Telltale Games - Dan Connors and Kevin Bruner interview
It's been a busy year for Telltale Games. Just over a year ago, principals Dan Connors, Kevin Bruner, and Troy Molander left LucasArts and formed their own independent team. Since then they've hired a slew of talented people, released their first Bone game, acquired the much sought-after Sam & Max license, and begun developing a CSI sequel on the sly. What's next for this ambitious outfit? Dan Connors and Kevin Bruner took time out of their cram-packed schedules to dish the dirt on Telltale's projects—past, present, and future. They also surprised us with some concept art from the next Bone game, The Great Cow Race… as well as the first screenshot!
Dan Connors, Telltale's Chief Executive Officer
People had a lot to say about Out from Boneville very soon after it came out. Was the response what you were expecting?
Dan Connors, Telltale CEO
We were expecting, to some degree, that it was going to surprise people in a lot of ways. That it was going to be different from what a lot of people are used to, and that it would generate a lot of feedback. We definitely knew we were out on a limb and knew that people would respond to it in all different ways. It surprised us a little bit how quickly people were going through [Out from Boneville], because we didn't really build it to be the type of game for people to just go out and beat. You don't imagine it as the type of experience where someone wants to go out and finish it as fast as they can. That's not what the product is about. Not that everybody did that on purpose or intentionally; it just might have happened to them because they solved the puzzles quickly or that's the way they play. We definitely made a concerted effort to make the game accessible to a lot of people, and there's a big difference between people who are at Adventure Gamers, who live adventure games, and Mom and Pop and the general public and everybody else. And Bone comic book fans. We were keeping everybody in mind. We knew we were delivering on the acting, and the performances of the characters, and the look, and executing the story. We knew we had a lot of things there for people to really like. It is that gameplay mechanic underneath that's going to work for a large audience. So I'm thankful for the feedback. It means people are interested in us and interested in what we're doing. We definitely want to improve, and it's our goal to figure out the right game design that satisfies everybody that has a proclivity for the type of game that we're building.
Have you had a lot of feedback from people other than adventure gamers? From the Bone comic fans, or from Mom and Pop?
They're not as passionate. That's good and bad. The beauty of the adventure game crowd is that they're there, and they love the games. That's a great thing, but it's a double-edged sword. The other folks play it, and enjoy it, and kind of walk away from it, and don't say anything about it. Or their kid plays it three or four times. My brother called me after like five weeks, "Oh hey, I finished it. Why is it so hard?" We'll see. It's definitely going to move into other channels. I think we did accomplish something unique, in that the game is being reviewed on hardcore game sites, and at the same time we will be on major casual game sites as well. The only other games that have ever done that were Jane Jensen's [BeTrapped and Inspector Parker], and her stuff was definitely—no knock on it—it was great casual gaming stuff, but it was casual first. So we feel like, for our first time out, for everything the company's been through and everything we've tried to do, we're in a great position with our tool set, we've got a bunch of people that are willing to offer us free feedback, and we accomplished our goal to get out there into the masses and see what's going to make people respond to interactive entertainment.
The feedback that you're getting, has it changed the way you're going to go about distribution, the length of future games, anything like that?
We're in it to be a successful company. We know we have to respond to the audience and do what's required to keep people happy and to meet their needs. That's what it's all about—at the end of the day people vote for you with whether they purchase the product or not, and whether they're happy with it. We certainly understand that, and we've tried to always be honest and very clear about what we're doing. We'll continue doing that, and we'll do a better job of it. There are certainly a lot of things we can do to extend gameplay and make puzzles tougher, but the one thing we swore against was we weren't going to make up random puzzles that didn't fit in the story. We basically succeeded in that [with Out from Boneville]. We weren't going to make the player be frustrated. Maybe some of the puzzles are a little frustrating, but I don't think there were any random puzzles.
Are you open to more than just digital distribution?
Yeah, we want to be on every platform, but we want to own our product at the end of the day. Certainly, digital distribution is not a swear word across the industry, or across entertainment in general. It's still the way of the future. When interactive TV comes online, when games are being played on iPods, it's going to be a whole new paradigm. Just like music. You don't have CDs for your music anymore.
I think people were surprised by the CSI announcement because they thought you were going to do digital distribution through Telltale Now. Now they're saying, "Wait a minute, what are they doing working with a traditional publisher?" How did this happen?
