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Telltale's Vanaman: 'Authorship Is Important In Any Creative Industry'

During Comic-Con 2009, Gamasutra catches up with Telltale's Sean Vanaman (Sam & Max, Tales of Monkey Island) to discuss the crediting of writers and designers and why "authorship is really important in any creative industry."
Telltale Games is known for its unusual episodic model of game development and distribution, but its process also hinges on a specific attitude to authorship: assigning and crediting each of its episodes to a single overall writer and designer. That allows the company to say each of its episodes is “by” a particular person, an increasingly uncommon practice in today's era of ever-ballooning development teams. Designer Sean Vanaman, a Disney creative development veteran who wrote the third episode of Telltale's Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures as well as an upcoming episode of the recently-begun Tales of Monkey Island has strong feelings on the role of authorship in games. During Comic-Con 2009, Gamasutra caught up with Vanaman to hear why he thinks it's so important. “For a lot of big publishers, at that level it's an ego thing,” Vanaman said. When executives see a developer who is given publicly-acknowledged authorial credit over a game, “they say, 'Oh, that person's a diva. That's why they want it to be there.'” “But it's not,” he argued. “If that person sits down and creates that story and that world from nothing, that credit is really important. It doesn't mean if it has a 'Written and Directed by' credit, then it's good, but authorship is really important in any creative industry.” The same applies even to teams larger than Telltale's, he said – at the end of the day, somebody has to take responsibility. “If you're Ken Levine -- BioShock is an achievement -- there's still a whole team of creative minds contributing, but there is a gatekeeper as to what fits in that world and what doesn't fit in that world.” Plus, he added, such crediting isn't just an issue of boosting somebody's personal sense of accomplishment; it drives the creator's investment in ensuring the game is as good as it can be. “It's terrifying,” he said. “If you make a $40 million game, and it takes a crap, it's a big problem.” “It's hard to formally put that much faith in one person; it's something the industry is not accustomed to doing,” Vanaman said, contrasting that reluctance to the film industry, which has traditionally been much more comfortable giving and even promoting authorial responsibility. Telltale's episodic approach goes hand in hand with its crediting approach, he explained, allowing the company to partially sidestep the larger industry's tendencies. “That risk is mitigated a lot,” he said. “If [my episode] sucks, everybody can email me and tell me, but that episode is backed up by the surrounding episodes, which I know are going to be awesome.” “Authorship can beget quality,” he said. “Celebrating that authorship allows it to continue. It is good to see the company value that; it makes you want to keep doing it. Every good industry that's creative at all is about the people. “I don't know how many times [Pixar's] Ed Catmull has said, 'It's about the people.' It is. If you make good people feel good, they're going to keep doing good stuff for you. Because you work your ass off. You don't sleep, you don't think about anything else." "There are times when you just don't come home, and you have to tell your girlfriend, 'I just have to be an asshole for a while, I'm sorry,' and to know your company appreciates that is great. It keeps you accountable.”

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