Telltale Games scored big with The Walking Dead, the post-apocalypse game that forced players to make tough choices about which friends to save from zombies.
It drew such an emotional response from players that it sold millions of episodes and won numerous Game of the Year awards.
Founded by former LucasArts game developers, the company made a bet early on that it could hook players with monthly episodes of its digital games. Clearly, that strategy is working.
Dan Connors, chief executive of Telltale, said that the company never strayed from its vision, and it has now a good idea what it means to create a Telltale experience. We caught up with Connors at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) video game trade show in Los Angeles last week.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: You guys have a long history, but this seems like a particularly good time for you.
Dan Connors: When we set out in 2004 to build a company based on digital distribution, using episodic content as a way to keep people engaged, we didn’t realize that it would take so long, but it’s finally here. Now we have digital distribution on all the major platforms. We’re working with the biggest licenses in the world. We’ve been able to create a gameplay style that resonates with gamers and fans of licenses alike.
GamesBeat: I don’t remember exactly when, but I remember IDG was part of funding you guys. When you raised money, did you understand what you were trying to do at the time?
Connors: Chris Hollenbeck led the round for Granite. That was 2007. 2007 and 2010 were when we did the two financing rounds. We had Sam and Max. We were working on the CSI games. I think we were attractive. We had a healthy business. It wasn’t like we were going to take a bunch of investment money, drop it all in a product, and hope that product hit. We had the GameTap relationship. We had the Ubisoft relationship. We had Telltalegames.com, which was a fairly good channel at that time, generating revenue for us. We had multiple revenue streams. The investment was truly about scaling the business up.
GamesBeat: Did you remember much competition at the time? Episodic was something fairly new then.
Connors: Back in 2004, the excitement was mostly about mobile phones – JAMDAT-style, phone games. Then, around 2006 or 2007, there was a big fascination with user-generated content. Inevitably we would go in and it would always be about the last thing to take off. But we were always very much sticking to our guys and saying, “This is the way. This is going to take off. This is the right way to do this type of entertainment.” We never stray from story. We never stray from small chunks of content released over time. Those are always the two keys.
GamesBeat: With The Walking Dead, what would you say came together to make that such a big game for you?
Connors: We built the company around episodic development of core-quality content, which was a non-trivial thing to do. We went out and continued to get a growing scale of licenses. We built out multiplatform distribution across six channels, I think, by the time Walking Dead came out. We set out to create a publishing infrastructure to enable the games we wanted to build.
By the time we took on the Amblin franchises, with Back to the Future and Jurassic Park, we’d started to experiment with interactive storytelling, drama, plot, and the right ways to execute them. Those two games were really transitional for us, in moving away from a traditional adventure-game model and to an interactive narrative model that could be enjoyed by people who were just fans of the franchise, just interested in experiencing a story.
GamesBeat: And then The Walking Dead show was a hit.
Connors: The show took off, yeah. The things the Walking Dead game did were so unique to it inside the interactive space that I think it probably could have succeeded, though, at least on a critical level, without the franchise. The franchise is great and brought a lot of people to it, but I think the gameplay evolutions of it were real enough and tangible enough that it would have been noticed.
GamesBeat: I played the whole first series there. I kept hearing so much about it that I wanted to experience what was so emotional there. There’s more in the story. I’m curious about what you do that pulls people in.
Connors: It’s a commitment to making sure the story feels playable. In Call of Duty, you could see a great cutscene that creates a lot of emotion around the characters that you’re with, but then you go and play the mission, and by the time you come back to the story again, that emotional connection is gone. It’s too big of a separation. You can try to carry it through the gameplay experience, but then it’s to the detriment of that gameplay. It’s a hard thing to get both.
With Telltale, we just decided to commit to making people care about the characters as much as we could, making the characters feel as real as they could, and then putting the player in compelling situations and making them make choices. We committed to that at the core of the product. That was what the product would be about. Call of Duty is still about being a great action game. It does that very well, but it’s hard to coexist that with strong storytelling in that environment. Our games are for someone who wants to sit down and feel like they’re immersed inside the story in a new and different way.
GamesBeat: The Fables series here with The Wolf Among Us — Is it picking up on that in some way? Is it doing things differently?
