Telltale Games is known for pushing the edge on interactive storytelling with games like The Walking Dead, the episodic, post-apocalypse game that forced players to make tough choices about which friends to save from zombies. That series has sold millions, and it clinched the company’s reputation for drawing emotional responses from gamers.
That’s not necessarily the profile of a company that is also pushing the edge on cloud gaming or using the power of computing in internet-connected data centers to augment the processing power in gaming devices such as laptops, tablets, or PCs.
“We’ve thought about how we use the cloud and the future of our games using the cloud to tell bigger, greater stories,” Telltale’s co-founder and chief executive officer Dan Connors said at a recent talk at the Cloud Gaming USA conference in San Francisco.
One application is similar to Netflix’s model, which lets customers watch a movie on any device and switch to a new platform and pick up where they left off. That’s important in Telltale games, because players make critical choices that affect how the story unfolds. It has to line up across the gamer’s devices.
“Players have been asking for this for years,” Connors said. “The game is informed by the data, and the player feels like this is their personalized game experience.”
But Connors also wants content to work in concert across media. If you’re watching a certain episode of Game of Thrones on HBO, you might also want to know where you are in the upcoming Game of Thrones interactive title from Telltale.
“The back end talks to the game, and the game talks to the show, and everything works in sync,” Connors said. “We could have entertainment experiences that are multimedia. We feel we can do this with the biggest stories in the world.”
We caught up with him for a one-on-one interview; here’s an edited transcript of our conversation. Connors will be on stage talking about storytelling in games with Phil Sanderson, managing director at IDG Ventures, at our GamesBeat 2014 conference on Sept. 15-16 in San Francisco.
GamesBeat: When some people talk about the cloud, they talk about putting 400,000 spaceships in a scene or whatever. You guys have figured out something different, I take it, about what the cloud gives you for storytelling or game design.
Dan Connors: What we look at is, we’re now in a place where the cloud is where all media live. Since we work with franchises and work in universes, we can take advantage of that to inform our game. On the other side, as far as how players use the game and form the story creation, we feel like we’re on the cusp of an evolution of entertainment that’s bigger than games, but that brings interactivity to the forefront of entertainment as a critical piece.
Even if it’s just regular linear entertainment, it’s going to be surrounded by interactivity anyway, just through the way you get it and experience it. When we look at it, that’s the way we think about it.
GamesBeat: If you look at, say, Netflix, they’re already there. Is there a feature they have with their cloud everywhere that you’re looking at as something that might be useful in gaming?
Connors: It’s less about the feature and more about the tangible example, as well as where they’re keeping the content itself. Because it’s in the cloud, it can be aware of user behavior, and it can be aware of behavior from other media.
Netflix has accomplished a user adoption that gives users what they want – the ability to take their content with them wherever they go from a single source. From our perspective, it puts that content in a place where it’s closer to our forms of content. It’s closer to processing power. It’s closer to somewhere it can be talked to and where it can respond. It’s closer to a place where it can be interactive.
GamesBeat: One good thing they already do is picking up the story where you left off. You don’t want your gamers to be interrupted.
Connors: They’ve delivered the user experience that every user wants, which is, I have five devices, so why can’t I move my experience across them? When we look at it, it becomes that element of, well, why shouldn’t all those devices do different things as well? Why shouldn’t they have a different responsibility in the storytelling?
If a phone is good at one thing, it should tell one part of the story. If a console is good at another thing, it should be responsible for that. If a linear piece is best for another thing, they should all know each other. They should use the fact that they’re in the cloud as a way to communicate with each other and get communication from the player.
GamesBeat: One thing that’s slightly inconvenient now is that your game may not release on all platforms at once. You may prioritize one platform, get it out, and then get the game out on the rest of the platforms. In that period of time where there’s some lag, then you can’t just pop from one device to another.