We were always interested in television licenses, which we said from the start. CSI is the television license. So from a strategic standpoint for the company, it makes complete sense for us to work with that license and to have Ubisoft as a partner, to help us figure out the right way to do television-style gaming, because I think there's a lot of room for growth there. With the reach they provide to audiences, it's a lot more than we could ever do as a startup. Maybe now that we've got some things under our belt, we could show Bone to television producers, and there's actually a good chance that people would be interested in this model. Then it would be about whether we have the distribution channel that merits their license. The proof will be in the pudding with how Bone does, and how well Telltale Now does.
So the CSI game is going to be retail, in boxes?
That's all Ubisoft. They'll probably have a digital component online, but that's not our decision. And actually it's kind of liberating not to have to think about it. It's been a good relationship, we're really happy. It was a good decision for us.
What's different in this CSI, compared to the CSI games that have already come out?
I would certainly say 3D, and the immersion that comes with 3D. I think it's safe to say that the previous games are pretty static, which is common throughout the genre, though it's improving each time out. We just went all out, and Ubisoft made the commitment to bring the whole thing into a 3D world. It changes how you view the product, I think. You do feel like you're in the world. That's a big change.
As far as how much you got to do, and how much Ubisoft did for you—what was the balance there?
It's been a good blend. They gave us some direction, we ran with it, and then they had feedback throughout. And ultimately CBS says yes or no. It's funny to go from working on a Bone game to coming up with a CSI design. I'm out in the office saying, "Oh, what's that splatter on the wall?" and everyone yells at me, "No no, that's spatter!" The stuff you learn.
Going between the humorous game and the serious game, has that been hard to do?
It's fun. We haven't had a softball game or anything.
Do you have different teams working on each?
There's some shared, but it's mostly different teams. Bone is so cartoony and CSI is so realistic, it's hard to switch. Though a lot of our artists are very capable, we wouldn't want them to switch mindsets like that. It wouldn't be cost-productive.
What can you tell us about Sam & Max?
At this point we're still working with Steve [Purcell] to get the ideas together. We're definitely formulating what it's going to be, and exactly what we want it to be. One thing we learned from Bone is it doesn't have to be traditional. As an online product, there's a lot of different ways in which it can be released and there's a lot of ways you can make it come to life. We want that to be an ongoing process, with all the great people we have at our site and people who are really interested in it. We want to share with them, piece by piece, roll it out a little slower, and let it sink in and grow from there, versus throwing it into a big production right now.
Is it going to have a longer production cycle than Bone?
It's going to be a little bit longer. Sam & Max doesn't necessarily come with a book that's a game design. You don't get The Great Cow Race and just start working on it. You get two characters that can do anything in the world, and then you get the crazy mind of Steve Purcell, and things kind of grow from there. We want to give it the time to come up with the right design for it, and to let the characters come to life and put them in the right place before we start production.
How involved do you think Steve will be?
God, I hope we can get him a lot. He's a busy guy at Pixar, it takes a lot of creative juice, but we'd love to have as much as we can. We're tracking down other folks to be part of [Sam & Max] too.
People who were involved before?
Yeah, who were involved before. We'll see what we can do about getting those people on board.
Have you thought about voice acting, getting the same actors as the previous games?
We're looking into it. Those two voices are so distinct, you can pick up immediately that it's Sam and Max. I think if we got those guys going again, there would be some nice new bits for people to start quoting from Sam & Max. That would be fun. So we're looking into it. Obviously there are business issues around it.
You already had the 3D Sam and Max models at LucasArts—are they going to look the same?
The images are all Steve's, but I think we'll try to put our own slant on it. I know Steve has definite ideas for the direction he wants to go with it that's a little different, and I think Telltale's going to offer him a little more freedom than LucasArts would. That's something we want to be known for. There's a lot of creativity going on, and we're not afraid to take something on, to add character to something, to make it a little bit different and unique. We want to foster that.
What did Jeff Smith think of Out from Boneville?
Oh, he's so happy. He never played games, but of all the feedback we got, Jeff was certainly among the happiest. He falls into the non-adventure gamer group to begin with, so he just watches his wife play and laughs. I think it was very special for him to have the characters come along the way they did, and I think he knows how much care we put into making sure it was quality stuff, and true to what he envisioned for the characters. So he's always been pretty thrilled about it.
