A talk with Telltale's CEO and co-founder Dan Connors
How does a Californian studio go about capturing the distinctly British humour of the world-famous Wallace and Gromit? Ed Fear sat down with the firm’s CEO and co-founder Dan Connors at GDC to talk Wensleydale, dream licenses and making in-roads into the UK…
Telltale is, some might say, the ideal game development studio. Think about it: it’s not beholden to publishers. It releases its games through its own website and self-publisher on digital console storefronts. It can work on a genre that its founders love – the apparently-no-longer-viable adventure game market. It scores big licences. And it’s the only firm to actually achieve the episodic gaming model, now working on three on-going series at once.
The studio’s latest licence, however, veers sharply from the Americana surrealistic humour of Sam & Max and Strong Bad: the quintessentially British Wallace & Gromit.
The first question we ask Dan Connors – the LucasArts alum who left to co-found the studio and serve as its CEO – is, perhaps predictably, why pick something so British?
“There are licenses that are going to have a shitload of marketing behind their movie, and there are licenses that have built up over time through great creative work,” he explains.
“Wallace & Gromit falls into the latter, and we wanted to be associated with it. From an artistic standpoint it’s beautiful, and it’s a different look, which is great for our artists to work on. It’s a lot different than building soldiers and explosions. Plus, Aardman is the right-sized company for us to be working with, because the relationship is more on the creative side; there’s not a bunch of business people between the creatives. It’s the same with the Chapman brothers [creators of Strong Bad] and Steve Purcell [creator of Sam & Max] – it’s a very direct link. We’re not working with Nick Park directly, but we have a lot of access to Aardman’s creatives.”
While such a close relationship with the licence is what many developers would dream of, there’s also much more pressure on – and much more emphasis on – getting it exactly right.
Connors admits that, at the beginning, there were some uncertainties on Aardman’s side. “They were a little wary of it not fitting in to the franchise, but once they worked with us on the stories and we’d got that right, and engaged the right people for voice acting and writing, it really really started to work.
“The stories were a huge part of it. Once we brought on a UK editor to capture the flavour – because it’s not just British, it’s a very specific area – we were able to capture that voice, that slang.”
Rather than just acting in an approval capacity, Aardman also helped Telltale capture the look as closely as possible, inviting the firm to its Bristol headquarters to see how it had progressed.
“They were able to tell us how they achieved certain effects, what particular angles they always used, and even gave us their mouth shapes so we could make them animate perfectly. We brought it to a certain point and they’d say ‘You’re really really close, here’s the signature stuff that’ll make it perfect’. The funny thing was that every challenge that we had in bringing these characters into 3D had sprung up for them too when working in clay. They helped us work through a lot of things.”
Aardman couldn’t help them with everything though, he recalls: “There was one particular thing I remember: you know how Gromit sometimes walks on two legs and sometimes on four? We were puzzling about how he would make that transition, so we asked them. They just said, ‘well, we just don’t show that.’”
Looking at Telltale’s previous work, it’s easy to see where the company was marketing itself – starting with the hardcore. Sam & Max had a history that spoke to gamers. Strong Bad was immensely popular on the internet; exactly the market Telltale was selling to. While Wallace & Gromit has a significantly stronger presence across the world than either of those two licenses, is it too distinct – and are its customers too retail-focused – to prove as popular as Telltale’s previous work?
“It certainly creates challenges for us,” admits Connors. “But at this point Telltale has got a certain amount of credibility in the gaming space, where if you attach the Telltale name to something they don’t know – like Wallace & Gromit – hopefully our history will make people want to try it. In addition to that, there’s the audience of people who know Wallace & Gromit, hear that there’s a game out and want to try it.
“I think it does present challenges in letting people know it’s there, and getting the right marketing behind it, because we’re not EA; we’re not going to put a huge amount of money into blasting it out there. We need to be really smart in the way in which we execute that.”
The other point is that Telltale’s short production times and established technology makes producing country-specific games a possibility. “Our budgets are such that, if it succeeds really well in the UK, we could keep on doing it forever. We just need to figure out how to let people in the UK know that it’s out there. Our big markets are UK, US and Germany, and I think we can hit them strong.”
For many idealistic designers, artists and programmers, the real dream – or, for the more assertive ones, the only reality – is working on original IP. Wallace & Gromit is only the latest in a long line of external properties that Telltale has worked on in its five years – and it certainly won’t be the last.
“It’s work we don’t have to do,” explains Connors. “It’s already proven successful; they’ve put a ton of effort into building out these worlds and these characters. For us to be the ones that take them and make them interactive is an honour. For us to be working with these people, on a very close basis to the point where they almost become part of our company during the production process, is such a great thing for Telltale, as we try to become better storytellers.
“The challenge of cinematic and visual storytelling is a big one, and there’s so much talent with all these partners who can help us think about these things. We want to be the best storytelling company that ever existed. So having all these great storytellers work with us so closely – there’s just a huge investment in that. So when we do our original thing one day, we’re going to haul that education behind. It’s really been about building up our skillset.
“If you think of Max, for example, there are classic signature poses that come from the original comic. If you put an animator on that character without that knowledge, he’d come up with different signature stuff, but here we don’t have to do that – this classic stuff is already there. Then the animators can put their love into the expression, rather than thinking about what his animations should look like. What [Steve] Purcell did is genius, and now we can make it better.”
TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED
If licenses are the company’s future, what licenses does Connors dream of working on?
“All my ideas get shot down,” he laughs. “I want to do The Young Ones, The Big Lebowski – only so you can have White Russians as a powerup – and Spinal Tap would be my third. Maybe if any of those rights owners are reading Develop, who knows?”
But one in particular – one slightly more plausible, and one crying out for a decent game conversion – apparently tends to crop up around the studio on a regular basis.
“Doctor Who. We do get e-mails from people asking us to make a Doctor Who series. Maybe if we can get a channel into the UK with Wallace & Gromit we could talk business with the BBC, that would be really good for us. We’ve got some work to do to understand the economics – it’s a different country, it’s a different way of doing business. If we can get the lid off there we’d love to do a ton of product there, because it’s always been a great market for our Sam & Max stuff.”
“If we could get the cost down to a decent price-per-show model, we could do wild, off-the-wall shows to just test it. It’s just about optimising the business model, managing the development cost and hitting the gameplay experience. So if we wanted to see if people were interested in some spoof of Legally Blonde or something, we could just try it out.”
We can’t let our time with Connors end without asking him about Telltale’s unique achievement of being the only company to make the episodic gaming model work. Is there anything he in particular attributes it to?
“The difficulties we experienced, and the fact that we got past them, are the reasons why we’re the only ones that have really innovated with episodic games. We’re old guys. We’ve seen a lot, and realised that we don’t want to do these massive, uncontrollable things – we’re very focused on what the product is going to be. We really focus on scope, we really focus on tools, and we really focus on production processes. We set out with a target, and that was to deliver games monthly, and we built a team to do that.”