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Telltale Tells All (Pt. 2) - Hit By the Business End of the Rabbity-Thing

Following our Dave Grossman designer interview spotlighting Sam & Max and Bone developer Telltale Games, CEO Dan Connors and GameTap's David Reid talk exclusively on episodic content, digital distribution, and indie serendipity in this biz-related follow-up.

Immediately following our previously-published interview with Telltale Senior Designer Dave Grossman, we were joined by Telltale CEO Dan Connors and David Reid, Vice President of Marketing at Gametap, the PC-based gaming portal that will house the exclusive premiere of Sam & Max: Season One this October.

Where Grossman filled us in on the design aspects of creating an episodic adventure game, both Connors and Reid provided insight on the digital distribution and production of Sam & Max: Season One, to give us a full perspective on this unique partnership. Grossman also remained present for the interview, to answer our remaining design inquiries. Also discussed was Telltale's other episodic adventure game, Bone, based on Jeff Smith's comic book, which has thus far seen two chapters released: Out From Boneville and The Great Cow Race.

Gamasutra: I don't know if you can answer this honestly, with David Reid sitting right next to you, but…why Gametap?

Dan Connors: [laughs] Well, Gametap really provides for us an opportunity to get into episodic gaming, and it works really well with their system. So, with Gametap being a subscription system, the idea of building a piece of original content and a feedback network was something that Telltale is very interested in. We have multiple distribution partners for Bone, but we're interested in finding partners that are more broadband friendly, looking at presenting a higher level of content than what the existing digital distribution network offers. So we see Gametap as the next generation of what broadband content is all about, and we see what we're building as the next generation as well.

So it's a good fit, and the guys over there, Rick Sanchez who's just a great game fan, he knows every single game that's ever existed, when he heard that Telltale was going to make Sam & Max, he came in and really went after it. And it was important to him, and you could see by the games that he's going after already, that Gametap's going to present an opportunity for developers to get their innovative products out. So we really shared a vision, I think, at the end of the day, of what broadband content should be.

GS: Have you been approached by any of the console makers for digital distribution on, say, Xbox Live Arcade, or Nintendo's Virtual Console, or whatever the heck Sony's doing with the PlayStation 3?

DC: Actually, David [Reid] and I were just talking about this. Figuring out this whole episodic move-over into distribution, it's something that you have to be there to learn the behavior of the audience, and what the consumers want, and start tailoring the products in that direction. So the fact that Telltale's sort of jumped in the water and learned how to swim, we're starting to see that we're in a position to work with Xbox and Sony to deliver content for their system that's right.

Again, it's this broadband-friendly, higher quality product than just Bejeweled. It's either a Bejeweled / Tetris kind of thing, or whatever huge title, like…Oblivion. And there's a ton of space in-between, you know. Oblivion isn't broadband friendly, and Bejeweled is not an Xbox title. So there's this whole space that needs to be filled, and Telltale's kind of commitment two years ago to fill this role has put us in the position to be the right answer for people like Xbox and Sony.


GS: As I was discussing with Dave [Grossman] earlier, I know you guys don't want to be classified as an "adventure game developer," but it seems to be what you're good at, and you seem to be sort of pushing adventure games into what I'd consider a casual-style market. Is there room for adventure games in the casual space?

DC: Well, yeah, I mean, if you look at CSI, that's a game that we chose, and the CSI audience is basically what anyone else would describe as the casual audience. It's a casual experience in that it's easy to play. You can get in there and experience the world. The production values are not. There's full 3D, we went to a lot of our game roots to create that immersive feeling that I'm in the show, that I'm interacting with these characters, and I think there's a great interest in that for just fans of the show that aren't necessarily gamers otherwise, but want to play an interactive version of the television show.

When I think casual, I think mass. I don't think our games are built for Tetris users, I think our games are built for fans of our licenses. Anybody who loves the license can come in and have the experience, and that's really our goal.

GS: …to appeal to these preexisting fanbases, rather than trying to attract a new audience?

DC: To offer an interactive component to proven licenses, and to build something that anyone who loves the license can get in and play and enjoy, instead of focusing on one small niche, one small kind of thumbs of steel group.

GS: At the same time though, do you feel like you might be drawing a new audience in with an IP like Sam & Max by making it interactive?

DC: Definitely. This is why Gametap makes a great partner for us, because they're going out and going after a similar audience as us, people that want to come in and play some games and enjoy a gaming experience, get in, try some Galaga, try some whatever they're going to play, and then go and check out the Sam & Max game. If they like it, they can continue to play it, and hopefully they get some laughs and enjoy it, and continue in the series and continue waiting for new episodes.

We're definitely building it out with the belief that Sam & Max can appeal to anybody, not just fans of the license. Bone and Sam & Max, we went after both of those because we saw a cult following around those licenses that really pointed at the quality of the license, the quality of the content, that there is something there that people latch on to and enjoy, that's credible, and will always be there. And it makes it more of a long-term success plan, something that has legs, because we're still returning to the core thing that made it great in the first place; in the case of Sam & Max the interesting characters, in the case of Bone the great, epic story. Even with CSI, obviously their formula was money in the bank.


GS: So David Reid, from Gametap! Hello!

David Reid: Hi!

GS: You haven't done any episodic content before Sam & Max that I know of.

DR: That's right, this will be our first.

GS: How are you marketing this differently? Are you displaying it on the menu prominently, or…?

