Interview with Max Temkin: CAH & the Big Picture Beyond
Recently Max Temkin, a man often referred to as the creator of Cards Against Humanity, announced on his twitter account:
In preparation for my video chat interview with Max, I was slightly panicked to realize that their teams had done a really good job of covering most of the details I normally would have asked about. I actually contributed to that problem by covering the announcement as breaking news, which you can read here. Despite all the press coverage, and the blanket statement that Max and the team of panelists wanted to give back to the gaming community, I still had questions. Biggest on the list: why Gen Con, why the tabletop deathmatch, and why now?
Max has become known not only for his success with Cards Against Humanity, and more recently the Werewolf project, but specifically through both games’ success within the Kickstarter crowdsourcing platform. With the Gen Con partnership he decided to go right to the heart of the community, one of the largest and most vetted conventions for tabletop gaming, with some big ideas, big dreams, and big prizes.
Exciting Opportunity in an Unprecedented Partnership
The largest motivating factor behind the partnership with Gen Con, was the fact that Cards Against Humanity simply wouldn't exist as we know it now, without the support of the gaming community-- and the platform that Kickstarter had offered them to leverage that. When asked about the most exciting part of the partnership with Gen Con and the tabletop deathmatch, he lamented that Gen Con has a tendency to be "lumbering" to work with logistically, as an institution. Furthermore, the idea that the bigger, more established cons seem to be losing metaphorical ground to the IndieCades and Pax's of the gaming world. Wrangling the monster that is Gen Con innovation, in collaboration with friend Derek from the Gen Con events team, and others, felt like a "right person, right place, right time" situation. The panel of judges, listed here in the press release, is hoping to bridge the gaps between the iconic gaming event and the world of struggling tabletop indie developers, who worship it.
Also a Little Scary...
On the flipside of their excitement, Max stated that there were definitely fears felt by the collaborating teams. Luckily, the foremost fear that "no one would even care," was quickly put to rest-- the deathmatch had almost 100 submissions in its first week following the original announcement on May 2, 2013. With the unexpected levels of interest, details on the event are coming together nicely, with new judges for the panel and deadlines being announced soon. Max's new fear:
"I hope we find a good game. If we don't get good game submissions, if all the games suck-- then this whole thing will have been for nothing, because we have to publish one of them."
In what became a steady theme, Max turned a “negative” question into a positive answer, in following that up by saying he hopes they
“get a game that is really cool and inspiring, and that deserves to be published-- that we can really make a difference for them."
Don't get sucked into the inspirational mojo behind that hope too fast, indie devs. When asked what would happen if there were multiple deserving winners, specifically whether or not judges may privately pursue partnership with submitting development teams-- he had a very clear answer, and a cheeky smirk to match:
"That's why we called it the deathmatch, but also- one of our favorite things is to crush people's dreams. So I really hope there's a lot of qualified games, and then we can just ruin their spirits."
"You don't have to win a contest, to be successful."
He hopes that this project raises the profile of the indie tabletop games, and pushes Gen Con to get more involved with supporting the indie development community for tabletop games. When it comes down to the bottom line, while they are hoping to offer one lucky (and deserving) developer the chance and support of a lifetime, this is a great opportunity for participants to get feedback and support overall. More importantly, Max hopes that the message taken away from the deathmatch is this:
"You don't have to win a contest to be successful."
It just so happens that they want to help further the indie cause, by hosting one.
From project creator, to success story, to mentor: the Kickstarter Journey
Max Temkin, one eighth of a great team
There is a lot of information out there about the Cards Against Humanity story, most notably the Kickstarter case study offers an extremely thorough look into the process the team followed. As a gamer, and a journalist, and notably as a person—I am most intrigued by the person who has become known as the poster boy for Kickstarter success.
In its abridged form the CAH story is as follows:
Max and a group of 7 friends were close growing up, and developed the sort of morbid and insanely hilarious antics that close groups of friends will. However, as they grew and went their separate ways, their shenanigans were limited to major holidays and gatherings. While this manifested an extreme level of creativity, and general jackassery, it also generated a lot of interest from peers and friends at their respective colleges. When they got together for a large New Year’s gathering, they brought what would eventually be known as Cards Against Humanity, a great game for *the absolute best kind of* terrible people. The game was a hit at the party. Eventually, the individual members evolved the game and joined, power ranger style, to form the unstoppable force that is now known as Cards Against Humanity.
