Telltale Games has been broadening the market for adventure games with titles like Jurassic Park and Back to the Future. When CEO Dan Connors and I were discussing their latest game, The Walking Dead, we started talking about the renewed interest in the genre and how adventure games are stuck in a time period. Connors suggested ideas on how to innovate within the adventure game space and gave us an update about King’s Quest in this interview.
The adventure game market and the interest in the market’s grown overall. How does this affect Telltale as a company?
Dan Connors, CEO of Telltale Games: I’m excited by it. I think having Tim [Schafer] and Ron [Gilbert] making adventure games is a good thing. Anything that gets more people into a different style of gameplay and storytelling is a good thing for us. I think it’s a great way to get it off the ground.
Telltale had to build a company from the ground up, change our distribution model and do a change of gameplay style with episodic to even make our adventure games possible. So, the fact that Kickstarter’s come along and Tim’s able to take advantage of that to make adventure games is a good thing.
I’ve been asked the question forever about dead adventure games. People ask the question because people want to read about the answer, because people are interested. And it just seems like that in itself makes it relevant. It’s really a super-interesting question to me. And “If it’s dead, why are we still talking about it?” kind of thing.
The fact is, it’s a genre that has a niche audience. That niche audience isn’t as large as the audiences for shooters and sports games, so the people that generally finance games build shooters and sports games, and they stopped financing adventure games, and as a result, innovation stopped and got stuck in a time period. There are still people in that time period, but the investment has never been at the same level as the investment in innovation in other genres.
I do wish that Tim and Ron were going after it from a “We’re going to make something that’s going to try new things” [perspective] but whatever, you know? They’re going to write a great story. They’re going to create interesting characters and puzzles, and people love those. It’ll introduce more people to the genre. That’s a good thing.
Where do you stand on innovation? What elements do you think should be innovated in the adventure games space so that they stop being niche and can appeal to a broader audience?
The thing we find compelling about adventure games is you can create a world and story, and put people into it, and allow them to interact with it. It does it the best out of any existing mechanic because other things aren’t overriding it. The focus of the game is to get in and talk to characters, understand situations, and then make decisions.
But I think the way in which you interact with characters needs to be more proactive. The AI characters need to have a better understanding of what the player needs from them to move through the world. If I drop into the world and I don’t know what I should do next, that generally leads to getting stuck. But if the world is more “aware” of what is going on with the player, then sending a helper in the context of the story or making the puzzle more clear to the user in the context of the story, would make it so that anyone could sit down and play, and not hit a point of frustration and bail out.
I think the problem with adventure games is if you don’t understand how they work, and you’re playing one for the first time, and it’s built for an adventure gamer, you’re not gonna get past the first puzzle because it never even occurs to you to think that way.
Like how I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream was really about obscure about how to solve stuff. There’s a barrier of entry.
It has become an elite club in a way, and there’s almost a look down upon new people trying to come in. Adventure games are like good wine. It’s like, high-end, quality stuff that people who understand it, want it to be sophisticated. And that’s a struggle.
That’s a problem with many videogame genres. Fighting games had that lull for a while. Shoot-em-ups from Japan, for example, Cave’s bullet hell shooters look overwhelming to someone that hasn’t played a shooter for several years.
That’s always a challenge. The thing is now, everybody has experience with games. There was a time when navigating a menu kept people from playing games. Now there’s more people that are past that hurdle. Certainly, younger people are more used to it. The number of people you can talk to has moved from 18-34 year old men to 7-years-old to 60-years-old all have experience with games.
How do you take advantage of the fact that people have shown that interest? We believe that if you give them a franchise they love and provide more story and interesting stuff about the world and more ways to interact with it, that’s going to be appealing.
I think in games, no matter what, you need the core gaming audience and gaming media to bless it and say, “Yeah, this qualifies as a good game”. And then other people will try it. If you build something that’s just for the casual market, that’s one audience and you need to treat them completely differently. But if you’re going to build a game that has core gaming sensibilities, it needs to be blessed by core gamers, and then people will come in and try it. So you have to solve how to make it feel like a strong core game and then make it accessible.
