Q&A: Telltale tells why Sam & Max works

CEO Dan Connors explains how an adventure series has succeeded in an episodic game market where Valve, Ritual, and Telltale's previous efforts failed.

Back in 2005, episodic gaming was the hot new trend. However, the next three years saw various publishers' efforts meet the episodic business model with mixed success. Valve's first two Half-Life 2 episodes have been commercial and critical hits, but with only two releases in two years, the company isn't exactly providing a steady stream of content. Other episodic attempts have fared far worse: Ritual Entertainment's SiN made it to Episode One before giving up the ghost, as the studio was purchased by casual publisher MumboJumbo in January 2007.

In fact, there is only one unqualified success story in the episodic gaming field--Telltale Games resurrection of the Sam & Max franchise, which debuted in late 2006. The San Rafael, California-based indie shop's series finishes its second season on the PC this week, and the company recently announced that the first season would be compiled and released on the Wii later in the year.

So how has Telltale made the episodic model work where others fell short? Telltale CEO Dan Connors told GameSpot the key is that his studio was built from the ground up specifically for the episodic model.

"For the other companies, Valve and Ritual, they made a lot of the mistakes we did early on," Connors said. "But we stuck to our guns and kept going, while they had so many other things going on at the same time. They bailed out a little earlier. We were all in it together then they dropped off."

However, Telltale has seen its share of struggles, most notably in the aborted precursor to the Sam & Max series, Bone. After releasing two episodes of Bone in seven months, Telltale suspended development on the series because it simply wasn't getting traction.

"We were surprised at how difficult it was to sell to the age group that was best suited for Bone," Connors said, saying the company had trouble figuring out how to sell a game to children on the Internet. "With the right partnership, Bone would make a lot of sense, whether it's Scholastic, or Warner Bros., or even working with Nintendo to bring that to [Wii]. But self-publishing from the Telltale site, the Sam & Max audience was much more right to get our footing."

Growing pains aside, Connors said he's seeing more evidence that episodic gaming has arrived. "At GDC it was real interesting this year," he observed. "Every other year we've been there it was talking about the future of episodic gaming. This year Hothead was there, and a couple other companies trying to get started in it were bumping into real, tangible issues, and they sounded so familiar to us."

Connors said the biggest issues were deciding on a price point, how long it should take to make it through each episode, what the best distribution channels would be, and how much money each episode could be expected to bring in.

Telltale is apparently done getting the lay of the land now, as Connors said it has four series in development, and is planning to have at least three series this year, churning out an episode a month with the series schedules running back-to-back-to-back.

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Discussion

29 comments
gamereric4
gamereric4

Telltale is the only company that got it right. But with the new strong bad series coming up, I think for now on when you here eposidic games you think "yeah telltale rocks!". I was a little hopeful at the beginning but wow did they preform.

Irve
Irve

the problem with eposidic content is people like me .. i'm only halfway through Season 1 of S&M ... so i'm not going to buy season 2 ... however just think of all the people who are less than half way through GTA 3 and still bought Vice city / SA.

Teoballto
Teoballto

Just finished S&M season 2 last night at it was excellent. They just keep getting better and better. Episode 204 and 205 was epic. I

GamerErman2001
GamerErman2001

Yeah, Sam and Max is the first to really fulfill on making episodes, which is a bit surprising for such a small company making them.

aramitz
aramitz

More importantly, when are the rumours about season 1 coming to XBL going to become reality? That's a guaranteed purchase for sure.

smeghed256
smeghed256

I hope they put more seasons on Steam. It's more convenient for me.

Ahiru-San
Ahiru-San

Episodic is always good if the original idea was already episodic, like in comics (therefore tv shows)... Anyways, I still think Lucas Arts' Sam & Max is the best of S&M, the voice acting was like superb...

effthat
effthat

Please bring Bone to WiiWare! I would buy them all! The series is great and i think that the game would be equally great.

Megawizard
Megawizard

"Does the last sentence mean Season 3?" Seems like Episode 3, 4, & 5 to me.

Rect_Pola
Rect_Pola

I think there's some credit to the Bone audience being hard to sell direct download. Sam & Max's crowd is a bit older and has their own money. I love that the franchise was revived to it's former (or greater) glory.

Gainwardrobe
Gainwardrobe

Also the reason it works is that the games average quality throughout rocks, and the characters are all memorable.

Santhin
Santhin

Sam and Max works as episodic content because it was really designed to be episodic. It's gameplay controls are simple and it's mostly character driven, plus it has to stay on a single premise only for so long before it wears out its welcome and moves on to something else, which is great for something you set down and pick up every month or so.

miladesn2
miladesn2

Does the last sentence mean Season 3?

Poshkidney
Poshkidney

Sam and Max having success doing something right that those big budgets studios can't do is funny and so are the games as they are just yeah.

diablobasher
diablobasher

Oh, thats what happened to SiN.... Lame, i was patiently awaiting the next episode :\ Oh well... Sucks. Now i guess i have to play Rock Band until Half Life 2: Episode 3.

aygol
aygol

This is just awesome news. Sam & Max brings the adventure genre back!

Geshpenst
Geshpenst

Can't wait for Sam and Max Season 2, Season 1 was great.

vaejas
vaejas

Bone would be very interesting I think if they could do another episode and bump the target age level a bit. Hopefully S&M will give incentive enough to come back for another Bone epi... yeah that parses pretty bad... oh well.

Lumenadducere
Lumenadducere

Considering how well-received S&M Season 1 was for the PC, I'm definitely looking forward to this for the Wii. If I like Season 1 then I'll probably wind up getting Season 2 on the PC.

yukine
yukine

Played a few episodes on the PC, pretty awesome series... can't wait to pick it up on the Wii but hopefully it's not overpriced and is released with a budget price (considering it was on the PC).

Lum_Yatsura
Lum_Yatsura

Wii is a good choice for this. These kinds of games don't need the $60 price tag, HD graphics, achievements, and online modes traditional to 360.

grafkhun
grafkhun

yeah i've always been interested in sam & max, but never got into it. the wii version looks good though, may pick it up.

EnozmeH
EnozmeH

I have mixed feelings about this upcoming title for the Wii, i viewed the content about it and it didn't really clear anything up. It's gameplay seemed pointless and they didn't explain anything. Either GS messed up on the interview for the game or Sam & Max might lead to a let down :(

CommanderShiro
CommanderShiro

I said it once, I'll say it again. Those with a Wii should pick Sam and Max up. Its great. You'll see what people with PCs love about this game.

Megawizard
Megawizard

Season 1 was great, but 2 seems to be lacking an overall plot (which 1 had, and made it quite clear what it was).

einherjar_13
einherjar_13

Sam and Max: Season 1 is fantastic! I'm totally looking forward to the one coming on the Wii! I've played the first season and I really liked it! I hope that it stays the same!

PYROTIM
PYROTIM

I have to say, I love these games! I'm glad someone made episodic content not suck!

spiggy500
spiggy500

I'm looking forward to this coming to Wii. I've never played any of their games.