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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.
GamesBeat: Is Borderlands something similar?
Bruner: Borderlands is another one of those things where people say, “Borderlands? How is that a Telltale game?” And now they’re playing it and seeing what we’ve done with it. When we talk with Matt and Randy at Gearbox, the details of the rules and the logic of the Borderlands universe are comprehensive and deep. It’s almost as grand as something like Star Wars.
You sit and talk with Matt about the background and what’s going on with Pandora, he just knows it. He invented it and knows it to a level that can’t really be expressed completely in a first-person-shooter format. We’re super-excited to unearth all kinds of aspects of the Borderlands universe that are there in the shooter but aren’t as overt as we can make them.
That’s a good example. When people ask, “How does Minecraft become a Telltale game?” they should check out Borderlands, because it’s an equally odd thing, maybe, to consider at the start, but we think that both of them are really rich places for us to do our thing.
GamesBeat: How do you feel about the state of the tech that’s the foundation for your games, the game engine?
Bruner: Over the past couple of years we’ve been focused on getting the games running everywhere. We run on Android, Fire TV, Kindle, Xbox One, PlayStation 4. I think last year we turned on five or six new platforms. We can service more than 6,000 different devices. That’s been an important initiative. At the same time we’ve been making performance improvements. People have noticed that the games run smoother.
We feel good that we’ve made progress there, but we have ground to cover. We would love for the games to look like these technical tour de forces, these crazy high-end productions. But being able to run everywhere is really important to us.
GamesBeat: Quantic Dream (Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls) seems like a good comparison to what Telltale does. The mechanics are pretty similar.
Bruner: We love their stuff. I just installed Fahrenheit, the remastered Fahrenheit. Technical whiz-bang fidelity has never been a pillar of what we do. We love the art direction. We like thinking outside the box from an art direction point of view.
I don’t know if we’re going to go toe to toe with Quantic Dream and Naughty Dog and these nine-figure productions. But we stay focused on the story and the anchors for us. If we don’t get the story right, it won’t matter how pretty it is. The most important thing is the writing, the role-playing. We’re trying to get that to as many people as we can. We want the games to be higher-fidelity, to run smoother and all of that.
GamesBeat: It seems like you’d reach a bigger audience if you made some progress on the little things. “I know that’s a Telltale game because of the way that person is walking around.” If some of that would move forward, it would open up the storytelling to people who are more drawn to twitch games.
Bruner: Maybe? We’re in this era where gamers are really open-minded and experimental. There’s a lot of weird, quirkier games that hold their own much more. We were in an era of super-hardcore FPS games for a long time. Now more narrative-based gaming — Telltale is almost becoming its own genre. We want to appeal to gamers too, but we also want to challenge gamers to think a little bit differently about what a game is.
There’s a lot of healthy conversation, people arguing over whether Telltale games are “real games” or not. My favorite comments are always the people who say, “I don’t care. It’s not about whether it’s a game or not. It’s about whether I’m having a good time.” That’s where we’re coming from.
GamesBeat: A lot of Dan’s talk a couple of years ago was about how emotional some players get when they’re playing your games. Is that still one of your pillars, that you want people to have that emotional experience?
Bruner: Yeah, people getting sucked in. In Borderlands they laugh out loud. In Thrones they gasp when horrible things happen. Nobody thinks it’s that weird or unusual that, when you finish a book or walk out of a movie, you think, “Wow, I was affected by that.” Games are an even more powerful medium, because you can engage. The fact that games as a storytelling medium have hit that point — “Wow, I was really affected by that game” – is surprising to some people, but we think this is a powerful medium. That’s the way we measure success. We’re more interested in affecting people than we are in making 50 different endings or 50 types of guns or 37 side quests or whatever else people might be interested in.
GamesBeat: It seems like some players get emotional when there’s only one ending that they can’t avoid.
Bruner: The multiple-ending thing is interesting. We call it “tailored narrative.” We were intentional about that. It’s a storytelling medium for us. We look at ourselves as a scripted entertainment company.
I understand where people are coming from when they ask, “How come there aren’t X number of endings? Why isn’t there more permutation?” But we just don’t approach it that way. We do what is artistically credible, creatively interesting. Only if we can tell a great story do we think it’s worth telling.
It’s a bullet point to be able to say, “There are 37 different endings!” But that doesn’t necessarily make them good endings. Writing one fantastic ending — or four different endings, if you’re talking about The Walking Dead season two, plus a fifth if you count the little sliver of one that some people find — is really hard. It’s hard to create one good story, let alone a handful.
