We recently spoke with Dan Connors, CEO of Telltale Games, and Emily Morganti, Web Marketing Coordinator for the company. Both were excited about the October 17 release of Sam & Max: Culture Shock, the first episode of the multi-part series. Sam & Max will be part of GameTap's $10 monthly subscription service on its launch, and it will be available as a stand-alone game from Telltale in November.
Connors -- who got his start at LucasArts during its adventure game heyday -- and Morganti spoke about what the episodic trend means to creators, how Sam & Max will entice gamers and non-gamers, and how characters' thong size matters less with digital distribution. (We'll guess that Max is a 3.)
Tell us about Sam & Max.
Dan Connors: So, do you realize that Telltale is doing this episodically?
Dan Connors: We're trying to establish some of the norms of an episode, a kind of TV-style opening -- something that you've seen before with a new series on television.
[Morganti demos the game as we talk. The game opening is a mix between a Saturday-morning cartoon and prime-time crime drama.]
So, a big element of what we're trying to do is make it something that's very accessible to a wide audience and entertaining. And just keeps people amused in general. So, we're keeping the puzzles focused. There's still some mind-ticklers in there, but it's pretty focused. You're not wandering all over the place in search of puzzles, but it's more of a driven storyline with the puzzles integrated in it. It's really the evolution we see in the genre in general. This is a good example of a kind of very focused puzzle: find the cheese.
[Morganti continues playing as we talk. In the first puzzle of the game, Sam and Max are looking for Swiss cheese to pay off an extorting rat.]
Emily Morganti: One of the things Dave says about the puzzles is if the player figures it out and realizes, "Oh-yeah, that's really great, I can't believe I didn't think of that myself," he's done his job. But if the player gets a hint or whatever, figures it out, and goes, "How was I supposed to figure that out?" then he's failed as a designer, so they're focused to make sure they're accessible to the player. So we're stuck in the office until you find this cheese...
With Bone, you've been at the forefront of episodic content. How has the release of multiple episodes of that game met and differed from your expectations?
Dan Connors: One [thing we anticipated] with episodic gaming -- but didn't really have any hard evidence to back it up -- was that every new release would drive interest in the franchise and give you a new launch of the previous version. So when we released Boneville, it kind of had a little bit of a life cycle, a three-month life-cycle where it was at top-of-mind and had a nice sales curve to it. It kind of died down after about three or four months.
When Cow Race came back, though, the Cow Race sales were at launch level and then the Boneville sales actually equaled the Cow Race sales as well, so we saw the rejuvenation of the previous episode. So the idea that every time you're launching an episode, it's bringing value to the franchise and increasing the franchise presence is great. You know, if you look at Harry Potter, the first book has sold the most because every time a new one comes out, the franchise gets lifted up. So it's nice because you can spread out your marketing effort over six different episodes and continue to always be raising the level of the franchise as a result, increasing sales on six products instead of one.
Something we didn't expect was the amount of varied perceptions about what episodic gaming was going to be. The way it had been talked about a lot, it really hadn't been -- and still hasn't been -- completely defined. Telltale did Bone 1 and 2, and the Valve guys have done [Half Life 2: Episode 1 and Steam]. People are making a lot of assumptions about what a whole episodic series is going to be like; there's a lot of education and re-calibration still required on the game development and business development side to match up to explain what episodic is about and then deliver what users looking for.
Part of what we're doing this time with Sam & Max is offering a wide variety of choices for the users as far as subscription, ownership, and ownership of the whole season. So we're really making it so the user can select which way they wan to purchase and experience the game.
We knew we were on the cutting edge, but we weren't ready to explain to every consumer what episodic gaming was. But now that we realize it's a necessity, there's a whole lot of other people getting involved, doing this: Penny Arcade, [Cyan Worlds], GameTap. We're getting a lot more critical mass, and I think it's going to be beneficial to everybody.
Are you planning on the multiple episodes of Sam & Max coming out on GameTap, and how will people be able to choose between subscription and ownership?
Dan Connors: All the episodes of Sam & Max will premiere on -- they'll be aired on GameTap as part of the subscription service. ... We like that because it introduces our product to an audience that has varied interests in gaming, and they can check out Sam & Max and get a feel for it without our product itself having to carry the weight of the entire purchase.