If you need anybody's approval, he's probably the guy you want.
Yeah, it's a good place to start, and we know we're on the right track. It's a big story, and the first book and the first game are really just the start. When I read the first book I was kind of like "Ehh…" because it has a pretty dramatic ending, but he brings you in slowly. It's like reading the first chapter of a book. So by the time The Great Cow Race comes along, you're totally sucked in. We're hoping the games are like that too for people.
I didn't read the book until after I played the game, and it was cool to see, like when Fone first meets Thorn, how you turned that into a dialogue puzzle. I liked how you took what was in the book and turned it into something the player could do.
Cool, I'm glad you appreciated it. There's the movie versus the book thing… I'm proud, because I've never seen a game responded to as well [as Out from Boneville has been], as far as "this is a playable version of the story." I'm really proud of that. Let's say someone turned Bone into a movie, and you get the inevitable, "Well, the movie was no way as good as the book." I think we're a lot closer. I think people that read the book and then play the Telltale game, they pick out some details that weren't there, but in general it's not like two completely different things and they're offended at the concept that Tom Cruise is playing the main character and it just doesn't work. Or that we're skipping over major portions of what's going on.
There were some things that you left out from the book. Players have talked the most about you leaving out Barrel Haven at the end. Why was that decision made?
Barrel Haven is definitely a pretty big world. On second thought, the ending would have worked better if we had extended it to Barrel Haven, because it would have given us a cool-down period. I think something that freaked people out was the drop-off. The game is smaller than any other game, certainly, but then it ends abruptly too. This really dramatic stuff happens… I remember the first time I played through the dinner, which I love, and then the dream sequence, which I was totally sucked into. Then I did the chase scene and I was like, "Whoa, this is awesome!" And then it was over. I think that happened to a lot of people. They learned about the world, they learned about the characters, and then we go real deep into the story—they're like, "This is crazy, tell me more about it!" And then it just kind of drops off the ledge. Barrel Haven could have given us a little cool-down period, which I think Jeff knew as a storyteller. We made decisions because of our situation that we'll think twice about next time. We made an assumption about storytelling when we should have listened to the master and followed his lead on it. And I think people would have responded differently, because the way it drops off so quickly at the end comes as such a surprise, people are like "What the…?"
The worst that can happen is you learn from that and do something differently with the second game, and it sounds like that's where you're going.
Oh yeah. We're just so happy to have shipped something and got it out to the world, and to have heard the feedback, and to be able to respond to the feedback. You get a lot of comments from people and certainly we're glad for that, but you can't let it diminish, personally, everything you know it took everybody involved to get to this point. To be criticized is kind of the nature of the beast, but a lot of people have told us that they've enjoyed it as well, so you get that benefit, too. If you want that reward—if you want people to like your work—you have to be able to listen to people's opinions about it.
Kevin Bruner, Telltale's Chief Technology Officer
So, Out from Boneville came out, and a lot of people had a lot to say about it. How do you feel about the feedback?
Kevin Bruner, Telltale's Chief Technology Officer
We feel really good about the feedback. It's our first game, and there are growing pains involved in a first game. We were trying to do something a little outside the box for the hardcore adventure gamers, so there were a lot of things we were braced for, but the majority of them were things we can fix without really affecting our other goals of trying to keep the games really accessible. We knew the game was going to be easy, but the feedback that the game was too short… we knew the game was short, first of all. It was shorter than what we intended to make, and we weren't able to tell that until far too late in the process.
Why was that?
Honestly, we were like, "Okay, this feels right." As we were building it we were thinking, "It feels like you can spend so much time here, so much time here…" So for The Great Cow Race, we're very focused up front on pre-planning--the user's going to spend so many minutes here, so many minutes here, so many minutes here. When we focus group Cow Race, we're going to sit with a stopwatch and figure out, "Okay, they didn't spend as much time here as we intended them to, so we need to beef that part up." Or, "They're spending too much time here, is that good? Or do we need to move some of that somewhere else?"
It sounds like it's really changed the development process.
