Emily Morganti: Have you played any good adventure games lately?
Dave Grossman: I don’t know if things that I have played lately count as adventure games. I played DEVICE 6, that doesn’t count at all. It’s a weird interactive novel thing, which I loved. But that would be a pretty broad definition.
Emily: You don’t think so? Adventure Gamers considered it one.
Dave: Oh yeah? Okay, well if Adventure Gamers called that an adventure game, then probably the stuff Reactive is making, you would like in a similar way. And yeah, DEVICE 6 was terrific. It does have those kind of almost Myst-like adventure puzzles, kind of abstract things with weird things to look at, but it’s just so elegantly designed it’s ridiculous. I played Gunpoint recently, which is not an adventure game at all, but it’s a little puzzley game; it was pretty good too.
Emily: Are you mostly playing mobile games?
Dave: Yeah. I’ve bought a bunch of stuff on Steam and it’s all backlogged, it’s just sitting there. Whenever I’m in that room I’m working. I try to make time for them, but I’m addicted to my iPad. It’s attached to me.
Emily: Of course you’re going to play all of Telltale’s new stuff?
Telltale's Game of Thrones
Dave: I’m super looking forward to Game of Thrones, actually. I know very little about it; it was still in genesis when I was getting out of there, but I was in on an early playtest session, where [designer Ryan] Kaufman and a bunch of people on the team were talking through it. He was the narrator, and I was the player, and it was really fun. They were doing some really good things about involving me in the problems right away. So assuming they haven’t changed any of that stuff, I think it’s going to be good.
Emily: What do you think of the state of adventure games now—the shift that we’ve seen with Telltale over time, and how that has defined what some other studios are doing?
Dave: I think it’s great. I think the stuff Telltale is doing is fantastic, I like interacting with it and I’m looking forward to getting to do that without having been on the production floor while we were making it. Curse of Monkey Island was really fun for me because it was the first time I got to play one of those Monkey Island games without really [knowing] what was going to happen; I hadn’t been there for all the grueling business of setting it up, and I feel the same way about Telltale. It’s a great evolution of interactive narrative that I’m happy to see.
It’s not the only thing I see in the world of adventure games right now. There are lots of indie adventure games and Kickstarted adventure games that are more focused on “Let’s have some crazy puzzles”—I like that too. And it seems like there’s a resurgence of that; lots of people are trying to do what Telltale does, but lots of people are also trying to do [more traditional adventures].
Emily: You know, some fans are really angry at Telltale for betraying their roots and going away from that format.
Dave: [deadpan] I’m not sorry about that at all. It needed to be done.
Emily: Are you also working with Bill Tiller on Duke Grabowski, Mighty Swashbuckler?
Dave is contributing as a design consultant on Bill Tiller's Duke Grabowski: Mighty Swashbuckler!
Dave: A little. I have done a little review work on his design, I gave him some feedback, and when he gets back to me I’m going to do that again. Bill basically called me up and said, “Hey, you want to have some fun with me on this thing?” And I was like, “I don’t have a lot of time, but maybe we could work on a little trade,” so actually I’ve been doing a little design review work for him, and he’s been doing some art for me on a totally-not-games-related project that I’ve got going on the side. So yeah, I’ve been consulting here and there. That’s actually not even the only adventure game I’m working on, but I can’t talk about the other one.
Emily: Has it been announced?
Dave: It had a Kickstarter, so I guess people are aware that it’s going on, but they don’t know anything about how it’s progressing.
Emily: What do you think of Kickstarter?
Dave: It certainly has worked very well, on the surface, for some people. I thought about trying to launch a Kickstarter and do something that way, and I went and talked to a bunch of my friends who have done it, and almost all of them advised against it. I think it’s great, the way it has allowed kind of weird niche projects to get themselves into existence, that old-style patronage thing. If you can find some people who will back you from the get-go, you don’t have to convince a publisher with a very specific property, you just get people who are into it for being into it and don’t have to put up a lot of money, then that’s fantastic. What I have heard from people is it becomes a huge responsibility on the back end; you wind up with a lot less money than you were hoping that you would have after people take their cuts, and you have to ship a bunch of prizes to people for backing you, and you’re sort of indebted to your backers for the life of the project, and you have to spend some of your time thinking about that all the while you’re making your game. The other thing is, it does really rely on making a play with the force of your personality, and that works really well for some people, but I don’t think I’m one of them. [laughs]
That said, Codename Cygnus was on the back of a Kickstarter, so there you go.