(Image sourced from Chicago Sun Times article here)
I’m going to leave the CAH story here for just a moment, because this is where I feel that it has gotten lost in translation. Somewhere along the way Max Temkin became known as CAH, when in reality he is a part of an incredibly big and awesome picture, something he wants to make sure people understand.
Max Meets Kickstarter
While working in his intended career of politics, specifically on the 2008 Obama campaign—Max felt privileged to meet an individual by the name of Scott Thomas, who was the campaign design director at that time. In sharing the story of his inaugural Kickstarter experience, the nostalgia and awe in Max’s retelling is almost tangible, and definitely contagious.
During the Obama campaign, he states that the design of the campaign became synonymous with a very unique shade of navy blue; he recounts that it was very hard to match, and became iconic. So naturally, when Scott Thomas decided to write a book about his experiences throughout the design of the campaign, “Designing Obama,” he had some very specific plans for the color. Plans which, unfortunately, publishers were not interested in making priorities, in their choice to back a book from an untried author.
(Image Sourced from Designing-Obama.com)
Thomas was ultimately able to fly to Japan in search of just the right cover fabric for his book. This plan only became executable though, when he chose to launch his book independently, through Kickstarter. The Designing Obama project funded with $84,613 on a goal of just $65,000. Included in the final funding amount, was money from Max Temkin’s decision to back the project, his first ever. Down the line when Max went to his friend and mentor’s office to pick up his copy of the book, he saw Thomas packing boxes and shipping out his finished project; A project that he as a consumer had helped to invest in, and make a reality. In a truly impactful way, a project he as a viewer had watched come to fruition-- As a peer on the Obama campaign, one he had truly experienced from conception to completion.
Later, when requests from friends started pouring in for Cards Against Humanity, the team did what felt right: they made it available as a free pdf download on their website with instructions on how best to print the game. When the game reached previously unfathomable notoriety, Max remembered the Kickstarter experience he had had as a consumer and witness, and going the Kickstarter route-- just made sense.
The Student Becomes The Teacher
After the success of Cards Against Humanity a project with no full time employees or CEO, life went on as usual for Max and the rest of the team of 20-somethings. He continued to pursue client work in his original political background, but he never kept his hands out of the indie games development cookie jar entirely. He told me a little about his creative process—that he keeps a mental file of projects he’d like to work on, or may already be working on in some ways, and waits for the right opportunity to be revealed.
During Pax East 2013 in Boston, Max was part of a small group of individuals on the Kickstarter panel. During the panel, Max worked with Kickstarter staffers Luke and Cindy, and others. Their goal: explaining to the hundreds in attendance exactly what the Kickstarter project creation process looks like. To illustrate the process, Max launched his fourth Kickstarter project, a card game entitled Werewolf (an offshoot from his first tabletop project Humans Vs Zombies) live during the panel, from start to finish. The Werewolf project blew through its $200 funding goal in less than 20 minutes, live within the panel.
Prior to Pax East, Max had been working with copywriter Elaine, and friend Jana on the concept and artwork for Werewolf, and had had it idling by ready to go for almost a year. When conversations about how to best bring the Kickstarter panel to life began, the opportunity was too good to pass up. With the right place and the right time presenting itself, the Werewolf project got a deadline, some traction, and ultimately got funded. More specifically, Werewolf ended up funding at $42,451 dollars, nearly three times the final funding for Cards Against Humanity.
What you get for $1
Most recently, Max created a somewhat controversial $1.00 Kickstarter project, funding an interpretive dance specially designed for Andy Baio, based on the indie game Spelunky. With only 1 day, and risks and challenges of “None of us know how to dance,” the project funded at $210 and the video was made.
