Telling tales in short stories

Telling tales in short stories

By Colin Campbell

March 1st 2010 at 12:11PM

Telltale Games' co-founder on the evolution of episodic content

Telltale Games are the episodic guys. The digital distribution, short-chunk, funny haha mini-games dudes, who went ahead and did the walking, while a lot of others were just doing the talking. We spoke to CEO and co-founder Dan Connors...

You guys are dealing in digital distribution, comedy-based story-telling and episodic. That's three ticks against high-risk, at-the-frontier style work in the business, right?
The three of them all sound risky but they are also the formula for the solution. With no digital distribution there is no episodic. With no story-telling there is no hook to make episodic work. Digital distribution allows for games with a different focus, that's outside the normal formula. So, while any one of them as individual things are risky, the three of them working in harmony are the solution.

Are you winning?
We don't give out a lot of data about what we're doing but we wouldn't have released 26 discreet products at this point if it wasn't profitable for us. We've gone from ten people to 75 people in four years so obviously we have to be generating the revenue to fund all of that.

The continued growth of the company indicates success and you're going to see more growth in the year ahead in terms of the size of the franchises and the amount of games that we're doing and the fact that we have multiple, fresh episodes appearing every month.

The position that we're in is that digital distribution continues to grow. We have relationships with every platform partner, the PC market continues to transition into an e-commerce world, we have a very popular store. We have sold close to 1.5 million units so far across our franchises, which is a big number when you look at the economic model that we work with, which is different from the traditional model.

What's next?
We're looking to engage more franchises, including those that are more topical and relevant in the current entertainment world.

We want to work with great characters to tell great stories. We have proven, with Wallace & Gromit, CSI, Monkey Island, that we can capture the essence of franchises.

So we feel like there's an opportunity to engage new audiences by creating interactive versions of the worlds, characters and stories that they love. That's the big opportunity for us. What should a Da Vinci Code game look like, or The Sopranos? How can you pull those fans into the interactive world?

What have you learned about episodic story-telling above and beyond what might be learned from studying, say, 1930s serialized Westerns?
From story basics there is a lot to think about. You need to have an arc. You need to have cliffhangers. You need to dole out a certain amount of exposition in each episode.

And we can see and learn how that gets executed in any number of formats. But for us it's the interactive experience that's the challenge. How do you keep the player engaged? How much gameplay do you need to provide to the player in each episode so you don't exhaust the player, but you leave them both satiated and wanting more?

That's been a big challenge and I think the key thing we have is a tight feedback loop with the audience, so we understand what works and we're able to implement that into the series. That kind of live development portion of it has changed the ways the games and the stories have developed and that has surprised us a lot.

Another big challenge is really figuring out how to communicate what we offer to a gaming audience. The messaging and marketing issues have been as much of a challenge as the problem of how you build a serial story. When we first started there was a real sense of 'this sounds great from a development perspective but what's in it for the gamer?' We had to see what people enjoyed about what we were doing and then we were able to communicate that outwards.

The fact that the games are delivered in small individual chunks, that they are regularly scheduled, that you can engage and look forward to the next one, are all new ideas. It's a big shift in the mindset for someone who buys a boxed game, plays it until they are sick of it, stops and then plays a different game. Having the new experience be something that people enjoy, respect and like is something we needed to demonstrate.

You talk about the importance of consumer feedback. That's a useful skill to develop now we are in the thick of a social economy...
It's about being a web company from the get-go. We brought our traditional gaming skills to the web world. We said 'we want to build product for the web' and a big part of that is looking for ways to take advantage of community, of user-generated content, of social networks. How do you have those things work for you from a marketing and product stand point? If you are a web company those are the things you have to think about, and they are just as important as solving problems of rendering or physics, the things that obsess developers of retail products. We've tried to use the tools provided by the digital medium.

Organisation must be a big part of doing episodic content right. Is it an absolute nightmare?
The hard part of development is closing, and we close every month. But it's a lot harder to close something that's taken three years to build, than something that's taken a few months.

It's a tighter resolution for us and there's a lot more transparency about where a product truly is in the schedule. It's really a matter of getting people used to making the smart decisions and closing in a sane way. We just couldn't death march every time we hit a deadlne. It really needs to be a sane production process. it's more like a television production than a movie.

If you were to dig out an investment presentation from a few years ago, and compare your predictions of the market, with today's reality, how close would you have been?
It always runs slower than you think. But the way that we positioned the company has put us in a good place.

The market has landed where we expected it to. Xbox Live Arcade is a real channel that can generate tens or hundreds of thousands of sales. There are channels on Playtation 3 and Wii. The PC market has transitioned over. So, the reason we built the company, that's all happened.

We built out the infrastuctire to execute on episodic, we we did everything we said we'd do. The market has grown in the way we felt it would, but we are definitely at a point where we need to take the data that we have learned and re-calibrate for the next five years.

We certainly didn't see the way the social networking market has emerged, with network games. We knew things would happen in unpredictable ways, but we didn't envision something like Twitter. But we saw a transition to digital and that has played out.