The Masters Of Episodic Gaming Speak

by Matt Helgeson on Oct 01, 2012 at 09:00 AM

Led by CEO Dan Connors and CTO Kevin Bruner, who founded the company together, Telltale Games has carved out a unique niche in the industry with episodic adventure games based on major entertainment properties. The company’s recent Walking Dead series is its fastest-selling yet. We recently got to speak with the duo about their vision for the adventure genre, the future of game distribution, and what's next for Telltale.

Where did the idea for episodic games come from, and why did you feel that that would resonate so powerfully?

Dan Connors: A lot of the best storytelling going on in the past 10 years or so has been episodic storytelling, from The Sopranos to Game of Thrones. We saw the strength in that model as the way to tell a story and it was tied into our digital distribution strategy, which was to break the content up in a way that would engage people over time and have them return to you, instead of just building a one-time experience. [We wanted] to give them smaller, finishable chunks – to change the dynamics of the way people play games. 

Most publishers’ data suggests that a vast majority of gamers don’t finish traditional, 10- to 20-hour disc-based games. Do you find that the episodic model means that more people finish your games?

Kevin Bruner: Certainly, people seem to finish episodes in their entirety. One of the things when we started the company that was a big deal for us [was that] we were buying and playing and enjoying a lot of games, but never finishing them because there were just too many and [they were] too big. We were done with the game before the game was over. I used to always say that the worst job in games was the second-to-last level designer, because anybody on the second-to-last level was going to finish the game. They’re just plowing through the second-to-last level as fast as they can to get to the end, so that’s the most unloved level in any game. I think episodic cures this [because] each episode is a contained experience. We design a beginning, middle, and end so it has its own arc that can be satisfying in and of itself. We [usually] offer individual episodes or season passes – and pretty much, when it’s available, most people tend to buy the season pass, so they’re signing up for the whole
season upfront. 

DC: Over time, we’ve kind of honed the craft of creating a piece of content that people could finish and feel good about, but still have a feeling of wanting more. That’s been a big focus for us. 

Over the past few years, a lot of game companies have pulled away from licensed games, but you’ve had a lot of success with them. 

DC: When we built Telltale, [we] wanted to take advantage of digital distribution and evolve the business model to make it possible for things like licensed games to succeed in a way that the traditional business model couldn’t support anymore… There was a lot of new thinking around the business model that made licensed products able to work for us. We come from a licensing background, so that’s a big thing we wanted to do. When we hear people saying that you can’t succeed with a license that has 25 million viewers it just seems like that’s a problem that should be solvable. If there’s that much interest in a franchise, you should be able to come up with an interactive game of the [franchise] and be successful. If the current business model doesn’t support it, then a new business model should be in place to support it.

KB: I’ll just add that there are a whole bunch of really, really bad licensed games out there. One of the things that we really pride ourselves on is being able to do licensed games right. What I mean by that is, if you look at Walking Dead, it’s a zombie franchise. Your knee-jerk reaction is: We’re going to go have a shotgun in our hand and go around blowing hundreds of zombies away. But that’s not what the books are about, and that’s not what [creator] Robert Kirkman’s trying to do. We approach every license from [the perspective of] what is great about the license, and how do we turn that into a game? Not what is gamey about the license. We didn’t make a Back to the Future game where you just drive around in a Delorian, or a Walking Dead game where you just run around and shoot everything. Digging into a license and figuring out what’s really good and how to make it interactive is something we take really seriously.

For years people were saying that PC games were dying. Now everything is switched and prognosticators are saying the future is PC and consoles are dying.

DC: I don’t buy into that. I think there is still a place for entertainment in the living room with a big screen and big speakers. I think games are always going to be a part of that. It would be hard to say what the box in that room is going to look like, but I don’t think it’s going to go away, and I don’t think that large form gaming content is going to go away in any way and that is really what you are talking about. What it looks like in the next generation, I think, is going to be a major evolution away from where we are at, but it should be because the consuming patterns of people have changed.

Free-to-play is the new trend in the PC space, is that something you’d look at in the future?

KB: It seems like there are these extremes, and actually I think that Steam is demonstrating that the sweet spot is in the middle. For years, I could spend $60 on some giant game that requires hundreds of hours of my time. [But] I was never actually spending hundreds of hours on it, so I would pay $60 and play a game for a little while and then move on. Or, I could [play] a free-to-play game and get barked at every five minutes about [buying] coins or upgrades. What I wanted was like a movie. You know, I’ll pay $10 to see a movie and it’s an evening. I buy a lot of games on Steam that I’ll play for four or five days, see what it’s about, and get my fill of it. It’s cheap and it is the right price point. Our episodes are $5, and I think that’s a damn good trade. We’re going to entertain you for two to five hours for five bucks and if you want it again, you can come back and get another one. I look at it like going to see a movie or a concert around town. It just seems like people respect that. They are like, “Cool, a good price for a good amount of content.” We don’t need to trick people into spending more than they might want. It is a lot simpler. Here is a Walking Dead episode for five bucks. Is it worth it to you?

Five years or ten years from now, how do you see Telltale evolving as a company?

KB: I see Telltale cementing itself as a major, first-class digital publisher. Right there with Valve, having the scope of a current EA or something like that.

DC: I also see us with a closer relationship to Hollywood in a way where there is more of a – I need to say transmedia because it sounds so trendy – an approach where games and television and movies are all coming from the same source and there is a strategy to execute it across all of the different outlets. The game component is considered along with the movie component along with the show component, and they grow together.

This interview originally ran in issue 234 of Game Informer