Interview: LucasArts Alum On Strong Bad's Episodic Gaming Kick

A 14-year LucasArts veteran before landing at Telltale, game designer and writer Mike Stemmle talks with Gamasutra about his work with the episodic Strong Bad series, the "Telltale Tool," and the studio's "veteran-friendly work atmosphere" that has
Mike Stemmle got his start at LucasArts during the company's golden age of adventure game development, and early in his career served as one of the design and writing leads on Sam & Max Hit the Road, the first game incarnation of Steve Purcell's surprisingly cross-medium dog and rabbit duo. This year, he was hired as a game designer with California-based Telltale Games, which is getting ready to start development on its third season of Sam & Max episodic games. It brings things full circle for Stemmle, who left LucasArts after the planned sequel Sam & Max: Freelance Police was cancelled, and then spent some time at now-defunct Perpetual Entertainment on its also-cancelled version of Star Trek Online. This week, Telltale shipped the third episode of Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People, a monthly PC and WiiWare series based on the popular online Homestar Runner flash cartoons. Stemmle has contributed writing and design to the series. Gamasutra caught up with the designer to speak about his new role at Telltale, the company's unusual development style, the relief at finally shipping a game after years of cancellations, and whether the studio plans to introduce its own original games based on non-licensed IP. The Telltale Process What are you up to since arriving at Telltale? There are so many series going at once. Mike Stemmle: Yeah, yeah. When I came in, in early March or late February, the very first day I was there -- literally -- they said, "Hey, we're doing the Homestar game and we need somebody to write dialogue for Episode One. Go!" And I said, "Homestar? What's a Homestar?" That's not very true. I was actually pretty well acquainted with the cartoon. But the thought of just jumping in was pretty tricky. I came in and wrote a lot of the dialogue for the first episode, but that was really Mark Darin's design. A lot of it had already been designed at that point, so we traded off episodes. Chuck Jordan [led] the second episode. As Episode One was winding down, I was designing the third episode, Baddest of the Bands, which we had a rough idea about. That was pretty much it. We had a seed and we had a reason to do a "battle of the bands," but the puzzles were up to me at that point. It was really a collaborative process anyway, because our process is [that] every day all the designers for the season get together and say, "We're working on the puzzles for Episode Three." I kind of have ownership over it, but we all work together to come up with the puzzles. That keeps the episodes from getting really uneven, difficulty-wise. What was very funny is when we submitted to Nintendo, and I was doing a sign-off with a producer, I went to the studio and suddenly realized, "This is the first time in a few years since I actually signed off anything." I was thinking, "That's a really good feeling." Will you move over to the Sam & Max series when the next season starts? MS: Yeah. Right now everybody who would be working on Sam & Max Season Three is kind of at varying levels of deepness from waist to armpits to foreheads on Strong Bad. We've started talking. We've had some story seed ideas and some game mechanic ideas for the next season that we're already kicking around. We're starting to reserve about 10 percent of our brains to think about that and get excited about that. But we're making sure that Homestar is everything that it needs to be. You were on the cancelled Sam & Max: Freelance Police project [from LucasArts], right? MS: I was leading the Freelance Police project, yeah. Didn't get it out. Do you have plans for original Telltale properties in the future, not just licensed ones? MS: We always talk about it. We've always got a few things bubbling around. We're trying to get to a point where we're secure enough in our pipelines that we can push out a little time to be talking about it more seriously. [Designer] Brendan Ferguson is back from his vacation, so he's doing high-level design thoughts right now, and we'll start thinking about stuff like that more often. It's [a matter of] finding the right thing, because we've got so many cool things going already that we have to make the first original thing the coolest darn thing ever. We get the designers together a lot to toss ideas around. I'm missing one of those today. People are constantly talking and throwing ideas in front of Dan and Kevin to see if anything sticks. We'll know it when we see it. That's how it usually goes. Constant Production Must be refreshing to go from these cancelled projects to a company where you're constantly shipping games all the time. MS: Well, that's the thing. Especially after working on [Perpetual's cancelled] Star Trek [Online]. Even if it had been any MMO, even if it's going smoothly, it makes the old games that I was working on look like short games. You know, it has kind of been really interesting to be at Telltale for six months now and get a game out that's got a writing credit on it. And in a few weeks, somewhere in there, I'm going to have a game out that has got a design credit on it. And we'll ship an entire season by the end of the year. Wow, that's cool. I'm just flabbergasted by the level of smoothness of the production process at Telltale, while keeping the quality up. This isn't sort of "knock it out" game design production here. This is everybody coming together and making sure things get polished. It's not passing bucks around. It's just about everybody working on a project to do about three or four things. When they see something wrong, it's their responsibility to fix it or immediately get in front of somebody who can fix it. It's great. It's full, hands-on programming and designing. I've been exercising my feeble programming chops, my choreography chops, my design chops, my writing chops night and day to get these things together and so does everybody else. Testers come in and do patches and even code on occasion. It is something can do, so we don't have to bother always. It's great. How big are those teams? MS: On this sucker, the low twenties. They're lean and mean, and we have it set up so the choreographers finish what they're doing for an episode and are mostly moved on to the next episode while other guys are fixing all the bugs and stitching it all together. There are these one-week periods where everything seems to be lying out on the floor, and all of a sudden it just congeals together into a playable game in a week. You're thinking, "Okay, I'm impressed." From what I've heard, it wasn't that clean-cut at first, but it's really come together. MS: We still learn new things every episode. The process gets better, but they have figured out a lot of stuff. A lot