You probably haven’t heard, but Telltale’s The Walking Dead is kind of a big deal. It maybe won some awards or something and also made its players weep so much that their ducts now cough out specks of sand and the occasional cactus. There is, in other words, something to be said for using games to spin crushingly compelling yarns, and Telltale knows it has something very special on its hands. Season one, however, was just the beginning. The only envelope’s had its shoulder bumped. Now it’s time to give it a good, hard push. I sat down with Telltale CEO Dan Connors to discuss how he plans to go about doing that, what he’s taking away from reactions to the first season, and how his company plans to squash some of Walking Dead’s more glaring flaws – for instance, those awful game-wrecking save bugs.
RPS: I just got into The Walking Dead comics, which actually carry a markedly different vibe from your game, in my opinion. How involved has [comic author] Robert Kirkman been with the game?
Dan Connors: He knows what we’re doing. He’s always filling us in on the universe. He likes to go to lunch with us and talk about things. He comes up and does press for us. He’s been a great partner. It’s funny, because we brought it down as… We were still getting it all together and we were still trying to figure out if this was all going to work. We brought it down to him and had breakfast with him. The thing we had him play was the brother. He played through, he played the brother, and he turned around and looked at us with this very silent look on his face. He said, “This is me happy.” [laughter]
[pullquote]I think we’re just at the tip of the iceberg as far as what this is.[/pullquote]
RPS: Was there anything that he declared sort of off-limits for you guys? Was there anything you couldn’t do?
Dan Connors: Yeah. We didn’t go after Rick’s story. He didn’t want us to mess with the show. We were very conscious of his fiction and timeline and where people are. He’s got characters he wants to write books about. He’s got novels going on. Basically, if he’s in there exploring something, he wants the right to dictate how that fiction goes. If it’s something that’s free and clear, like Lee and Clementine, who we’ve created, we can do whatever we want.
RPS: So, you’re now working on The Walking Dead season two. You were already straddling the line between an old-school adventure and a pure storytelling game, so how do you take that forward? Do you even scale the puzzles back further, so it’s more about how the main interaction you have is between characters? Or is it more about diversifying choices even further? What are your goals in terms of advancing this style of play?
Dan Connors: I think we’re just at the tip of the iceberg as far as what this is. A three-object traditional game puzzle – like, go find this, give it to this guy, trigger the dialogue to open the door – hurts the story. It hurts the story world, because why would I do that? In our puzzle design, our puzzle design has to create real challenges to the story, real believable actions. It’ll still be using your brain to figure it out and it’ll still be using your wits.
I don’t want to knock puzzle games, because I think there’s a lot of really clever puzzles and I think it’s something people enjoy and everything else, but again, from a storytelling perspective, it really hurts the pacing. From a depth of experience perspective, putting a character in a situation where they need to choose whether to chop off their arm or not, and they need to live with the consequences of that decision, and then really making them feel that. I can’t really define what that is, but it’s intense. That’s not a casual gaming experience. That is an intense gaming experience.
Creating that kind of depth, we’ve learned a little bit from The Walking Dead, but we can build on it and just keep trying new things, which we’ve always done. We can go after other genres or introduce new characters or try different ways of storytelling. Make the storytelling change. That’s really what we’re looking at.
RPS: I remember the first time I played The Walking Dead episode one, when I had to [SPOOIIIILER] kill the brother, finish him off. That bit where I had to keep hammering on him, that was really intense. I think conventional wisdom right now, not just in games but in a lot of media, says that you don’t do that because that frightens people off. You give them too much intensity, but they just want to go do something that relaxes them.
Dan Connors: Well, I don’t think The Walking Dead is a relaxing show, and it’s got 10 million viewers. I wouldn’t kick back and watch The Walking Dead on Sunday night to relax. Same with Game of Thrones, really. I think the compelling nature of it, the human drama, the amount of feeling in it, seems to be something that for some reason, for certain franchises [really attracts people].
Why is The Walking Dead the biggest show on cable? Or Breaking Bad? That stuff is so intense. There’s something going on right now where maybe people are so busy during the day that they don’t feel. They need to go into their entertainment to have stuff so extreme that they can feel again. I don’t know. I think we throw that up another notch, though, even compared to these shows. You’re responsible for your actions.
