Telltale and the Value of Episodic Content

Laura Parker speaks to Telltale CEO Dan Connors about the success of The Walking Dead and why episodic content could be the way of the future.

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Last December, YouTube user OfflimitsPC, or The Girl from Aus as she's better known to the 500+ subscribers to her channel, uploaded a video of herself playing through the final episode of Telltale's The Walking Dead. The Australian teenager's reaction to the final scene of the game, in which she swears, sobs, and tells the developers of the game to f*ck off, caught the attention of Telltale CEO and The Walking Dead executive producer Dan Connors, who included her video in his 2013 DICE Summit presentation on the merits of episodic content. Connors' purpose was simple: to demonstrate the level of investment players can have in video game characters, if only given the chance.

* * *

California-based Telltale Games has turned episodic content into an artform. The studio, founded in 2004 by ex-LucasArts employees Dan Connors and Kevin Bruner, has shown steadfast dedication to the same business model for the last nine years. Episodic content is the foundation of Telltale's design philosophy, driving development on almost all the studio's past games and earning Telltale a reputation for high-quality entertainment that pushes the boundaries of established distribution methods. Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People (2008), Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures (2009), Tales of Monkey Island (2009), Back to the Future: The Game (2011), and Jurassic Park: The Game (2011) were all developed with this philosophy, guided by the belief that piecemeal episodic distribution, coupled with a strong narrative focus and the use of licenses as a way to reach existing fanbases, would lead to success in a growing digital market populated by audiences demanding smaller, more user-friendly gaming experiences at lower price points. But it wasn't until 2012's The Walking Dead, a five-part adventure game based on Robert Kirkman's comic series, with its difficult choices, its critical and commercial acclaim, its 80 Game of the Year Awards and its videotaped moments of heartbreak, that Telltale's commitment to episodic content finally paid off.

* * *

"Plenty of business models were falling off the cliff at the time," Connors says, looking back at his and Bruner's initial direction for Telltale. "We could have chased the trend-setters, the casual, social, mobile, or free-to-play models. There was always the lure of the latest get-rich-quick scheme and the fear that if you didn't get involved you would miss out."

"But it didn't feel like it was our thing. It wasn't what we did and it wasn't what we knew. We knew about building stories based on licenses, and we thought the best way to distribute them was episodically. So that's what we did."

Telltale's games have sold well, and, for the most part, have been favorably reviewed. But, before last year, none really managed to make an impact. Some even dragged the studio backwards: 2011's Back to the Future was regarded as an easy adventure game with a great story, but without much choice and consequence to back it up; Jurassic Park shifted gears towards more dramatic pacing and tension but ran into trouble creating believable characters and incorporating a strong gameplay element: while commended for its story and clever references to Spielberg's original film, the game was criticized for being rigidly linear, not placing enough importance on consequences, and having puzzles that were simply too easy to solve, leading some reviewers to conclude that the game was fun to watch but not that much fun to play.

Connors acknowledges that both games were attempts to bring gaming to a wider audience, something that longtime Telltale fans did not appreciate.

"We started to move away from traditional gaming mechanics and that put us in a nebulous state as far as how people felt about our games," he says. "Both games sold well and were profitable for us, but I don't think we had quite landed either the narrative or the gameplay formula when they were released."

After deliberating on what went wrong with each title, Telltale was ready to try again.

The debut episode of The Walking Dead: The Game was released on April 24, 2012, with four more episodes released between April and November the same year. The game follows university professor and convicted criminal Lee Everett, who is joined by an eight-year-old girl, Clementine, in post-zombie outbreak Georgia. Choices made by the player in the game carried through from one episode to the next, allowing Telltale to record how players behaved in certain situations and giving them an idea of how relatable the characters were. Not surprisingly, the majority of players became invested in protecting Clementine, whose relationship with Lee became a major focus of the story.

