Interested in learning what's next for the gaming industry? Join gaming executives to discuss emerging parts of the industry this October at GamesBeat Summit Next. Register today.
Telltale Games wandered for years in the wilderness, and its new chief executive, Kevin Bruner, was there the whole time. He was named as CEO earlier this month, replacing fellow cofounder Dan Connors, who spent a decade at the helm.
At first, Telltale’s unique style of making games — telling a chapter of a larger story one episode at a time — had a niche audience. But it finally broke through to the mainstream in 2012 with its critically acclaimed series based on popular zombie-apocalypse show The Walking Dead. Now the company has taken the lessons of that success and applied it to other big episodic tales such as Game of Thrones, The Wolf Among Us, and the Borderlands properties.
Bruner said the San Rafael, Calif.-based company is hard at work on a story-based version of Minecraft, which you might consider to be a close cousin of The Lego Movie. In partnership with Microsoft’s Mojang, the Minecraft title will come out later this year and feature stories that come straight from the lore that players have created.
I’ve been a big fan of Telltale’s recent titles, which tell you after you finish the game whether your choices are aligned with everyone else who played it. But I’ve had mixed feelings about the freedom of choice for the gamer in these titles, which Bruner says have “tailored stories” for narrative reasons. In some cases, no matter what you choose, the outcome is always the same. That’s one of the things that inspires a close link between fans and game designers, and it makes for rabid debates and a lot of loyalty at the same time.
We talked with Bruner about this at the recent DICE Summit, the elite game industry event in Las Vegas last week. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How did you guys talk about doing this transition to the CEO job?
Kevin Bruner: We founded the company together and we’ve always run the company together. Over the years, as I’ve gotten less involved with the code and been able to get more involved in other aspects of the business — becoming president and all that stuff – it’s been a pretty organic and natural transition. Also, 10 years is a long time for anyone. It’s something we’ve been transitioning toward for a while. We’re at the end of that process now. Internally it’s not that different. Dan hasn’t left the company or anything like that.
GamesBeat: He’s still an advisor and board member?
GamesBeat: Does he have something in mind he wants to do that isn’t a Telltale thing?
Bruner: Aside from his family and his kids and all the usual stuff? No, I don’t think so. He’s still very committed to Telltale and its success. I can certainly attest that the seat is very taxing. We’ve accomplished an amazing amount together over 10 years and we’ll continue to accomplish stuff together going forward. It’s not that radically different from the way the company’s been running.
GamesBeat: What changes for you?
Bruner: Again, it’s not like there was an event that drove anything. It’s been pretty organic. It’s not that different. If you think, in that regard, “Well, why now? What has actually happened?” there’s a lot of opportunity in front of us right now. We’ve earned a really interesting position where there are lots of licenses for us to work with, lots of partners for us to work with, lots of interesting things for us to do. The next 10 years are going to be at least as hard as the previous 10 years have been. I guess it’s more as if we’re tag-team wrestlers. Dan tagged out. I’m tagging in for a while. We’ll see how it goes.
GamesBeat: It’s a good position to be in, I guess. It sounds a lot like the position Glu Mobile found itself in. They have Kim Kardashian as their hit game right now, and so every other celebrity in the world has come to them saying, “I want my game!” Brands are seeing your success, then?
Bruner: The era of us knocking on a lot of doors trying to explain what Telltale does — we spent a lot of years doing that. Now it’s not just IP. It’s IP, creatives, business partners across the board. The palette of opportunities is just amazing. That’s why we’re expanding again. There’s so much to do. We want to capture as much of it as we can.
We’re doing our own thing as well, in concert with all of that. Like I said, the next 10 years are going to be just as crazy and hard and cool as the last 10.
GamesBeat: Would you turn down some things now that you might have been really happy about five years ago? It seems like you can be very choosy now about what new franchises you work with.
Bruner: We haven’t had to yet. It’s kind of as if we’ve invented a genre or a style of game or story experience. Wolf and Fables wasn’t a brand name that everybody knew about, so I don’t think there’s anything necessarily like, “Well, we only do giant no-brainer franchises.” We’re not just doing whatever’s on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. That’s not the mode we’re in. We’re trying to just find the most interesting work for us.
People might think Minecraft was an odd choice, but we’re giant Minecraft fans internally. We have lots of people spending a lot of time on lots of Telltale Minecraft servers. That got people talking about, “What if we made a Telltale game in Minecraft? Wouldn’t that be cool?”
GamesBeat: It seems like the kind of idea that comes out of a game jam.
Bruner: Almost every minute of every day is a game jam at Telltale. This TV show, this book, this YouTube video — almost everything. We’re always thinking, “How do you Telltale that?”It kind of sprang organically. Then you look on YouTube or on Amazon for Minecraft narratives and there are tons of them. People are eating it up. It’s a great place to tell stories.
GamesBeat: What’s interesting is that it’s known for being so open-ended, whereas you guys tell stories that are finite narratives.
Bruner: We’re not trying to lose the feeling of open-endedness. We’re telling a specific story, but open-endedness is an important aspect of the story, is the best way to describe it. The story is a very Minecraft story. It hits all the things you’d expect Minecraft to hit on — survival, exploration, playing with friends, jumping from server to server.
GamesBeat: It reminds me of The Lego Movie.
Bruner: The Lego Movie is definitely a touch point. There’s some comparisons to be made there. I don’t think we’re cloning it or anything like that, though. Minecraft has its own logic and its own universe that defines the rules of that logic. Working with Mojang to tell a story grounded in that is how we’re approaching it. We’re going back in the studio now with the guys at Mojang and cranking hard right now.