Can you tell us anything about King’s Quest? You guys got the license and you’re doing something with it, but we haven’t heard too much about it.
Yeah, you know, King’s Quest kind of came in with all of the other licenses at the same time. We’d already had the Universal stuff for a while and we were working on that, and then we signed King’s Quest around the same time as Walking Dead and Fables, and we’ve gone into production on both of those, and King’s Quest is one that we’ve been trying to figure out how to staff and get into production.
Do you have a vision for it?
That’s kind left for Dave Grossman and his group. We’ve certainly talked to a lot of people about it, but we really don’t have anything else to say about it right now.
Telltale’s got a lot of licenses but are there any particular properties that you’re interested in working with in this digital interactive storytelling space?
Yeah, we’ve done a lot in the last year or so to diversify. There’s dramatic vs. comedy. Back to the Future vs. Jurassic Park. So we’re really strengthening up the things we’re able to do. I think we’re definitely interested in working with franchises that are currently “relevant” and getting more of that kind of stuff that’s less backward and more forward-looking. We’re also interested in game franchises that need new presentation, like Telltale does.
Have you guys looked at any novels and trying to adapt those into games?
Yeah, I think novels make a lot of sense for what we do. It’s just a question of mapping them to the audience, but I think as the iPad and Kindle Fire and things like that introduce fans of books to gaming systems, there could be a pretty direct connection there.
When you say game franchises are you thinking of working with nostalgic series or making tie-ins or spinoffs with current series?
That would be really fun because we love the idea that what Telltale does from a story standpoint could enhance else something that’s out there, that has great gameplay ideas and concepts going on but doesn’t flesh out the characters much and have the users investing a ton in them. We could go and do a series that went along with a bigger release to make it into a bigger, wider entertainment experience.
Is that something you’re currently working on?
We’ve had different talks with different people about different franchises, but we haven’t landed on anything. I think there’s still a lot of fear of cannibalizing the audience, but I believe what we do is different enough that it would go along well, either as a marketing thing before or something to keep it going afterwards. Or even simultaneously, just to offer more content at the same time.
What about original IP?
The good thing about original IP is that, if we’re trying to do something interesting cross-platform, the fact that we can make up the rules of the world makes it a lot easier to do that. Like, if we could have an element of this game that was purely iPhone. We could create something in the world that would make that possible. Whereas, when you’re working with an existing license, if there are rules that you can’t have it, it can’t exist. So from an original property standpoint, you have more flexibility to tailor the story around the needs of what you want to innovate on.
So, I think in that area, we’re interested in something that would allow us to push the envelope from a multiplatform gameplay standpoint, but we’ve still got a lot of franchises available. One of Telltale’s values is that we can execute franchises. We have a long history with Star Wars, Indiana Jones, CSI, Sam & Max, Monkey [Island] and now Back to the Future. When we have an opportunity to work with someone like Bob Gale or Steve Purcell or Jeff Smith or the Chapman brothers with Homestar, that kind of adds to the company’s creative muscle.
I think there’s a negative “thing” about doing licenses, but we enjoy it because we’re bringing these creatives into our world and working with them.
You have a history working with other IPs, but at the same time Telltale has grown so much with licenses at some point you’re going to want to branch out with original IP.
Yeah, and we have the distribution to do it, too. Puzzle Agent’s kind of like that. It’s Graham’s thing. Graham Annable was our creative director originally and we worked on Puzzle Agent with him.
I think we’ll get to it. It’s just a matter of time. Building an original IP is an incredibly exciting thing but also an incredibly difficult thing. There’s a ton of details that go into a world. If you think you can do better than a lot of stuff that’s been out there for a long time that’s really resonated with people, you really need to commit to it. You wouldn’t be able to do it by just doing what you normally do, so we would need to rethink our systems and our processes to really put the love into that creation part of the IP that’s such a challenge.