Connors: It’s funny, because people who play it have said that it feels very familiar, like Walking Dead, but it’s completely different. That was what we were going for – building out a model, building games in a way of making games where things felt very familiar in the way you did things, but each piece of content is completely unique because the writing is different, the characters are different. Wolf Among Us has proven that that was a good way to go. Now there are people who like these experiences and like that they can experience them in a different world and a different story.
GamesBeat: You showed those videos of people crying when they were playing The Walking Dead game. When did you start to pick up on that kind of thing, that it was that powerful?
Connors: We felt it in the room, when we were creating the game. We would read the scenes and everyone in the room would be quiet. People would be touching the corner of their eye, and that was before there was any graphics or any acting. We knew, at that moment, that it was powerful. As our cinematics team and animation team came on and added more emotion to it, it got more and more powerful. I think it was the end of episode two where we realized that people really cared about these characters.
GamesBeat: Parts of the engine are a little funky. The feeling of walking around isn’t quite so close to real life, or to an action game like Call of Duty. Do you find that players don’t mind that? Or do they wish that some parts of the game could be a little different, like the movement rate?
Connors: We’re always focusing on the things that bring the most value to the product. A super interesting exchange between characters, something that’s well-written and has a lot of context and consequence associated with it, is the most valuable part of the performance. Walking from point A to point B is kind of secondary to that.
But with that said, every time out, because we do so much content, we’re always improving. We’re always hearing what people are saying. We address issues as we feel like, “Okay, this is getting in the way of what we’re trying to present.” We definitely put our effort into the parts of the game that entertain people the most, that they most care about.
In Call of Duty, you’re running through that world. You have your gun out. You’re very much that soldier and you have to feel like that soldier. That’s different than feeling like Lee, which is about what you say to Clementine in the situations you get in, things like that. We’re always working to improve, but we’re always focusing on the things that make Telltale games feel the most like Telltale games.
GamesBeat: When the story and the narrative are strong, that compensates for moments where it maybe isn’t the smoothest 3D virtual experience.
Connors: It’s not perfect in all of its presentation. I feel like Telltale games, with the amount of detail we put into animation and the amount of work we put in to make sure everyone in the space feels alive and feels appropriate—It’s more than anyone else in the business. It takes a lot of work to make that scene feel alive, to make it feel like, when I’m saying something to you, the people over there are paying attention and care. Or the world is alive around me. You’re hearing what I’m saying and I can tell from your face how you feel about what I said.
I feel like we do more than triple-A games, making sure that’s all there and working. It’s not always as fluid as those games, but it allows us to get more coverage, to cover the game in its entirety with animated sequences.
GamesBeat: From this success, what have you learned? What are some of the ambitions in front of you?
Connors: The biggest thing we’ve learned is to believe that, if it’s compelling and interesting, if the characters are interesting, people are going to be engaged. Once they’re engaged, then it’s your responsibility to figure out how to get them invested into the experience. How do you let them get their will into the product? That’s always the challenge, because a great writer can write a completely compelling scene, but if the player’s not involved, it’s not a Telltale experience. It’s not an interactive experience.
Pulling it back and saying, in the case of Walking Dead season two, “What does an 11-year-old girl have to do in this situation? How does an 11-year-old girl relate to these grown-ups fighting over where they should go next? How do you give the player, as the 11-year-old girl, some ownership?” That becomes a thing that we spend hours and hours in meeting rooms beating on. Sometimes it leaves the writer crying because he just wrote the most beautiful scene of his life, but we said, “You can’t have the player just watch it. They need to be involved.” The thing we’ve learned is a healthy respect for how much work that is.
GamesBeat: The writers here, are they maturing in some ways? How do you develop that kind of talent?
Connors: There’s two fronts. There’s going out and looking for the best writers, experienced writers who know how to write serial plots over multiple episodes. People who maybe have some show experience, who have done that before, who can do a lot of that heavy listing and beat out the stories and get it all laid out. Then there’s the internal Telltale writers, who understand how to bridge those story moments with the interactivity and create the situations and the words that make believable characters that you want to spend time with.