It's made us a lot more aware. It's really good, because I think it's something that's easily fixable. It would have been far more devastating if people were like, "I didn't like the characters," or "I don't like the way the point and click works," or "I don't like the way the dialogue works." Something real core and fundamental. Then we would have had a problem. On the flip side, I think what we don't want to do… we could have easily made Boneville longer, by making Fone have to walk longer distances, make him walk a little slower. Those are kind of punts, cop-outs. There are a lot of longer adventure games where you spend 20% of the time walking from here to there.
People don't like that. They know that's what the developer's doing.
Right. It's one of those things that you shouldn't notice. We get a lot closer to the characters in our games, all the time, than most other games do. That's something we want to do, we want to keep the characters big on screen. The fact that not a lot of people have been commenting on the fact that you don't spend all day walking around is a good thing, because it's not the kind of thing we want people to notice. But in light of the game being short, it would be nice if somebody said, "Well at least they don't make you walk around." So we're trying to figure out ways to make the next games longer, a guaranteed 4 to 5 hour experience for a real adventure gamer, which is probably going to turn into an 8 or 9 hour experience for the more casual gamer. We're going to make the next game a bit more challenging—there were some criticisms that this game was way too easy—but what we're hearing is it was too short, didn't entertain me enough for the amount of money I spent on it. The reaction to that is to make it more entertaining, and we're going to try to do that with more writing, more voice, a longer experience, more time in the world. One of the things in Boneville is that the characters spend a lot of time alone, and some of the best parts were where they were all together, interacting with each other. In the Cow Race, you spend very little time alone.
And that's just a function of the story?
It's a function of the story, but as we've been going through the preliminary design, we catch ourselves. There's a part of the game where Gran'ma and Thorn are there, and Fone has a task to do, and Gran'ma and Thorn have to wait until Fone does his task. We're now realizing that's barking up the wrong tree, because some of the best parts of the game are when they interact with each other. So we started to redesign that area of the game to say, okay, it was a nice puzzle, and adventure-wise it would work, but we're losing an opportunity to entertain people. That means the puzzles have to be harder and more challenging, if they're the only thing you can focus on. We don't particularly want to make the games super mind-bending games. We want them to be more like interactive cartoons. So it's really making us focus on every aspect of the game, and ask if we're delivering what we want to be delivering for each individual section.
Do you think it's going to change the development time at all?
No, this is just being a little bit more deliberate in our focus, and keeping checklists next to us, literally, saying, "In this part of the game, is the interactivity what we want? Does this part of the game deliver the characters in the way we want to? Does this part of the game deliver the narrative in the way we want to? Does this part of the game bring something from Jeff Smith's world and present it, as opposed to just doing something that could happen in any world?" We're being a lot more deliberate and a lot more focused on each and every aspect of the game. And we have the opportunity to do that because we're not spending as much time building technology, creating animations. We were halfway through the first game before we had Fone walking around. Right now, we can have Fone interacting, animating, from day one. So we've got all this great feedback that gets us hyper-aware of delivering exactly what we want in ways that hopefully will be right there for people, and they won't lament parts not being there. We're able to look at the game not from a production standpoint so much, but from a game design standpoint.
Are you past the concept stage with The Great Cow Race?
Yes, we're starting implementation. Right now we've got the Barrel Haven bar running, the kitchen in the bar running, and there's a new Gran'ma's house set that's almost finished. We've got the design of the game complete, except we're still finalizing the cow race. We don't want to do an arcade game for the cow race. It's interesting, there's a new version of the original Boneville where you can skip the chase sequences. The cow race is a pinnacle moment in the Jeff Smith series. It would be horrible to build something where anybody was like, "Well, at least I could skip it." It's the name of the game, the most important thing in the book. If we deliver something where people are like, "Well, you can skip it," we're failing there. The cow race itself is proving to be an enormous design challenge. We don't want you to play as Gran'ma, since we've kind of established you play as the Bone cousins, so currently you play as the Mystery Cow, but the Mystery Cow doesn't win the race. So the things that you do in the race have to be not about winning the race.
Without making you feel like a loser.
Yeah. We can't be like, "Go go go, win win win," just so at the end we can pull the plug on you and say, "Ha ha, you didn't get to win." So we're trying to design puzzles right now to happen inside the race, that allow the excitement of the race to build, with the conclusion of Gran'ma winning the race, and the user experiencing the story, feeling really good that Gran'ma won. As a player, if you're playing Phoney, then you don't want Gran'ma to win, but as a human being, watching the story, you do want Gran'ma to win. So weaving our way through all those issues has been really, really challenging, and it's been nice to have Dave Grossman, somebody who's really experienced, hacking away at this for us. We've spent a lot of time on the cow race so far, coming up with the design, and we're about 80% of the way there. We'll see if people will like it, but nobody will insist on skipping it.
