Telltale Games CEO Dan Connors gave a talk at the 2012 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco last week on digital storefronts and the success that his company has seen working within them. We talked at length afterward about how Telltale fits into the picture, how upcoming 2012 releases The Walking Dead and Fables are coming along, and what lessons the team is carrying with them from Jurassic Park into upcoming projects.

Also on hand and chiming in occasionally was Steve Allison, Telltale’s SVP of marketing. All responses come from Connors unless it’s otherwise noted.

Telltale has built a big business around delivering gaming experiences with episodic narratives. What do you think is the most valuable aspect to taking this approach?

Well I’m gonna mention one thing that I really noticed the value of recently, and it’s not super clear. The development side of me loves the fact that we’re developing a product with the audience engaged. That piece of it makes Telltale products special. I really notice that our fourth and fifth episodes [in a series] tend to be really well reviewed. We hone the craft through the process. That’s what’s shocked me most about [our approach], how important the audience participation in the shaping of the product and the story is.

Let’s talk about The Walking Dead and the audience interaction there. You have Playing Dead, the web series, and you have the forums. Is that representative of a two-tiered approach to fostering this participation? Is there more to it than that?

I think with Playing Dead, we’re really just trying to let people know what our priorities are about this game, and what kind of game it’s gonna be. The game has the undead. There’s a lot of games like that in the world. Most of them you expect to grab some kind of weapon and shoot every single zombie in sight. But it’s a Telltale game, it’s going to be different. We want to let people know: This game’s going to be about the human relationships. This game’s going to be about how you choose to behave with those humans. There’s also going to be some zombie conflict and you’re going to have to take some zombies out, but it’s not going to be you running through the world with a gun, blowing the crap out of everything.

So we really felt like we wanted to get that conversation out there and get people engaged in that conversation. Let the people who think, ‘hey, that sounds cool!’ get engaged with us, and come to our forums and talk about it, or talk about it on YouTube, or go back to different Walking Dead sites and carry the message forward. For us, that’s a big part of the goal with that particular initiative. Our next Playing Dead has Robert [Kirkman] in it. He’s going to be in our third [episode]. And he’s going to come in and let people know, ‘Hey, this is why I picked Telltale to do this. This is why this makes sense for my franchise and this is what we want to build together.’

Playing Dead gets the message out there, but how do you then take that feedback in and address it or respond to it? Does that play out on the forums only?

I think it’s just us being alert to how people respond and what it brings up, and then responding. That’s all it is from now until we’re done. Right now, we’re building out the first episode, which is really going to bring people into the franchise. We need to… introduce the characters and tell you who they are, we need to start developing the relationships, we need to set it up, we need to teach you how we’re going to play. The first episode’s really going to be the setup for the game, the people you’re going to be with, the world and the way in which you’re going to play it. The decisions you make in that first episode and the way that you play it are going to carry on forward into the second, third, fourth, fifth episodes in a new way that’s never been done before. That’s going to add even another element, because our hope is that people are going to start talking about [the different choices they made] and what did that mean for [them].

I’d say it also adds an element of replay value that you wouldn’t often see in this sort of narrative-driven game. Obviously this week Mass Effect 3 came out and there’s this big overarching story that’s been tweaked by player choices from game one to game two to game three; it’s very tailored to a player experience. But I think that sort of example– it’s not unique, but it’s much more rare than the more linear story-driven experience.

What we’ve found in the past couple years is, we can start looking at other examples of people doing this. Take from them and understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. What BioWare’s been able to–from storytelling standpoint–their dialogue system has been really great, the idea that you’re in a world and you’d better choose what to say quickly or it goes away. They’ve revolutionized a lot of things. So we’re looking at them as an inspiration. We’re going to do it in a different way, in a Telltale way, but seeing them succeed is a great thing. Anything that makes storytelling interactive, that’s our ultimate goal. And it’s such a hard problem. You’ve probably seen some of the Internet wars: ‘Games don’t require narrative.’ ‘If they’re narratives, they should be movies.’ It’s just a lot of intellectual noodling, but in my mind it bums me out because it’s like… let’s try. Can’t you imagine being immersed in a story where you’re the main character and the world is aware of you? That just seems like something we should be progressing to. It’s almost a cop-out, it’s almost easier, to figure out new ways to blow shit up. That’s where all the energy [goes]. And then BioWare puts some energy into conversation and keeping stuff relevant through the experience and hanging onto things, and that’s great.

