Telltale CEO Dan Connors on Sam & Max

Telltale Games took a relatively untried approach to game development with its series of bite-sized adventure games based on Jeff Smith's Bone graphic novels, but the studio took on a significantly more demanding release schedule with its current monthly episodic line based on Steve Purcell's Sam & Max underground comic characters. With the distribution assistance of gaming service GameTap, the company has now released four of the six Season 1 episodes featuring the dog and rabbit duo, and has been rewarded with positive critical and commercial reception. I recently caught up with Telltale CEO Dan Connors to chat about what the studio has learned from its experiences so far, and how it plans to apply those lessons going forward.

Shack: So Sam & Max has been received well. What were Telltale's expectations for this business model going in?

Dan Connors: I think we knew a lot coming in, from Bone. We were aggressive about tuning the experience based on what we learned from that. We always felt that with the Sam & Max audience there were people there who would want these products, and that was nice because it liberated us to know we could go for it and commit to the whole season. Adding GameTap in there as an extra insurance policy was great because we didn't have to worry if we could finish it or anything like that. The distribution relationship has worked out really well for us, our site has worked out really well, consumer response has worked out with the quality of the product, and the staff is having a great time--though we're still tweaking the process. There are some pressure points with this whole episodic thing we have to work out.

Shack: Do you have any sense for how Telltale's own sales have been versus how many people are playing through GameTap?

Dan Connors: Well, the deal is that we got rid of some risk but in return we had to give up some of the audience [to GameTap]. There was a tradeoff in that GameTap did a real marketing push behind Sam & Max, so we felt like that was a good tradeoff--or a reasonable tradeoff. I know that it is one of the most played games on their service. Their service has I think tripled in subscribers since we've been there. I don't think that's all because of Sam & Max, but it's one of their drivers along with [Myst Online:] Uru [Live], and we know that people who are there are playing it more than a lot of the other games. Our goal has been to get the top five most played list to say all Sam & Max episodes. Maybe Uru can be in there too. [laughs]

We're probably about 60% of the way to our projections for sales, and we haven't finished the season yet. It's already a profitable experience just from our site, which is a huge thing for us.

Shack: Do you forsee continuing on with GameTap after Season 1?

Dan Connors: I see it as very possible. They've been very positive so far. If it looks like it will stay a win-win deal, we'll stay with them. Now, there are other people out there who are interesting too, and the value of that exclusivity is something we'll be discussing with everybody.

Shack: Regardless of partner, are you expecting a Season 2?

Dan Connors: Yeah. I don't think we'd miss out on that opportunity. We'll be able to make that happen for sure.

Shack: There was a post-mortem in Game Developer indicating that Telltale's monthly schedule has been very intense. How have you guys been dealing with that? There hasn't really been a game series that has released on such a tight schedule in the past.

Dan Connors: Well, we get better at it every time, and we'll be better next time out. I think we've identified where the choke points are, and who's bearing the brunt of the pressure. Really, the biggest issue around it for the development staff is that it's really hard for them to be focused on every different part of the production cycle. You're in concept on one, you're in production on another, and you're closing a third. So, there are certain key people involved at every point, and we need to find ways to share the responsibility among those people because they're all mission-critical.

Shack: One common criticism, despite the positive reaction to the games on the whole, has been that environments are getting repetitive. I imagine this would be difficult to address in the middle of a season given the schedule you describe, but are you looking to improve in that area going forward?

Dan Connors: Yeah, I think that's something we're going to sit down and look at our strategy for. We've already sat down and made small tweaks to it that made a big difference already, like going back and putting in new jokes and putting in ongoing stories about Mr. Spatula and things like that. I think if this were a regular adventure game, it wouldn't really be a shock to return to the same unchanged place after four hours of gameplay. We've put some extra pressure on ourselves to make it a unique experience each time, but I think solving that is going to give us a lot of good idea about storylines that evolve over time, and what can be changed that adds to the story and the experience. I think the problem-solving part of it is going to be a good thing to sink our teeth into creatively.

Shack: Telltale frequently comments on drawing from the television model. Is the story going to continue on from season to season, with the whole season finale and season premiere kind of thing?

Dan Connors: It's hard not to, and I really love that idea because it gives people something to talk about--it keeps it alive between episodes, the way people talk about their favorite television show. The character development thing is almost unavoidable. These characters start taking on their personalities as you're doing the work, and you want to build on that. It's a creative driver that comes up organically. You get that personality, and you can start building on that personality. You don't want to fall into the trap of having to play every episode to play [the new one], but the characters of Sam & Max are being developed. It's like, when Frasier was first introduced with Lilith [in sitcom Cheers], he was her shrink and that was it. By the end, he had a whole backstory--that kind of thing happens naturally.

