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Joystiq interview: Telltale's Dan Connors tells tales

Kevin Kelly

Sam & Max: Season One was one of the first real success stories of digital distribution, where folks could download episodes of the game from month to month, and then after everything had been released, pick up a DVD copy of all the episodes with some extra content. Season Two launches on November 8th (tomorrow, kids!), putting Sam & Max right back into the fray.

We sat down with Telltale Games founder and CEO Dan Connors during E For All to talk about all things Sam & Max, Bone, and what's coming up for the young studio. We started off by waxing poetic about E for All or E3 possibly moving to Vegas, so we could have done this over drinks and then hit the tables. We'd like to think Sam & Max would have been proud.

So the Sam & Max distribution method of releasing episodes online and then having a version you can purchase later in stores seems to be a success. What do you think contributed to that?

Well, I think the maturity of the web in general, and of e-commerce. In 2002 even, most people wouldn't give their credit cards online, and most people were still on dial-up. It really started to change around 2004 where everything that people said was going to happen, happened.

Telltale is really unique because we built the company from the ground up to do digital distribution. We've certainly seen that the marketplace is more mature now. The Sam & Max audience is a great example of an audience that wants the product, but the marketplace just doesn't serve it. So kind of using that as a good reason to serve up a digitally distributed product, we also wanted to explore the other things that digital distribution offers that retail doesn't. Could you imagine trying to get a product to shelf one a month? You just couldn't do it. So, it's more of a broadcast model, but it's also evolved past broadcast to where it's an on-demand model.

Plus you hit store shelves eventually and you can pick up the whole season at once.

Yeah, we like the idea that the season is an ongoing thing that you can get involved in. That you can start in October and then in March it's done, and you've really built that anticipation for the next one. It's not just a gimmick, because on a very tangible level it allows us to get this product out to people. From an opportunity perspective, it allows us to evolve in the space where everything is going in a cool and fun way.

What did you learn from Season One that you've applied to Season Two?

We're a lot more focused on the flow of the season now. Season One was all about getting the production process nailed. We tried some episodic things, but I don't think everyone was on board about what was good about episodic content. They kind of had a vague notion, and we were looking at Lost, and things like that ... but how do you do it? How do you do it with Sam & Max? I think we saw enough from Season One of what people responded to, and what they enjoyed, and what they wanted more of. So from day one on Season Two, we were looking at that was our primary focus ... what's the season going to be like? How are we going to lay out all five? How are we going to develop the characters, and lay out all those elements together and execute it?

Season One was six episodes long, but for Season Two you are only doing five episodes. Why is that? Just to tighten it up?

It felt tighter. With six it felt like we were stretching it just a little bit too much. With five it allows us to focus more on each individual product, and I think you'll see a denser, deeper product. With five last year we were feeling really good, but with six it felt like we'd lost some energy.

With Xbox Live and PlayStation Network becoming more popular, would you ever do Sam & Max or other products for the consoles?

Yeah, that's definitely what this year is all about. We'll hopefully have some announcements about some things coming out very soon. Our engine just shipped with CSI for the Xbox 360, and we're soon to get the Wii stuff done. Once that's all in place, we'll be able to move the episodic production process on top of that. All of the channels are interested in having good episodic content on the systems. It's all about picking the right piece of content.

With Bone, another great property, it didn't perform as well as Sam & Max. Why do you think that is?

Well I think it was a lot of new things at once. When we shipped Bone, we spent as much time defending the model as we did the product. Plus it was our first project out of the gate, and we hadn't worked through all the pricing issues. It just took a lot of hits for the company and that made it hard to get momentum. You know how hard momentum is in the business, you just have to get it.

With Bone, looking at it all again, with Sam & Max it's such an easy audience for us to go after. I mean, Sam & Max ... it's a gamer. 85% of the Sam & Max audience are already gamers, they really want the product. So with a young company trying to get momentum and establish a strong brand, it's nice to know you can deliver something to that audience. With Bone, I think it's more like 10% are gamers, maybe 15%. I don't think it's much more than that. We made an assumption that the comic book crowd and the video game crowd are very similar, and they are in a lot of ways. But, it's not a direct link that if I read a comic book, I'm a gamer.

Inevitably Scholastic picked Bone up, which Jeff [Smith] never intended originally. If you read the whole thing, it's a pretty cool story with a lot of depth that gets dark. The first episode in particular is very simple, the characters are very simple. It's the first thing Jeff ever did, so he was still figuring out what it was going to be. If we had it all to do over again, we might have broken it up into the first four chapters and summarized it, and moved it along for the player. It was real important to us to really stick to the license and give Jeff an interactive version of that first book.

Will you possibly revisit Bone and put out another title?

Yeah, we still talk about it a lot and how we can make it happen. If we could just get it up over the hump, there's an audience for it and I think it would do well. Telltale has a bigger audience now than it did when we launched Bone, and they know Telltale and assume if the Telltale's stamp is on it, you can expect good things from it. So, we can leverage that a little bit.

How has the GameTap relationship benefited Telltale?

There's many positive reasons for that relationship from a business standpoint. They are a good channel for us to help guarantee some of the return on our investment. Plus they're really proud of Sam & Max and they make it well-known and get a lot of people in front of it. So anything that strengthens the brand of Sam & Max strengthens Telltale, especially since there is so much heavy lifting to be doing to break out from a smaller distributor/publisher role into a real big time online publisher, and to have a partner like Turner in there pushing your license is not a bad thing.

Now, we've heard that with Season Two, the writers are making more of an effort to make everything feel a lot more like one story arc, rather than several standalone episodes. Is that happening and has it changed the feel of the game?

The writers do approach it like a television model, and the art of it is to introduce a person in any episode, and have them play, but then have that character drive them back to play again. One thing that we assumed going into Season One was that each episode would introduce itself to a new audience. Instead what we saw was that a new episode would come out, and the people who were involved with the project would play it, like it, and introduce it to new people, but those people would start at the beginning, not with the new episode.

So it kind of set our mind at ease a bit about the standalone quality of it. So if we know that 80% of the people are choosing to start at the beginning, let's skew a little bit towards an overlaying story arc because at the end of the day that'll be pretty rewarding for people. As it becomes more mainstream, we want people to come in and start playing with any episode. So we'll always be striving for interesting characters that can support individual episodes, but keep you engaged long-term as well.

It's like the Sopranos characters. You know what you're going to get with Christopher every time you see him on screen, they don't have to give you a backstory. Then after you've seen one, you go back and re-watch it with all of that information filled in, and it's a totally different experience.

What's next for Telltale?

We've got a couple of licenses that we've been looking at that I can't talk about right now and we're really close on them. They are very, very similar to where we are at right now. We're also thinking about other ideas. We really want to keep pushing the game mechanics side so that the way you interact with characters becomes more lifelike. We want the characters to become alive in the world, for them to know what the player is thinking, and have the characters respond to that. We really want to crank up the A.I. and the NPC behavior in a way so that anyone who comes into that world can immediately start interacting with characters.

Adventure games by their nature are very passive. You come in and they're waiting on you, "Okay, I'm here. Come talk to me when you're ready." That makes them different from every other kind of games in grabbing a new audience, and people aren't used to that in most games. Most other kinds of games you stand in one place and things happen to your character automatically. So making aggressive characters who approach you and engage is really what we're thinking about. We're looking at licenses and our own IP that can help us develop those types of things. Four or five years from now, that's where we think our games will be.

Well, thanks for your time. We look forward to more from Telltale.

No problem! Love the site and glad you guys enjoy Sam & Max.

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