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Telltale CEO Connors On Bringing Episodic To Consoles

Telltale CEO Connors On Bringing Episodic To Consoles Exclusive

May 8, 2009 | By Chris Remo

Earlier this week, Telltale Games co-founder and CEO Dan Connors spoke to Gamasutra about the studio's history and what makes episodic gaming work. In the second part of that interview, he discusses bringing episodic games to the various console download services.

While the company tends to develop its titles for PC first, Telltale has so far also released its Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People series on WiiWare, and has announced both Sam & Max and Wallace & Gromit for Xbox Live Arcade.

Here, Connors describes the mentality required to make multiplatform episodic adventure games, the education required for the console manufacturers, and why adventure games, rather than being on the decline, are the mass market genre of the future.

You guys have games on WiiWare and announced for Live Arcade, but you also mentioned PlayStation Network -- are you doing anything with PSN?

DC: I really couldn't talk about it now, but I think it's certainly a big target for us, and it's something that we've got to get our brains around and work towards. With Strong Bad, the franchise was just so perfect for Nintendo, and the Chapmans were huge Nintendo fans. And with Wallace & Gromit, we'd been trying to work with Microsoft for the longest time, and it presented a great opportunity there.

Now we've just gotta figure out, "Okay, what's the strategy to get all our content over to PSN and take advantage of the stuff they have with Home?"

Everywhere you go, there's a different take on what digital retailing is. Someone's going to figure out the right formula, and that's going to end up being the winner, but right now, being able to try different things through each different channel helps strengthen the company. We get a little taste of what's working from all of those, and we can pull that back into our own store, our own operation.

How much do those differences impact development? How early do you have to take the limitations into account? Is it in the early design phase or is it mainly a production issue? On PC, there obviously isn't much to worry about in terms of space or anything, but all of your console games are also on PC, so you still have to act with those limitations in mind.

DC: Yeah, yeah. I think WiiWare requires the most planning. There are things we could make on the PC that we wouldn't be able to make into a WiiWare product, but that could be on the other platforms.

When we think about it, the PC obviously still is probably the most robust online marketplace. It's an online marketplace of everything. It's funny, the "PC gaming is dead" thing, it's actually that PC retail gaming has shrunk while the PC has become the leader in online gaming.

Really, from a marketplace standpoint, it gives you so much opportunity because of the connectedness and the infrastructure that's been built up for years and years on the internet. It's forums and everything that is the internet, and now social networks. These are all different marketing tools and different ways you can get your product in front of customers.

The other [console services] are more like storefronts. They have a very specific customer base, and they put the product in front of them. We haven't necessarily worked with PSN yet, but from what I hear, they have a bit of an approval process you go through there. And with Microsoft, you go through their process, and with Nintendo.

These processes are there to kind of turn your product into something that's going to be in the language of their consumer. It's, "This is the way you make it into a game that works in the Xbox Live Arcade storefront. This is what we believe works with our audience. Achievements and leaderboards are a huge part of our plans and our intention."

We just take advantage of that and think of it as the way you converse with that customer, whereas on the internet, it might be about getting the demo propagated and getting some viral piece of content out there to get people talking about it.

We let Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo tell us what they think is best for their customer, and then we tell them, since we know about episodic distribution, "Hey, there are the things that really worked for us. Can you integrate it into your system?" That's where we're starting to define these things that have been very loosely defined.

How much of a challenge has it been to get what you need to release episodic games on the console services? It isn't obviously what they're set up to provide by default.

DC: It is a challenge, because the bigger the organization, the harder it is to move. But all of these groups generally seem like they're pretty much their own distinct things. So, the companies recognized they need the ability to evolve in order to make it work. That's good.

We've got five years of experience in things that are second nature to us. Things that we communicate very naturally internally still need to be recommunicated to other people, because they haven't lived it. It's not super-complicated, it's just that certain things work and certain things don't work.

But the dialogues are open. Everyone believes that a steady stream of content over their platform -- where users have something to come back to every day, week, month, or whatever -- is just a no-brainer if you can get there.

But game development proper -- I don't know if it's the science, business, or whatever -- still doesn't really allow for it outside of what Telltale has been doing.

Previously we spoke about Hothead's backing off of full-steam episodic, but another thing they mentioned during GDC was about their reluctance to make a traditional-style adventure game, so Penny Arcade Adventures was more of a hybrid. How do you think Telltale has succeeded with not only on an unusual business model, but also exclusively a fairly uncommon genre?

DC: We really believe that the next wave of games that are going to come out are just going to be evolved adventure games. We don't feel like we're late on the end of adventure games. We don't feel like we're reviving them.

We looked at CSI and Law & Order and saw that the type of games that people were building to appeal to the mass audience were adventure games. And it made sense.

To us, perfecting character and storytelling, and figuring out the right way for the user to interact in that world so that they feel engaged and feel pulled through the world, we feel like that's the real innovation that's going to pull Telltale into the next generation.

It's not the episodic model or digital distribution or anything like that, it is about taking that mechanic that drops you in a world and gets you introduced to characters, gets you information, has you solve puzzles, and then you're going to feel like you're part of the world.

That's the panacea that we're going for -- the Holodeck, you know. [CTO] Kevin Bruner always says that when there is a Holodeck, Telltale wants to be the technology that powers it. That's the way we look at it, more than a revival thing.

Our games are stepped evolutions. I hope that people see, when they play a Telltale game, where it's evolving and morphing and how the characters are becoming more proactive in the world and reacting to your actions better, and doing all these things that will hopefully make this new wave of product.

And I hope people follow in behind us to do these interactive worlds that you solve puzzles in.

You can see that the casual users are responding to it with all the Mystery Case Files games and all that kind of stuff. There's reason to believe that it's the right kind of mechanic for the mass. We plugged into it because we saw a growth opportunity.

We also knew that in the short term, it was a niche we could conquer. We could come in, we had the skillset. We could own it. We could be the best at it. You don't go and fight EA on football, right? And you don't go and fight Take-Two on sandbox games.

You've got to establish yourself and your brand. That's what Sam & Max did for us. Hopefully, Strong Bad has introduced more people to the genre, and the Wallace & Gromit folks are going to get into the way we're presenting the game.

We continue to grow that audience outward. That, for us, is the exciting thing about adventure games. I don't care if it's called "adventure games" forever, but go and play Loom, and then come and play Wallace & Gromit, and you can see that they're really [the same] in name only -- and, you know, obviously solving puzzles, but the execution is light years apart.

Not that those weren't great games. But we're committed to continuing to evolve it and use it as a base for a launching point for years to come. If it doesn't evolve, it will go away.

There aren't enough people to support it as a genre if it doesn't bring more people in. So we've got to figure out the things that really attractive to people, and let them know that it's easy to do, it's accessible, they can get into it, they can enjoy it, they're not going to get frustrated.

It's a good way to try CSI in a different light; it's a good way to try Wallace & Gromit in a different light; it's a good way to experience Strong Bad in a different light. And hopefully that keeps growing.

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