Telltale Games Interview: Dan Connors

Last week, Telltale Games marketing coordinator Emily Morganti put up a blog post about a number of emails Telltale received from fans about the possibility of the upcoming Sam & Max series of episodic adventure games possibly heading to Nintendo's Wii console. The rumors were based on a comment made by Telltale CEO Dan Connors at the recent Penny Arcade expo, and, the internet being what it is, they quickly ballooned into the subject of a fan crusade. It wasn't long before Nintendo got wind of all this, and the company responded by getting in contact with Telltale. Though the first game, entitled Culture Shock, is headed for the PC in just a few weeks, Telltale is enthusiastic about the possibility of Sam & Max coming to Wii or to other consoles such as Xbox 360, via Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade. I sat down for a chat with Dan about these recent developments, as well as his thoughts on the consoles, the games industry, and Telltale's plans.

Shack: With Emily's blog on the Telltale website, you guys set off kind of a torrent of crazy internet shenanigans. Did you guys expect that, or were you hoping that would happen?

Dan Connors: I like the way you put it. "Crazy internet shenanigans." You know, it really wasn't a planned thing. The blog, obviously, is what's going on in the Telltale neighborhood, what's on our minds. Emily will tell you, and everyone here will tell you, we try to be as close with the community as possible, and talk to them in their language--because we're fans of these types of games too, we're fans of the Wii. We didn't look at it as a company press release. It really was just a reaction to some internet hopes that were moving around that were focused on bringing Sam & Max to the Wii. It came from Sam & Max fans, Wii fans, adventure game fans, Telltale fans--wherever they meet, it's been on people's minds. Just recently people have been asking me, "Is it going to be on console?" and my answer is yeah, we love consoles, we'd love to be on consoles. It would be a great thing. Obviously the consoles are trying to get their digital distribution plan in place. They're working on that, they're not a known quantity yet, you can't just put it in a box and put it on the shelf. Not being exactly sure what the plans are in each console, we just answer, "Yeah!" We'd love to get there. So then when people started emailing us and saying, "Hey, get the game on the Wii!"--though it was in a more polite way than that--our response was just to get the blog and say, "We hear you, ask Nintendo." And people took us up on it, and then the press picked up on it and people really jumped on it. I'm happy, and we didn't expect it from the blog.

Shack: Are you optimistic about the prospects of this kind of thing coming to fruition?

Dan Connors: Yeah, I'm optimistic about Sam & Max getting anywhere. Obviously we're focused on getting to GameTap on the 17th. That's the premier and that's the right place for it, and GameTap's been a great partner for us, so that's our focus. We're proud of the product and want anyone who owns a game playing device to be part of it. That's part of what Telltale is founded on. I'd love to see it anywhere there are people that want it.

Shack: When I talked to [Telltale CTO] Kevin [Bruner] during E3, he mentioned that, in addition to Wii, something for Xbox Live Arcade might be in the works. Any update on that?

Dan Connors: Well yeah, to me, Xbox Live Arcade is doing it. They're out there executing. As far as all the consoles go, their digital distribution is the most tangible, successful operating going right now. It's the only next generation console out at the moment, but they've done great work there. Just like with everyone else, there's a lot of talk going on about how our business model fits in with what they're doing. The business is always more complicated than one phone call. One phone call is like, "Hey, how are you doing? Nice to meet you. Where'd you work? Oh yeah, how's Sally doing?" It's a long process no matter what. There are very few things that just get signed up on day one.

Shack: Obviously, the Wii controller seems pretty well suited to point and click style adventure games. In a broader sense, though, it seems like console audiences in general might be a good fit for what Telltale is trying to do, in bringing this style of gaming to a broad spectrum of gamers. Is that on your mind as well?

Dan Connors: I think, as with GameTap, there's a shared vision between what Nintendo is doing and what Telltale has always professed to do. Games continue to niche-ify themselves with their complexity, to the point where it can't support all the creative inklings of all the developers out there. I hate to blame it on first person shooters or something, but for whatever reason it's become that you need such a level of hand dexterity just to even play is really limiting the audience. I think what Nintendo is doing with the controller is contributing to make it an accessible experience to everybody out there. You can just sit down there and start pointing and have fun. At the end of the day, everybody points and clicks at this point. That's always been my feeling on it. On the PC it's closer to home, but everybody is a surfer. Even grandma buys her plane tickets on Yahoo! I mean, maybe not everybody.

Shack: Quite a lot of people.

Dan Connors: Yeah, it's almost getting to the point where it's replacing television. That's speaking specifically to the PC, but in general talking to the familiarity of interactivity with entertainment, or with news, or what have you. It's exciting times. And Nintendo, I like their moxie.