of stuff is working now, and it's great because it allows us to start pushing on our engine and saying, "Here's what we're going to do differently for Wallace & Gromit, and make it different not just visually, but gameplay-wise. A lot of the cool things we're going to be doing from here are [the result of asking], "Going into Sam & Max: Episode 3, what did we learn from Strong Bad?" We get to experience that. We're going to put our stakes in the ground and make it all better. It's great. Episodes, Veterans, And Twenty-Somethings "Episodic" was a buzzword there for a while, but Telltale seems like the only high-profile company doing it in a way that's really comparable to, say, an episodic television model. MS: I think there will be other players that get into it. It helps that we have this really great mix of veterans who understand how to ship games, how to finish them up, and the usual curry of incredibly hungry young twenty-somethings whose adrenal glands we feed on to actually get a lot of work done. But there will be other people. It's just a question of getting your tools together. I can't say enough about the fact that we have one development tool [known as the Telltale Tool]. We have one tool; that's the thing we use. When we go start up a new property, we don't want to build an entirely new tool. So many companies run into that [mentality] of, "I didn't invent it, so I won't use it." We use that one tool, and that's what we push. On day one, I was able to write dialog that went into the tool, and you could see characters performing it. I've been on projects where it takes months to get to that point. That, alone, is enough to get us 80% of the way through the battle. Knowing that that's settled makes it so much easier. Some people will complain about working in a box for that. No, it just means, "Here are some things I can do. Let's see how I can push it." We've got a puzzle in the third episode with Strong Bad auditioning for Pom-Pom with this continuous song that you're trying to get the rhymes down correctly for. I crossed my fingers, because there's this whole question of smoothly flowing from one thing to the next that can be a problem. But we pretty much pulled it off. With the tool, we didn't have to add a single thing to it, we just had to know what the tool did, and drop those things in. It's wonderful. We can do so much with our basic technology, really. We can break out if we want to. We're slowly getting to that. You'll start seeing some really interesting trends. This season of Strong Bad, and the [upcoming] Sam & Max and Wallace & Gromit are going to do some amazing stuff. Speaking of veterans, it seems like almost every few months there's a new LucasArts veteran coming aboard at Telltale. MS: There's a little bit of that. We all know each other, so it's a nice incestuous little industry as far as that goes. Telltale's got this very veteran-friendly work atmosphere, and I think a lot of that is happening in the industry anyway. The 40-year-olds in the industries are really officially tired of working ridiculous hours. At Telltale, we work hard every day from the moment you get in to the moment you get home. But it's nine-to-six. Maybe at the end of the crunch, you throw a couple hours at the end. But Dave Grossman, the head of the design department, looks physically pained if someone says, "I worked on Saturday." No, something's wrong if we're working on Saturdays. Something's wrong if you've worked a 15-hour day. A lot of veterans like coming into that. You're going to get a bunch of job applications when this interview gets published. MS: I think we're hiring. We must be hiring, because we have a lot of projects that we've got in the pipe. You were full time at Perpetual Entertainment, right? MS: I was at Perpetual for a couple of years working on Star Trek Online. That was a fun process, getting deep into the largest game that I could possibly be involved with. I met a lot of good people there who are off doing other good things now. Were there jobs in between LucasArts and that? MS: There were 14 years at LucasArts and then a very interesting four or five months of freelance contracting, which involved actually working with Cisco for a few months. Cisco? What were you doing there? MS: They wanted to do some gaming stuff for trading. It was a good, high-paying gig. And also there was contract work, ironically enough, for LucasArts it Battlegrounds 2? Battlegrounds or Battlefront? [Star Wars:] Battlefront. MS: I always get the 'Fronts and the 'Grounds mixed up. Battlefront 2, yeah, doing some script work. It was fun. What was your last full-time Lucas project? MS: My last Lucas project was [Star Wars:] Republic Commando. And what's really funny is that I was working at LucasArts for 14 years and it wasn't until the last year and a half that they let me anywhere near Star Wars. Was that deliberate on your part? I know [former LucasArts and now Double Fine designer] Tim Schafer explicitly did not want to work on a Star Wars game. MS: It was half and half, I think. I had other things on my plate, and it was also that the company was probably very happy that I didn't get the Star Wars in my sights. Like, "Really? You wanted to do Star Wars? You're going to do funny stuff with Star Wars, aren't you? We don't need that." But towards the end, yeah, it's when I was doing a lot more straight up dialogue writing. That was basically it. The company had pretty much transitioned to just Star Wars games for a while there, right? MS: No, it was just where I was needed, really. They were always searching around for the next original IP that they wanted to do. I don't think LucasArts ever got to a point where they said, "We're only doing Star Wars." It was just trying to find more things to do, and they're doing that to this day. How did you end up Telltale? You have a lot of old Lucas buddies there, right? MS: Well, it is sort of funny getting back there. I didn't quite have the spheres to go off and start off with Telltale at the beginning. All credit to [CEO] Dan [Connors] and [CTO] Kevin [Bruner] and everybody involved for starting this puppy up. They really pulled it together and had a great model. When I got out of Perpetual doing Star Trek, I kept looking at Telltale out of the corner of my eye, watching them to see what they were up to. I had to do Star Trek. I'm a monstrous Trekkie, and the opportunity to basically write Star Trek was one I really could not ever actually leave until the last dog died. So when it became apparent that the last dog was, in fact, on life support, Telltale was the first place I showed up and I said, "If you can use me, use me." They were very good about taking me in. And so that's how I ended up there. You know, I love the just colossal irony of -- how many years is it now since [Sam & Max:] Hit the Road came out? Fifteen years. MS: Fifteen years, and I'm going to end up doing more Sam & Max.

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