By Nathan Grayson on March 1st, 2013 at 4:00 pm.
Telltale’s pretty much synonymous with The Walking Dead these days, but it has plans. Big plans. Maybe it’ll build a rocketship to Mars. Or perhaps it’ll make the world’s tallest ice cream sandwich. Also to Mars. Or I guess it could be making some more videogames, but that’s kinda reaching a bit. Regardless, I asked Telltale CEO Dan Connors what lies beyond his studio’s tear-blurred vision of the apocalypse, and he laid out quite the roadmap. Click past the break for updates on Fables, King’s Quest (sorta), potential plans for an entirely original multimedia universe, and a discussion of why JJ Abrams and Valve are hardly the only ones building bridges between entertainment’s many scattered islands.
RPS: At this point, are you considering doing your own universe? Something that’s wholly yours as opposed to a license that you put your own spin on?
Dan Connors: I think we would work on one with the right partner, who wanted to build a larger entertainment experience that was, “Let’s build a franchise, not just a game. Let’s create a franchise from the ground up. Let’s use everything Telltale is good at. Let’s use episodes to see how people like characters. Let’s reinforce what they like and reverse what they don’t like. Let’s get the franchise off the ground from there and then tell some of the story in a non-interactive medium. Let’s do a comic book. If we’re going to build this world, let’s have a plan to make it serve multiple media.” That’s really what we’re interested in. Figuring out the right partners to work with to get that done.
Let’s create a franchise from the ground up. Let’s use everything Telltale is good at.
RPS: Hm. Trion and Syfy’s MMO/TV show Defiance is something in that vein, only they’re approaching it from a very different angle. There’s a game driving a lot of it, but it’s a very different type of game. It’s episodic insofar as they’ve got new story content happening a lot, but the world is a big persistent traditional-ish MMO thing.
Dan Connors: I’ve definitely had my eye on it. I’m very interested in seeing how it succeeds and how well Syfy can support the game and how people jump into it and say, “Yeah, this is what we want to do.” I think it makes a lot of sense, because when you think about those types of hardcore MMORPGs, I definitely remember a lot of stuff being event-driven. Big events drove a lot of activity inside the virtual world. Having a vehicle like a show to have events happen in seems like a really powerful tool.
RPS: On that note, there was also all the recent buzz surrounding Valve’s partnership with JJ Abrams. That kind of came out of nowhere, and the big message seems to be “No one’s doing this. The gaming industry and Hollywood aren’t actually working together. We’re going to show everyone how it’s done.” But isn’t that kind of what you’re already doing with various properties? I mean, how many different TV, comic, and movie folks have you interacted with?
Dan Connors: Yeah, we’ve talked with different folks. Right now, most of our energy has been with Robert [Kirkman], but we had a great time working with Bob Gale when we were doing Back to the Future. That was very co-created as far as what the story should be, what the characters should be doing, how that should feel.
We’ve definitely always wanted to engage [other mediums]. We want to be great storytellers, and we feel like Hollywood has that skill. We feel like we can make it interactive, which they can’t do. We’re equal partners now in the whole thing. Everything is interactive. Everything is going to have an interactive component. The way people get their shows. The way they play something on their iPad while they watch a show. Whatever it is, it’s all in our court now. This is our specialty. You can have some simple clicky DVD-menu type of thing, or you can have something more thought-out and deeper that gives the player a sense of agency over the content.
RPS: So then, what other properties are you working on specifically? I mean, I know there’s Fables.
Dan Connors: The game that we’re doing based on Fables, we’re really deep into that one. We’re trying to get the elements that made The Walking Dead great in there. That’s been super exciting, working with Bill Willingham and being in that fantastic world. It’s wild. It’s going to be different. It’s not going to have all the same elements that The Walking Dead had, but it’s going to be a very interesting world to be in. I think Bigby’s challenges as a character are going to be very interesting, like Lee’s were.
RPS: How about King’s Quest?
Dan Connors: We’re not saying anything about that yet, but we’ll let you know when we’re ready to talk about it.
RPS: Is there anything beyond that, or is it just those two?
Dan Connors: I think we’ve got a couple unannounced things that we’re kicking around. Fables and The Walking Dead are a safe bet to focus on for 2013, as far as what’s coming, what news is coming. No surprises.
RPS: You’ve shown a very successful model for episodic games. You’re one of the few that’s really pulled it off. How long do you think it’ll be until you have a flock of imitators?
Dan Connors: Well, I think the episodic idea or concept is being explored in the game industry proper in a lot of ways, just through DLC and mission packs, all those kinds of things. On the downloadable front I think there’s been a few different attempts at being episodic. Certainly a lot of independent adventure game companies have taken on episodic as the way adventure games are done.
No matter what, the industry needs to respond to the transition in the business model.
No matter what, the industry needs to respond to the transition in the business model, away from the traditional business model and towards the one that’s arising with players shifting to digital distribution. Episodic is one of those solutions. It just is. The price point’s going to come down, so you want to be able to get more content out into people’s hands on a regular basis. I think everyone’s going to try to solve it, and I think Telltale does give a good example, but what Telltale does and how Telltale does it has been honed for a long time. There’s a lot about how we build things that is unique to us, things that other people are going to need to learn.
