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Exploring Telltale Games’ master plan to evolve modern storytelling

I first sat and chatted with Telltale Games’ CEO Dan Connors at the 2012 Game Developer’s Conference, just weeks before the studio released the first episode of The Walking Dead. We met up on the last day of the show and had a leisurely chat after his GDC talk, which focused on the then-rising trend of digital distribution models. Telltale had seen recent success with Back to the Future, but none of us knew for sure at that point how the studio’s coming comic book adaptation would rock the foundation of interactive storytelling.

Dan Connors, Telltale Games CEO

Dan Connors, Telltale Games CEO

We met up again in 2013. Connors and his team at Telltale were fresh off the year-end accolades that The Walking Dead garnered at the end of 2012. The Wolf Among Us had just been announced, and the excitement was palpable as Connors and I discussed the state of the union at Telltale. The San Rafael-based studio had fully established its formula for interactive storytelling, and now it was time to grow.

Arranging a third GDC sitdown with Connors proved to be challenging. With two ongoing series in active development plus a third - Tales from the Borderlands – due to arrive in the coming months and a more distant fourth, based on Game of Thrones, it’s busy times for Telltale Games. The best time for us to chat in the midst of the ongoing crunch turned out to be studio’s GDC party, which happened to also  coincide with the studio’s 10th year in business. And so it came to pass that Connors and I sat in the balcony looking out over San Francisco’s crowded Temple Nightclub as we chatted about where the company’s been and where it’s headed from here.

One of the key points I walked away from our chat last year with was, you see Telltale as taking a TV network-style approach of seasonal programming. I feel like we’re now starting to see that bear out.

I think so. I think we’ve done a lot of really figuring out what the template should be and how to replicate what we did on The Walking Dead. What it is that resonated with people and what they liked. Now, taking other franchises and being able to interpret those franchises in that way allows us to keep it alive and fresh and new. It really gives us a place where we can tell a great story in a different way, but it still feels like a Telltale game. 

I think that’s the biggest thing [The Wolf Among Us] has done for us. We’ve created this thing that feels different but similar at the same time. Being able to replicate that and bring the personality of each franchise we work on into the experience is, I think, another important breakthrough … to keep pushing us forward.

It probably helps too that you’re drawing from richly realized fictional universes for these games. Even in something like Borderlands, where the story and setting exist in service to the gameplay. You look at those two Gearbox games and they’re a lot of fun. Obviously nothing like The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us, but there’s a very humorous, richly realized universe once you look beyond the billions of guns and tons of aliens that you shoot in the face–

It’s interesting, Borderlands versus Game of Thrones. Borderlands has an idea, a concept, where they really cared about the world and made it something that they had a lot of freedom to just create a lot of wild ideas, yet it’s still very coherent. While [those characters and places] don’t need to be as fleshed out for that gameplay to work, [it also] gives us the whole world to play in. We can add back story. We can make Vault Hunters. We can tell how somebody became a Vault Hunter. We can talk about what a Vault Hunter is. We can talk about what the world is like, what Pandora is like. That’s what Borderlands gives us.

Tales-from-the-Borderlands

Whereas Game of Thrones gives us this very fleshed out story where we can get in and say, ‘What a great concept, let’s dive deeper into that. Let’s expose that more to players.’ We’re having a super time with both of them, but they both offer different things.

In terms of scale, I know that the way your episodic teams work, there are a few fixed leads and then a more flexible support staff that jumps around between projects. Does adding two more series’ put any strain on that approach? Has Telltale grown significantly to account for it?

I think we’re growing, and I think we’re growing in a place now where people recognize Telltale. There’s people that want to make great games, there’s people that want to tell great stories, and there’s people that want to understand how story and interactivity work together, and what that means for the future. Telltale provides those opportunities for someone who is working at another storytelling company like Pixar or Lucasfilm. People who are looking for an avenue to get out and tell great stories.

“You have to read your low reviews, you have to read your high reviews, and you have to take them both with a grain of salt.”

We have always believed in the talent at our company and loved the effort that everybody put in, but now there’s real experienced creative talents that are interested in understanding how we can tell stories like these. Being able to add the cinematic experience [of someone] that has actually made a movie and people that have actually written television shows into our process, it’s really improved everybody’s game and allowed us to be a beacon for everybody that wants to keep doing this.