The game was a hit, selling 8.5 million episodes to date and earning Telltale critical acclaim across the industry. Connors describes the game as "the quintessential version" of Telltale's design philosophy, a culmination of over eight years' hard work perfecting a very particular style of narrative gameplay on multiple platforms. In Connors' eyes, The Walking Dead is the perfect example of an episodic adventure game.

"With all due respect to The Walking Dead brand, I think if Telltale had delivered a game with the same kind of narrative gameplay [without The Walking Dead license], it still would have been one of the most interesting games of the year, just for what it was capable of making players feel," he says.

For one, the game managed to be believable, presenting the same kind of unromanticized world view of humans grappling with a zombie apocalypse as Kirkman's comics and AMC's The Walking Dead television series. This wasn't the world of Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising, or Dead Island: players' decisions were met with believable reactions from the game's characters and consequences were not always immediately obvious. Secondly, there was something about these characters that made it impossible to remain apathetic to their fate. The more people played, the more obvious it was the choices they made stayed with them.

Once people started writing in to Telltale to share their experiences of playing the game (some good, some bad), Connors realized just how much people viewed their experience in terms of their relationship with the characters. Even in playtests, people always seemed to make decisions based on how they felt about the individuals in the game: they didn't want to piss someone off, make so-and-so sad, or lose someone's trust. Very rarely was a decision based on logic, and that felt good: it proved to Telltale they were onto something.

"That's when we started looking at how we could make the stakes really high, episode to episode," Connors says. "The writers were merciless…I remember fighting for Carly in all the meetings and they just wouldn't hear me out. [Carly gets shot in Episode Three.] They actually went back and added all the flirty exchanges between Carly and Lee once they'd worked out she was going to die, in order to make her character more lovable before killing her off. I couldn't believe it."

But it was the relationship between Lee and Clementine, with its tender moments and heartbreaking ending, which helped bring the whole thing together. In many ways, this is what The Walking Dead is about.

"The power of that relationship blew us away. We couldn't believe how much it impacted on people. Almost every single player chose to save Clementine over themselves…she almost became the goal in the game."

While the success of The Walking Dead came as a surprise to Telltale, most of the studio's earlier predictions about the changing nature of business models in the games industry had come true, from the onset of digital distribution to the demand for shorter, cheaper content. At last, the climate was right for episodic to succeed.

"We always get asked why we stuck with episodic for as long as we did," Connors says. "The Walking Dead is why. I know it's not immediately obvious, but we made progress with each new game we made. It wasn't moving as fast as we would have liked, but every step of the way there was enough there to show that this could work as a business model. And finally, we proved it could."

* * *

Episodic content is quickly gaining traction as a viable business model. Sony has already announced its newly-unveiled PlayStation 4 console will support both episodic and free-to-play games, while content creators like Metal Gear designer Hideo Kojima have been quick to champion the use of TV-style "pilots" to combat the challenges of next-generation console development based on the idea that developers could trial products to see if players are interested before moving forward. It's an attractive premise for the games industry, more so because it promises to tap into an existing audience already accustomed to getting their entertainment in weekly or monthly doses. Some developers are already experimenting in this area: April will see the worldwide debut of Defiance, an open world, multiplatform MMO developed by Trion Worlds which will be released alongside a global television series on US network Syfy. The developers promise that both the show and game will feed into each other over time, creating a new experience that appeals to both gaming and television audiences.

These are the kinds of opportunities Connors imagines episodic content will allow game developers to explore. Echoing Quantic Dream founder David Cage, Connors believes the game industry should form a closer bond with Hollywood to create new experiences that seek to bridge the gap between passive and active media and draw in new audiences in the process.

"We need to work out how we can build something that works going forward, something that will stop us from falling back into old habits," he says. "Old habits have left us with nothing but layoff after layoff and studio closure after studio closure. Interactivity is our area of expertise: we should own it. We should take advantage and kick ass."

This is not to say that all game developers should stop what they're doing and start making episodic games. This isn't about taking a finished retail game and splitting it up into five pieces: the model is not designed to work for every genre of game, nor will it. But the market is showing interest, and the more interest it shows, the more the industry needs to respond.