RPS: Yeah, you have been honing for a really long time. Why did you hop on board with episodic so early? What is it that told you, “Yes, this will ultimately be something we can succeed with”? Especially when so many early attempts at it, by other companies, were by comparison not really very successful at all? Or they ended up not being episodic. *Cough* Half-Life *cough*.
Dan Connors: Well, we felt that digital distribution was going to happen. This transition was going to happen. In ’04, when we started, music had started moving over into the digital space. The Napster days or whatever. Not iTunes yet, but it was certainly looking that way. We knew digital was coming and we felt like, ”Let’s build a company from the ground up to do this.” But the distribution pipeline wasn’t there to succeed at the level that someone like Valve needed to succeed to make it viable. It just wasn’t big enough. It was loose. It didn’t have all the functionalities that were required. People weren’t used to it. It was 2004, and if you were going to pass up on triple-A retail revenue via digital because that’s what your business needed, the digital distribution pipeline wasn’t there to support it.
But we were building a company from the ground up to reach a group of customers – adventure game fans – who didn’t have access to the content in any other way or any other form. In a lot of ways, we used digital distribution to get to that audience, and that audience was very tolerant of the process in the episodic model, because that was the only way you could get it. We were able to work with that and really continue to improve and improve the experience. At the same time the digital transition just kept up.
RPS: With a lot of your games, especially The Walking Dead, how much of the design came out of the necessity of making it episodic? Are there things where you were designing the game and you said, “Okay, this sounds like it would be cool, but we couldn’t deliver that if we wanted to keep it episodic?”
Dan Connors: No, because it’s not in our design structure to sit down and try to create things that don’t consider episodic. We’re an episodic company. When we sit down we’re immediately addressing and designing to the strengths of the model. We’re talking about the cliffhangers. We’re talking about character flow across episodes. We’re talking about what are the three major action sequences. We’re talking about all the stuff that is our way of building games.
That’s the design. Anything that fell off because we needed to release episodically and we didn’t have time to make it work was probably more like an action concept that we thought was going to be really cool, but just wasn’t getting there. It just didn’t have the underlying… Didn’t have enough energy to get there. Those types of things were probably the only thing that we didn’t do as a result of the schedule.
RPS: I have to imagine it also changes up the way that you end up making money a little bit. You have an episode. It comes out. Then you funnel what you’ve made back into the development of other episodes. Obviously there have been a lot of layoffs in the industry, especially in the past few weeks. For you, does that solve a lot of the problem? You have this constant source of income. You’re not going from one payday to another. It’s just there.
Dan Connors: Yeah. One of the beauties of episodic is you haven’t invested [everything in one place]. When you’re dealing with a full title, you’re spending millions and millions of dollars to a launch day, and then all the revenue you need to make has to pull you out of this huge hole. When you’re talking about episodic, you’ve only dug half the hole. The first bit of revenues you get in starts pulling you up, and then you’re more on this line between profitability and spending for the entirety of the season, based on the popularity of the game.
I think Telltale’s strength is in the fact that it can release a lot of content that can generate a revenue stream. It’s not waiting a long time for the next job. It’s not considering a huge investment to get something off the ground. Certainly we built Telltale to take advantage of digital distribution, to build a game publisher that thought like a television producer or a television production company instead of a feature film production company. That hasn’t really existed in games. That hopefully is going to be more sustainable over time. At least we can take more shots at more products. That helps, for sure.
When you’re talking about episodic, you’ve only dug half the [financial] hole.
RPS: I imagine you’re actually expanding quite a bit, given all the recent success. Are you considering changing your model at all, though – maybe moving outside the adventure genre?
Dan Connors: Well, I don’t think that The Walking Dead is strict adventure gaming. When we were selling to just adventure gamers, that was one business that needed to build a very puzzle-focused product in order to keep that audience engaged and happy and feeling like they were getting what they expected from an adventure game. With The Walking Dead we were able to take that formula, tweak it up a bunch, and start to sell to a larger audience of all gamers, as well as fans of the franchise, especially on platforms like iOS where we’re able to reach people that wouldn’t necessarily be gamers, but really love The Walking Dead and are really interested in the type of experience that we offer around that franchise.
RPS: So you have a game that’s straddling the line now. Walking Dead has some puzzles. It also has action sequences. It has a lot of stuff. For future games, do you think, first of all, episodically, could you pull off something like, say, a first-person game or something more action-y? Basically, bring better storytelling into those genres?
Dan Connors: I don’t think we would try. I think we want to continue to advance the storytelling aspect of it and the character relationship aspect of it. Immersing the player in a world and having them interact with the inhabitants of that world. That’s what we’re interested in. We’re never going to be interested in, “I come into a world and when I see somebody, my decision is to shoot them or blow them up.”
That’s fine. People do that and people love those games and that’s great. But there’s a lot of other people who do that really well. That’s their business. We don’t want to compete. But when it comes down to, “Hey, I’m gonna sit down and interact with you as a character and we’re going to have some other relationship through this game and I’m going to be trying to survive with you,” we want to create a really dynamic experience for the player to test their wits, see what kind of person they are, make calls about what happens, take responsibility for it, and be part of seeing the story unfold. That’s where our energies are always going to go.
RPS: Thank you for your time.