The game industry in general, there’s just not a lot of game development where the game is [purely] an entertainment experience. Everyone kind of jumps ship to casual games or free-to-play. If I’m a writer in Hollywood or a creator [who is] trying to figure out how interactivity and non-interactive content merge, and how you become part of the future, Telltale offers an opportunity. So we’re able to find places to add these people and grow all of our skills as storytellers.

What I wonder is, as the team grows, is there a risk posed by injecting all of these new perspectives into your existing framework. It’s great to have more talent, and more diverse talent, on the team, but at the same time there’s a very, very specific Telltale voice. It evolved with Back to the Future into Jurassic Park into The Walking Dead, which I think realized that voice and is obviously something you’re running with now in a very effective way.

As the team grows to account for now four different series’ and who knows how many more to come, is there a risk of diluting that voice at all with these different perspectives?

The-Wolf-Among-Us-Episode-1-screenshot-4

Diluting is an interesting word; enriching is another word. More talent is more talent. The important thing is, what are you talking about when you’re working on the problems? What problems are you trying to solve? I think any Telltale episode that comes out and is engaging is [a product of staying] focused on working it until it feels right. We’re going to focus on the issues that are breaking down from a story perspective, we’re going to focus on the issues that are breaking down from an interactivity perspective, until it all works together. That’s what we care about. 

At Telltale, we’re talking about beats, we’re talking about consequence, we’re talking about player agency, and we’re just spending hours and hours and hours on it. And we get there, and it comes out. If we mailed it in and we didn’t get there, you would know. But because we’re passionate about that part of it, that’s where our energy goes, [regardless of] whoever comes in the room.

I’d rather have the freshest, most brilliant guy in the world come in from Hollywood and say ‘I’m the greatest storyteller there ever was, put me into your process,’ and then we just kick the hell out of all of his ideas to make it interactive. That would be the ultimate, to just parade that brainpower into the room and then say “Well if you go that way, she’s gotta go that way. What does that mean for Kenny? Well, Kenny’s a complex person, he would feel this way about it or that way about it. But why?” We’d just keep digging and digging until we covered enough that the character is rich. It’s less diluted and more additive.

Telltale Games logoNo one’s perfect, everyone’s got room for improvement, but when The Walking Dead gets the accolades that it has, when you see near-unanimous positivity for just about every episode you’ve released, does it get hard to reality check yourselves and look at where you need to improve?

Well no, because we’re hyper-critical. I think the reason we get to the place that we get is because internally, people aren’t satisfied and they push [to be better]. It’s just part of the process.

We demand the best out of ourselves always, and when people offer up [criticism] like, ‘Hey, you haven’t thought about this,’ that’s a good thing. We’re in episodic development, fans tell us “You didn’t think about these 10 things,” and that goes on a list on Telltale’s board. It’s about [figuring out] how to make yourself better based on the feedback. When you close down and don’t accept feedback … then you lose something.

That’s my point though. Honestly, I haven’t explored the forums and fan pages deeply, and I’m sure you’re seeing feedback that I definitely haven’t, but I feel like the critical feedback is glowing.

I’ve read some 6 out of 10s. I make a point of reading them. It’s a solid 80-90 product [on Metacritic], but … there are people that get upset because an episode does something that they don’t like to a character. “I hate the way the story went, because Bigby would never act that way.” Whatever their criticism might be. “I had a preconceived notion of what The Wolf Among Us was and you took the story in a different direction, and I fucking hate you.” That happens. Reviewers are individuals, as you know. That’s cool. We read that, we know that. And I’m not saying that’s the only criticism about our stuff. People say different things, and we take it to heart and we work on it.

“We want to make characters that you’d rather talk to than shoot.”

You have to read your low reviews, you have to read your high reviews, and you have to take them both with a grain of salt, because they’re all part of the process of keeping the thing that is Telltale going. That’s what I need to think about: Telltale above all else, and what makes a Telltale experience feel like a Telltale experience.

How are you thinking about the new platforms, now that they’re here? You have established roots on older consoles. I think the sensible choice, if not this year then the year after, is to spread your content to the hardware people are playing on. How do you account for those running stories … and letting people carry those experiences into the future?