Emily: This is the third time you’ve signed on with a small studio in its early days. From LucasArts to Telltale to Reactive, how has that experience changed over the years?
Day of the Tentacle received numerous translations as it was published around the world
Dave: The experiences certainly have been different for me. LucasArts is a weird thing; it felt like a start-up because the group was really small—it was maybe a couple dozen when I joined there—but it was part of a much larger company that had really deep pockets, and so we didn’t have that [feeling of] “Nobody’s going to eat next week if we don’t finish this.” It was very free in terms of, we’re just here to make fun stuff, so let’s go do that, and have a good time doing it, and put it out on the marketplace and we’ll see if anybody buys it. At least at the beginning it was like that. Eventually they did decide we had to make a profit, but that was a couple of years into my tenure there. And that actually resulted in… like, there are all these different translations of Day of the Tentacle and Monkey Island, and the reason that those exist is that we could get money up front for them, and we were trying to make numbers for the year. So the guy who was in charge of the division at that time went out and made a bunch of crazy deals and was like, “Okay, the division is saved, they’re not going to shut us down, but we have to translate the game into Swedish and Hebrew and Korean.”
Telltale was sort of on its feet [when I started] and they already had a deal with Ubisoft to make CSI games, which was kind of keeping the doors open while we did other stuff. So it had that lean and mean start-up feel, which was good, but it did sort of feel like, “Okay, we’re over the first hurdle and we might make it a year or two.” I was feeling kind of footloose and fancy free in those days, too. I didn’t really expect to stay this long, but I didn’t actually want to have a different job. I had been freelancing for eleven years at that point and it was nice to have a home for a while, and not always have to be looking for that next gig. Here were some people who were going to be making games that I was going to enjoy working on; why [shouldn’t] I just go do that all the time?
And by then… I guess in the LucasArts days the games industry in general was just so small that doing a start-up there—it was cheap, but you couldn’t get investment money, or that kind of thing. By the 2000s, Hollywood had sort of come and gone and come again to the industry and that was a time when you could find [venture capital] money for things, you could get angel investors to prop stuff up, so there was a lot more awareness of what constituted good talent and what was a good idea for a company. So you could go out with something novel like Telltale and say, “Look, this digital thing is going to be really big, and we want to take advantage of it,” and you could find people who would see the wisdom in it and invest in it.
Emily: Adventure Gamers interviewed Dan Connors in 2005 and he talked about how delivering games like iTunes delivered music would be the next big thing. Turns out he was right.
Telltale's Sam & Max series helped popularize the now-ubiquitous digital distribution model
Dave: And to be fair, Ron Gilbert’s company previous to that, Hulabee, had already tried to do that. I wrote a couple of games with them that were intended to be digitally distributed, and the marketplace for it was just too small still, then. This was about five years earlier, so it was just at the end of the time when people were like, “We can’t do that.” Telltale broke the mold open.
Emily: And now, ten years later, there’s a saturation of indie games and mobile games—there’s so much competition—and it’s become really hard for games to get noticed. Because Reactive isn’t strictly in the game category, do you feel that will help you get attention as you go after funding?
Dave: The people we talk to aren’t like, “Oh, here’s another indie game studio.” They’re like, “Oh, you have a really interesting thing that’s outside that space, that’s potentially going to be huge.” We have big dreams of kicking off a whole new platform and a whole new medium for doing interactive entertainment.
Emily: Thanks for chatting with us, Dave! We’ll keep our ears open (heh, get it?) for news on what you and Reactive are working on in 2015.