"The market is the one forcing the transition between different channels and platforms now, not technology," Connors says. "It's not easy to build a game that you can sell on XBLA, PSN, the PC and the iPhone all at the same time. But this is what people want, and we have to start giving it to them."

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163 comments
punksterdaddy
punksterdaddy

The only thing I didn't like about the episodic content of The Walking Dead was... I never knew when the next instalment was due  to be released?

It was frustrating not knowing when to keep some money back,  I wanted to make sure I could play the game on it's release week before I ran across some spoilers or friends telling something about it by accident. I never knew when it was released and therefore I had to constantly check for it and was always trying to keep money back for it.

Which is harder than it seems.

iAmristar
iAmristar

I hope the PS Vita version is not episodic.

TheRelentless
TheRelentless

"It's not easy to build a game that you can sell on XBLA, PSN, the PC and the iPhone all at the same time. But this is what people want, and we have to start giving it to them."

If save games were either saved in the cloud or easy to move from platform to platform.  And if they worked across multiple platforms, that would be awesome.

If I could play The Walking Dead on my PC at home with surround sound 7.1 and then pick up right where I left off on my iPad when my wife forces me to go to church or a funeral or something else :)  That would be the best.

nomadski69
nomadski69

I thought Half Life already proved Episodic Content delivery for games didn't work? At least for the bigger budget games.

The_Gaming_Baby
The_Gaming_Baby

As sad as it may sound, playing through this game was one of the best experiences of my life

grafity
grafity

If people aren't happy with that kind of game because they think its too linear well look back on other games. And good news for you: All games have been writen from the beginning by professionnal. Not by you.  And you can't have a good story if you're calling all the shots. Some of the things have to happen to keep the story foward and thats exactly what TellTales did with The Walking dead. Do you think you could feel real emotion  while playing a game if you're the one deciding what would happen next ? The experience in this game isn't how you can change the story, 'cause if so, people would just reload the game to take a different option if they're not happy with the the one they made. The real experience in the walking dead is the bond that you're creating with the other characters. Lee isn't God but still he can forge an opinion on Kenny, Carly, clementine, etc. And then decide what will he do with this character or will he agree with him or argue with him. Will he try to save him or not. The consequence isn't always die or not. Like i said your not God, the other characters can decide on their own thats what makes a character human. And it is the players choices to decide how they want their relationship with the other characters to be. But I guess you didnt get that... maybe you should go on and play your CoD blackops 2 and decide wich ending you want if thats the kind of game you want. or maybe some skyrim, there you can do whatever you want and you'll feel no emotion at all. sorry but stop being crying baby because you didn't get to do what you want.

vault-boy
vault-boy

I absolutely adore the stupidity that some people posses to get mad that the game they played wasn't completely altered because they chose to go to the Hershel's farm during the day instead of during the night. Its stupid, but its a cute kind of stupid, like a puppy lying down on its back and pissing in its own face.

dogfather76
dogfather76

I think it was a success because it was done right in this game.  I can't really say the same for their previous efforts in "Back to the Future" or "Jurassic park."  I really liked TWD, but I don't think that Telltale has a good enough track record to make broad predictions about the future of games.  I still remember them having to write their own user reviews on metacritic to cover up how embarrasing that game was for them.

LukeWesty
LukeWesty

I didn't realise untill my second playthrough that your decisions don't effect the story that much which I think would have been a lot better if that was the case. The game was still brill first time through but maybe if future telltale Walking Dead implement that into the game better that would make it better even tho in some cases people wouldn't see a lot of footage unless they played through a good few times but it still would make it better I believe.