Shack: In terms of plot development, how much did you guys have planned out from the beginning and how much are you making up as you go along?

Dan Connors: I couldn't exactly give up all the secrets about the magic illusion behind the complexity of our stories, but there was always an arc and it was always supposed to be wrapped up. Whether we knew exactly how it was going to be wrapped up--well, you know, Sam & Max gives you the luxury of not needing it to really make sense.

Shack: A classic Sam & Max storytelling technique.

Dan Connors: Yeah--don't worry about it, it will work itself out. [laughs] But we are now at the point I think as we jump into the second season that we missed some opportunities in the first season of being able to take advantage of some of the things an overarching plot can bring. I think that will be done more through both side stories and character development in the next part.

Turn the page for Telltale's console plans as well as Connors' take on how Telltale is able to do what it does.

_PAGE_BREAK_ Shack: Do you deal much with [Sam & Max creator] Steve Purcell at this point?

Dan Connors: Steve's still reviewing all the work, but it's going to be fun to get back into brainstorming with him.

Shack: I imagine his biggest input would come at the beginning of the season.

Dan Connors: Well, it depends how you look at our schedule. We're a few months away [from finishing] this season, but the nature of our process means we're already early into the next one. But yeah, that's the fun part, the brainstorming and planning and everything else.

Shack: Much ado has been made of your job solicitations for Wii and Xbox 360 programmers. What can you say about your plans there?

Dan Connors: Well, we're hoping to get on to both consoles, with Live Arcade and Virtual Console--I'm sorry, on all three consoles! But we're starting with Wii and Xbox, on both of their online services and retail as well. We want to open as much distribution as possible and reach as many people as possible, so when we go out and talk to a license holder we can say, "Hey, we can get your license in front of all these people. Come with us and we'll make sure it's a great product." The distribution channel drives a lot of that, especially if you're independent and you're an emerging media publisher. I think there's some room for us to grab a stake.

Shack: Have you had much discussion with the platform holders?

Dan Connors: Yeah, on and off. We're definitely talking to them about it. They talk to a lot of people, so getting their attention is a bit of a challenge, but it's always nice whenever there's an article going across the headlines that people want more Sam & Max. There's also a lot of interest in the episodic thing, and Sam & Max has gotten a lot of interest from the critics, so that helps too.

Shack: There have been numerous attempts to take on the episodic model, but nobody is really taking the same approach that you guys are. Do you think anyone else will make a conscious effort to do so?

Dan Connors: Well, it's going to come up from new sources, probably developers we haven't talked to yet. That's not to say the other guys can't do it--I'm sure they could put resources on it and figure it out--but there tends to be this common knowledge of, "It can't be done because that's not the way I do it." As long as you're doing that, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you're saying, "I'm going to build something that will let us do it monthly," you'll do it monthly.

I mean, Kuma\War has been around for a while putting content out... There aren't hundreds of examples. With Valve, I would say waiting a year or a year and a half for a new Valve game is probably better than waiting three years, or four years, or more. Valve has that blockbuster quality, and they're not going to get away from that. People might want to see Valve release monthly, but I don't think anybody would want to play the Valve product that was made on that schedule. So I have complete respect for what they're doing, and for us this works. We're made from the ground up to do this, to learn from every step we do. If people keep liking it, we're going to keep doing it, and if they don't, we'll stop doing it. The internet lets you do that. In most cases, it's three or four years before your studio is kicking on all cylinders, but we've already put out a lot of content in two years.

This is the plumbing that you need to do the business. You're not going to get that in there if you're just theorizing, if you're sitting around creating a document to pitch to your upper management so they'll greenlight some money so you can sit around and try an episodic thing inside your company. By the time you've done that, we've already put out thirteen products thanks to the plumbing and metrics we have in place. Valve has that same plumbing and metrics, for their model.

Shack: Yeah, you've put out quite a few games already.

Dan Connors: It's really rewarding when we finish a game and I get to sit down and look at it and laugh really hard. [Episode 4 spoilers ahead; highlight the following sentences to read.] I mean there's Abe Lincoln debating Max, you know? What more can you ask for? We shot the Washington Monument into the Lincoln Memorial. We have a giant song and dance number. It's amazing to be able to make that happen. Frankly, I think we're doing one of the funniest pieces of content out there. I'd put the writing in Sam & Max up against most of what's on TV right now, and even some movies, and we're hoping the masses catch onto that.

Shack: Best of luck, and thanks for talking to us.

Dan Connors: Thanks. We need it!

Telltale Games recently released Abe Lincoln Must Die!, the fourth episode of Sam & Max Season 1. Episode 5: Reality 2.0 is due for release via GameTap on March 29, with a general release on April 12.