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How Telltale Games brought adventure gaming back from the dead (with zombies)

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In the time between the Game Developer’s Conferences of 2012 and 2013, Telltale Games enjoyed a pretty dynamite year. Episode one of The Walking Dead was still weeks from release when I sat down to chat with Telltale CEO Dan Connors at the tail end of last year’s GDC. He had just finished a talk discussing the growing importance of digital distribution models, and the success his studio’s award-winning episodic adventure based on The Walking Dead comics certainly bore those words out.

Dan Connors

Dan Connors

When Connor and I last chatted, the tone was one of quiet anticipation. Back to the Future had been a success, but Jurassic Park – the developer’s most dramatic step away from its past games, mechanically speaking – failed to resonate. The Walking Dead was still something of a gamble, but one that Connors obviously had a lot of faith in. Fans knew that Telltale could deliver on the story side, but would the actual play, the promise of making your choices matter, really work? The game’s success answered that question.

Now in 2013, we’re looking at a different Telltale, an evolved Telltale. The Walking Dead is confirmed for a second season, Fables: The Wolf Among Us is freshly announced, and while game development is never a sure thing, Telltale merely has to build on the success formula that grew out of 2012′s episodic adventure. The big change now is that Connors is thinking bigger. The Walking Dead proved something, but the view internally at the studio is that it’s a beginning rather than a peak. One year after our GDC 2012 chat, Connors and I sat down again to look at where things have gone since our last chat and where fans can look to in the months and years ahead.

When we last talked, The Walking Dead wasn’t out yet and it was still a big question mark. Sooooo… how are you feeling these days?

walking-dead-update-game-of-the-year-300x300Well, it’s really great! It’s been a great year and The Walking Dead has really been able to show the validity of everything we’ve been talking about for years. The size of the franchise and the timing of it and the narrative gameplay structure that we were able to put together really all came together and worked. So I feel good about that, especially when it translates into Game of the Year and recognition like that. We’re always striving for it, but we never expect it. It’s great.

When we talked last year it was right after your talk about changing business models and the importance of digital distribution. Being here now at GDC again one year later, how do you feel the conversation has changed in the context of your talk?

“We’re getting bigger. We’ve got more people, we’ve got new offices, and we’re just trying to keep the amount of intensity that’s required to do this episodic production.”

Well I think it’s amazing at GDC just to see the different companies that have grown and taken over larger positions, and some of the smaller positions of other companies. I think it all speaks to the transition in the business right now to digital and to mobile. At the same time, there’s still a great opportunity in the core space to deliver high end entertainment for people. I think that part of the business still has to really find its way during the transition. The new approaches are really getting a lot of traction [but] the transitional approaches are struggling. I think Telltale is an example of… an approach that works during the transitional phase. We’ll see. It’s hard to change what you do to work in a new business model without giving up what you do well. It’s easier to start from scratch than transition.

It’s tough, because I feel like consoles tend to lead the way in terms of what people look to as mainstream interactive entertainment. We’re in a space right now where we’ve just had a console announcement and we definitely have another one coming, probably in a few weeks. Even with the one we know about, there are lots of unanswered questions. Even here at GDC, we have Sony talking about an indie-filled future. Models are changing.

I think Apple has shown that if you enable democratic content creation, you’re going to generate a lot of content on your platform. That’s what your platform needs to stand out.

You’re absolutely right. A lot of the education at this point has come from Apple’s more open approach. Has it been easier to find acceptance for The Walking Dead on mobile platforms versus consoles? What would you say your lead is, platform-wise?

It’s been pretty even amongst all the platforms. I think one of the biggest things about The Walking Dead is that it’s an award-winning phone game at the same time that it’s an award-winning console game. When it succeeds on the phone and the tablet, it feels like it’s a different audience. It feels like people who are watching the show are more likely to be there. If the show is happening and something big is happening [there], we see it [reflected in sales] on the tablet and the phone. If we’re doing a big push… talking to gamers, we see movement on PC/Steam and PlayStation. Microsoft is a little bit of a blend of them both. [Xbox 360] will respond to mainstream activities as well [as a push toward the core audience]. Right now, the phone is still one of our most robust channels. I think that’s because more and more new people are getting introduced to it. Whereas the core audience has already chosen that they like it and want to get involved in it.