Dan and I were talking about the end of the first game, and how the part in Barrel Haven wasn't there. Is any of that going to be introduced in this game instead?
Yeah, there's a little bit of time overlap between the first game and the second game. One of the things that I think the first game didn't do very well is you didn't see the end coming. We're going to back up a little bit in time. The Cow Race game starts after Phoney has snuck away from Gran'ma's house in the middle of the night.
So we are going to see that part from the end of the book that wasn't included in the first game.
Yes, and this time around we're not sticking as closely to the book, either. We're taking some more liberties. Jeff Smith is still really involved in the design, and he's actually getting a lot of enjoyment out of the way we're… it's more like rearranging time and the order that things happen. We're not really trying to change any of the events that happen, it's still the story. But we don't want this next game to end as abruptly, so it has a more standard rise and fall, and it lands a little more smoothly. You should be able to see the end coming. So yeah, we're definitely learning from what we've done, but I don't think any of it's going to affect the production cycles, or the amount of time. I think the Cow Race is going to be a much better game than Boneville.
When is the projected release date?
Spring. It really all depends… we just want it to be right, so we'll say spring for now, and we'll probably announce a month soon.
Is it primarily the same team as Boneville?
Yeah, Dave and Heather [Logas] are designing, Randy [Tudor] is doing all the gameplay programming. It's the same team. We're hiring some new people, so hopefully one of them will get to help Randy out as a programmer.
Will Dave Grossman also be involved with Sam & Max?
The way it works is, Dave is the senior designer, so Dave oversees absolutely everything. Dave is enormously experienced and very talented, so we use him everywhere we possibly can. Dave makes CSI suggestions as well. The general strategy is there will be a writer/designer per project, and Dave's our [famed designer Shigeru] "Miyamoto," let's put it that way. He oversees everything from a design perspective. And then it ends up that Dave and generally I, since I'm responsible for the actual production, end up banging heads on a lot on things. "Should we do this, can we not do this." It works out well.
Because the production schedules are staggered, is that what allows you to be working on so many projects at the same time?
No, we have two teams. The people working on CSI right now are working on CSI. The core technology guys—myself, Graham McDermott, John Sgro, we work on both projects, but no, each project has a separate team right now. We hope there's more CSI work in the future. Not being able to talk about CSI has been really frustrating, because it's looking really good. We really feel like we're raising the bar for what it can be. Bringing it into 3D is a big deal, making it look nice, making it play nice. So we're really proud of everything we've been doing with CSI. Can't wait for screenshots to get out, it looks so different than everything else.
As far as what you have brought to the franchise, besides the move to 3D, are there other Telltale touches?
The interacting with evidence. The tools. Previously all the tools were just little cursors, and now the tools are real 3D objects. You just get a much better sense of immersion, like you're actually doing stuff. It definitely feels more like a TV show. I think it's like moving from a board game to more of a live-action game.
There's been a lot of confusion about whether you're going to make nine Bone games total (one game per book). What's the plan?
There aren't enough interactive possibilities in book three to make a complete game. It's an uphill battle for us on that front. Only having one game out is a struggle for us right now, because it's hard for the average gamer out there buying our games, feeling like, "Wow, this was cool, but darn, it was short." We're going to give them more right away. We're excited about the pattern, and we think that they're going to be excited about the pattern, but we haven't delivered enough for anybody to feel the pattern yet. There is some mistrust from other companies that have claimed to do this. We're okay with that, we just have to ride it out, and once we get a few things going then it'll make sense to people. The other thing is the book per episode. Book one mapped really nicely to the size game we want to make. Book two maps really nicely to the game we're going to make. So the pattern that we are going to be giving people is book one was called Out from Boneville, game one was Out from Boneville. Book two is The Great Cow Race, game two will be The Great Cow Race.
That sets an expectation.
Yeah. So not until we get to the game that's after that do we break that pattern, and I believe that even with all the explaining in the world, people are going to see game one / book one, game two / book two, nine books, $180 for the series. Why should I pay $180 for a game?