So Jurassic Park tried some different things. I would argue that some of it worked and some of it didn’t. What lessons do you bring from that into The Walking Dead?

Jurassic Park was even radical inside of Telltale. So there was pushback against the idea of limiting player control from people anyway. It was too radical in a lot of ways. That team has been on Walking Dead doing their own thing and at the same time taking the Jurassic Park stuff in after the filter of this is the way people responded to it. The elements of the game that people responded really well to [are now] new tools in our toolbox.

We’re dealing with conflict and we’re dealing with attacks, all kinds of things that require that tool in our toolbox. We need to be able to do an exciting scenario. And I would say that some of JP‘s exciting scenarios are really some of the best execution of QTEs around. Why people consider QTE a bad word is another conversation, but in executing those action sequences, we have a new tool and we can tweak it up so that it’s growing and emerging. At the same time, we’re back to also focusing on exploration, giving the player control over the world, letting the player explore.

Every franchise has its own need. And The Walking Dead needs dread. The Walking Dead needs you to really care about people, and then it needs you to kill those people. That’s what it needs, and that’s what we’re going to deliver. JP needed dinosaurs for you to be shit-scared of and we weren’t gonna do something super puzzle-y in that environment. We wanted to make it something that any fan of the franchise could play, and we simplified a lot of things. But I’m super proud of the game that came out because it’s unique, and because it stands alone for what it is.

There’s a lot of good moments in it. But in order to be that unique and to stand out, our execution needed to be perfect. Since we didn’t hit that, a lot of it broke, and that’s part of the issue with it. At least broke the experience for a percentage of people, a lot of whom write for magazines. [laughs]

Well look, risk-taking is important. Without trying something new, you don’t know what’s going to work, what’s not going to work. It serves to advance the genre, and the medium really, as a whole. Now there’s this notion that’s been talked about in recent weeks, through the whole Double Fine Adventure thing, that adventure games are dead. I don’t think Tim Schafer’s pitch there was necessarily a knock on Telltale, but when you look at Kickstarter, when you look at that response, how does that make you feel about the genre as a whole?

It doesn’t surprise us. It doesn’t surprise us at all. Tim’s caché, the number of people that want to get involved, what he’s offering… it all makes sense. We’ve been around in that scene for a long time, so none of it was a shock for us. I was saying this to someone earlier today. Basically, it stops people from sitting around and complaining about it. The problem is financing. The games aren’t being made because people aren’t investing in them. Through Kickstarter, people are banding together and saying, ‘Well fuck that. We’ll finance it because we love it.’ That’s a good thing! That’s a great thing for a content creator. I don’t have to go to the bank to get the money, I don’t have to go to a publisher to get the money, I don’t have to go to an investor to get the money. The people that want the content will pay for it, and that’s a dream come true. Now, how long it lasts– hey, I’ll put the pressure back on Tim. He’s got to deliver for this to live on. If we want people to democratically fund games that they believe in, that they want to see, Tim needs to succeed and he needs to build a great game. Which he should do. I have all the faith in the world that he will. So it’s great! Kickstarter is amazing. For more than just games.

So around the time that The Walking Dead was announced, there were a few other big IP acquisitions for Telltale, including Fables and King’s Quest. The Walking Dead is obviously a sensation right now, so it’s no surprise that you went there first. I think we’d all like to know what’s happening with the other stuff though….

[Telltale SVP of Marketing Steve Allison chimes in at this point]
SA: Fables is coming after The Walking Dead. We probably won’t show anything from it until E3. It’s definitely looking really sweet and we’re really proud of what’s going on with it. We have got a lot of issues to work through. The final name is one of them. We’re carefully working through it because of some issues with the word “fable” and other people. But we’re working through it and I think we’ve arrived at a solution. So that’ll be part of revealing what the final name is, how we present that and show the product… that’ll all happen at E3. And we’re targeting Q3 [for release].