Walking Dead With all of the accolades that have come to The Walking Dead since the end of last year, do you get the sense that a lot of the continuing business that you’re doing is coming from people who have heard about the great success of the game narratively? Or is it more from the success of the franchise as a whole?

I think it’s the relationship of both. Being Game of the Year has kept it alive in a lot of ways and brought a lot of people to check it out who might have dismissed it as something that they wouldn’t enjoy because they might have mapped it to a type of game that they weren’t into. But so many gamers came out and said, ‘Hey, this is a really cool experience’ and recognizing that has kept reintroducing it. I also think that the success of the franchise as a whole has given us so many opportunities to talk about The Walking Dead and keep it at the top of [people's] minds. They really help each other.

How has Telltale grown and evolved over the past year?

“I think The Walking Dead really separates us from the past.”

We’re getting bigger. We’ve got more people, we’ve got new offices, and we’re just trying to keep the amount of intensity that’s required to do this episodic production. It’s pretty intense. [Releasing] something like The Walking Dead, you tend to kind of breathe out for a bit. Now we’ve got to get it back together and start getting stuff into the marketplace again. That’s always been how Telltale has functioned. Get product out on a regular basis, over and over again. We’ve always wanted to build that television studio model for games. We’ve just got to get people back into the mindset of doing that, along with integrating a bunch of new people and getting them to understand how to do things.

Are the studio’s efforts now divided? For example, are there separate Walking Dead and Fables teams?

Back to the Future

People work on different projects, but we try to make it so people can work on different things. The episodic unit makes it such that you could work on one episode of one and another episode of another, cross-pollinate and things like that. Because of that, we’re able to mix things up for people and not necessarily have to dedicate people to any one franchise. Though there are individuals that are on some projects from start to finish as leadership. Others can kind of move around a little bit.

Like Sean Vanaman, right? He’s pretty well-recognized as a Walking Dead guy now.

Sean is really helping to build out our writers group, and to instill some of the Telltale values and the Telltale writing techniques to new people as they come on so that every game can do the things that we did on The Walking Dead more effectively. So we have Sean really doing that and being part of a leadership in quality control for everything we’re working on.

Last year when we talked one thing that you really zeroed in is that Telltale games aren’t so much adventure games as they are Telltale games. They have their own identity. I feel like that identity has evolved with The Walking Dead. Would you agree with that?

Jurassic Park

Yeah, I think The Walking Dead really separates us from the past. Whereas I think previous games were trying to do it, but weren’t different enough [to] see that this is its own thing. I think we tried pretty aggressively with [Jurassic Park] to break the mold in many ways. In some ways that didn’t resonate with people, but a lot of what did work in JP is a lot of what became The Walking Dead. That kind of transitionary period of Back to the Future, JP, and The Walking Dead I think is where we really found the unique Telltale voice. Where I think Monkey Island had its roots, its deep roots, in the types of LucasArts games that kept Telltale as the ‘little LucasArts’ that I think people used to call us. Even though it did great things with storytelling in cliffhangers and emotion and characters that you could love and care about, it didn’t have the play experience that made it stand out from what came before – versus The Walking Dead, which I think did.

Now does that give you pause? When you look at Monkey Island, which is a very interesting case where you’re working with a familiar IP in the realm of gaming. It’s not a comic book or a TV series, it’s a classic game. The news came out a few years ago that you had the license for King’s Quest. Do you re-think how you approach that or whether or not you do something like that when it sort of represents… a step away from the Telltale voice?

I think there’s an expectation that comes with the classic stuff that puts us in kind of a no-win position where we’re going to disappoint on some level if we don’t stay true to the roots there. Right now we’re in a place where we’re really pushing in a new direction. I think there’s a possibility to be back in that space and modernize some of the older franchises still, but right now our focus is certainly The Walking Dead and Fables: The Wolf Among Us. They’re taking up a lot of our mental bandwidth. What we do next is still something we’re working on, but I think we’re going to have some very cool, future-looking announcements. I think ‘modern’ is kind of the key word. Bringing stuff forward from the past, that’s not a huge focus for us right now.

Fables The Wolf Among Us

Let’s talk about Fables. It’s announced now! That’s great! It’s a prequel story; is it canon?

