Telltale Games Interview: Dan Connors Talks Sam, Max, Gromit, PlayStation, iPhone and More

By Chris Faylor, Oct 22, 2009 1:43pm PDT

It's been a busy past few years for the crew at Telltale Games. Alongside its traditional CSI titles, the developer has produced numerous bite-sized episodic adventures featuring Sam & Max, Wallace & Gromit, Strong Bad, and the Monkey Island crew.

And alongside the steady stream of Tales of Monkey Island episodes on PC and WiiWare, the company just released the second season of Sam & Max on Xbox 360 via Xbox Live, with the remaining episodes of Wallace & Gromit due there shortly.

With all this activity, I caught up with CEO Dan Connors to discuss not just recent events, but where the company is headed in the future and what's coming next.

Shack: It's been more than five months since the first Wallace & Gromit hit Xbox 360. The other three have since hit PC, but not Xbox. What's taking so long?

Dan Connors: The Summer of Arcade [promotion] was a big deal for Microsoft and they had a lot of scheduling stuff going on there. We had run up against it for Episode 1, so after Summer of Arcade came in, we kinda skipped a beat on getting the second one out. We decided it would be good to get them all built and ready to go and get them all out in a close timeframe together so that we could really let people know they're there and really put a lot of effort behind our marketing and letting people know about the rest of the episodes.

Shack: So what you're saying is, no more five month wait between episodes?

Dan Connors: [laughter] That will definitely not happen. That is over.

Shack: I recently charted out all of Telltale's recent releases. It seems like Wii releases are arriving much closer to their PC iterations--Strong Bad was simultaneous, Monkey Island is relatively close--but Xbox 360 is seeing much later releases--the first Gromit took two months to hit Xbox. Why is that?

Dan Connors: I think Xbox right now has ...there's probably just a volume of titles going through Xbox that makes it different. I think the processes are different, as far as getting the products presented in the right way.

There's a lot of work with achievements and things like that that are not necessarily things that you consider when you're doing the PC build. If you want to sync up with Microsoft, to get the schedule in sync, there's a lot of business considerations you have to make as far as making sure that happens.

I think with every console manufacturer, they all have their versions of checks you have to go through to get through their system and get on the platform. It really is something you just need to learn to navigate and need to figure out what the system is and hour it works and schedule accordingly. I think with Microsoft and Wallace & Gromit, it was a bit of a learning experience. I think with WiiWare, it was so important to [Strong Bad creators] the Chapmans that Strong Bad be a Nintendo product, we really made shipping on WiiWare as the launch platform a critical piece of the scheduling, and that was a big part of it as well.

Shack: Going forward, will we see Xbox 360 releases hitting closer to PC?

Dan Connors: I think our goal, going forward, is to launch on as many platforms as we can simultaneously. We've also added Steam to some of the [PC] launches.

For us, it takes a lot of effort to get the word about any title and marketing is just a huge investment and it doesn't make sense to break that into multiple launches. We don't think that's going to be a winning strategy.

There's a lot of stuff you need to consider in launching. Obviously, the sooner you launch, the sooner the product's out in the marketplace and you can return on your investment. But if you want to maximize how loud you can be about the product and you want to get the word out as big as you can, then having a simultaneous multi-channel release is the smartest thing. I think everybody in the business has realized that, especially on the retail side. It takes a lot of work. There's a lot of syncing up with a lot of different people. It takes a lot of discipline to pull it off.

Shack: The first episode of Sam & Max hit Wii as a retail disc. Are there plans to bring some of those other series, like Strong Bad, Monkey Island and Gromit, to consoles via disc instead of just download?

Dan Connors: We're definitely hard at work on that. I think our retail plans got a little bit slowed down by the global economic crash. I think now that things are starting to come back up, hopefully there'll be a strong Christmas this year--it'll make sense for us to bring the products out to retail. As of last year and last Christmas and some of the trepidation around the business in general, it's a lot harder to bring retail product to market. But we are certainly working on that. For us, it always makes sense to bring it to retail and it's always been part of our strategy to bring the seasons out as a season pack. We just have to figure out the right way to do it and the right way to present the products to people and the right marketing campaigns around it.

Shack: What lead to releasing the first two seasons of Sam & Max on Xbox Live as full season bundles, instead of individual episodes?

Dan Connors: It just made sense to both Telltale and Microsoft to do it that way, since the product was there and it was already out on the marketplace like that. It made a lot of sense to just make it available to Xbox users like that. With Sam & Max [season] 2, it's going to be the first non-PC release for it. It's going to be available, all five episodes, in one sitting for $19.99. It's going to be a very great value.

