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PAX 2008: TellTale talks Wii, IP licensing and the future

Jem Alexander

TellTale, purveyors of all things pointy and clicky, were kind enough to have a natter with us on the PAX show floor. Designer, Mark Darin, and PR Manager, Emily Morgant, chat to us regarding developing for the Wii, how deals for the Sam and Max, Homestar Runner and Wallace and Gromit franchises came about and plans for the future. Hint: we won't be finding out about any more TellTale products for a little while.

Are there any plans to bring any of TellTale's properties on to XBLA or PSN?

Mark: Start with the hard questions! I don't really have too many answers to that. I know that we're looking to get on as many platforms as we can. We're talking to people about opportunities but no solid plans right now.

Emily: I would add to that that when we announced that we coming out with a WiiWare game and it was already in production and that it would be coming out a few months later, everybody was very surprised. We do things and don't talk about them.

How has your experience been with Nintendo's platform versus the PC?

Mark: Working with Nintendo's been pretty good. Actually our production process is kind of streamlined and our TellTale Tool is created to work well with multiple systems. So for us there's really no bottleneck, it's the same as working on the PC environment. All the help that Nintendo's been giving us and allowing us the opportunity to be on WiiWare has been great for our company and great for getting titles like SBCG4AP out there to a new audience who maybe isn't used to Adventure games. It's been a great partnership with Nintendo so far.

What are the sales ratios like for SBCG4AP between Wii and PC?

Mark: I don't know the actual numbers but I know that right now the Wii version is selling more than the PC.

Emily: Consider that anything that comes out on WiiWare is going to sell a huge amount because it's a WiiWare title, but comparably both of them are selling really well. We're really happy with the numbers for both. The Wii just has a much bigger audience.

Has the success of the games allowed you to take some more risks with the properties you choose and the way you decide to approach a game? Does it let you do your own thing from a gameplay standpoint?

Mark: From a gameplay standpoint, being episodic and creating smaller chunks of gameplay does allow us a little more opportunity to be a little more experimental and try some things which would be a greater risk in a long, drawn out game. So we can try something and you can get feedback on whether it's good or bad and then you can decide to take it on to the next level, or pull back on it. This is really quick with player feedback.

Are there any other properties that you're eyeing to make games out of?

Mark: Plenty! Nothing we can say, in particular. We're always on the look out for games that are going to have good stories and good characters and people who are going to make good partners for us to work with. If we see something we're interested in, we'll try and talk to the right people and get it done.

How did Wallace and Gromit come about?

Emily: I think we approached them. My memory of what happened was that we were looking at some properties that we liked and we had fans of Wallace and Gromit in the company, so we said "ok, let's approach them." Actually it was a very long process. We did a prototype for them over a year before we made the announcement. We showed it to them and went up the ranks, they looked at it and liked what they saw.

We did the same thing with Homestar Runner, we approached the Chapmans and said "we really like your stuff and would like to make it into a game" and they said "wow, we know who you are from playing Sam and Max." So we went on to make a prototype for them, with people in the office doing voices. Their feedback was like "this is really great, except we'll do the voices."

They probably got a kick out of the mutual fan appreciation.

Emily: Yeah, right! It's like we realised the boy and the girl liked each other, so it's like "let's go on a date!"

Mark: So now we're dating.

Is that different from the way that Sam and Max came about? Has the success of that game allowed you access to things you might not have had access to originally?

Mark: The success of Sam and Max has opened up a lot of doors. People have seen that we can do episodic and we've introduced them to what episodic games are and what we think they should be. A lot of people are now embracing that now that they've seen Sam and Max and seen how great it is and how we handle the properties, stories and characters.

So now we're not just going to people cold and saying "we've got this crazy idea for episodic games, why don't you get on board?" They can actually see what we're trying to do and see that it's been a success, which has opened a whole lot of doors for us.

Emily: As for getting Sam and Max, it was a little different to Strong Bad and Wallace and Gromit. Steve Purcell, the creator of Sam and Max, used to work with a lot of the people at TellTale at Lucasarts. So he had worked with Dave Grossman, our design director, who was a designer on Monkey Island. Several of the people at our company had worked on a Sam and Max game that was cancelled at Lucasarts, so they knew each other for many years and he was already comfortable with those people. It was an easier sell to say "we've got this crazy idea to do episodic gaming" because he was so thrilled to have Sam and Max come back to games. He said "I trust you guys to do the right thing."

It put TellTale in a really good position because we were able to prove that it works with Sam and Max. People stopped saying "episodic gaming, why are you doing that? That's weird" and started saying "oh! It's like Sam and Max, I get it now." So Sam and Max really opened up doors and we love it. It'll always be a big part of the company, because it's been really good to us.

