly.

MW: And the audience is like, “no what are you talking about?”

You don’t care. So having those moments of somebody at GDC one year was like,”Wait, you made With You?I just saw that. I just played it. That’s amazing,” And I’m like, wait, wait, this is a game that I released with no marketing, no anything. And yet some random person who I’m having lunch next to recognizes my game.

That’s the moment where I’m like, it matters to me.

MW: This is why I do this.

Yeah, but on the other hand, because With You is a two player game that is designed for dates for romantic couples. It is unusual. It is uncommon. And in a Steam landscape it sticks out in a certain way. And because of that, it sort of became a meme after I launched it and like, people started leaving really sexist and homophobic reviews on it.

MW: Wait, gamers did that?

Gamers right? In what world would they be nasty about a sweet cute little game made by a single person in a really difficult time of her life?

That sort of thing certainly tends to overshadow the small moments of joy, of seeing the kind reviews and the feelings of, you know, of hearing from people who you meet that it was meaningful to them. That’s really important and that’s really special, but it’s so hard not to let the vitriol overshadow the successful moments.

MW: I think as with a lot of things people are probably more willing to go online and make negative comments than the people who really loved what you did considering taking the time to go and write a review. It’s a relatively small percentage of people that actually take the time to write those reviews.

Absolutely, and there’s also an element of like the memetic aspect of it is community driven. Like there’s something like these people are participating with other people and trying to build a community and trying to build a common joke. And I can appreciate that. But at some point they’ve lost the fact that they’re making the joke at the expense of an actual human who made this project and cares about this project. And that sucks.

MW: So after NYU is that when you wind up at Exploding Kittens or you come back to Saint Louis? Or what are you doing after NYU?

I came back to Saint Louis and I was planning on focusing on Pixel Pop and freelance work and community work. I had this goal for myself that I was just going to keep this indie momentum that I had built up through Hell Couch, and the couple of publishing contracts that I had out of NYU. Then the pandemic hit and my biggest client at the time was Exploding Kittens.

I was doing design work with them, and they were part of my freelance plan. It was in the middle of 2020 when they were like, you know, do you want to just like, join us full time? I was like, wait, health insurance structure and steady paycheck. Yeah, I’ll consider that. That was when I kind of abandoned all hope for freelance through quarantine and pandemic stuff and shifted to full time board game design, which I never really imagined myself doing, but it’s been surprisingly satisfying.

MW: I love to hear that. What are unique nightmare scenarios that come up when designing a tabletop game or a board game? Yesterday I was listening to this interview you did a few years ago, and you’re talking about how you have 5 minutes for people to be invested in the thing that you’re trying to get them to play, and I think that is so true… I can’t tell you the number of board games I’ve tried to pick up with friends and there’s an entire book explaining all the rules. And I look at a game like Throw Throw Burrito where it’s a single sheet of paper and it’s like, “Hey, this is how the game is played,” and it’s spelled out with very cute illustrations. There’s also a link to a YouTube video that explains how you play. So what are some unique problems that you run into with tabletop design?

It is very unique, and to be clear, at Exploding Kittens, we make mass market board games, which means these are board games that don’t presume that our players have any prior game literacy. We’re not gearing toward the hardcore gamers, right? We’re gearing toward the moms walking down the aisle at Target.

And so it’s that much more imperative that these games are approachable and accessible and that they’re quick to learn and they keep your attention while they’re playing. They’re engaging the entire room, all of these things. In video games you can have a great little trailer, you can have the tutorial at the beginning that really walks you through. You can have all the systems in the game force you to do exactly what you’re supposed to do. But in a board game, that’s the player’s brain. You have your instructions that you write and you know that the player is going to skip half of those instructions and make up their own rules because why not? We have our How To Play videos for everything, but that still leaves room for error. And it’s just really about making sure that the experience is amazing, even if it’s broken.

MW: Do you have a “time to fun”? Like you only want so many minutes to pass before the people are playing the game and having fun?

Not in specific terms, but we are not going to release a game if we don’t see people laughing within the first few moments. It is so much about the experience for us and it is so much about the community when people are playing that if people are just being really contemplative and like looking at their cards and not really talking to each other and not really reacting to other people’s plays, then it’s not going to be out in the world.

So the other thing that I think is worth noting, like I’m always working on several simultaneous projects, whereas in a video game studio, you’re focused on one thing. For example, last year I led three projects that were released in 2023. I have two projects that have been released in 2024 with another coming, and those are just the ones that made it to shelves. We’re constantly cycling concepts and working on stuff.

MW: How many ideas do you think “this seems wonderful,” but then when you actually make a prototype, you playtest it and say “Oh, this ain’t it”?

All the time. And you know, again, it’s coming up with ideas, testing it out and seeing if people actually seem to enjoy it. And if they don’t, then you decide whether or not it’s worth revising if there’s enough there. But ultimately it boils down to “will people want to buy this?”And that’s the big difference between working at Exploding Kittens versus having been an indie designer, because I never really thought about if people were going to give a shit about my stuff. I would just keep making it to express myself, and now I’m making it to reach as many people as I can.