RPS: Do you think it’s some sort of weird dearth of human relationships thing? People don’t get to experience that in their lives due to business, media saturation, or what have you, so they turn to entertainment to feel things for other people – even though those people aren’t even real?
Dan Connors: Yeah. I definitely buy that. I said to someone today, “People are probably better friends with Carley than they are with some of their friends on Facebook.” [chuckles] If you could type a Facebook post to Carley that was like, “Please don’t die. Please come back to me,” you’d probably do it. That kind of electronic relationship, that feeling of connection.
[pullquote]There’s something going on where people are so busy during the day that they don’t feel.[/pullquote]
RPS: Actually, speaking of an interface that – organic, free-flowing text – I could see story-based games moving forward in that way. Have you played Façade?
Dan Connors: Oh, man. We started Telltale on Façade. Façade was the thing we played all the time.
RPS: I would hope that the technology has gotten better, because Façade could get pretty silly really fast, but would you implement something like that, maybe? That adds this really personal element to it, even if it messes up.
Dan Connors: Yeah. But, at the end of the day, if there’s too much to support, it just can’t be done. Figuring out the rules to pull that in and get a really good text parser that’s capable of doing that is a big deal. Then losing the voicing on the main character, because you can’t record for every [possibility]. I’ve always wanted to build a main character that had one of those synthetic robot voices, so then you could have voice lines for whatever people said. If you had an android human character, then no matter what people typed in, you would say it, and then it would be about parsing the text and having the NPCs respond correctly.
It’s doable. But it’s a big task, without any good template to look at – except Façade, and Façade falls apart so fast – that you say, “I don’t wanna try this.” But the moment I’ll never forget, when people would come in and we’d say, “This is Grim Fandango. This is the type of games we want to build.” They’d look at it. Then we’d say, “This is where we would go with it.” Then we’d show them Façade. They’d sit down and just start playing and playing. These are people who had never played games before. They’d start playing, and then they’d walk over and kiss the girl, and the guy would get mad, so they’d kiss her again, and he’d throw them out [laughs]. Then they’d hug him. It was good, though. Façade was definitely something that we looked at constantly.
RPS: Going back to something you said earlier, you mentioned Game of Thrones. I was thinking about this not too long ago, like, “If Telltale did a Game of Thrones game, it’d basically be a perfect fit.” It seems like it would fit the character-driven format you follow. Is that something you guys would like to do, if the opportunity presented itself?
Dan Connors: Yeah. I think we’d like to do that. It has a lot of what we need in a franchise, for sure. The intrigue, the threat, that looming threat that can be called in on you at any time. Or someone you love, similarly. It’s a dangerous world, basically, and a haywire, chaotic world with a lot of group dynamics. That’s super interesting.
RPS: Back on The Walking Dead season two, is there any sort of time frame for it? Is it definitely this year?
Dan Connors: It’s definitely high on our priority list. We’re just trying to get the story nailed down and figure out exactly what it is we’re going to build and making sure that we’re treating it right, so we’re delivering the experience that people are expecting.
RPS: How much will save files transfer over? Is it going to be as direct as it was between episodes of the first season, or is it going to be just a few little background things?
Dan Connors: We’re still working on it. The save thing is a little sensitive to begin with. But we’re definitely trying to make sure that it’s going to be a good, solid thing for everybody. We’ve still got to figure out… We don’t want to go too deep and not have it be clean. It’s tricky, with the level of complexity.
RPS: I’ve gotta ask this one now that I’ve been personally afflicted by it. The Walking Dead has a few major save file transfer errors, and there’s been a lot of people accusing Telltale of not being super-communicative about it. Is there some sort of fix in the works for that?
Dan Connors: I think there’s a lot [of pieces]. The game is released episodically on multiple platforms at once. There’s a lot of variables in this case, just in the saved game stuff. There are different things that reflect differently on different platforms that have been fixed and addressed, fixed in different episodes. We’ve pretty aggressively patched every platform to try to get as many save file issues fixed as we can. I think what’s up there right now is completely patched, so that you shouldn’t get any save file issues with what’s live now. We’ve taken all the feedback that people have given us.
