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Interview: Telltale's Dan Connors talks Sam & Max, episodic subscriptions, and iPad

While it already made its debut earlier this month on the iPad, this week marks the console debut of Sam & Max: Season 3, an occasion made more notable by Telltale's first-ever presale offer on consoles thanks to the flexibility of the PlayStation Network. We had a chance to talk with CEO and co-founder Dan Connors about the challenges of episodic gaming, the importance of pre-selling an entire season up front, their plans for the iPad, and what their most-requested adventure game project is. Read on!

Joystiq: So, first off, how are PS3 pre-orders doing for Sam & Max?

Dan Connors: They're doing well. We're excited that PSN was able to pull it off and make it happen. So far, we're pleased with what it's done to date, and tomorrow will be interesting as well. It will be the first time that we ever sold a season with a console partner. So we'll see how people respond to that, but judging from the pre-sales, we're off to a good start.

This is the first time that a game has been available for pre-order on PlayStation Network. How did you guys go about implementing that with Sony?

They were ready for it. They had a couple of things that they were talking about that were very similar. So, I think, it's the direction that they were pushing in and when we came in and said, "Hey, we're willing to try this and do this with you guys," they were open to it as a way to actually make it happen. So, the timing was great for both parties. I think, we're a good chunk of content for them to try this on and they've been working on the infrastructure to support it. So, it's a lot of teamwork. They're right down in Foster City so they're close to us and we were able to work together and iron through the different details of making it happen.

Telltale's been on the Xbox platform, historically. Wallace and Gromit still exclusive to that platform, at least on consoles. Were you unable to do a pre-sale type offering on Xbox? Is that something that they were technologically unable to do or just unwilling?

I think they have to support a lot of different products, and they have the way their store functions. Basically, they did a lot of work with us to try to pull off the episodic model but the pre-sale was something that they just weren't ready to dive into at the time and we weren't ready to commit to with them either. So, yes, we weren't able to pull it off at that point in time, but I would think they'll probably have a release here pretty soon that would support it.

Has your thinking on pre-sales and episodic gaming in general changed much? I'm thinking, specifically, of the recent announcement that Penny Arcade Adventures wasn't going to finish its final two episodes ostensibly due a lack of sales on the second episode and they were worried about going into episodes three and four because they didn't have the opportunity to pre-sell the entire season upfront.

"it got to the point where single-episode purchases were such a low percentage of our sales that we decided to just go with seasons completely"

Yes. I think, for us, we've noticed that people have migrated towards the subscription as we've evolved. So, as the Telltale brand became more of a guarantee that you're signing up for this 5-month experience, I think the people that came gravitated towards it and it got to the point where single-episode purchases were such a low percentage of our sales that we decided to just go with seasons completely. That's worked really well for us and has made it possible to guarantee that the whole thing gets done.

I think we are in a contract with our subscribers that says, "You're going to get this on a regularly scheduled basis and we do need to release it monthly." I think if we said, "Buy the season now and get one every four months or one every six months or one sometime in the future," I don't think it would work. So establishing that you're signing up for the 5-month experience and that's what you're buying into from the get go. And we'll give you a great deal on it, you know: five full games for the price. Most people have moved to that with us, and what we find is instead of us having to convince new people to come back and go out and try to find [future episodes] ... I know what Hothead's talking about. The first time out with a franchise, you get a huge buzz, the web responds, and it's a really big deal. The second time you just can't get as big of a push no matter how hard you try. So the idea that you can get someone committed in that big rush is a huge advantage. And then they're on the side of ... you're not trying to sell them, instead they're more anticipating the next thing that they're going to get. Almost like a magazine subscription or something like that. We've certainly seen people turn into, "I can't wait until next month," or "Oh, my God! It's three days away, I can't wait," and that type of reception for the product so that obviously is gratifying for us to see.

Pre-order incentives (Ed note: Like the $29.99 price for Sam & Max: Season 3 on PSN): Is that something that you think we're going to be seeing more of for downloadable console games?

I don't see why not. I think it's a good way to do it. Especially if it's like, "Hey, buy this now and we'll give you something to play until it comes out." It just adds to the value and it introduces fans of one franchise to another franchise, from our perspective.

So in Sam & Max: Season 3, there's a very clear improvement in graphics. Your engine has been kind of hovering around "fine" for a while but now you're putting in a lot of fancy stuff like real-time shadows. Why do you think enhancing an episodic game that is really story-driven in this way is important?

I think if you're going to be on the PlayStation you need to compete with what's out there. And I also think atmospherically, we've always wanted to be a storytelling company and that's not just writing, that's presentation and cinematography. And lighting is a huge part of setting mood and immersion. We want someone to sit down and be playing our game and really feel like they're in the environment. So anything that can enhance that, we want to continue to push. And I think that was a big thing for us. We didn't have all the tools at our disposal from a mood standpoint and lighting specifically, there's a huge difference for that.

What's the feeling on the iPad at Telltale?

Well, it feels great from a play experience standpoint. We were really happy with the way the game went over, the way it looked, the type of experiences that it was. It feels like an interactive graphic story that you're playing, that you can sit back on your couch and play or sit on the bus and play or sit down in bed and play and it just seems like it changes up the way people experience their gaming content. And it suits our content really well versus the real intense type of gaming experience that is consistent with a big screen TV and huge speakers and all that kind of stuff.

Do you think it's a platform that you guys are going to be investing heavily in? You sort of have the freedom to do it; you're not restricted the way you are in terms of publishing schedules on PlayStation Network or Xbox Live Arcade.