Like everything we do, we’re going to work really closely with [Fables creator Bill Willingham] to get it right. We’re not going to just do random stuff that never would have happened in the world. I think we’ve got a really good relationship with DC Comics and Bill in a way that everyone’s going to be comfortable when we come out that the story is going to be right there and canon and everything else.

The relationship on Fables came about before The Walking Dead came out.. What was Willingham’s his attitude toward Telltale before The Walking Dead? Has he played it? How excited is he about working with Telltale, separate from that or in relation to it?

Bill Willingham

Bill Willingham

I don’t think he’s played The Walking Dead at all, but he’s always been interested in working with us and the storytelling [that we do]. Whenever we work with a creative and they realize that this isn’t a game that is going to try to morph their story into something it isn’t, but is a game that is going to expound on their story and give people a new way to interact with it, it gets them super-excited. Because now it’s a story-telling vehicle. They’re all storytellers, so you start talking about their characters and their world, and you treat it with respect, and the fountain just opens. They get into it and it becomes cooperative. That’s when it’s at its best. So whenever we’ve been able to get Bill on the phone, when he hasn’t been too busy, we’ve had great conversations.

He’s given us really good guidance about what runs through character’s heads and what we can do and what just doesn’t work. That’s been great. Then we were up at FableCon last week and he got to see some of the work for the first time. He was very excited about it. I don’t think he’s played The Walking Dead, but I think he sees The Walking Dead on that New York Times bestseller list every month that he’s on as well. Hopefully we can do the same thing for Fables that we did with The Walking Dead.

Fables_werewolves_r1_0So what’s the creative process with him as compared to your work with The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman?

It’s similar. Once you build trust – they’re into their own thing. They’re not game people, you know? They don’t want to control it, they want to trust you to do your job. Once you make some decisions together and they see the things that you’re thinking about, generally they let you run from there. What you want to do is be able to make the decisions that make the game better. I think they’re both smart enough to know that if they can point us in the right direction on the story side, they should leave the game decisions to us and let us figure out how to make it work. Once the trust is there, you’re in a good place.

Getting back to Robert, how has his response been to The Walking Dead now that it’s done? I’m sure that he saw the end of it long before we did, but now you can talk about it!

“…that’s the goal; to get the production rolling into such a place that we’re running the shows, or the series’, in a way that we have a spring show, a fall show, a summer show, and it all works out.”

I think Robert is really happy with it so far. The fact that it caught the voice as well as it did and interpreted it in a new way that gave more breadth to the franchise, I think that’s exciting for him. He signed up for another season, so it’s been really good. It’s the same sort of thing where he gives us the guidance that we need and then he trusts our judgment to deliver. There’s a good back and forth. Skybound [Kirkman's publishing imprint] is doing really well too, and they’re getting their legs and they’re becoming a real entity in entertainment. So it’s good to be there at this place in time with them to see them become a real growing thing in Hollywood. It’s just been a great ride; Robert’s been great and supportive and helped us in a lot of different ways since we started. It’s cool because you can tell he’s a creative who comes from the same place, and it’s definitely appreciated.

Is Kirkman a gamer?

Yeah, he plays games. He’s a gamer. I don’t know that he’s a hardcore gamer because I know he’s really busy. But he definitely knows games. It’s not something that’s foreign to him. He knew why Telltale appealed to him. When we told him what we wanted to do with  he said, ‘Yeah, this is what I want to do with the franchise. This is the right gaming solution for the franchise.’ So he had enough vision to know… that our approach was the right one. He really stuck by it once he was in.

WalkingDeadWill Fables slow down the release of The Walking Dead: Season Two?

We don’t really think about it like that. We should, but we don’t. Fables is taking what it’s taking to get done and be at the quality level that it needs to be. We’re not going to short-change it. But we’ve also grown to be a studio that can get this regular schedule out. I think Telltale as a business is going to be in a really healthy place when it has a new episode every month. We haven’t gotten there yet, but once we do that, then we’ve basically evolved into the thing that we always wanted to be. Right now, that’s the goal; to get the production rolling into such a place that we’re running the shows, or the series’, in a way that we have a spring show, a fall show, a summer show, and it all works out. This year is probably going to be some growing pains, so some projects are going to slip while others get their bearings, but I think it’ll stabilize in the next 12 or so months. We should be there by the beginning of next year.