Have you been approached by anyone as a result of that?

Emily: We've definitely been approached by people. I'm pretty sure that none of the licenses we've done have come through that, but this is a long process. We talked to the Chapmans for over a year before we announced Strong Bad and we spoke to Aardman for over a year before we announced Wallace and Gromit, so this takes a long time even though we don't talk about it. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the franchises down the road are people who saw what we did with our other games. The turnaround hasn't been long enough yet. It was only about a year ago when people started to say "oh, Sam and Max. We know what that is." So we're still in that process.

Are you currently in talks with people?

Emily: We're always in talks.

Do you have a limit of games that can be developed concurrently?

Emily: There's definitely a limit due to the number of people we have in the company. We have ideas for growth, in terms of where we'll be in one year or where we'll be in five years. We're about where we expected to be a year ago, which is having three or four things in production at a time. Choices need to be made regarding when the right time is to develop something. Just because you sign something, doesn't mean you need to go into production right away. So if a really good opportunity comes up, we'll figure out a way to do it. We might need to hire more staff, or we might need to hold off for a little bit. The people running the company are very ambitious and very smart about that, so I think we're just going to keep growing.

Right now, you've got two new licenses that have never been adventure games before.

Is there any desire to maybe bring back older franchises that have previously belonged to the adventure genre? Day of the Tentacle 2 or Full Throttle 2, maybe?

Mark: We'll consider it. It's not at the forefront of our mind. We want to move forward and do new things, but we'd definitely consider it if an opportunity comes up and we see something that makes a good.

Emily to Mark: As a designer would you want to work on Full Throttle 2 or Monkey Island 5?

Mark: You know, I've got some ideas in my head. I don't know. It's interesting. I'd always think "if I was going to do this, what would I do to make it fresh?"

Do you feel restricted by the Wii's hardware?

Mark: Not for development. We went in expecting the Wii's small memory management to be really restrictive, but that didn't turn out to be the case. Our tools and people who do all the tech wizardry behind the scenes were able to make it so that we didn't have to limit any of the designs for Strong Bad or cut any content that we had originally wanted to put in there. Actually, when we progressed we found that there was room for us to put more features in. We didn't find it limiting at all. We knew what we were going into so we designed the game for that.

Emily: For Sam and Max there was some work involved in getting a game designed to run on the PC running on the Wii. It's to our advantage that our PC specs are pretty manageable. It's a little bit taxing on the Wii, but it actually converts over pretty well. There are probably game design decisions that we would've done differently if we were designing it for the Wii, but the porting process was pretty good.

But how do you feel about an entire season of Strong Bad not fitting on the Wii's internal memory?

Mark: Well, that's a different issue. Everyone's waiting for that fabled storage device to pop up. I think if everyone's complaining this much I think we'll see something.

Emily: Someone pointed out to me earlier that with an adventure game you're in it for the story, you're going to play it beginning to end and once you reach the end, you can delete it. It's not an arcade game like Geometry Wars which you're going to want to have it on your machine all the time. You can get to the end, back it up, delete it from your Wii and if you want to reinstall it later, you can. I have a PC that's quite old and doesn't have a lot of hard drive space and that's exactly what I do. It's not ideal, but for this type of game it's not as big of a problem as it could be.

What are the chances of us seeing a disc based version of the game?

Emily: I don't see why not. Don't take that as confirmation that it's coming out, but all of our games, we look at the download versions as the broadcast TV equivilant. Then you go into syndication, put it out at retail with the box set. We've done that with Sam and Max and it's been really successful, because you reach a whole new audience that way. So I wouldn't be surprised.

What are your plans for Wallace and Gromit? Is Nick Park involved?

Emily: Nick Park is involved. Right now he's very busy with the short that they're working on. That's coming out at the end of the year. He's devoted to that and busy with that. There are things that have gone through his approval and we've been talking to animators and writers from Aardman. Basically, this is to make sure we're getting it right - to make sure that the writing is funny and British. We're working with a British writer from Aardman. So, there's been that kind of back-and forth.

It's very similar to the relationship we have with the Chapmans. Except the Chapmans are at the other end of the spectrum. They're super involved.

Mark: Yeah, they're to the point where they're checking it every day and call me up to say "yeah, can you move that over there? Yeah, perfect!"

What are your plans for Sam and Max season 3?

Emily: 2009.

Mark: Short and sweet answer!

Emily: A lot of the same people who are working on Strong Bad are on the Sam and Max team, so it'll be a case of having one wrap up as the other one builds up.

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