You said book three doesn't have as many opportunities for interactivity. Do you have any ideas about how you'll handle that?
We'll go over into book four and beyond. In book three they spend a lot of time talking and wandering around the forest. A lot of it can be condensed. We're pulling some of the important story points that need to be told into Cow Race, so some of that information will be there and we can start narratively a little deeper into book three. It's part of the plan. We don't have a crystal clear plan, but book three is mostly wandering around the forest, learning the history of why they're all there, and unless we're just going to wander around and talk, we need more stuff to happen there.
Sounds like a good opportunity for some dialogue puzzles.
You'll be in the forest quite a bit, but if we were literally following the book, it would be very difficult. We'd have to do some really arbitrary kind of, "Hmm, how are we going to get across this river while we talk about the history of the valley?" And, "Hmm, how are we going to get around these big rocks while we discuss more history of the valley?" We can do a little bit better than that.
Dan and I talked a bit about Sam & Max, and I understand you're still at the drawing board. Any ideas about how similar or different it's going to be, compared to the previous Sam & Max games?
I think the general direction that we're going right now—and it's still really preliminary—is it's going to be a little grittier, a little closer to Steve's comic. The Lucas games were really kind of bright and candy-colored, and we're not going to lose the cartoony, wacky world, but if you look at Steve's art, his art is a little bit grittier. He's said that the Sam & Max world should be looked at through the bottom of a dirty ashtray. Right now we're just exploring ways of how we can still keep it funny and whimsical, but just have a little bit more edge. At Lucas, the Freelance Police project was, "How do we take the 1993 game and pull it forward?" We're looking at Sam & Max a little bit more holistically here, to say, "How can we take the Lucas game, the TV shows, all the comics, Steve himself, and look at it as a whole? How do we really capture what Steve wants Sam & Max to be?"
Is the idea to base the game on comics he's already written?
No. I think it'll be new stuff. It'll probably be pre-existing ideas that Steve's had for a long time, so in that sense it's similar to Bone; we have a lot of material we can draw from, it's just not published material at this point. Steve hasn't come and dumped a whole bunch of unfinished comics on us—it's all in his head—but he's like, "I've always wished that Sam and Max could have done this," and we're like, "Oh, okay, we can cover that." That's the great thing about Sam and Max, they can go anywhere. They can go into space, they can travel through time. Bone is this very serious, epic storyline, where Sam & Max can just be anywhere at any time.
Do you anticipate the puzzles, the kinds of things the player's doing, to be very different than what you have us doing in Bone?
Yes. Sam & Max is a different audience. Bone is with Scholastic, and it's a younger audience. Sam & Max is going to be a game for older, more experienced gamers. When we put the difficulty meter on the website, it was to kind of let people know that where we're coming from, Bone is on the easy side. Infocom, when they made games, had beginner, intermediate, and advanced. We would classify Bone as beginner, although I think "beginner" is the wrong word for it. It's a 2 out of 6. Sam & Max will be a more sophisticated game.
Someone commented on our forum recently that Bone doesn't have any wacky puzzles, and someone else said, "Let them save that for Sam & Max."
You know… I like all the puzzles in Bone. I have some problems with Bone, but I think most of the puzzles were pretty good. But the Sam & Max puzzles will be more sophisticated, more traditional adventure gamer stuff. I definitely think Sam & Max is more the game that most of the regular adventure crowd is going to be expecting from us, but we're all very happy with Bone. We've been big Bone fans for a long time. It's just that you can't do a Bone game the same way you would do a Sam & Max game. We've read on some of the forums where it's like, "We're a little nervous that Telltale has Sam & Max." We absolutely realize that Sam & Max and Bone are different beasts. That's another good thing about getting CSI out. The poker game [Telltale Texas Hold'Em] and Bone look very similar, candy-colored, bright stuff, and it's like, "We can do different art." In the next year we'll definitely prove our diversity, and I think it'll go a long way.
Is there anything else you want to share with our readers?
Just hang in there, keep the faith. Buy Bone for all of your friends at Christmas. We're doing something different. It's just going to take a little bit more time for people to figure out who we are.
Many thanks to Kevin and Dan for satisfying our curiosity. They've given us a lot to look forward to. Keep your eye on Adventure Gamers to see what else Telltale Games comes up with in 2006.