Telltale Games' Dan Connors Talks Episodic Gaming, Next Gen

by Andrew Reiner on Feb 18, 2013 at 06:23 AM

Telltale Games' The Walking Dead was one of 2012's surprising success stories, racking up numerous Game of the Year awards (80 according to Telltale) with an interactive experience that made many gamers grab a Kleenex. I spoke with Dan Connors, CEO and co-founder of Telltale Games and executive producer on The Walking Dead, about storytelling in video games, The Walking Dead: Season 2, and what's coming next for the industry.

Reiner: Has the success of The Walking Dead changed the way Telltale is looking at future projects? Is it becoming a mold for what Telltale hopes to accomplish with other games moving forward?
Connors: The Walking Dead has captured a lot of what we were trying to do. As far as having a digital distribution network to publish into so that we control our own destiny and sell more products direct to customers, The Walking Dead is what we’ve been working toward for the last eight years. That was super important for the business.

As far as building out an episodic model of gameplay that people understood and appreciated, I think that was a huge move forward for us. What is a Telltale game? How immersed in the world do you feel? How immersed in the story do you feel?

So it’s really getting there. The Walking Dead was huge for us. And now going forward we have more Walking Dead to do, which is great, and we know a lot of what that can be. We’re also seeing opportunities with other franchises who are saying, ‘Hey we know what you just did with that franchise, can you do it to our franchise?"

The market for licensors to come into gaming is still up in the air. People are still trying to figure that out – and Telltale’s really the only ones saying, "Hey, we’re committed to doing this, and we’re going to be a positive addition to your franchise at the end of the day.’

Is there a design advantage to the episodic format? Can you shape the experience as it goes forward and learn from the successes and mistakes between episodes?
That’s the most exciting thing about it. It’s the culmination of so many things that we’ve learned to do throughout the history of the company. Working really well in this context and the live-development aspect of it – which I never would have expected – is so valuable in that you’re getting a read on what players are responding to, and you’re able to enhance it, play on it, and change it. There’s so much about episode three that was based on the way users played one and two – what they commented to us, what the stat screens said. Each episode is crafted with that knowledge. That’s the beauty of live development. If we had done five Walking Deads, put them in the can, and then laid them out one at a time every month, it wouldn’t have been as good of a product.

Do you wait for that consumer data, or are you already laying the groundwork for the next episode?
We’re in active development on some of the episodes, and really the strength of Telltale is in our ability to iterate on what we’ve built. We’ve been shipping games close to monthly now for a long time, so everything about our process is about being fast, so we have a lot of time to make changes based on the user experience in episode one. And a lot of the changes are simple things, too. For instance, make Kenny look more pissed about this situation because we know how people perceived it in episode 2. If Kenny’s mad at the player, then they’ll change their behavior. So, in that moment, make the player choose between making Kenny more mad or save Ben. Those are the types of things that we amp up to make the choice that much harder, because we know how players respond to certain things that we do.

Does the episodic model apply extra “We got to get this out quick” pressure to the development team? Or is it we’ll very much an id or Valve approach of “We’ll release it when it’s done?”
We don’t approach it like id or Valve. We can’t. When we’re late, and it’s three weeks late, we hear it loud and clear. We want to get the game out there monthly. We need to do it. Generally, if stuff doesn’t go into that episode, it goes into the next one. It forces us to choose our battles and really focus on what’s important. I think it is different than “I’m going to build sixty hours [of content], and those sixty hours are all going to be perfect. Only twenty percent of the people are going to play more than six.” That’s such a hard thing to get your brain around as a developer. If we tell people it’s going to be out, we get it out. The key thing is that we deliver on the story moments and give people a fun two-hour experience. It’s just a $5 commitment, too. It’s not like this is something I need to obsess about in my life.

After The Walking Dead's season was wrapped, you released it as a physical product, allowing consumers to pick up the entire game at once. Are you finding the game data is different for people who don’t have to wait a month for the next episode? Are they not putting as much thought into the consequences? Are they trailblazing their way through the game?
That’s a super interesting question. We haven’t dived into [the data] because when it was April to November, we were in development. And then we launched it, and we’re not in development. We’re looking at other things now, so we’re not as in tune with what’s going on.

The month break was a big hook. The conversations I would have with my coworkers would be like, “Oh my goodness, what’s going to happen next?” Time added extra tension and drama, which is so unheard of in video games. It’s a really interesting experience, and I loved the model. I hope you guys continue with that.

