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Telltale's Connors: Licensing Isn't Dead - Nowhere Close
Telltale's Connors: Licensing Isn't Dead - Nowhere Close
April 19, 2011 | By Chris Morris

[Gamasutra editor-at-large Chris Morris talks to Telltale's CEO Dan Connors about the addition of the Law & Order series to the company's game catalog, and how licensed content is helping Telltale grow rapidly.]

While other video game CEOs are running away from licensed content these days, Dan Connors is rushing towards it.

Instead of pursuing original content to grow Telltale Games, the company is relying on the universes created by some of Hollywood's biggest companies. But instead of eking by with a portfolio of shovelware, Telltale is growing and gaining critical praise.

The company's most recent addition to its catalog is Law & Order: Los Angeles, an episodic series based on the NBC crime drama, due this fall. Telltale plans to release the game on PC, Mac, consoles, tablets and mobile devices.

Like the show, the game will have a dual focus: crime solving (consisting of interrogation and criminal investigations) and courtroom drama.

"We've always been interested in Law & Order because we like the idea of investigations and we like the idea of doing something legal, like the Phoenix Wright games," says Connors, co-founder and CEO of Telltale. "It's a great franchise for the type of games we like to do."

Law & Order is owned by Universal, so the fit with Telltale was a natural one. The two companies are already working together on a five-part episodic game based on Back to the Future. And an episodic Jurassic Park series will launch soon on PC and Mac (with console versions coming this fall).

Telltale's loyalty to the licensed content model is an increasingly rare one especially in the film and television field. Ben Feder, then-CEO at Take-Two Interactive Software, turned heads last June when he announced that "licensing content is dead" at the Digital Hollywood conference.

Connors disagrees and has the numbers to back his opinion. In 2010, Telltale generated revenues of $10 million a 90 percent increase from the year before. And it's expecting to repeat that feat this year.

"Our expertise is franchises," says Connors. "On the one side you're hearing all this talk about licensing not being viable anymore [in the game industry] and it can't succeed. In our mind, of course they can succeed. There's a big audience that's interested in this content. You just have to build it right for them."

The company just brought its 100th employee on board recently and is still actively hiring. And it plans to continue leveraging film and television properties to extend that growth.

"Right now, we're looking at movies that are coming out in the next 12-18 months and looking at the cartoon series as far as what we're going to [do next]," says Connors. "We capture comedy in such a way that the South Parks, Simpsons and Family Guys of the world seem perfect for us. That's something we're always thinking about [though no deals have been struck]."

For Telltale, using existing franchises lets the company not have to worry about building a brand for its games. And if Telltale correctly ties together the brands it works with, says Connors, that helps it expand through cross-marketing.

"Original content from a gaming perspective is pretty romantic, but it's pretty difficult," he says. "Franchises have always been a part of our strategy. We want to create great interactive stories and we think there's a wealth of great stories that exist in the [film and television] worlds that need interactive stories - and we can supply that. As far as being able to establish a brand, every time we connect to a franchise, we're associating ourselves with something that has a lot of fans and we can reach out and introduce ourselves to them and let them know we do other things."

While Telltale has only worked with Universal in the film world so far, the company already has a foot in the door at Warner Bros., thanks to its in the works episodic series tied to the DC comic Fables. And AMC will certainly be watching reaction to the upcoming gaming tie-in with The Walking Dead (based on the comic, rather than the network's show).

First up, though, is Law & Order: LA. Telltale's not talking details, but the developer has signed a multiyear deal for the gaming rights including those on Facebook.

Unlike other Telltale games that have an arching theme over the episodes, the L&O:LA game will be more self-contained. The game will feature the show's main characters, but it's still being determined if you will play as those or as a colleague of them.

Also undetermined right now is whether any of the show's talent, which includes Alfred Molina and Terrence Howard, will provide voice work for the game.

A bigger question, though, is what happens if the show, which is very much on the bubble right now, is cancelled?

"That's something we need to think about, but the Law & Order brand is certainly a strong one," says Connors. "We think being able to work on the formula they have established over the years and have the same story telling sensibility there are a lot of people who love that formula and love the shows and that should help the game."

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Tim Carter
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This is what happens when you take your focus off making good games, and put it onto making a game company. In order to keep the company afloat you need to crank out sausages - such as licencing deals, sequels, etc.

This is, yet again, another reason for project-based, free-agent-driven game development. Because in a project-based paradigm you can wrap up the production once the project ends, your burn rate is minimal, and you can focus on doing really good games and taking your time. Otherwise, you're just forced to get whatever projects you can get, as fast as possible, in order to feed all your hungry mouths.

Megan Fox
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The free-agent driven model results in a lot of unemployed people who can't settle down to any degree because who knows where they'll be when the current project ends. It fractures teams. It isn't a grand scheme, and not even Hollywood-people necessarily like it that horribly much. Why import it? Why not just adopt a core talent / outsourced model, and maintain your teams that way (in two halves - dedicated outsourcing teams that work well together for production ramp-up, dedicated core talent teams for the work prior to that)?

More to the point, what's wrong with licensed titles? Yeah, so what, it's CSI - people enjoy it, and if the game is good, it's a good backdrop for an interactive crime drama. And never even mind Back to the Future - can you honestly tell me that the thought of running around with Emmett Brown and solving puzzles through time doesn't tickle even the tiniest pleasant thought from you?

The problem with licensed titles isn't that they're licensed titles, it's that traditionally they've been terrible games. Many licensed titles were great - Wolverine, for instance, or Spiderman 2, or Duck Tales if you want to go way back. So long as TellTale continues to make solid games, I can't imagine what it matters if they're licensed... I mean even the game that brought them into the limelight, Sam and Max, was based on a pre-existing franchise.

Tim Carter
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That's funny. Woody Allen has worked with the same core group (producers, publicists, etc) for several decades now - in a free-agent-driven model. How is that fracturing a team?

If a team *wants* to stay together, it will of its own accord; and it can in a free-agent paradigm. If, however, you need an employment contract and some producer telling them to show up at the office every day from 10 to 6 or whatever, well that's not relying on what people *want* to do, but rather what they are obliged to do - much like the way you treat factory workers.

If anything, the current model - layoffs after every game - fractures teams. In a free-agent model, the teams stay together, but in a modular manner. They are separate from the core creators and move from project to project. (In film, they *gasp* have healthcare, and earn either residuals or buyout fees - on top of a hefty hourly rate - because they're unionized. Plus they can take time off between projects as they wish.)

The other thing about teams is that they are a necessary evil. They are necessary because of the complexity of the tech and the process, but they aren't optimal. Frank Capra said he knew of no great work of art produced by group consensus. He acknowledged there was collaboration, but also believed there needed to be a captain. Throughout the vast breadth of history, our best art has been produced by individuals. Teams are great - but a team, like a tribe, can devour the individual; can suppress the deepest well of creativity in the interest of meeting the lowest common denominator.

Anyway, the licence route is basically the games-as-merchandise route. It keeps your company in the black, but since you have high overhead in this model, you are always pressed for time, and don't have the breathing space to really dream up a new game at your own pace.