Like I said, our goal is to affect people. Feeling the choices in the moment, having them matter — it’s the same feeling you get when you read a great book or see a great movie. Then exploring outside of that is definitely cool and we embrace it. But we don’t put that first. We don’t say, “Let’s invent a situation that gets us as many endings as possible and try to fill them in.” We work in the other direction.
I’ve said that we make the kind of games that play you. When we closed season two, we got a lot of emails from press and people who played it early. They were asking, “What was the real ending?” The way we always talked about it in the studio is that whatever you did in that first run through that you felt you needed to do in that moment, that was true to you in your heart, that was the real ending. That was yours. You owned it. The title of that episode was called “No Going Back,” maybe for a reason. Those choices in that story mattered to you because that’s where you took it.
Stories that turn into a sort of narrative scavenger hunt are — I don’t know. At least with the storytellers we work with, the great staff we have internally and these partners we work with externally — who, in my opinion, are world class — the narrative scavenger hunt doesn’t inspire them. It doesn’t get them to tell incredibly great stories. It’s just hard. Branching is a powerful tool and we definitely use it. But it’s also an easy trap to fall into and overuse. You become compromised creatively.
GamesBeat: One thing you had that you showed to people is the analytics you use. I’m curious about how that helps you internally. What does it mean if one of the choices comes out close to 50-50 and another is 90-10?
Bruner: Stereotypically, we like the 50-50 better than the 90-10. Our take is that if we get 90-10, then we didn’t make the choice interesting enough.
GamesBeat: It’s too easy a choice.
Bruner: Sometimes an easy choice is important. But we strive to make the content messy, to make sure that every choice has some upside and some downside to it, that there is no right or wrong. It’s funny coming from Lucas, where we worked on Star Wars with a light side and a dark side. We’re drawn to moments that don’t fall into a light side or a dark side. It’s not what’s right or wrong. It’s just a tough decision in the moment. You have to live with it.
That’s where Walking Dead was such a great breakout for us, because that thinking in that world — you don’t have a lot of time to make a decision. You just have to live with the decision you make. It’s not about being right or wrong. It’s about living with it. I think that’s one of the reasons it hooked. Robert Kirkman’s world and our philosophy really worked together.
My favorite people are the people who say, “I don’t go back.” That’s where Quantic Dream went with Heavy Rain. You couldn’t. There was no checkpoint rewind, just a save, until you finished the game. I really dug that they did that. When you start getting too flowcharty with a game, you’re missing the forest for the trees at that point. Either the content isn’t good enough to appreciate on its own or you’re devolving it into just a mechanical analysis. Which can be interesting, but hopefully it’s a secondary layer to the way you look at the content. The first playthrough is the one that matters the most.
GamesBeat: How many people does Telltale have at the studio now?
Bruner: We have 220, and we’re looking to grow more.
GamesBeat: Does that mean you have the capability to do a certain number of projects at the same time?
Bruner: We have four things in production right now. That goes back to your first question. People who want to work with us, who we would love to work with — we would love to do more. The interesting thing is, by using games as a storytelling medium, we’re not locked into a mechanic, where you’re driving around or your character can shoot arrows or has some weird special ability. We can apply what we do to all kinds of genres, to ensembles, to personal stories, to stories about any point in time. It’s more of a medium than that. We’re not too worried about burnout right now. We’re just trying to grow the studio while we keep quality up.
We just had the Metacritic analysis that came out, where we were the highest-rated on Metacritic. We don’t live and die by reviews and things like that, but it is nice, after a couple of years of doing this, to feel like we’re holding our quality. We’re able to scale. We’re not just able to make great Walking Dead content. We can make great Wolf Among Us content, great Borderlands content, great Game of Thrones content. It does feel like we could maybe do this at a bigger scale and it would still work.
We use a lot of television modeling. There’s a lot of television out there. We’re sensitive to trying to do too much. But we feel like — we’re not a racing game. We’re not quite so one-dimensional. We’re kind of a “multigenre” genre.
GamesBeat: It’s becoming a mobile world in a lot of ways. You’re in a business model that fits this development. The way you do episodic is not so far away from live operations in mobile games.
Bruner: Yeah. A lot of the telemetry data and the analytics that are applicable in the mobile game space can work to our advantage as well. We always thought games were too expensive. We can get to price points that make sense. We’re still selling $5 games, which we think is a pretty good value. The format itself works on the big screen, works on a tablet, works on a phone.
We took a long time sticking to our guns to introduce the world to this and get it right. It feels like it’s starting to work. We’ll see what the next 10 years do for us.
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