Whenever I think of the future, I just think “tip of the iceberg.” Everything that comes online offers a new opportunity, whether it’s in the way people experience it from a connected perspective, or in the way that content might refresh based on how people come back to it, or in the way that people are able to experience [content] on multiple devices. There’s just so much opportunity to put a product out that takes advantage of the device that people are playing on.

This is a new world. In the old days, a new console came out and all the games from the old console went bye bye. You need to commit to the new console [as a developer] or there’s no place to sell your games. Now with digital distribution, Xbox Live Arcade is just as valid now as it was before Xbox One launched. Same with the PlayStation Network versus PlayStation 4.

Game of Thrones Telltale

I think we’ll get in and work with those guys on figuring out what they’re bringing to the table that’s special and unique, and how it helps our storytelling, how it brings value to our episodic experience. We’ll work with them to get the best thing we can out of it. For us, it’s still going to be about the story and about getting people invested in the characters that they play.

I also mean a problem as simple and as function-focused as, ‘I played The Walking Dead: Season One and Season Two on my Xbox 360. A hypothetical Season Three comes out on Xbox One, so where does that leave my story?’

I think that’s all going to be manageable. We’ve got the cloud now! [laughs]

How big does it get? You’ve got four series’ now. You’ve definitely got a strong foundation to carry you forward and constantly have a story being told throughout the year. Do you add more at that point? How do you think about expanding or even just moving on to something else?

Sam and MaxWell we’ve got Borderlands and Game of Thrones coming out, and both of those are going to be fresh. So second and third seasons – really, The Walking Dead is the first second season we’ve done since Sam & Max. Which is great, because we always wanted to be in that place, where people were engaged in it so we kept it going. Let’s have Season Five feel like Cheers. ‘Oh, Norm’s back! Oh, Lee’s back!’ Well, Lee won’t be back. But whatever it is, characters that you’ve followed over time. The idea of doing multiple seasons of specific franchises is super-compelling, and we’re positioned to do that.

The idea of bringing in something new, like Game of Thrones, is [also] super-compelling. And continuing to just talk to the best storytellers out there about what Telltale could provide, figuring out how to bring brainpower together to … change entertainment. How we can add interactivity into everyday entertainment, I think that’s the ultimate goal. What we do it with and how we do it… I think if we do a good Game of Thrones game, we’re that much closer.

Every time we execute on something that says, ‘Hey, you can make the user part of the creation of your story, and you can educate yourself [the creator] based on how the user feels about your story, you can [then use that insight to] make something bigger and better.’ That’s of interest to everybody who tells stories. We’re just going to keep pushing as hard as we can, make the best decisions we can, and get the best people involved to create something that’s new and different and special.

I was thinking today about The Walking Dead: Season Two. Have you played Episode 2 or no?

No, I have not. I have it on my computer–

You’re ruining my story. [laughs] I was about to talk about the pinnacle of my life in game development, but I can’t because it would be a spoiler. You might know it when you play it.

 The Walking Dead - Season 2 - Episode 1 screenshot 2

There’s a moment about three-quarters of the way into [the second episode] where you choose to do something on the controller that is the exact opposite of shooting. You want to show love to an NPC on such a level that you’re pressing the button aggressively to do that. To have accomplished that in the gaming space and show people that it’s possible is something that I’m super [proud of]. We want to make characters that you’d rather talk to than shoot. I think we’ve got characters that you’re happy to see, that you want to be with. I think that’s a huge accomplishment, and it makes me so proud. I think we can do more of that.

I hope I didn’t spoil you.

Nope! Turning to what’s ahead, how do you approach something like Game of Thrones? I know you’ve got the TV series rights. They’re telling this really elaborate story that’s based on the books. So how do you look at that and work Telltale into it without changing anything fundamentally?

I think the show provides a timeline, but the world is huge. You’re talking about the politics of an entire– it’s like Europe and some other continent. There’s so much going on and it’s so rich. Every decision that King Joffrey makes impacts so many people. Any microcosm in that world [looking at how] people are affected by the decisions that are made plays out across the whole thing.

The show does a great job of interpreting George R.R. Martin’s work, and his work provides a huge dictionary of knowledge about what the franchise is. It’s really a dream to sit down and say, ‘What’s our space in this world? Where are we in this world?’ And the world offers you so much to explore.

So this is a concurrent story. It’s not a prequel or something?

It’s not a prequel, no. That might be the most information anyone has.