Shack: How do you feel about other developers starting to move in the episodic direction? Does that feel like a vote of confidence at all?

Dan Connors: It's a vote of confidence without a doubt. The fact that we're in the same space as Valve is reassuring. The fact that Penny Arcade, as web savvy as they are, are jumping into episodic gaming, too. Those are some other people we have a lot of respect for. It definitely reinforces the idea that this is a good way to go and there are more people there. From a business standpoint, there is a critical mass around episodic gaming that needs to be achieved, so that it's not foreign to consumers. The more things that pull people into playing an episode, and sustaining that episodic feel where you're always getting new content and stories, that's growing. You know, on Monday I can play Sam & Max, on Tuesday I can play Half-Life, on Wednesday I can play Penny Arcade, and on Thursday maybe I can play the new Simpsons game. It starts to validate it as a way of getting content in a way that's an intelligent evolution from television, gaming, web surfing--bringing it all together. There is a critical mass approaching.

Shack: You guys, more than anyone else, are really looking to go for that true "episodic" model, where you've got shorter but much more frequent content. Is that something you plan to extend to other Telltale products in the future?

Dan Connors: Yeah, we're in phase one. Phase one is going to continue to look consistant, through the Bone episodes, and the first season of Sam & Max episodes, and the CSI games. In phase two, we'll start extrapolating and building on new concepts and new ideas. My hope is that some of that will be things we haven't even thought of yet, things that will make themselves known as we're going along. In game development, that's one of the coolest things, is that the gameplay you've refined at the end of one process makes the next game better, is one of the most exciting things that comes about. It's where you're building the game, and you say, "That's fun, that's cool, we need to do more of that." If you can tap into that and grow from that, the ideas are like mushrooms, and they pop up all over the place. Just hope you don't eat any poisoned ones. [laughs] But if the risk is low, then you can try all kinds of things.

Shack: That's been one of Valve's major points about this model, having the freedom to try more new ideas because risk is being mitigated by smaller budgets and dev cycles. They've been really gung ho about that.

Dan Connors: Yeah, I've said over and over again, I'm really psyched about five years from now, because I have no idea what episodic gaming will look like then.

Shack: But you think it will be going strong?

Dan Connors: I think it will be going strong, and there will be innovation and new ideas. It should be a real creative well, and people will be flocking to it. Young developers, artists, amateurs, professionals, there will be wild things happening in gaming. I think it has slowed down a lot as the industry has grown, so I'm looking forward to seeing a rebirth.

Shack: Any ideas Telltale has on the horizon you can speak on? Any interesting licenses in the work?

Dan Connors: Uh... I've moved back into "keep it close to the chest" mode, so right now there's not anything I can talk about, except that we are definitely looking at a lot of different licenses. A lot of different people are seeing what Telltale is trying to do episodically, and with the mode we're moving Sam & Max to, and the market around CSI, a lot of people are realizing there's a home for their property in the gaming space.

Shack: Is it difficult to communicate to license holders that a video game adaptation doesn't have to be just going in and shooting everything, or a cheesy platformer? Over the last fifteen or twenty years, that's pretty much what it's been.

Dan Connors: Well, I think there's the games industry proper, then there's the license holders, and the license holders know which licenses have an audience that want an interactive component that isn't necessarily shooting. The publishers have maybe sworn it off a bit, with the exception of Ubisoft, but I think that license holders know that they have a whole treasure trove of material that could be made interactive. While the gaming industry right now maybe isn't built to service that, because the shooting and platforming element is what everything has always mapped to, this new emergence of downloadable and episodic content has made it so that they can connect the audience to the license a lot more easily and with more reasonable economics. So, there's a path from there to here, where before there wasn't one. If you look around at the media companies and how much [of the] internet audience they're seeking out, they're trying to create new audiences for their content. We want to help link that together. I think every day that goes by, people can see that vision clearer and clearer, versus two years ago when we were just getting started and it was just a pipe dream.

Shack: In some ways you guys seem to operate differently from a lot of modern game development. Instead of having a huge tech team and then a couple guys writing, at this point it looks like you've gotten most of your tools locked down and you're putting a lot more emphasis on writing and straight tangible content creation.

Dan Connors: Yeah, obviously with Sam & Max you're getting your entertainment value out of a different place than if you're doing a shooter. If you're doing a great shooter game nowadays, your physics system has to be dialed in, and there are all these technical expectations. The types of games we do that are less about twitch and more about writing and story, require that we focus more on those elements, and our processes get better there. We keep putting more people on those areas.

Shack: Thanks for your time.