People still call The Walking Dead an adventure game, but I think you guys have kind of rewritten what an adventure game is. We’ve been talking in the office about creating a new genre for it. The idea right now is to call it a drama. The Walking Dead didn’t have a lot of the adventure genre’s typical puzzles. It became more about storytelling and determining whom to trust. Is that something you’re going to continue pursuing even outside of Walking Dead?
Yes, Telltale is about storytelling, and getting interactivity into storytelling, and allowing people to participate in an unfolding story. This has always been our mission, and that’s what we built Telltale to be. That’s what we were built to do, and we just see so much opportunity in storytelling. We’ve always been in this space because there’s so much upside here. How a virtual, handcrafted character responds to the decisions and the actions of a player and pays them back is just starting to be explored.

We are committed to continuing to create that experience in our games. We’re figuring out how players act in this space to determine what depth we put into the experience. The thing about The Walking Dead is anybody can play it. But there’s enough depth in the experience that it’s not a casual thing. You just don’t go in there and decide whether Doug or Carly lives, and that’s a casual experience. That’s a heavy experience. And there’s a lot of work in getting to that moment and building to that point, but anybody can get there, too. So it’s creating this virtual moment for people.

Building the characters that support these moments and putting players in a context where they feel like they’re in the world, that’s our starting point. Now, you start talking about next-generation content, Kinect, voice-based stuff, motion-based stuff, VR – which, who knows, come 10 years from now – when we get into our 3D world, is it going to be about having a machine gun and meeting this crafted 3D character with a bullet, and blowing him away?

I’m sure that will be one of the experiences repeated over, and over, and over if it’s successful, right?

But if it’s that refined and you’re standing right next to me, how could it possibly be more interesting to shoot you than to interact with you? Well, you could be poorly acted, you could say really dumb things, and you could try to shoot me, in which case I wouldn’t have a choice. But you know what I’m saying. Even if you go in that direction of selling that product to 14- to 25-year-old males and maybe some older males, what about everyone else?

I was just talking to Ted Price of Insomniac games about Telltale’s model of releasing your game on everything. That’s really unique. Like EA would try to do that with Madden, but would have to make different versions for most of the platforms. You’ve created a model where you’re releasing the same game on every platform, yet now you’re talking about Kinect and all these different things. Is that something the studio’s exploring now? Is Telltale’s future not just giving the same experience, but expanding that experience to take advantage of specific systems?
I talk more about the specific interfaces, because I think they’re interesting in the evolution of storytelling. I think right now we still want to focus on the channel that we have, and then whatever connected experiences come with the next generation of hardware. If Xbox and Sony play this right, you people, everybody, should be getting all entertainment from that device in the living room. And it should be passive, it should be attractive, and they should be able to talk to each other. So that element of this is super interesting.

And who knows if Apple’s going to win. But I see one of those three, or some fourth party coming in to the living room with a device that isn’t cable, that isn’t broadcast, but is getting digital content delivered to it, and it’s going to have an interactive component to it. And that’s super interesting to us. And since we’re franchise based, melding a franchise experience together so that you’re getting not only your game experience, but your television-viewing experience in that app, that becomes super interesting.

Imagine you finish an episode of The Walking Dead and you make a bunch of decisions, and then they play back in a passive form while you’re waiting for the next episode. That’s something that we think could really be redefining.

You’ve previously talked about companies coming to you with licenses they’d like to turn into games. You did The Walking Dead, Back to the Future, Jurassic Park. Any chance Telltale veers away from licenses to explore its own ideas and universes?

Yeah, I think so. It’s still a ways away. I think we’ll do it in partnership with somebody else. Maybe Gabe Newell and J.J. Abrams stole our thunder of a great Hollywood and games marriage, but I think we see ourselves, if we’re going to create another franchise, we’re going to do it with someone who has a lot of experience and a lot of talent from a storytelling standpoint. We’re going to provide the interactive piece, and we’re going to bring the strengths of movies and games together and create something that’s bigger than the two. It just has to happen; it’s just inevitable. We always like to try and make those things happen. That will be something we’d be super interested in. I think that’s going to happen.

How are Fables and Walking Dead: Season Two coming along?

Fables is coming along really well. We’ve gone back in and really tried to take a lot of what we learned from The Walking Dead and get that integrated into the story with Bigby and the characters that he meets. We want to make it a real interesting battle for Bigby between: Should he give in to the wolf side, or should he try to get along and keep everybody safe? There’s a lot of work in trying to make that work.

And we feel really good with how it’s coming along. It’s such a fantastic, imaginative world – talking pigs and the whole nine yards. It’s fun. Being students of Fables now, we’re reading all of this weird, crazy stuff. It’s a really rich thing to be studying. We’re focused on getting that to the right place. And then there’s The Walking Dead. The company is just so excited by it, and happy about it, and got such a good feel for it that I have a good feeling about where that’s going next.

Are both in active development, or is Fables next and then The Walking Dead?

Fables is next, but we’re definitely working on The Walking Dead as well.

For more behind-the-scenes Telltale Games coverage, check out Kimberly Wallace's Creating Clementine piece and Ben Reeves' interview with Robert Kirkman.