In 2015, we launched a Kickstarter campaign for a game called “Exploding Kittens.”

The game did really well, and the campaign broke a bunch of records. But this isn’t a story about a four-year-old card game, it’s a story about joy, and magic… and a really massive machine we built that nearly got us kicked out of every convention we brought it to.

To run a successful game company, you have to attend conventions; these are some of the best opportunities for brands to get face time with their fans, and not only stay relevant in the overall ecosystem, but hopefully generate buzz. In addition to San Diego Comic-Con, there’s Gen Con, Dragon Con, WonderCon, KittyCon, Ohdearlordnotanothercon… Actually, at least one of those is fake, but you get the idea. And by the time this goes to print, it will probably be a real event. People love cons.

These events are huge. They are noisy, crowded with thousands of fans, and packed with hundreds of game makers clambering for 20 seconds of your attention.

The first year we went to Comic-Con in 2016, we did what we were supposed to. Our booth looked just like everyone else’s, and we got buried beneath a torrent of other peoples’ plastic toys, cookie cutter games, and utterly forgettable booths. We accomplished nothing. By the time we started prepping for year two, we knew we had to come up with something better.

Building a Better Mousetrap… er Convention Booth

“Exploding Kittens” celebrated friends and family putting away our screens and sitting down to play a game together. “Throw Throw Burrito” is what comes next — a Dodgeball Card Game that changes game night by getting us up out of our chairs.

We started deconstructing the notion of a “booth.”

  • What does a transaction look like?
    • Give money, get product.
  • How long is each interaction?
    • 20 seconds.
  • What are the physical attributes?
    • Audience-facing attractors, sample products displayed, prices listed, hidden inventory.

Basically, every booth is a vending machine but designed by someone who doesn’t realize they’re building a vending machine. To succeed at conventions, we realized, we had to build the world’s best vending machine. So we did.

We started with a giant cardboard box.

And then covered it in fur.

We made sure our machine had all the features that a perfect vending machine needed: buttons to pick a product, a place to insert money, a chute for product delivery, and a giant screen to interact with customers.

Most importantly, this machine had a very special and magical secret weapon — a rainbow-colored button that simply read “Random Item $1.”

Whenever that button was pushed, a random item immediately fell out the bottom of the machine. Items included whole watermelons, toilet plungers, custom drawn artwork, brooms, a bag of rocks, sombreros, or asparagus.

The random items were designed to entertain, amaze, and delight every audience member brave enough to push the button.

So what was the secret to this impossible technological marvel? How did we do it?

We filled it full of people.

The Power of Random Stuff

The Exploding Kittens vending machine was actually a vending machine costume built for our team. In addition to all the products and merchandise, the machine contained thousands of different random items, and a team of six to 12 people working non-stop to turn these items into a seemingly infinite number of possibilities. Audiences could watch this machine for hours and never see the same item twice.

After the first day of running the machine we had underestimated demand for random items so drastically that we had to make an emergency run to the local dollar store and buy every item we could fit in our cars. We had expected to deliver 250 random items during the convention. We ended up delivering 1,400. That’s 40 items per hour for 35 hours over the course of the weekend.

Fans lined up for hours spilling over into walkways, hallways, and other people’s booths. The lines got so long that we attracted the attention of the fire marshal, which it turns out is a great way to almost get kicked out of conventions. We had to hire line monitors, and whenever the wait exceeded three hours, just had to turn people away.

It would be difficult to overstate the results our machine produced. Every moment was a spectacle. The machine took selfies with Storm Troopers, it dressed kids up in fairy wings and unicorn horns, and even performed magic tricks.

We had to learn a lot in a very short amount of time. We learned that balloon animals were a huge crowd favorite, and so we had to frantically watch YouTube videos backstage to learn how to make them.  We learned that in many states you have to be a registered grocer to have produce delivered to a convention hall, so Exploding Kittens is now a registered grocer in 14 states. We learned that we could interact with the audience on a personal level, like when we spotted someone dressed as Daenerys Targaryen (the Mother of Dragons from Game of Thrones) in line, we bedazzled an entire watermelon so that when she got to the front of the line, we could instantly deliver a dragon egg and blow up her brain.

We worked so hard to play with the crowd, and they played right back.

They wrote love notes to the machine, and one person actually proposed marriage (for which she received a massive bouquet of 50 red roses). People shared their stories all over the convention floor, in the hallways, and on social media. It was one of the biggest hits at every convention we brought it to.

The final result was pure magic. A live show that crafted impossible and unique moments for each individual in real time every single minute, nonstop, for 8 hours a day.

People laughed, people cried, people fell in love, and people made friends with this machine.

Our goal was to stand out at conventions, and we ended up building a wondrous joy machine running on human software and vending happiness.

This was not just a machine that solved our convention booth problem — it was the best machine we’ve ever built.