Then on our side, it's also going to be sold from Telltale after the 15 days [of GameTap exclusivity] are up, so people who want to own it and don't want to be part of a subscription on a regular basis can. And that's part of the choice we're talking about. And we expect that people who have issues where they really want to own something and aren't comfortable with paying for a subscription can have it there.
And finally, when the season's all done, we'll make it available to people on-disc as a season if that's the way they'd like to receive the games as well; a lot of people just want to play it in one sitting. They want a 20-hour experience, it's their game and that's the game that they want to play that month versus what they're going to play for the next couple hours.
So do you think episodes need to be released on a strict schedule --
Dan Connors: Yeah.
-- And what schedule?
Dan Connors: I think the strict schedule is the key to this meeting an episodic definition -- really defining for people what episodes are. Our plan is to launch the premiere on GameTap in October, come out with episodes one-a-month from December until April, and that'll be the end of the first season. We think that constant rejuvenation of the series, that reason to return and see the next one, and that involvement in something over a five-month period that people can talk about and get into [make an episodic release exciting]. We're looking at The Sopranos and Lost -- things like that -- as another medium that's succeeded in doing this and has caught on to something that's in the psyche of America right now. So we definitely want to tap into that. And we think there's a place for it in games, especially as the gamers become a more diverse audience.
How does this differ from the previous Sam & Max, and how do you court both audiences: the people who loved it and want the old game and the people who've never heard of it?
Dan Connors: I think the humor. We make it accessible so that you can dive in. It's that laugh-to-clicks ratio and entertainment value. By focusing on making it feel, read, look, and behave like a cartoon, I'm just playing a cartoon that anybody can click. So for a new user, even if they get stuck in a puzzle, they will have been entertained for a half-an-hour or forty five minutes before they got stuck in the first place. They can move along and experience it, laugh, and enjoy it for its entertainment value.
And that's why a lot of what we focus on as a development team is about production values that provide the entertainment experience that is similar to the entertainment experiences that the mass are currently familiar with. Cartoons, television shows, arcing story lines -- all these elements that are very familiar for people. So now we add the puzzles and the gameplay elements in the right kind of dosages as kind of the pepper -- the cayenne pepper -- for the guy or gal that really wants to get in and figure stuff out.
Emily Morganti: The puzzles are also very well supported by the story. The story and puzzles, you can't separate them. I think that's a problem with a lot of [games] -- compared with the LucasArts adventure games that were very good at that. [Puzzles related to story] fell away for about ten years. I think a problem with a lot of adventure games that come out now is they've got these bizarre puzzles, and they're not so good at story; they don't mesh very well. What the team has done with Sam & Max is concentrate on this is the story we want to tell. What can we do to make it entertaining and interactive for the player? But they're not looking at how can we stick a slider puzzle or some kind of really bizarre, sudoku, mind-bending kind of thing on top of it? Sam and Max have to get to this place. How are they going to achieve that? How can we make this player put them there? And I think [the team has] done it very well.
Dan Connors: What are the type of things they would need to accomplish and the type of people they will interact with? And make that as fun an experience as possible.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Dan Connors: I don't know what you went over with [David Reid, VP of Marketing for GameTap], but we're excited about the relationship and can tell with GameTap there's a real opportunity here for creators to get a lot closer to their audience. GameTap is in a position now to enable a lot of creatives that have been -- I don't know if "alienated" is the right word -- but their impact has been mitigated because there are so many hoops to jump through just to get a product launched.
The really creative ideas are getting squashed early in the fourteen-page green-light document process. It's like by page two, anything that's original has been killed, and you're back to sequel and what movie is it from? Is the character cute and cuddly, and how many people do you kill? Or what size is the thong?
The game industry started on great ideas, with people like Will Wright. I mean The Sims, that came to be from nothing and was a huge creative process getting it. A service like GameTap and the whole digital distribution revolution is going to allow for a lot more of that. It's going to bring us back to those roots, and I think it's going to be an exciting time for games over the next few years.
So I'm excited.
Joystiq interviews Dan Connors and Emily Morganti of Telltale
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