We could've done a lot with having ten episodes available to just do whatever we wanted with and schedule however we felt was right and really give a feeling of episodic with the existing platform, but I think we both decided if we were gonna go after building a new episodic model on Xbox, it would make sense to do it with a fresh product like Wallace & Gromit.

Shack: What are your thoughts on the future of episodic content on Xbox 360? I mean, Microsoft just re-released Fable II in episodic form.

Dan Connors: Yeah.

Shack: As a company that really banked itself on episodic gaming years ago, that has to make you feel pretty good.

Dan Connors: [laughs] I think we're okay in the ego department, anyways. It's a great thing to see. It is really cool. I think Telltale's examples on the PC and WiiWare and Xbox are probably a lot of what the Fable team's going on and trying to make it work.

As far as we're concerned, it was real interesting with Monkey Island where, this year when we launched, there was a real expectation at the launch that this was going to be an episodic experience because the name Telltale was associated with it. The player that came to buy the game knew that they were in for a six month experience and kind of knew the formula--we didn't have to do a ton of explaining.

It really has shown in the reviews where, in the old days, it might've been like "hey, this was too short" or "I didn't get enough" or whatever. Now it's like, "wow, that was great, I can't wait to get the next one." Which for us, was always the huge thing we needed to educate people on and get people to expect. I think the Telltale brand has an expectation of that experience, and if more people can do it and help us in defining it, it'll be easier. More people will know when you say episodic what you're talking about--that it's a thing that's delivered monthly or weekly on a regular schedule and you either buy it at the beginning or you start off and buy ongoing episodes. There's a level of understanding there.

I guess that's a long-winded way of saying [that] having more people do it is great for us because it educates more people on what it is. The question then becomes execution, and if they're executed in a way that's radically different from the way that Telltale's doing.

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Shack: It seems that some companies have adapted better to the episodic mindset than others. For example, Valve's Half-Life Episodes aren't exactly arriving on a regular timetable. How is Telltale coping with such a strict schedule?

Dan Connors: We've done it one bite at a time. Telltale's really had the luxury of being the company that was built from the ground up to do this. We've never done anything different.

Certainly, there's been that shifting mindset for a lot of the people there. I mean, Telltale's a lot of vets, we wouldn't really be able to pull this type of thing off without really seasoned game development talent. But we also have a lot of really new people that have only worked with Telltale and have a total different perspective on the way the industry works.

I think the big thing for the team is, it's a real rhythm thing. They really have to be in sync. You have to get used to the idea that there's always a product going out the door.

Shack: I think it's amusing that one of the criticisms against the first episode of Monkey Island was that it felt less like a complete story and more like a setup, something you usually hear about television shows.

Dan Connors: I think a lot of people, they aren't exactly inaccurate when they say that. I think Episode 3 has kind of been the payoff of the setup, and 4 and 5 are just going to get better from there.

There's so much, if you go into it with an open mind, there's so many advantages from a story-telling and experience standpoint in doing it this way. Everybody just continues to get better and better at it.

Shack: With Monkey Island being the fastest-selling Telltale release yet, what's that mean for a possible Xbox 360 version?

Dan Connors: I would love it to be on Xbox 360, would love to sit down with those guys and figure out the best way to go after it. We definitely want to get Monkey Island onto the Xbox. We think it would be a great home for Tales. I think we just need to talk through the logistics with them and do what makes sense. I know they had great success with Monkey Island: Special Edition. We think there's definitely an audience there and we definitely want to get the game to them.

Shack: What's your take on the PlayStation Network?

Dan Connors: From what I've seen PlayStation Network is really flexible and they have their head around how a publisher might want to present their games. It would seem that enabling new ideas and innovation is a big part of their vision.

Shack: Does that mean we'll be seeing Telltale games coming to PlayStation Network?

Dan Connors: It's certainly always been our goal. We think Sony is doing some really great things with PlayStation Network, and everyone here at Telltale is excited about the platform. Nothing is set in stone, but I'd say that there's some good potential there.

Shack: What are you thoughts on the PSP go? It's built around digital distribution, and Telltale is a company that focuses on digital distribution, so it seems like a natural fit.

Dan Connors: Definitely. I think they're in the right place and they've built great hardware to compete with all of the other small gaming systems, handheld gaming systems.

