Telltale Games, the maker of story-based franchises such as The Walking Dead and Batman, has named former Zynga executive Pete Hawley as its new CEO. As such Hawley will be responsible for growing a company that has become a huge proponent of dramatic stories in games.
Hawley succeeds Dan Connors, who cofounded the company in 2004 along with Kevin Bruner and Troy Molander. Connors, formerly of LucasArts, was the initial CEO of the company and led it for many years. Bruner took over as CEO in 2015, and then he resigned and handed the job back to Connors about six months ago. During this time, Telltale’s board, which includes Unity CEO John Riccitiello, was looking for a permanent replacement to lead Telltale into the future.
They settled upon Hawley, who was a senior vice president and general manager of games at Zynga for the past three years. Before that, he was cofounder of augmented reality and location gaming pioneer Red Robot Labs, which had the misfortune of losing out to Pokémon Go creator Niantic Labs.
“It’s quite an honor to join the team,” Hawley said in an exclusive interview with GamesBeat. “I’ve been a huge fan since Telltale reinvented the old LucasArts games. Now it is working with some of the biggest intellectual properties in the world. It was too good an opportunity to pass up.”
At Telltale, Hawley will move into a role with a great deal of gravity. The company has collected a community of rabid fans over the years. It solidified that fan base with The Walking Dead, a story based on the popular zombie franchise. It was an episodic game, released in chapters like a TV show, with a heavy focus on player-driven storytelling. It put players in impossible situations where they had to make gut-wrenching decisions about who to save or who to let die. When it was over, the player could find out how other fans made the same choices.
It was a huge hit and won more than 100 Game of the Year awards. About the time that Bruner took over in 2015, Telltale began a big expansion, growing from 180 employees to about 370 today. It expanded to other brand-based games, including Game of Thrones, Batman, Minecraft, and The Wolf Among Us, and stopped working on games like Sam & Max. The graphics are in comic book style, almost like motion graphics. To date, Telltale has sold more than 40 million games.
“We are excited to have Pete join us,” Connors said in an interview. “Telltale has come a long way, and we have a lot to do in front of us. For me, the days of pushing everything uphill as a cofounder is behind me. It’s about bringing on people who carry on the vision. We want to bring interactive storytelling to a wider audience.”
Connors said that Telltale grew dramatically in terms of staff, revenue, and product. Lately, the company has been taking time to digest, he said.
“The good news is the newcomers have two years of work under their belt,” Connors said. “I think the industry knows what a Telltale game is. We created the genre. People know what you mean when you say that.”
Hawley, who starts at Telltale on September 18, has decades of gaming in his DNA, having served at Electronic Arts. At Zynga, he oversaw a variety of titles and tech investments. At Red Robot Labs, (2011 to 2013) he helped the team create mobile location games such as Life is Crime, and at the time, the work there was groundbreaking. He worked on social games at Crowdstar (2010 to 2011). He served at Electronic Arts/Criterion from 2005 to 2010, and at Sony from 2003 to 2005. He also ran production for Lionhead Studios from 1999 to 2003, working with Peter Molyneux on titles such as Black & White and Fable.
“I spent the last three years at Zynga under three different CEOs, and it helped me learn about big data, economies of scale, and the social side of gaming,” Hawley said.
Connors remains on the board and he will assist with the transition as Hawley tries to figure out the next stage of evolution in interactive storytelling.
John Riccitiello, the chairman of the board at Telltale Games, said in an interview that it isn’t unusual for a company as old as Telltale to evolve to the point where it seeks out a leader to take it to the next stage.
“When I sat down with Pete, I said, ‘Shit. This is the guy,'” Riccitiello said. “He blew me away. Telltale is one of those places where you would like to have a content creator as CEO, and Pete has that experience. Kevin and Dan invented a new medium with episodic narrative gaming. Pete has a strong vision for where the industry is going. He is a hands-on, driven guy who will execute and get us to where we want to be.”
Hawley said he wasn’t going to come in and make a bunch of big changes based on preconceived ideas.
“A big mistake would be to come in and vastly change or wreck what is going well,” he said. “I have respect for the teams and the work that Dan and Kevin have done. It is a friendly pass of the baton.”
“Pete Hawley is widely regarded as a forward-looking executive with a strong grasp of where the interactive entertainment business is heading,” said Lionsgate CEO and Telltale board member Jon Feltheimer in a statement. “We at Lionsgate look forward to working closely with Pete, John and the rest of the Telltale team. With dynamic new leadership, a strong market position and a triple-A roster of top intellectual property, Telltale has an exciting path forward, and the collaborative opportunities for our
two content companies are greater than ever.”