Macworld 2010: Telltale Games and their Mac revolution

Mike Schramm
M. Schramm|02.17.10

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Macworld 2010: Telltale Games and their Mac revolution
Well, there you go. After consistent rumors that the whole catalog would be coming over to the Mac, Telltale Games announced at Macworld last week that that's exactly what was going to happen. Starting with the Tales of Monkey Island series (based on the Lucasarts games, where many Telltale developers formerly hung their hats), the company will co-release Mac and PC versions, giving customers versions for both platforms at the same time. Telltale is hosting a vote on its website right now as to the next game set to be released, but as we learned directly from co-founders Dan Connors and Kevin Bruner, eventually the whole platform, including Monkey Island, Sam and Max, Wallace and Gromit, and Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People, is coming over. And it's probably not long until the iPhone and the iPad follow suit.

Kevin Bruner spoke with us on the livestream during the show, and Dan Connors sat down for a longer interview about Telltale's past, the decision to join the Mac gaming community, and what both founders think of Apple's newest platforms and the Mac community at large. Read on to see the full text of the interview.

TUAW: You guys here at the show are announcing your Mac revolution -- you're bringing everything over to the Mac. First question is: Why? Why are you jumping into the Mac in this way?

Dan Connors, CEO Telltale Games: We've always wanted to be on as many platforms as we could, and the Mac platform has continued to get more and more attractive to us, from how well it performs, and how slick it is and what it's capable of doing. And I think our content is differentiated in a way that the audience of people that are on Macs and that use Macs as a platform are a good target audience to build our products for. The fact that they're story-based and they're problem solving, they're a little different than what typical gaming is about.

I was going to say yes, people who play your games, and fans of your games, it's very clear to spot. You can look at a game and know that Telltale probably worked on it because it's kind of got that old retro 2D LucasArts aesthetic. How do you describe your company and the games your company makes to someone who may not know about them?

I think the things that are critical for Telltale is that we're really interested in interactive storytelling, and we're really interested in doing that around with existing story and characters that have a proven quality and characters that last and have audiences that are devoted because the storytelling and the character creation has been so strong. All of our characters across all of our franchises are very iconic within their audiences, and that's what attracted us to them. It's funny you call us "retro," because we believe that we're taking something that was a way of playing games that was very easy to play from a physical standpoint, and trying to figure out the right way to expose that to people that aren't necessarily games, but want to enjoy franchises and be part of an interactive experience for them to try.

So it's an interesting line to walk as we kind of continue to create gaming experiences that really resonate for a certain group of people that have an expectation for them, but at the same time try to evolve it in a way that anybody can just pick up and play it and get it. If they're a fan of Wallace and Gromit, and they come into a Telltale world, they feel like they're playing Wallace and Gromit. That's really always our goal. And figuring out the right gameplay mechanics in which to make that happen, that's really where the innovation lies in our company, especially at this stage.

Yeah, I call you retro, but in terms of a developer, you're actually very new because you have multiple tracks going in terms of what you're doing. You're taking old licenses like Monkey Island, loved licenses, and moving forward with those, and you've got newer licenses and newer worlds that you're kind of building, and you've dipped into episodic gaming. How do you balance all of the balls that you're juggling in the air?

It's ironic because everything has been planned out to some degree in steps. The first part of the business was doing these episodic monthly releases, which were kind of holy grail-ish for a while, and investing in the production ability to do that. How do you make it happen?

Then there was building the business around it to support it, and be a self publisher, and go out and do licensing. So the one thing that was rock solid was we had a demand for the games that we were building. So from that demand, that audience, they knew we weren't going to come to retail with it, we knew we weren't going to bring it to retail, so we said we're going to do this completely new, this revolutionary thing with the way this game is distributed, and they said, "Whatever!"

As they usually do. What else would gamers say?

"Just get it to us, we'll figure it out, we'll work together," and we've had a tight feedback loop with them for five years, handling a whole ton of processes that, for now, with us, we're really robust, and we can focus on, ok, how do we take this and make it happen for a mainstream franchise, where it's not all gamers, but it's a huge audience. And we'll always be doing the gamer stuff as well -- there are multiple tracks, like you said, and there are different levels to our business. We've been able to grow with this audience that was really savvy, adventure gamers have always been smart. (Laughs) They can figure it out, they almost don't want to have their hands held.

So when something like Monkey Island comes along, four years in, that's in our wheelhouse. We've been built to do that. And then we looked at it and said, it has this soap opera element to it, and this is the missing piece that we've been missing from Sam and Max and Strongbad, let's tie it all together, like a real season of it. And we were focused on nailing that in Monkey and I really think that was the biggest success of the whole season for us.

I did want to talk a little more technically about process. When the rumors were going around that you were headed to the Mac, one of the things that we heard was that it would be easy to port the games over. How did you find the development on the Mac? How did that work out for you?

