[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."