A Telltale game only succeeds if the characters are interesting to be with. That’s what the Telltale writers need to do. Over time, they’ve understood the technology of how you make stuff stay relevant over time, how you add consequence to situations, how you build out a choice tree. These are all skills that exist on some level, but Telltale is much more complex than other companies. More and more of our guys are starting to get up to speed on that. We’re enabling a whole bunch of people to create more games like these.
Connors: We’re 190 at this point. We work with contractors on the story side and the art side as well.
GamesBeat: It seems like you’re helping people wake up to this business model. There’s a lot of angst about free-to-play, how to get money out of players or how to get more money out of players. Here you have an episodic thing where people are gladly investing in it, in the entire series.
Connors: We’re not tricking anybody. We’re never sitting around thinking about how to convince people that they should pay another amount of money. It’s very clear to us that it’s one episode after another. This model is consistent with how other forms of entertainment work. If you look at television, it’s episodic. It’s a serial business. We’re doing a lot of similar things, but we’re adding interactivity.
The idea that you get episodes over time, so that it’s something that can be part of your life for a season, is a huge value for us. It’s part of the product. It makes the product cool. It makes the finale different than the launch. It grows over time. People can engage with us and we can tailor content for them to experience.
Then there’s the transition of all content to output that has interactivity built into it. With your iPod, or TVs soon enough, or Xbox and PlayStation 4, you’re watching your show on the same thing you play your games on. For them not to communicate and work together and create a bigger entertainment experience is just a lack of vision at this point. It’s all sitting right there, ready to happen. Someone just needs to commit to figuring out how to do it.
That’s the exciting thing for me. We like the business model. We like the fact that people have multiple options as far as how to buy our product. If they want to play our story, they pay for it. It’s reasonable. But the idea that they can start changing storytelling at its root, so that there are offerings on different platforms that are interactive series, I think that’s where we see it going.
GamesBeat: What can fans look forward to in these future productions you’re working on?
Connors: I think they look forward to the extension of the universe. If I’m a Game of Thrones fan and I’m between seasons, the idea that another story is going to come out and fill the gap and put me in the middle of it, so that I can continue to stay in the world and get more lore and be engaged with it between seasons, it just feels like it’s almost a no-brainer.
The show’s only 10 episodes a season. It’s not like the old days, where a television series would run forever. The series are getting to be kind of small. More content that’s interactive makes perfect sense. Eventually we’ll cross-pollinate the two, so I’m doing my linear series and then doing my interactive series and they bleed into each other. It all relates to me personally. That’s doable. But it needs planning, strategy, commitment.
GamesBeat: Microsoft has talked about things like that, like with the Halo TV series affecting the game’s plots and different characters showing up in different parts of the series.
Connors: Yeah, every part reinforcing the other.
GamesBeat: Defiance tried to do that. Quantum Break is on the way. Some of that might be a little hairy.
Connors: It always is, right? That’s why it hasn’t happened yet. The first people over the transom are going to take all the arrows. It’s never right the first time. How many games did Supercell make before Clash of Clans? How many games did Rovio make before Angry Birds?
The thing is, especially if you’re on the innovative curve, the key is to be able to generate enough content that you can get the tight feedback loops and improve until you get it right. You figure out what people like and you do more of that. You figure out what they don’t like and have that fall by the wayside. If you don’t have the staying power and the infrastructure to do that, you’re never going to make that.
If you say, “I’m going to take $30 million and try to make this thing work,” either it works or it doesn’t. Either you lose all your money or it blows up. I don’t know if there are any examples of that anymore. Even the overnight success stories were iterating for a long time. They just knew how to take advantage of the feedback they were getting from their users and how to put that back into the product and make the next iteration better.
GamesBeat: You guys are like the 10-year overnight success.
Connors: If you can survive for 10 years, you have to end up somewhere in this business.
GamesBeat: The idea of a Telltale game seems to be defined for you now.
Connors: I think so. There was a thing we talked about early on, which is that when people play a Telltale game, they’ll know that it’s a Telltale game. I’m sure that people will do things like we do in the future. It’s not impossible. But I feel like we’re in a place in the industry now where we have a recognizable brand that means something when people hear it. That gives us the freedom to take chances on that and push that around and try to do something new, but within a structure that people still recognize, that could make it even better.