Connors: That’s just something that needs to be solved. Whenever you’re talking about introducing something, people ask, how much is this content really needed? How much does your plan take advantage of it if it has it? Is everything ready for it to work in sync? If you do it prematurely, you get false impressions of how valuable it is. Getting everything queued up and taking a forward step toward that is just part of the plan and the strategy that’s required when you’re in something as amorphous as the evolution of this part of the business.
GamesBeat: Some platforms are still striving for some amount of timing exclusivity. That may run a bit against that plan as well.
Connors: It’s consumer demand against business need. Consumer demand has certainly been about ability to move across platforms. Does everybody really need that? Once the application demands it, it’s a different question. Right now, the application doesn’t make you need to be on multiple platforms. It’s just a different way of playing it. So is that convenience worth taking all the hard work the platforms have done developing their audiences and sacrificing it? That’s up to them, at what point they feel like that’s worth it. It’s certainly a block to having it be seamless.
GamesBeat: How complete would you say this platform is at this point, what Telltale has going in the cloud?
Connors: We’re in a good position right now. We have all the pieces in place to have a robust backend that can inform game content and other content that’s on a device with the ability to use processing power and take advantage of interactivity. It’s building the product that has them all work in concert and gives people an example of what you can do in creating an entertainment experience that works across all your devices and takes advantage of the strengths of each. But I’ll always say it starts at the core. The initial design, the initial story needs to be done in a way that can take advantage of the opportunity.
GamesBeat: It definitely needs to deliver this notion that what choices the gamers has made across all platforms—You don’t want to restart something where you’re saying, “Hey, wait a minute, I already made this choice.” You don’t want to go back and do it again.
Connors: The idea that you, as the player, have an ongoing relationship with a piece of entertainment that is your piece of entertainment, that’s central to all of it. That idea that what you receive from the cloud on your various devices is driven by you is the secret sauce our interactivity has that nothing else has. That’s the skill set that gaming brings.
GamesBeat: Our conference coming up has this theme of global gaming. When you think about going across platforms, are you also going across territories? Does anything come to mind as far as how you have to proceed that way?
Connors: It’s one of those things where there’s going to be different receptivity in different markets. There always is. I’m sure there’s going to be all kinds of different policy issues and things like that as you move across the world that are out of our control. But the areas where this is being pushed forward are also the areas where the audiences are most there. The parts of the world that are most capable of executing something that’s cloud-based, that’s multiplatform, that’s multimedia are the same as the people that are going to be most likely to consume our game.
Breaking out into the emerging markets is about figuring which ones are there from a technology standpoint, who the stakeholders are for each platform. That’s just part of the challenge of working online anyway.
GamesBeat: I guess you eventually want to get to the place where movies are, where you could have a worldwide simultaneous release of a game?
Connors: In the nature of this conference, you’d put it up on the cloud, and it could then go to multiple devices. It could be a full package of different types of media, and it could all come out day and date for everyone who has access to the cloud.
GamesBeat: You might still have to do a toned-down version for China.
Connors: Right. But that could be a problem that the cloud could solve as well. The more you push it and you try to make it work, the more the problems come to light. But the idea that you could get a game in China that has different content than a game in the U.S., just by going to the cloud and saying, “When you push the game to China push this content, and when you push it to the states push that content,” that’s a solution that is sitting there waiting to take advantage of it.
We’re trying to think through the ramifications of it. That’s where the cloud sits right now. It can do so many things. People just need to understand to what end.
GamesBeat: With Game of Thrones and Borderlands, are you going to be closer to some of this vision you have?
Connors: Borderlands is going to start doing a lot of work for us as far as getting accounts and saves and things set up across platforms. Also, doing things where people can take what they experience in the Telltale game and share that experience with their Borderlands game. It’s different from going into a piece of linear content, but it’s also very—Borderlands is a rich environment for things like that. The notion that you could be playing this massive shooter that people love and enjoy, and then you could go back and get some story, and then that story could come back and have some impact back in your game—That seems like an idea whose time has come. This is something we’re going to be going for.