Yesterday, I put on my fuzzy-eared detective hat and grilled Telltale president Kevin Bruner about his company’s next big, hopefully not bad thing, The Wolf Among Us. The Fables-based caper sounds like a worthy (though unexpected) follow-up to The Walking Dead, but it’s hardly the only story being writ large by Telltale’s ostentatiously oversized quill pens. The developer also regularly creates experimental prototypes involving AI, story structures, the way players communicate with characters, and tons more. Fittingly – given the developer’s love of episodic stories – they call it the Pilot Program. Some of these “weird” ideas make it into games, but many of them don’t. Ultimately, though, this is Telltale’s way of paving a path to its own future. I quizzed Bruner about the good, the bad, and the ugly of his company’s experiments, as well as a couple other loose ends like King’s Quest. It’s all after the break.
RPS: You mentioned in-house experiments involving truly interactive/reactive AI and things of the like. How long has that been going on?
Bruner: That’s been going on for a while. Sometimes it bears fruit, and that’s where the pilot program came from. We wanted to do things that we didn’t think were ready for a full-on five-episode series run. We had little internal projects that allowed us to experiment and push our tools and see if we could enable things from a design point of view. Then we started the pilot program that things like Puzzle Agent and Poker Night at the Inventory, came out of.
They’re designed to just challenge our processes and thinking about how to play stories.
It’s funny: before we were working on The Walking Dead, some of the ideas for The Walking Dead, gameplay-wise, were in what we called the zombie prototype. A lot of those idea turned into a real zombie game. And then some of our prototype stuff, a lot of it does end up in projects like Jurassic Park. There were a lot of experimental-type things there. The research ends up in a product one way or another, but we haven’t [necessarily gone all-out]. Jurassic Park is probably the most experimental thing we ever actually released. We have a couple of other things that maybe are close enough for a release. But they’re still designed to just challenge our processes and our thinking about how to play stories.
RPS: On the AI side, how radically experimental is it? Have you reached a point of doing something like Facade?
Bruner: A little bit? A lot of the narrative stuff focuses on character simulation. Making characters… It’s funny that I would say it, because of the “Clem will remember this” kind of thing. Most of our experiments are more about playing the story. We look at the storytelling devices that are valuable in traditional storytelling, and then how gaming makes them constrained.
Traditional stories, like television and films and novels, are told from multiple perspectives. Some stories you follow one person through the events of the story, but usually you see a little bit of the good guys, a little bit of the bad guys. And so we have prototypes and experiments that are… How do you enable us to play the story in more of a god mode, as opposed to playing the lead, like in The Walking Dead? We spent a lot of energy on what it feels like if I’m not playing a particular character all the time. How do you model the story proper, as opposed to the feelings the individual characters might have? Those are areas we’re exploring in those prototypes.
RPS: You said that in a lot of cases, you end up refining the experimental mechanics into something a little less out-there.
Bruner: Yeah. We’ll find some things that work and weave them into whatever series that happens to be in production.
RPS: Jurassic Park is your most experimental so far, but what was the cut-off point? How experimental can you go before you say, “OK, let’s rein it in a bit and turn it into a buyable product?”
Bruner: Yeah, yeah. Like Jurassic Park, there wasn’t direct control of the character. It switched character perspectives pretty liberally. Then there were some other decisions. It was very quick-time-event-based. All of that together was maybe too much, although it’s doing very well on iOS, the tablet, where I think gamers or consumers are a bit more open-minded and have fewer preconceived notion of what is and isn’t a game and how one should play.
The thing is, we judge success by sales. How many people are actually playing the game. It’s great when editorial loves it or when it’s appreciated for its ambition, but if it’s not genuinely entertaining and worth somebody sitting down and playing it, we feel like we have more work to do. That’s what gets it across the finish line.
RPS: You’ve said that, in a lot of cases, you’ll have the story that you’re going to tell, and then you – sometimes “begrudgingly” – add more traditional game elements as they’re necessary. Do you think, for more story-centric games, people are still in need of a frog in boiling water type of scenario? Gradual introduction to less “game-y” ideas?
Bruner: Yeah, I think that’s definitely where we’re at for working at scale. Which is our ambition, to entertain as many people as we can. There’s some kind of breakout moments, like when Scribblenauts came out. It was a big success and an amazingly innovative game for the time. We definitely are approaching it more incrementally. How much can we challenge the market at one time?
That’s one of the great things about being episodic. We get a lot of at-bats. We do it a lot in little micro ways. Instead of building a whole game around a new mechanic or a new way we want to see if people will consume and play stories, we can, if it’s really weird, take one little beat of something and try it out.
We’ve been doing that forever. Even back on our first games, in the Bone game, there’s this dinner scene where this family sits around and you have dinner. You can talk to them, but there’s no puzzles, no challenge, no nothing. It goes on as long as you want until you yawn and say “I’m going to bed.” That’s how you get out of it. That was our first experiment. We were really nervous about it. What are people gonna do? Are they gonna call us out? We’re not challenging them, not rewarding them. You just get to sit and have dinner with these characters that you’ve gotten to know. That went over really well. Over the years, with each one of our games, there’s usually an act or a scene or a beat that is all about taking a little bit of a risk.