"with some of the franchises we want to work with we want to reach a wider audience"

Oh yeah, definitely. We're happy that Sam & Max is up there and we want to keep making it work on the iPad and other tablet devices that come out. I think it's going to make sense. When some of the smaller screen stuff gets a little more horsepower we'll move over to that too. I think that certainly it's diversifying the market more. And with some of the franchises we want to work with we want to reach a wider audience and being able to have a device that's so easy to use and so user-friendly is a good place for us to be.

In terms of the smaller screen devices, thinking specifically of the iPhone, what type of design limitations does that impose on you? Especially for games that are already made. Like the Sam & Max series?

Well, I think we'd have to re-work it. We could probably save the story and save a lot of the gags, but it wouldn't be the same experience. And I think that's why the iPad is so exciting because we can take the full-blown experience and bring it over onto a mobile device. The smaller screen experience is, it would take some work to make it work on those devices, and, you know, and that's something that we're talking about, but it's not exactly our primary skill set here at the moment.

Something similar like Nintendo DS or DSiWare, also seems like a good potential market. Is that a platform you guys have looked into much?

You know, it's kind of the same thing. We have talked to potential partners about taking some of the stuff over and working on designs for us, but it's such a dramatic switch from the devices that we are currently on, that it would be a major re-thinking of the product, and we haven't really spent enough time to sit down and do that. We'll be releasing some products in the near future that would be much more small device friendly, and those, we certainly could find those on DS or iPhone.

So you guys are bringing your whole catalog over to Mac OS. I'm assuming that some part of that had to do with development on the iPad, they share a similar development platform. What's the next game that's going to be out for MacOS, and what's your schedule looking like to get the entire catalog over?

Well, Sam & Max 3 is definitely coming out tomorrow, so that will be the second one. And then Sam & Max 2 will be following that up, and we're going to try to get that out with Steam when they launch, and then after that I think we're just going to see how it goes. Every franchise has a little thing that needs to be dealt with before we can get it out there, and we'll just have to have a wrestling match over Wallace & Gromit or Strong Bad.

Will you have all of your Mac Telltale offerings on Steam as well as

If they'll have us, that's our intention.

One of your designers, Chuck Jordan, joked that Telltale would like to have its games on anything that has a chip in it. So now we have Sam & Max on Mac, iPad, PC, PS3, but you're still missing Xbox and Wii. We've talked a little about the limitations on Xbox, so my question is, if you can't sell the games episodically as a pre-order, have you considered doing more retail distributions, bundling seasons together for platforms like Xbox or Wii?

Definitely, and really it's part of a growth strategy for a company like ours. We set out to be an independent digital publisher, and that's where all of our energies and focus go, and to succeed as a retail publisher for Xbox and Wii is another big task that involves a large investment. So it's certainly something that we're interested in and very interested in working with partners on. You know, we've had good experiences on XBLA and WiiWare so far. We know our engine and our content runs on all the platforms pretty well, so it really is a distribution, publishing question, and just the level of investment to support our products once they're there and make sure they're getting the right voice in the marketplace, which is pretty crowded.

What are the top, let's say, three franchises you get the most requests for to bring to an episodic model?

You know it's funny, because I have a survey with the actual requests on it, or the actual things that people that we surveyed said they would like to see. tIf I can recall correctly I think Lost was number one. I think that Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was number two ... or maybe number three. And I know that Dexter was in there somewhere. And of course the LucasArts stuff was in there as well.

And that would just be like anything LucasArts? I imagine the fan base would be pretty happy with just about anything.

Yeah. Exactly.

With the advent of digital distribution, episodic gaming was expected to be a pretty big trend in the industry. At this point we've seen far more failures than successes and Telltale is sort of the lone shining beacon of episodic success. What other trends in the industry do you think would be a good place for Telltale to invest in?

Well I think the way we're looking at the world right now is how can we create a product that works across multiple touch points for players. So how can you build something that has a core experience at Telltale that you come and get every month but that you can interact with in the other parts of your web life, I guess for lack of a better term. Can there be an element of it on your phone? Can there be an element of it on Facebook? A multiplatform approach to an entertainment experience so that you're engaged with us and you can take a piece of it with you on the bus, do a little bit of work, come back, plug it into the game space and have it advance the game that you have on your hard drive. That to us I think is the most exciting thing and we're very interested in continuing to build out elements of the experience that can live outside of the traditional idea of a single product.

I'm not sure if you were at GDC this year but it seems like all anyone was interested in talking about was Zynga and Farmville and Facebook games. Is that a space that you guys have spent much time looking in or you're still investigating the opportunity or potential there?

Zynga kind of got out there first and has grabbed the golden goose. It seems like it's one of those businesses where there's not a lot of differentiation between competitors and it's more about grabbing the market share as quickly and as strongly as you can so I think we'd be a little late to that party. That being said, ignoring Facebook at this point would be like ignoring Google. And as a digital distributor, as a digital publisher, you couldn't ignore Google and you'd be silly to ignore Facebook. And I think the cool thing about it is, and the thing that Farmville and the guys at Zynga – all props to the people over there – is they figured out the way in which people want to interact on that platform and how they spread information to their friends and can tell their friends about things.

So we're really interested in all of that and what they've been able to accomplish there. And I think to us we still want to have a differentiated core experience that has Telltale's brand stamped on it and that you can only get from Telltale but we want to use Facebook and everything else emerging on the web in a way to let people know we exist and to let people interact with us to some degree. And if we can monetize that exchange we'd like to do that as well. And my apologies for using the word "monetize" in a entertainment interview. But you know, what I mean, and I'm sure you heard that term a lot at GDC as well.

Indeed. Thanks for your time, Dan!

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