MW: This needs to be marketable and fun.

Yeah, exactly. 100%. Because that is one part of the process, I have to consider the cost of goods and whether or not it’s even going to be something that we can afford to produce. So that people can afford to buy it, especially “in this economy?” We have all these constraints about how much people are willing to pay for a game, which gives us constraints about how much we can put into a game. Which is just another part of the thought process.

MW: Yeah, that obviously makes sense, but I never would have given that any thought.

So many ideas die because they’re great ideas and super interesting and you know that it would look amazing in a box on a shelf, but, it would make it so expensive.

MW: Is Exploding Kittens still the most successful Kickstarter campaign?

It was the most backed, which means the most people backed it.

MW: Have you had a project or something you know would be so good, but it makes no financial sense for you to try and make it. Have you thought about Kickstarting more elaborate projects like that?

Kickstarter is never going to reach as far as mass market retail. Like, that’s just the nature of it. And because of that, the goal is once a company gets to the point where they’re able to start selling to the mass market, I think the goal is to be mass market first. We have done a couple of Kickstarter since the original Exploding Kittens and they’ve done well, but it’s more of a way of getting our core player base to feel more involved in the process and to have a say in how things turn out. It’s really more of a community thing on our part and it’s a lot of work. So I think it’s something that a lot of companies are kind of cooling down on as they shift more towards retail stuff.

MW: How fun is it to make rules for a tabletop game?

So I actually really like it because I’ve said this before on Twitter and, sneak preview: I’m going to say this in my GDC talk too. But writing board game rules is like programming for a computer that gets bored easily and arbitrarily skips half the code.

I can code, but I don’t love coding. I like the logic of code, but I don’t like having to memorize syntax. I don’t like to, you know, like having to worry too hard about the mathematical aspects of it. I’m terrible at trigonometry, and rarely do I have to deal with trigonometry when I’m writing or designing board game stuff.

And so I’m just thinking about how would a human brain parse this if they came into this with zero knowledge of what I’m trying to get them to do. How by the end of this ruleset can I get them doing as close to what I want them to do as possible? And that to me is such an interesting challenge and has been the most fun part for me of working on board games because it’s also an iterative process of writing what you think it’s going to be, and then it becomes this experiment where then you put it into play testing and you see how wrong you were.

Then you iterate and then you do that process over and over, and I compare it to the scientific method of like you’ve got your hypothesis, which is your game design, and then you build your your prototype, and you run it through the experiment, which is the play test, and then you iterate and revise your hypothesis based on the results of the experiment and it’s this really nerdy but also very like psychological and personal kind of process.

It’s very satisfying for me.

MW: That sounds so fun.

It’s also just really interesting to see how different people process rules differently. Because you can’t rely on one single playtest. Everybody reads differently, everybody processes things differently.

MW: Yeah, everyone will interpret the rules differently or just discard them entirely. Like that thing where you play Monopoly at someone’s house and go, “what are you talking about? Those aren’t the rules.”

They’ve been playing it wrong for years, but the “house rules,” I think that’s another really cool thing about board games is that I’m writing my rules knowing that players are going to make their own rules on top of them, and knowing that this thing that you’re designing, this thing that you’re creating, is just going to continue to evolve in the hands of your players is also really exciting. And there aren’t very many video games that do that.

MW: How do you avoid being complacent at a place like Exploding Kittens? Making sure that you’re not just making a game because you need to make a game because you’re Exploding Kittens. Is it easy to stay excited about the work that you’re doing with Exploding Kittens? Because eventually everything is a job, right?

This is a really interesting and complicated question. I am, like I said, neurodivergent, and games have always been my special interest. And so the fact that games are my special interest, the fact that I care so much about games and the experience of playing games and the impact of games on society and culture. I do view my work with a level of gravity that I think, you know, may or may not be common among other designers. I think among designers probably, but among just generally people in the industry, maybe not so much. And so because of that, I never want to put something out into the world that could cause harm or be considered like a throw away thing, especially in board games, we’re producing physical materials and that makes an impact on the environment, that makes impact on the world beyond just the experience that we’re creating for our players.

Everything has some cost, and I don’t want to charge the planet for a shit product.

If I’m going to be a part of putting something like that into the world, I really want it to be as good as it can be.

That’s just my own perspective, and I also want to feel proud of the work that I do just in general. But it is really hard because as a neurodivergent person working full time, it is exhausting, it is draining. It is hard to maintain life outside of full time work. And so that means I don’t have the time and energy to make expressive work the way that I used to. I don’t have the time and energy to even play for fun the way that I used to

MW: That seems to be a very common refrain. I see interviews with other game devs, and so many of them say “I’m really looking forward to playing some video games” when the project is about to be released. And that’s weird. You’re there making games because you love games, but you don’t get to play that many games because you’re busy making games.