We have a piece of content that’s coming out real soon, that we’re announcing at E3. It’s a much more overt way of telling interactive stories. It’s not a beat. It’s not an act. It’s a whole piece of content that’s about doing this kind of unusual thing.
RPS: Is that the bridge between the Walking Dead seasons?
Bruner: Yeah. I can’t say much more, though.
RPS: On Walking Dead, though, what was the biggest experiment you conducted with the first season?
Bruner: Well, when we were first doing it, it was really, really different. Where we landed, I think the boldest thing we did was we kept dabbling with choices. We had other gameplay mechanics around it, but we kept going back to the choices as the most interesting thing. We made a really overt decision to say, “OK, we keep prototyping different things, and this choice stuff always is the best.” The rest of it is either mundane or difficult to execute, difficult to produce, or not competitive. OK, so we’ll go all in on choice. We’re going to put it at the front of the game. This game is about the choices you make. We’re going to be considerate of putting lots of choices in, making them difficult choices.
We felt it resonated with the license really well, the Walking Dead universe. That was the boldest thing we did. Do you win or lose in this game? Nope. The way I play it determines the ending? Nope. There’s all these constraints on it that really made us nervous. We had no idea how it would be received during most of the development. We test everything before we send it out, and when we started testing episode one as it was nearing completion, it really started to work for people. That’s when we said, “Okay, this may work.” But the whole time before that, we were like, “Are we crazy for trying to think that we can make a two-hour game where you feel choices and the choices are meaningful, but it doesn’t really determine [the overall outcome]?” Everybody is going to end at the same place, right?
We’re delighted that worked for people, because we really like it. Like I said, when we were prototyping stuff, that’s the thing that grabbed us each and every time. We felt like we needed to dress it up and put more stuff around it. In the end we decided, “Nope, that’s going to be the game.”
RPS: Conversely, what’s some of the stuff that emerged from the pilot program that was too out there?
Bruner: We played around with some natural language stuff, where you can interact with the game, interact with the story using natural language. Old-school text game stuff. Speech recognition and text input I think is really empowering. We had some interesting prototypes running that used text as input, trying to figure out ways to make text work in the modern era. That was really weird.
We also had a plate-spinning prototype, was what we called it. You had a bunch of little stories all happening at the same time and you had to go and service the stories, like spinning plates.
RPS: Keeping it going.
Bruner: Yeah, that got really weird. But then there’s other things, like the poker game, that we did release. Those are really challenging our dialogue system. One of the interesting things, if you played Poker Night 2, while they’re telling their stories, they’ll start bantering about stuff at the table like you were playing poker with your buddies.
But you can overtly experience this, because if a good hand happens in the middle of the story, they stop telling the story. “Holy crap, what’s gonna happen here?” If they’re in the middle of telling a story and you just go all in with bad cards, they stop telling their story and they’re like, “What’s this guy doing? He’s insane.” They start talking about that, and then after the hand is over, they’ll pick up the story again. That came out of a bunch of experimentation with our dialogue engine and how it could track what stories are being told at the same time or interrupt stories and recover stories.
Poker 2 is a really good example of where we push that to a refined level. But it’s all hidden under this big dumb poker game. Comedy poker. I hope that with Telltale products, the technology doesn’t overshadow the storytelling. I hope that nobody looks at Poker and says, “Oh, I can see the gears turning and the dialogue system working.” It should just feel natural and organic. We enabled the writers to write something that was dynamic and adaptive, but didn’t feel artificial.
I think you’ll see us going back to comedy and exploring genres we’ve never done before.
RPS: At this point, your two biggest projects involve zombies and a not-exactly-werewolf. You do both in unique ways, but those are pretty traditional game premises. Zombie apocalypse and fantasy. Are you hoping to maybe get a little more experimental with your themes and settings in the future?
Bruner: Yeah, we’ve got some other things in production that are unannounced. We’ve spent a lot of time with comedy. I think you’ll see us going back to comedy and exploring other genres that we’ve never done before. We’ve never done sci-fi. We’ve done a lot of crime. Action is something that we’re kind of getting used to now. There are definitely other places we’re going, but it’s still story worlds. We’re still going to be centered around characters and their situations. Probably people? [laughs] We could do a game with nothing but animals.
RPS: Tokyo Jungle!
Bruner: Yeah. We’re branching out and spreading our wings a little bit, but I don’t think you’re going to see an RPG or an FPS or something like that from Telltale.
RPS: Oh, but speaking of more traditional sorts of games, you had King’s Quest there for a bit. Now you don’t. What happened? Did you just decide to not renew the license because you’re headed away from old-school-style adventures?
Bruner: Yeah. And we’re still a little capacity-constrained. We are giant King’s Quest fans and I’m very sad that we’re not going to be able to work on it, but there are other giant King’s Quest fans in the world, and I think that King’s Quest is going to be in very good hands.
We have a new audience that we’re trying to serve. We’re trying to be very progressive about things. I think that it would be a disservice to King’s Quest to go out and reinvent it as something it’s not. It would be a disservice to a lot of what Telltale is doing right now to not try to do the kind of innovative things that we’re pushing boundaries with. I think King’s Quest is going to be in very good hands, though, and we’ll all be very happy with what we see from King’s Quest in the future.
RPS: Thank you for your time.