Honestly, we’re just working on solving the problems and getting the updates up as quickly as we can. But it’s not like we can give an easy, pat answer that says, “This is the issue. This is what you do to fix it.” Which is what everybody wants. Instead, we’re telling people what we’re doing, which is we’re trying to understand the problem. We’re trying to figure out where it’s coming from. We’re putting patches out to address it. We’ll let you know as soon as we have the patch. I think “We’ll let you know as soon as it’s patched” doesn’t help the person who just lost their saved game.
It’s not that we’re not answering. It’s that the answer is something people don’t like. We’re certainly talking internally, one, about just making it more robust. The save system in this had a lot of work to do that defined itself as we went through the season. We hadn’t really completed a season doing it before. We were always actively fixing it. It was basically whack-a-mole. Chasing it through the season. Another problem would pop up in another episode.
[pullquote]I think in season two, we’re going to be a lot more diligent about [the save system].[/pullquote]
We’ve certainly learned from that and said, “Next time out, procedurally, these things are going to be very robust and it’s not going to allow for someone to require data from four in order for them to have the fix that fixes two.” That kind of stuff. It got very complicated in that sense. At the end of the day, it just created a feeling that we weren’t addressing it. We were, but like I said, we’re not giving you something that says, “Here you go. Here’s your save back. Here’s how you get your save back.” We just can’t do that. Once it’s deleted from the computer based on whatever happened, whether it was something that happened with cloud saves or any number of things… We can’t get it back for you.
RPS: So basically, it was a case of you not knowing what was going to happen until you did it. I think a lot of people look at it and they say, “Why were they lazy about programming this if their game is so rooted in save files and choices and things transferring over?” Was it more like, you did what you thought you needed to and it turns out that there needed to be more?
Dan Connors: Yeah. There were so many things going on with how downloadable content works and how you can update things and how you can patch that once the first one showed up. Bug-free would have been really hard, considering episode five didn’t exist when we put episode one out. Once one showed up, then it was, “Okay, let’s just go in and fix that.” But there was two to consider and three and four. Then the edge cases started to pop up. It got super complicated super fast, because of the way we were doing it.
I think in season two, we’re going to be a lot more diligent about making sure that part of the system can handle everything that’s going to happen. Now we know how people are going to do this and how they’re going to use this and how it’s going to appear to people. I think we’ll have some good systems in place to make sure that it’s great in the next season.
That said, Percentage-wise it wasn’t a huge majority or anything beyond a small percentage. But for how invested people were in the characters and the story, it hit them that much harder. They wanted to scream that much louder about the situation.
The one thing I do get upset about is, our customer support and our QA group are just all in all the time, trying to get as much information as they can. They don’t want to give anybody misinformation. They can’t give anybody the answer that’s going to make them happy. As individuals, they’re just trying to get people fixed. They bear the brunt of all this hostility, because it’s not the answer that people want to hear. The press goes in and starts making stories out of them trying to support people and help people, and then they can’t say any more because now the microphone’s on and we’re being watched by the press.
We’re trying to be open and honest about our support, to be as transparent as we can, but then someone comes in and turns it into a big sensational story based on something we said. Then it’s like, “Okay. How can we support in this environment?” The forum is one of our best tools. To have it be, “I need a story today about what’s going wrong with Telltale. I’m gonna hit their support forum and write a story.” [laughs] That was kind of a bummer. Not that RPS ever did that, because I know you didn’t. I appreciate that. But there were definitely times where it comes across as anger towards the individual who’s really just trying to work his butt off and get people fixed.
RPS: Lots of anonymous anger. Such is the way of the internet.
Dan Connors: Oh, yeah. So bad. Just how mean people can be when they’re anonymous, and how personally they take it.
Check back tomorrow for part two, in which we discuss Telltale’s other projects, the possibility of Connors and co crafting their own universe and branching into other genres, the future of episodic gaming, and why the gaming industry could stand to work more closely with other mediums.