Exactly. Every once in a while there will be a game that sticks and hits that part of my brain that lets me play it for longer periods of time, and that’s just my wind down technique. But in most cases, I’ll pick up a game and it’ll feel like work because I start analyzing it and I start thinking, how can I apply this to my day to day practice? Or even just “I understand what the system is doing, I don’t need to play it anymore”. I get it. It’s hard to shut your brain off and just enjoy things.

MW: What games informed you the most along the way and are there any that you go back to while you’re making games? It can be a board game, it could be an actual video game, but what are some of the ones that informed you the most and your time as a person who loves video games and games in general?

When I think back to the games that I feel like most defined my taste in games, I think about the earliest examples of wholesome games, to be perfectly honest. So thinking back to the introduction of farming games. Harvest Moon was a game that I became so obsessed with in middle school that I got made fun of in class for non-stop talking about my wife in Harvest Moon.

Pokemon, the idea of being able to collect these cute creatures and run around this big world, and they fainted. They didn’t die.

MW: Yeah, I just got to take them to see Nurse Joy. It’s going to be fine.

And Super Mario RPG was the introduction of turn based games. Super Mario RPG for me came before Pokemon and I think they both just share this nice space where it’s cute, it’s funny, it’s endearing. I can’t do action stuff very easily. So the introduction of turn-based gameplay suddenly meant that I had a chance to get to the end for the first time in the history of Mario games, and it made me feel like games could be made for someone like me.

Obviously the games that I have made since then are not like that, but those feelings are the feelings that I’m chasing. Those feelings of “this is made for me” or “this makes me excited to be playing a game”. This makes me remember why I love games. And on the other hand, you know, with board games, I always played really boring board games as a kid.

MW: Like what?

There was Mall Madness, which was fine, but like everything in the eighties and nineties and early 2000s, at least what was geared toward kids and geared for little girls was like Dream Phone and Mall Madness. I had Chutes and Ladders, I had this one game called Strangers and Dangers, which is about the dangers of talking to strangers and doing drugs.

MW: How do you tell you’re a nineties kid without saying you’re a nineties kid?

Elder millennials check in! But I played a lot of these board games, obviously. I played a lot of Monopoly. I played a lot of Sorry, I played a lot of Parcheesi and Backgammon and shit like that. And the strategy of classic Hoyle card games and backgammon and checkers and stuff like that appealed to me, but once I started getting an opportunity to play more modern games in the 2010s, like A Fake Artist Goes to New York by Oink games for the first time. It’s a social deduction game with drawing, and it’s so brilliant because not only is it fun to do, it’s fun to watch other people do things, but then at the end you have this nice little artifact of your play session because you’ve all drawn on this silly piece of paper. Something about that and the explosion of Werewolf in my community groups just made me realize that the social experience of games is so much greater than what I grew up with, and drew me toward designing for board games. It was in that era when I started designing my first card game, which was satire on corporate America. And that was 2016. But that was inspired by the fact that games could be a really beautiful social experience, but also could be expressive and meaningful.

MW: Tell me about Hell Couch.

So one of the games that I worked on out of NYU was a collaborative project that can’t really ever go anywhere because it’s a sofa. Like it’s a playable sofa. And we toured the country with it and the entire process is players have to release a demon from the sofa by doing the sacred butt ritual. They’re basically just playing Simon on the sofa with their asses. It’s called Hell Couch, a couch co-op game where the couch is the controller. This was my first foray into like silly installation work that I fell in love with, but also realized I never wanted to make a game that you couldn’t fit into a suitcase because the amount of physical pain that this game wreaked on my body by like having to take it, you know, we had it in New York.

We had to ship a new couch to every city and then assemble it or like, move it, in L.A. It got shipped to Glitch City. Or I guess Glitch City found us a sofa, moved it up to their second story K Town facility, and then we had to move it back down and then get it into a U-Haul and then take it to IndieCade and set it up at IndieCade, and it was just like such a nightmare. But I love that game and I think it’s one of the most popular games I’ve ever made because it is just so ridiculous. We showed it at GDC and we had like lines of people waiting to play it and it’s so silly and so wonderful and so magical because it’s really simple, but it’s also unlike anything anybody has ever seen before, because it’s a sofa that lights up and yells at you and then spews fog from out underneath when you’re finished playing. I hacked a fog machine, but it’s another example of how games have physically hurt me because of the number of bruises and cuts that I got from that. So having to deal with electronics on a show floor hours before the floor is supposed to open and for some reason I can’t figure out why my chips stopped working.

MW: You have mental and physical scars to show for your time making games.

Yeah that’s a project that I’m super, super proud of and I think is really interesting. And I still have the St Louis one in my living room. It’s just been sitting here and I’ve been using it as a sofa for the last four years.

MW: That’s great, and thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us! 

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