Did you learn anything from The Walking Dead that you’ll now want to carry into Fables? Obviously every project is a learning process but the game was such a massive success. Was there anything specific coming out of it where you thought you could have done things better that you’re now going to bring forward?

Fables

At the core of Telltale, iteration is in our DNA. Just even from episode one [onward] is that process of ‘This worked. This didn’t work. Let’s do more of this. Let’s do less of this. What if we did this?’ Building the tools and technology in such a way, that’s what we do well. It ensures that we’re always going to take what we learned and incorporate it into the next series, push in some areas to try some new things, really, as the license demands, and wrap that all into the next series and the next series. Iteration and improvement is how we got to The Walking Dead.

We certainly don’t see ourselves as sitting around and resting on our laurels, trying to repeat what’s already been done. We more feel like we found something that works, but it’s just the beginning. How does Fables have a gameplay experience that is similar to what worked in The Walking Dead? How are Bigby and Lee alike? How are Bigby and Lee different? How do you put them in situations that challenge the player? Those are different challenges on the two products, but we’re using some of the same techniques and we’re using some new techniques as well.

That’s a great attitude to have.

Thank you. We’re always going to go for it. Sometimes we do stuff where people say [derisively] ‘What the hell was that?’ and sometimes we do stuff where people say [excitedly] ‘What the hell was that?!’ Our mission is always the same and we’re always just plowing forward. That’s always going to be our attitude because it just keeps getting better and better. Even a step back leads to something better.


the-walking-dead-screenshot-2

You certainly have some outstanding momentum to build on.

Oh yeah, we’re in a good position. The infrastructure that we’ve built and the platforms that we support. Being in a position where we’re coming to a console transition and we’re going to be able to be on the new consoles, but also support the digital channels on the other consoles, and support the emerging platforms of the tablet and the phone, all simultaneously- I’ve never been in this place before. It’s always been [a situation where] you need to abandon the old stuff and go all into the new stuff. Because the innovation that we’re going to take advantage of is going to be about connected consumers and digital storefronts and all of these new things that they’re building into PS4 and Durango, we’re going to be able to really create great, unique experiences on the new devices but still support the existing devices as well. I feel like that’s a really good opportunity for us, to just manage the transition in a healthy and effective way instead of making it a death-defying feat.

As soon as you step beyond the established consoles, it gets so murky, I mean, look at Ouya. It’s a mobile platform delivered as a console, with yearly, cost-effective hardware updates planned. The idea of the “console race” feels like it’s over, or if not over then at least operating on a much broader playing field than we’ve ever seen before.

TelltaleGamesLOGO

It goes back to what you said earlier about enabling the content creators to come out and develop stuff that is unique for the platform. That brings out the strengths. Give the content creators an opportunity to create something for your platform that takes advantage of it and makes it sing. Ouya’s going to need a killer app. Everything needs a killer app for people to adopt. The fact that there’s so many people right now, and smaller groups tinkering on things, is going to bring experiences that are going to help be the rock on which this next generation of hardware can define itself and win the space.

[The reason] Apple is so successful with these devices, as entertainment devices and selling software… the software drives the hardware drives the software drives the hardware. So we’ll see what that looks like on the other platforms. And we’ll see what that looks like as far as cable television is concerned and on-demand media.

Absolutely. I was on the show floor this morning meeting with NVIDIA about their GRID initiative and it’s basically cloud streaming. But they’re talking to cable providers about pipelining streaming games content through their existing infrastructures. So why not give it to those providers? They already give us movies and music and TV. So why not give us games too?

Our interest is when those things live together, live next to each other, how does interactive weave into non-interactive and how do they service each other? How do people experience it? That is a really exciting prospect for us a storytellers. If you can tie the two together, where I just completed the episode and my behavior in that episode is somehow reflected back in my show experience. Or what I just watched in my show experience is somehow reflected back in my game experience. It’s funny, because content defines it. Content determines what gets realized, and demand for content is the question. You never know what customers are going to want so you don’t know how much to invest in things that are new. So really, being able to navigate that over the next few years is going to be the skillset required to define this stuff.