When the dust settled, it seemed like the community of independent creators saw the fun in his project and let it slide. A few days later, an even more controversial $10 podcast project was posted by the Penny Arcade team, and talk of “the rise and fall of Kickstarter” ensued. As someone with a strong social media presence through his twitter and his tumblr blog, I was very curious to get Max’s take on this, even more so given the knowledge of the Kickstarter inner workings. What he came back with was refreshing, simple, and very definite:
“What it comes down to, is that there’s a difference between how the people at Kickstarter think of Kickstarter, and how I think of it, and how the public thinks of it. It’s a way for people to say that they believe in something, and put their money on it. It’s a place for people to decide what to want exist and what kind of world they want to live in. Emotions run high, and people care a lot, and that’s very powerful for us as consumers to get to decide stuff. Over the years that will fade, if there’s a project you don’t like, you’ll just look the other way, and you don’t need to troll it or whatever. It’s so lively and excited right now, people are kind of overthinking it and getting overly invested in it, but that’s okay too! People should have an opinion about what kind of things get made, and how they get made and who’s making them. People should have more opinions like that and care more about that.”
Help Me Help You, Help Me Help You
Being passionate about what space there is in our world, both online and off, for creative expression—is clearly a visible trait that Max Temkin brings to the table. While he thinks of himself as unemployable, Kickstarter-- and developing games through its channels, has allowed him to live, work, and play in an amazing and evolving space. With everything it has done for him, he wants to take a big step back, and help the community see the even bigger, more complex and more amazing picture that helped him get to where he did. He wants to help show others how they can utilize those same readily available resources. While on the metaphorical road to the Gen Con deathmatch collaboration, Max reunited with Luke Crane from Kickstarter and others, to offer “office hours.”
Office hours, a small block of time once a week, have given developers an opportunity to sit down in a video chat, pitch their Kickstarter project idea, and get feedback or direction from some seasoned professionals, plus there’s gummy worms.
Over the course of the Kickstarter hours project, Max explained that while some of the folks who signed up for hours were essentially ready to go, others were far from it. A few participants really only needed the support and encouragement, a “you can do it” and a pat on the behind. The individuals who truly benefitted from the program however, he felt were the ones who showed up to the table focused on what color font they should use on their pages, or what day of the week to launch their project on—while their project’s glaring fundamental missteps were overlooked, and subsequentially, more than happily pointed out.
From his explanation, despite its being stressful and overwhelming on the surface, Max is genuinely happy with his involvement in the office hours project. While the office hours are at this point booked through June, they will be taking a hiatus. During the time away from office hours, they’ll be discussing how to refine the free consulting sessions-- in an attempt to continue to give back to a community that helped build their team’s legacies.
Who Is Max Temkin?
Talking with Max Temkin was eye opening, and a lot of fun. I was privileged to be able to get some insight into the guy who has become the face of such an amazing game, and who has become a mentor to a whole community. Our talk went back and forth around some of the serious and deep cut issues and opportunities brought about from public platforms for creativity, like Tumblr and Kickstarter. More specifically, the controversies those teams face around regulating their user generated content, and the fact that he continues to believe that they shouldn’t.
Max is a part of successful teams in Cards Against Humanity, Humans vs. Zombies, and Werewolf, and he continues to leverage his networks throughout the industry and community to give back to, and benefit, that same community. When I asked him what he wished was more well known about him, from his interviews to his public image—he confirmed that it wasn’t about him. He wants it to be about how much bigger the picture really is, in everything. They weren’t a group trying to prove a point, they were a group who had no idea what they were doing, and have used each individual’s strengths, to avoid living in cardboard boxes and keep being able to give the world Cards Against Humanity.
“There’s 8 people who work on cards, the game is a team effort,” and “there’s people involved at every level in of all these things other than myself who are making them work. I think it’s an easy story to stick it on one person, and say ‘they did it.’ That’s never the case, with anything that I make or anything anyone else makes. At the very least, if you want to go down that rabbit-hole, think of all the resources and logistics it takes just to post something on the internet and have people see it. All the people who work at Tumblr, who make that website so I can have my blog so people can read about it—or the people who make the postal service work so I can send them stuff. There are dependencies every step of the way, including all the creative partners who get all that stuff done. It’s a misleading idea to have one successful person leading a project, because that’s never the case.”
To find out more about Max Temkin, follow him on Twitter or Tumblr. He’s a an amazing, deep and simplistically complex guy. I know he is an inspiration to many, myself included, if for no other reason than he’s the kind of guy who would rather have everyone look at the bigger picture, instead of just his tiny place inside it.
(Image sourced from Max Temkins blog, Maxistentialism.tumblr.com)