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Telltale's Dan Connors talks a new kind of freemium

Adventure game studio Telltale Games (The Walking Dead) bucks current trends by embracing licensed content and ignoring microtransaction-based monetization, as CEO Dan Connors tells us.
Telltale Games has never been a company to walk the well-beaten path. While publishers like Take-Two and THQ have run screaming from licensed content, Telltale has embraced it – and found profit in it. And while the PC is finally starting to become chic once again to some game makers, Telltale has always used it as the base of its operations. So it makes an odd amount of sense that as the video game industry focuses obsessively on freemium and free-to-play games these days, Telltale is looking at the category with a slightly different perspective. "The business is moving toward this dime/quarter 'press a button, get a prize' model," says CEO and co-founder Dan Connors. "But we don't want to give up on the entertainment experience. … A lot of companies are saying about the traditional side of the business: 'EA controls it; Activision controls it; Ubisoft controls it – so let's move into this addictive experience and try to take that over and get this niche. The strange thing is that still doesn't satisfy what interactive storytelling could be for the masses." While Telltale utilizes previously established IP (which often has not had a gaming presence), it has won praise for being able to convert those properties to entertaining titles. After achieving success with Back to the Future and Law & Order, the company will soon release games based on The Walking Dead. And work on the company's game based on the DC comic Fables is progressing. "I think Telltale still is trying to build an entertainment business," he says. "If games are blockbuster films, we're trying to build the Verizon model. And I think micropurchases for 10 cents a pop are trying to build the arcade machine experience." That's not to say Telltale is entirely opposed to microtransactions. When The Walking Dead launches in the coming weeks, it will ship with a social arm, letting players boast about in-game trophies they win and see what choices others make within the game, which has a heavy emphasis on decision making. That same social platform positions the company to launch an item-based economy, though Connors says the company isn't ready to make the jump just yet. The social platform, says Connors, is simply another way for Telltale to explore and embrace the digital experience – something that has been a hallmark of the company for years. "Really, it's about building an experience that can be shared from not just the application," he says. "I think it's a big part of being a modern publisher – committing completely to digital and taking advantage of everything digital has to offer." While Telltale has historically offered a fairly long view into what it's working on, it has been a bit quiet in announcing forthcoming projects lately. Certainly, launching The Walking Dead and wrapping up Law & Order (not to mention the expected third quarter launch of Fables) is enough to keep any company busy, but there's always curiosity about what's next. Connors, not surprisingly, declined to offer any specific insight on what other properties the company was eyeing, but did note it has barely scratched the surface on the libraries of its current partners. "We've got a good relationship with Universal and we're always interested in exploring their library," he says. "There are some incredible franchises in there that I think only Telltale would or could do. We also want to build a relationship with DC, because they also have a treasure trove." Since 2004, Telltale has raised $16 million in venture capital from Granite Ventures and IDG Ventures. And the company's growth trajectory has been an impressive one. While the PC platform seems to have hit a plateau for Telltale (seeing only 4 percent growth last year), the company's expansion into other areas has been a boon. Telltale has seen sales on the iPad increase 380 percent over the past 12 months, with a 289 percent growth rate on consoles (the majority of that coming from the PlayStation Network). Given that growth rate and the company's age, it raises questions about the exit strategy for those investors. Connors admits the company has fantasized about having access to Pixar's library of content – saying developers "would be in heaven if we had access to that". Given that, we asked whether Telltale would be open to an acquisition – by Disney, it's current partner Universal or some other big media company, which would seem best suited to make use of its talents. "If we found the right situation where we could do that, we would be very interested," he says.

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