DEVELOP ONLINE EXTRA: An extended Q&A with Telltale's Dan Connors, following on from our coverage of the Sam and Max production team in Develop 70.
For those not familiar with your background, can you remind us how Telltale was founded?
Dan Connors: We were at LucasArts for the love of story-based games and all the work they had done, but seeing the change in direction there we decided to head out and start up our own company.
After seeing Sam and Max have a hard time finding an audience we realised that kind of game was no longer right for the retail model, but perfect for an episodic release. So we built the company around the idea of making episodic games. We got financing which helped us first build Bone, and that led to the Turner deal for GameTap and Sam and Max.
You’ve done better than bigger teams like Ritual and Valve in the episodic space – how come?
Because much of episodic gaming is about being right for this market place – it’s about building the right product for the audience and the behaviour of that audience. It’s been two years for us, so we really focused on how people responded to what we did. Telltale is independent and starting from scratch; Valve and Ritual took existing properties and tried to shift them towards a business model. So we’ve been more flexible.
And really, when I think about what we’re doing I think of our audience as a wider mass media market – and a web-based one – and we base a lot of our decisions on that rather than ‘core gamers’.
On the topic of a wider media, music is one medium that has successfully moved to web-distribution, and now games and films are following. How much further do we need to go until online is the main focus of games delivery?
On one level it's just a size of the pipe issue, and music coped with that by devising a file format that suited it well. The web audience loves the microtransactions, and that's why they've bought into per-track purchasing so easily. For games it's a more complex data set, but obviously it can be done - just look at Tivo and on demand television, that's what games will be hot on the heels of. What Telltale has in its advantage is that we've been mindful of this and building in anticipation of it from the ground up. As other developers chase the golden ring of PS3, 360 and Wii they are making huge datasets that aren't as flexible for the shift that digital distribution will bring and where people get their entertainment from.
So as well as building a business around the concept of episodic games you need to build the technology around it?
Yes, you have to be building game towards new technology and new ways of making games. A lot of studios out there are geared towards older technology and the old way of delivering games.
Does making these games mean the studio approaches production differently?
We’ve had to devise ways of reusing assets – our tools are optimised towards getting the most out of each asset. Really, we approach things from a franchise point of view, expecting what we’re doing to grow over time. But we let the story and the character development drive that. A lot of what we develop is down to the writers, and then the way we build new assets is strategic to support the specific story design as well as the game design. Much of it is about reusing assets and making everything cost effective, because we are at a low price-point, but retaining that triple-A feel. That’s the big thing for us - in three months we’ve delivered a game that really does compare with the games in the bigger PC space, so what we’re producing doesn’t come across as cheap, it comes across as competitive. People aren’t looking at our games to be the shiniest, brightest things – Sam and Max suits a cartoon style, so we can duck worries about polygons – which leaves us to focus on acting and performance.
And with the switch to the Wii the community at large is clearly ready for something away from that race for polygons - it's clear there's too much effort being spent there.
You mention the Wii - there's been a lot of speculation over what you guys are doing for that format as you've hired for Wii programmers. Can you shed any light on your plans for that format?
We certainly look at it as a really interesting place to be and we have a lot of respect for the innovation that they've made at Nintendo - and it seems that they share our vision for making games for more than one niche audience or one really high-profile audience and create games that appeal to everyone. When you talk about story or character development or mass appeal that's more about a mass-appeal rather than something that appeals to just a hardcore gamer.
Does the interface lend itself to the kind of games you make?
I think we're well geared towards making games with that interface. I am really excited by the innovation opportunities provided by it. With episodic games, the Wii, and downloadable distribution - we're just at the beginning given the stuff coming over the next few years. Games will go in a whole new direction with a whole new bunch of innovations that will reinvigorate the audience and the business in general. So I'm really excited about all the changes in direction and I'm glad Nintendo took the steps to be different.
To return to what you were saying about the production being driven by writers: letting writers drive the production is a different approach from before, wherein the story is tacked on afterwards...
There’s an appeal to a great story and these days interactivity is an expected norm for any medium. The fact that no one has explored the medium well is because many developers aren’t coming in from a story perspective and they’re not bringing great talent to bear on it.
The episodic structure is borrowed from TV. Is there anything developers can learn from that medium and its business model?
I think it comes back to how our infrastructure is balanced and developed. You certainly couldn’t do Lost if you had to bring it into retail every month. Emerging medias allow for broadcast and as a result our delivery becomes more like TV. Building products that are like television product is exactly where we’ll go next and makes complete sense. It’s unavoidable – you can’t even say it’s not happening, it’s just three or four years until everything is on-demand like this. And it offers a tighter feedback loop between the developer and the audience.
Which in itself means you’re able to more closely monitor what people buy and how they respond to it – have you been able to do that with Sam and Max?
That’s somewhere we’re still growing – I think you’ll see that when we get to episodes five and six of Sam and Max the feel will be different because we are aware of what characters people like. That happens in TV – Norm and Cliff in Cheers got more lines as the show went on. I’ll be interested to see, by the fifth season of Sam and Max, how things have developed.
When we get to Sam and Max season five how will things have changed in terms of your tech base - do you imagine the games will look better?
That's something we'll also update as time goes on. The driving mini-games might change or being upgraded, for instance. The great thing about working on episodic games is that if we wanted to do a do an experimental episode testing a new piece of AI or something we could - and if people respond to that we could integrate it in the game as we go on. But graphically what we want is to be played on as many games as possible - as the low end spec gets higher, then we'll change our graphic approach.
At the same time, would you be able to do many retrospective changes - if someone downloaded an episode from season one of Sam and Max in five seasons' time will the game look as it does today or would you update it so audiences would have a version that's in-line with and potentially updated graphic approach?
I think it would be a case-by-case approach. We'll certainly keep the games compatible so that people can always be playing it, because this type of game has a really long shelf-life. Retail doesn't service that shelf-life, but online and digital media does service that shelf-life. So the story and the character and the jokes are why people will want the game. We're pretty much at the level of what a pretty solid cartoon experience is like - so the game will still be playable in the future the way a Flintstones cartoon is watchable today. The quality of the art, story, jokes and gameplay won't change.
Sam and Max and your other episodic game Bone are both based on properties that already existed. Will it always be the case that a licensed character is compulsory to succeed in episodic games?
As we build the system out and the company brings in more talent to do this we’ll be inspired by these great licences and characters to do more.
But things have evolved so much that we won’t even have to start as an episodic game – we could come up with a character that we introduce on our website and see if people like him before even giving him his own show. That would be building an IP based on the feedback from the community.
It’s really our intention to grow the whole thing and take advantage of everything that this new way of doing things provides – community, user-generated content and a tight feedback loop. It gives us an opportunity to create original IP that has less risk attached to it because it is more tailored towards the community that is already coming to us.
Few developers have paid attention to community, but other media have utilised it fairly quickly, with some obvious examples like YouTube and MySpace...
Well, you’ve got to live it. Everyone’s so focused in their own work they don’t see it. We went to a seminar about how when cable television rose up: the big US TV stations such as CBS, ABC and NBC didn’t become the dominant companies – it was Turner, ESPN and MTV that took advantage of it.
The big companies spent so long doing what they were used to doing they couldn’t focus on the changes to adapt quick enough. This happens at every paradigm shift – and I think online is the next shift for our medium, and we’re at the forefront of driving it.
So you guys are an MTV to someone like EA’s CBS?
Ha, yeah. Exactly.
This is an extended version of a Q&A from the latest edition of Develop, issue 70. A PDF of the magazine can be downloaded here.