We're always excited about a device that gets more people playing games, and I think our games would translate really well to the system. I think that gamers are gonna love it. We have one in the office the other day, [it] shut down business for about thirty minutes while everyone sat around and just uh, you know, got all excited and gah-gah goo-goo'd over the thing for half an hour.

It's always good when the staff is interested in what's going on and thinks it's a great idea. It's exciting news.

Shack: What about the Nintendo DSi?

Dan Connors: I think that has always been a great platform too. The handhelds have been something that are kinda "next generation" for us to think about. We're still focused on PC and consoles. I think there's a product that works very well on the DSi and as soon as we can figure out how our stuff could work there, I think that it's a good target.

Obviously, their install base is great, so that's always an interesting thing for us. We're still a little bit aways from that part of the business being open.

Shack: Telltale's got several Wii games under its belt, and industry trends seems to suggest that it'd be easier to port from Wii to PSP than Nintendo DS.

Dan Connors: Ironically, huh? I think there's probably some truth to that. It's certainly something that we still need to get the details on exactly how the hardware works and everything else. It's not something that we're deeply entrenched in at the moment. That's a huge opportunity for us.

Shack: What about iPhone? Is that part of your expansion plan moving forward?

Dan Connors: It definitely is, and that's another thing where I know that Monkey Island: Special Edition was a big seller there. It's part of the element of the types of games we make, being able to work on those types of devices. We feel like there's an audience there. What we don't understand right now is the ecosystem of the distribution and what it really, how you get an app on there that can move really well because it's so competitive and there's so many different applications there. We're really thinking through that part of the strategy and once we have that in place we'll sync it up wit h our tech strategy and try to bring the stuff over to iPhone because it certainly makes a lot of sense and it seems like it's a pretty democratic system in terms of getting your content to the market.

Shack: With Gromit and Monkey Island wrapping up soon, what's next? Sam & Max Season 3? Dave Grossman mentioned wanting to revisit Loom....

Dan Connors: [laughter] Well, the first one is certainly a lot closer than the second one. We're currently, we've got product in production right now that we've been talking about but we haven't really set a release date to. Everything else, we're just ....we're out in the streets, sort of talking around to different folks to figure our franchises that make real good sense for a May-June timeframe. Hopefully we'll pull something in that'll blow everybody's mind. We're pretty excited about the people we're talking to, so hopefully we'll have a pretty huge announcement here soon.

Shack: You've partnered with LucasArts before, and they have a very rich catalog.

Dan Connors: Yes, yes. They've been great partners. We'll see if there's more there. It's really been great getting to know LucasArts again after years away. I like the new group of people they've brought in over there. I think they're doing some original things and we're real interested in continuing to just be a partner with them.

Shack: I don't know if you've heard this, but Gearbox's Randy Pitchford recently called out Steam for exploiting smaller developers.

Dan Connors: Really?

Shack: He claims Steam takes too much of a cut from smaller developers. That's okay, for bigger developers, like Gearbox, because they'll sell enough units to make up for it. But he's worried about smaller developers, and thinks it would be better if Valve spun Steam into its own company to prevent a conflict of interest. As someone that's done business with Steam, what's your take?

Dan Connors: I don't consider Telltale to be a small developer. I think we're more built to be a publisher and to have a publishing arm. Any channel we work with has got to be fair and reasonable, or else they won't get our content and we'll go somewhere else or we'll distribute it ourselves. We have a little leverage, and don't consider ourselves necessarily in that category, so I can't speak to that.

I will say this. What I've seen from the people I've worked with at Valve is complete support and a real cooperative relationship with us. What people kind of underestimate is how much they're giving up in giving access to their audience. If they wanted to charge [developers] for putting you in the front of them, they could charge you probably what they end up taking from you in their backend.

It's that access to audience and market position that's really super hard for an independent developer to get, but Steam provides. There's a value for that. [Valve] could just have their stuff in those spaces, or just sell their system, but they're giving independents another marketplace. I can't really see why that's a bad thing.

Shack: Speaking of digital distribution partners, what ever happened with GameTap?

Dan Connors: I think they had a good idea. It's what happens a lot of times when people come into the game industry with an idea that the industry is going to be like the industry they're currently in and don't take into account how unique the game industry is and what it takes to sell games and what gamers expect. I think they came in with something that's great, was a really powerful application, but they didn't understand what gamers wanted out of it until a little too late in the process. That's just my take. But they were certainly great with us and they helped us a lot and they certainly helped get Sam & Max and Telltale off the ground, so we'll always be grateful to that.

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