DC: So it’s going great and we’ve got two teams really cranking, but obviously The Walking Dead is just a tiger by the tail right now. It’s certainly where all of our focus is going. The season starts in the next couple months, hopefully close to the end of the television season so we can catch that jones. (Editor’s note: See the comment at the end of this post for further clarification on the release timing.)

With Fables, is it sort of like The Walking Dead where it’s taking a new story set within that universe?

SA: We don’t like to re-tell stories on any franchise that we’re working on. So you can assume the same is true here. We’re totally excited about it.

Then there’s King’s Quest. Obviously classic Sierra titles have big pull with fans of adventure games. What motivated that IP pick-up? Was it a move to really get back to the roots of where adventure games were born?

I think the LucasArts experience [that we had with Monkey Island] was a good one, so we thought it would be similar. It’s certainly got a lot of hardcore fans. We’re really just trying to get our brains around the stuff that’s currently the focus right now. But I’ve gotta say… for somebody who loves adventure games, Tim’s gonna do a game, Al Lowe is going to be involved in a game. [The genre] doesn’t need us anymore. [laughs]

No need to be humble! We do need Telltale, and more companies doing this sort of narrative-driven gaming in that vein. What’s amazing is that the mobile space and the digital distribution space both really provide that sort of platform for games that aren’t billion dollar moneymakers.

SA: It’s pretty cool too. I think that even pre-dating Schafer’s thing… I think you started to see a lot of games, besides BioWare’s, showing adventure game influences. I’ve gotten to work with those guys before so I know that they have a lot of love for adventure games and that fuels a lot of their storytelling. L.A. Noire was basically an adventure game, with an open city wrapped around it which you could skip. You can actually play it just like an adventure game if you want to. That was super cool for us to see. And Heavy Rain, we were influenced by that with Jurassic Park to a large degree, and that’s an adventure game. 

So we’re always thinking, like, what does an adventure game in 2012 look like? Does it have to look it did in 1998? Or 1988? It probably can. Maybe we push some things too far trying to figure that out. But like Dan said about the tool box, we’ve got to grow it and change it. It’s not just adventure games, it’s Telltale stories. So how do we build a tool kit that’s built for 2012 and 2013 and so on.

So do you ever see a Telltale game surfacing that embraces pure action elements? Obviously not the focus of the game, but uses that sort of dynamic.

I don’t know how far we would take it. I love that you call it a Telltale game, because really our goal is a genre that is a Telltale game. So we don’t have to explain it as this kind of thing or that kind of thing; it’s a Telltale treatment of a license. The way I see it is, every franchise has its need that we need to fulfill. In Walking Dead, you need to really care about stuff and then you need to kill it. When we sit down and start writing the story, the story should say, ‘in this moment, I’m doing X.’ And Telltale should say, ‘to make X interactive, this is what we’re gonna do.’ It should be a puzzle, or it should be an action sequence, or it should be a dialogue tree, or a timed dialogue, which is something that we’re really experimenting with right now. This is going to create the emotion that we want. This is going to let the player impact the world, and it’s going to make sense inside the story.
Keep it engaging.

I want people to finish our games and say ‘I want to get more. I was thoroughly engrossed in the storyline.’ The problem we’ve always had with puzzles, when you design a puzzle for the sake of a puzzle, is the storyline stops and the puzzle starts. It’s a real art form to design a puzzle that has you doing this complicated puzzle while [advancing the story]. The sitting down and saying ‘here’s the gameplay situation that this story calls for,’ that’s the way we want to look at it. And we want a tool box that says this is a timed dialogue, this is a puzzle, this is a Puzzle Agent-style puzzle, this is an action sequence. You’re stepping through and it all works inside the story and the franchise.

One brief follow-up note to share with you all. After the interview concluded and my recorder was turned off, I talked a little more with Connors and Allison about The Walking Dead. It was made clear to me that the game really is weeks away at this point, rather than months, as Connors is quoted as saying above. I shot him a follow-up e-mail over the weekend for an on-the-record clarification.

Connors replied that The Walking Dead will likely be submitted to Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network for certification this week. The process from there takes roughly six weeks “for approval and placement in the store, but until they say it is approved and give us a slotting date we can’t say exactly when [the game will be released].” In other words, The Walking Dead is coming sooner than you probably thought it was.