We also saw a scene from later in the game that takes place around the dinner table at Gran'ma Ben's farm. The scene plays out like an extended version of the dialogue in the desert, where you can choose what you want to say to any of the people at the table, and the options change as the conversation progresses. "There's not really a puzzle in this part," Bruner said, clicking through the various questions Fone can pose to the others at the table. "The dialogue is the puzzle." The idea is similar to what was proposed with the recent independent project Façade: that dialogue itself can be the gameplay, as opposed to simply being tacked on. (It's not surprising that Telltale is exploring this possibility; Michael Mateas, one of Façade's creators, is on Telltale's advisory board.) Bruner says that in the future, he'd like to experiment more with the concept of dialogue-driven gameplay, and maybe even add the ability for players to input their own questions. ("I really had high hopes for Starship Titanic," he confided.) But he recognizes the limitations of implementing such a feature in a commercial project, as opposed to an academic one such as Façade. The trick will be to find fun uses for dialogue that make sense within the game.
Although Out from Boneville follows the comic pretty faithfully, fans will notice a few minor changes. For one thing, there will be no winter scenes, even though winter is fairly prominent in the comic. The reason behind this decision is purely logistical: it will help keep the download small. (The goal is for each game to be around 50 MB.) Bruner says that realistic snow scenes would have required more space, because the characters would wear warmer clothing and the landscape would look different: "You don't want it to look like everything was just painted white." The events that occur during winter in the book will take place in the game, just without the chill. On the flip side, some aspects of the book, such as the scenes at the possum treehouse, have been expanded to give the player more to explore. The order of some events in the game deviates from the chronology in the comic, but the scenes have been adapted so that to players unfamiliar with the book (and hopefully even to those who are familiar), Out from Boneville's plot will feel seamless and natural.
The pre-alpha build we saw still has some glitches. At one point, Smiley's musical instrument disappeared from his hands, leaving him plucking an air banjo in off-key oblivion. The characters in the dinner scene hadn't been choreographed yet and sat frozen stiff around the table. These are the types of issues Telltale is still working on, with the help of their proprietary development tools. Much of the team's front-end work, even before the Bone license had been secured, was in the creation of a set of easy-to-use tools specifically for creating story-driven games. One tool allows dialogue options to be linked to certain events in the game, with minimal programming. Another lets developers change character animations and camera angles on the fly while playing, without requiring the compilation of a new build to see the results. These intuitive tools, which were also used to program last winter's Telltale Texas Hold 'Em, are a main reason Telltale anticipates being able to turn out new games so quickly.
Speaking of Texas Hold 'Em, we mentioned to Bruner that when it came out, a lot of adventure fans feared Telltale had sold out to the "dark side" of casual gaming. It turns out that game wasn't released for the sole purpose of getting a little money into the company, as some fans previously thought. In addition to giving the team a chance to stretch their creative muscles, Texas Hold 'Em allowed Telltale to test their engine and distribution model, so that any issues and incompatibilities could be addressed long before Out from Boneville's release. "There was a big AMD bug," Bruner said. "We didn't have an AMD box in the office. We do now," he added, patting the tower beside his desk. Having taken that trial run, Telltale hopes to have ironed out the kinks, which should save time in getting Bone out the door.
There has been much speculation over how many Bone games there will be altogether, but at this point even Telltale's staff isn't sure. They do intend to cover the whole story told in the comics, which spans nine volumes, but it won't necessarily be one book per game. The idea is to keep the workload manageable, with a release about every four months and around four to six hours of playtime per game. Although formal production on the second game hasn't started, team members are mulling over ideas and have already committed some to paper. For now, though, they're focusing on Bone's debut.
One of Telltale's biggest challenges will be in marketing the game. The company recognizes that adventure games are a niche market and Bone wouldn't do well on a shelf next to Grand Theft Auto. Their solution is Telltale Now, a proprietary online distribution system that will allow the internet-savvy to get their hands on Telltale's games instantly. This covers both the adventure game and comic book crowds, but it still leaves a huge potential market that may never be aware of the game's existence. Other distribution channels may be explored in the future, but for the time being, Telltale Now will be Bone's bread and butter. And not just Bone's. The plan is to make the system available to other independent developers as well.
We'd been chatting with Bruner, Logas, and Grossman for about an hour when Dan Connors poked his head in the door. "Productivity's dropping," was all he had to say. "Sorry," said Heather, and Dave said, "No, he's talking about me," as they both headed back to their desks. As they cleared out, we asked Kevin if the September release date is an attainable goal. He said he thinks it is. Will it be easy to finish the game by September? "No," he said with a laugh, "but that's the date. That's always been the date." Based on what we saw of the development process and the team's dedication, they'll pull it off, but it may take a few late nights and some rounds of venti lattes for the team. But that's all in a day's work at a high tech start-up. Come September, we'll be reaping the rewards of Telltale's efforts.
Can't wait that long? To help pass the time, check out the other goodies Telltale shared with Adventure Gamers after our visit.
Doug Tabacco contributed to this article.