DR: Oh, definitely. Like Dan said it's a subscription-based business. We look at HBO as a model for our success, something where there's hits that anchor people to the network, and today that's a legacy thing like a Crazy Taxi or a Prince of Persia or a Street Fighter, but in order to really win with gamers you have to have fresh, new, exclusive content of some sort that gets people excited about coming to you.

It's great to have, you know, this bulk of things that people can look to while they're waiting for the next installment of something new, but like HBO has its Sopranos and things like that, we need things like Sam & Max that we rely on to be the hits that anchor people and keep them on the network.

I come from Xbox, and when we launched Xbox 360 we got behind our exclusive platform games and anchored our market there. We will be doing the same thing this holiday with things like Sam & Max. We will be doing broad, platform-based marketing around Gametap, but we will also do very precise marketing around these titles like Sam & Max, and things we haven't announced yet that will resonate with gamers that it's not just about Gametap as a platform, it's about critically-acclaimed content that I'm not going to find at retail.

GS: Is your audience limited by the hardware? I can't relax on my couch in front of the TV and log in to Gametap, is this causing you to miss out on a large segment of the audience you're aiming at?

DR: I think it's exactly the reverse. If you think about the fact that this holiday you're going to have people who are clamoring to try to buy a PlayStation 3 at $599, you know, Gametap works on the console you already own, broadband PC, that's in 70%+ of the homes at this point.

I think we're in a much better place than some of the folks in the console space to get games and get hardware out into the hands of gamers and people looking for this content.


GS: Dan, I asked Dave [Grossman] this earlier, but I'd like your perspective: if Telltale runs on such a small scale, if your market specifically is for a preexisting audience of fans, how can you afford to operate in Northern California?

DC: Oh, you know. [laughs] I think a lot of people want to work for Telltale. I don't want to sound arrogant about it, but we're doing something that's near and dear to a lot of people's hearts. And getting the opportunity to work on something like Bone and something like Sam & Max…it's not for everybody, but for the people that want to do this kind of thing, Telltale offers a very unique experience for them, and CSI as well. We can work with serious industry professionals who have spent years and years learning the craft, and now frankly our production processes allow us to do everything much cheaper. Bone was built with seven people, and we outsourced for a couple of months. So seven people in six months.

GS: Is that for both chapters?

DC: No, that was Boneville, and for Cow Race, actually it's about seven core people, and then the team grows to about fourteen for a couple months, but the production cycles are short, the teams aren't huge, our tools are very tailored to be efficient. Telltale's put out four products in two years, and for twelve months of those, we were starting a company, turning on the lights and raising money. So we do everything very cost effectively. But the California talent allows that cost effectiveness! It's not like we're saying, hey, we're just going to go out and find a hundred of the cheapest people we can find and pay them two cents. We're saying, let's go out and get the best people we know, the people that think like us.

GS: Do you track the genders of your purchasers?

DC: Yes.

GS: And what have you found?

DC: It varies. CSI is mostly a female demographic, though it's only probably about a 60/40 type of split. The Bone games are still mostly male. The Sam & Max games aren't out yet, but tracking the people who come to our site for it, they're still mostly male, and that's based on the gaming legacy, and the comic book crowd. Telltale has a good reach into the game audience and into the comic book audience. We're not getting a lot of school-aged kids that Scholastic has been able to get with Bone, but the audiences that we see right now are mostly male.

GS: Are you targeting the school-aged kids?

DC: Not necessarily. I mean, we looked at Bone because it was all ages. Scholastic picked it up because it has a resonance with kids. The early ones are younger and the story gets more complex as you go. But we definitely are targeting our fan base to start with, because when you're starting a company that's where you go. You can't go and spend a ton to acquire a new audience. So we built a product for what we thought our fans would like. But the people who are playing…the kids are loving it. And that's a good thing, we don't look at that as bad. But we're basically following Jeff [Smith, Bone creator]'s plan, because we believe his story's great, and hopefully that will continue to resonate as we finish this thing.

GS: Dave, maybe you're involved in this too: from a design perspective on Bone, is there a challenge in having to stick to the original book? Do you feel like you don't have a lot of legroom?

Dave Grossman: Yes and no. This is actually one of the things I said at the panel today. We actually, specifically talking about The Great Cow Race, a lot of the gameplay kind of fell out of the story. So we got a head start, Jeff did a lot of great character development that just suggested things to us. But there's a big problem in the cow race itself where you finally get to the race, where we've been building it up the whole game, people have been talking about it, people have been betting on it, and the title of the game is The Great Cow Race. And you get to it, and according to the story, you have to lose the race. So now game play is, okay, well we've got to let you play the race, because it would be really disappointing not to let you do that. But we also have to make you lose, and we still have to make it fun, so yeah. That was actually a pretty big design challenge.

DC: From a production standpoint, I will say, talking about how we do things and how we make products happen: to build a world like the Bone world, we'd need a design staff either of fifteen people, or we'd need thirteen years to do it, because Jeff's already done that work. That's something that's kind of a hidden cost for people designing original properties, all of a sudden the question is about character motivation. Where does it come from? Well, someone needs to make the backstory behind every character, where did they live, where did they come from, what's going on in this environment. So you save all that, that's already done with great source material.

GS: Or you hire a writer and give them a weekend, like I've heard from a lot of games writers.

DG: I can do a lot in a weekend.

DC: You can do a lot in a weekend, but a game designer is not necessarily a story creator, and I think for years that's been the norm, and that might be one of the reasons why story is such an elusive thing in games.

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