It was harder than we expected. Probably because we didn't expect it to be difficult. We wanted to move our whole core technology over. We weren't going to just do a one-off of it -- we wanted to enable the Mac as a platform for us for everything going forward. Monkey was the closest in the library to being released, so it made a lot of sense to do the transition with that, but it was still built for different groups under different rules of development, different platforms. But now that we're over, everything should be pretty straightforward. Not a port -- the platform supports it. It's pretty similar to Playstation, in terms of the different things you need to solve. So just from the lifecycle of the company, it made sense at this point to address the GL issues and making it run on that type of rendering system.

If we were a huge company, it probably would have been easier for us, but it was still relatively painless.

So once you've made that transition, then I guess everything going forward that we see from you all, we can expect day and date on both platforms?

Yeah, that's our intent. The only real hangup is the QA and what bugs are going to exist, going to be unique to the Mac. But that didn't seem like the issue. Now that the renderer is solved, that doesn't seem like it's going to be an issue going forward.

Great. I want to talk also about the iPhone -- it's been a successful outlet for sure, and as you said, the casual basis of the point-and-click is perfect for the iPhone. What do you think of the App Store in terms of development as opposed to these other platforms?

We don't have anything over yet (ED: The Secret of Monkey Island on iPhone was produced by Lucasarts, not Telltale.) From what we've heard, it's a very democratic process, but there's a lot of product that needs to be processed and needs to go through the queue. That's the issue. And kudos to them because that's a sign of success. But obviously we want to get over there and be on the iPhone because so many people are using it as an entertainment device. It's just, what's the right product experience, how do our games translate over there? The point and click stuff is pretty forward, Monkey Island Special Edition did really well.

Are you interested in releasing within a certain time frame on the iPhone, then? Seems like it would be easier with Mac development under your belt.

Exactly. It's the next target from a new platform standpoint for sure. We're a little surprised that it's been the gaming device that it has, but we're certainly interested in getting there. Understanding the marketing, and how to stand out amongst all of the other apps, I think, is something that we're interested in watching other people do, because it's a crowded marketspace and it doesn't seem like there's a lot of different levers you can pull on the deck itself. But if it's something where our platform supports it, and we can have a game and have an iPhone app along with a Mac product all at the same time, then it just makes sense to always be developing with that in mind.

And this is hypothetical at this point, considering that we haven't touched one, but since we're at Macworld 2010 and you're a developer, I have to ask you about the iPad. One thing we've heard from developers here is that the iPad is a very different platform from the iPhone. They run the same apps, and you can upscale, but a lot of developers are looking at making completely different apps. You're still thinking about the iPhone, but in terms of what you've seen about the iPad, what do you think about that platform?

I think the ten inch screen is closer to what we do now than going all the way down to a handheld device, especially since we're really focused on being a cinematic company, and having character development and a cinematic presentation. So a larger screen is definitely of interest to us. I don't know about the nuts and bolts of how different the iPad is from the iPhone or the Mac processor in general, but certainly from a way to interact with the product, a large touch device has a ton of possibility.

"He says, smiling..." (Laughs)

The question is, what's the install base going to end up being? How many people are going to use it to have interactive experiences on? My feeling is, and the reason I'm in this business, is I believe everything's going to be interactive at some point. Maybe not now, maybe not five years from now, but I think this generation's coming up and they're going to expect to be able to interact with every product there is. So it feels like a first step, well not a first step, at this point it's probably a fourth or fifth step, but it's another step on the road, and it kind of feels like it's bridging notebooks and handheld devices.

I guess the thing that's still kind of unclear to me is: who's the iPad targeted at? Is it an entertainment device, or is it a note-taking device, or is it a personal data assistant? Because I've got all of those things in different devices -- is it going to try to be an all in one?

I don't know. I can't answer because I don't know yet.

Are you going to get one?

Well, not on day one. I'll probably wait for another revision. Because you're right, I've got a laptop, I've got an iPhone, I don't see room for me in there. I think there is room, and I think it'll be popular, but not for me personally. But welcome to the Mac! You're a newcomer here, what do you think of the community that you've seen here?

Oh it's great. One of the reasons that brought us over to it is the creative focus of it. We're a little different in the things that we're focused on, storytelling and presentation, and those things really resonate here. And innovation as well -- the thing that fascinates me about the iPhone thing is the way that you can I can stand here together and say gee, there should be an app for that, and then someone goes and makes one. It's so fluid like that. It's fascinating, and it's a good crowd to be around. I've been to a lot of different shows, and this has its own unique character, so we're happy to be here.

And frankly, 2/3 of the staff are all Mac heads, so they're all excited to be here. Kevin Bruner is a big Mac guy. So they've been around the community and been part of the community. There's always one wing of development that's like, "I'm doing it on my Mac." And we're like c'mon, and he's like, "No, I'm doing it on my Mac!"

Great. Thanks so much.

Thank you.
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