TheMolotovSoup
TheMolotovSoup

Well it's kinda similar with most games ( DLC content)!Hate this idea ! And yea not playing TWD next season only couse Lee and Carley died ,and that's when i saw how all that" game is tailored by how u play it shit " is all crap!

geojf3
geojf3

I first found TellTale by playing the Sam And Max games and I was hooked on the company.  They produced some of the finest games in the past few years.  The episode staple is a great idea and is one that many companies (and the first one I think of Batman Arkham Asylum/City) should have ben doing for a while.  Companies and players alike have been saying for years that (in effect) DLC is something everyone wants.  And TellTales episode updates are basically that...they are downloadable content for an existing game.  Whether it would be add on stories/episodes that go past the original plot of the title (again Arkham) or standalone episodes (The Walking Dead), I just cannot understand why most companies will not go in this direction.

Great job TellTale....keep 'em comin'!

Kunasha
Kunasha

There's a right place and time for many kinds of business models.

However, above all else, your game shouldn't suck. If it does, no marketing strategy other than pure hype will get you there.

Zoza24
Zoza24

Episodic games sounds great, but consider as well that development costs could increase because you have to develop games in a short time, you need alot of testers, new actors and new story lines.

liam82517
liam82517

As long as its not too long a wait inbetween episodes. a month, I think is reasonable, but the two months between WD episodes was torture. It also risks what happens a lot of the time when tv shows have a end of season cliff hanger. By the time the show comes back a few months later all the momentum has been lost and most people dont care as much as they would have had it been a smaller window between episodes.


it also wouldnt work for all games. Theres a certain magic that just cant be captured by every game, and only a select few with a particular narrative could survive an episodic delivery. 

IAMTYLERDURDEN
IAMTYLERDURDEN

I don't mind episodic games as long as the episodes are released on time. You hear that Telltale!

TheZeroPercent
TheZeroPercent

--A BIG part of what makes TWD so great is "the waiting"

--telltale got a little lucky with getting a walking dead deal

--now they think they know the future of gaming?

--NOONE wants video games in "episodes"

DiverseGamer
DiverseGamer

I have no problems with episodic content as long as they release it on disc afterwards.

Lausanna
Lausanna

I loved this game. It's the first and only game that has ever made me cry. I bought all five episodes at once though and only had a week or two between each, but I think I would have loved it just as much if I'd had to wait longer.

Coco_pierrot
Coco_pierrot

I waited for the retail version on a disc ... waiting 2 months for the next 2h wasn't appealing for me. Also the game didn'touch me. I knew that everyone would die eventually, so I dealt with them until they would die, because it is obvious it will happen. Also our choices didn't matter in the end because everyone got the same ending.

APGP
APGP

I Have A Bad Feeling About This...

ViskiJack
ViskiJack

Walking Dead is not really a game it's more like a motion comic or a interactive trailer.Episodes are better than DLC because they could give a better story from one to another.A great idea for classic  RPG's that are longer to make .I would love to see a masive game like Daragon Age Origines in episodes.A 5 hour episode that ends in a cliffhanger would be cool.Also you cold make a game with a 100 episodes if it's really really god :D 

FidelSarcastro
FidelSarcastro

If done properly I have no problem with episodic content. It is just one way that games are becoming more of an accepted form of media. Games are becoming more theatric, telling better and more in-depth stories, Episodic games are in essence Video Game mini-series. The Walking Dead telltale game follows the same flow and feel as the TV show, in doing so if someone loves the show, how its presented and the shows pace then chances are they will like the game. You could take the same formula and apply it to many TV shows on now and have it work. Wouldn't mind seeing a telltale adaptation of Dexter, Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy or Boardwalk Empire.

TheGirlFromAus
TheGirlFromAus

Wow! What an honor to be mentioned again thank you guys so much! Laura that was an amazing article :D

Szeiden
Szeiden

It's fine if it works. But no. Every time a new episode came out the TellTale forums were flooded with people complaining about their saves not transferring properly and having to start over or jump through hoops changing timestamps, copying and deleting files here and there, etc. I played the first episode and it worked fine. The second episode my save wouldn't transfer so I had to mess around and finally got it to load my old save. Then episode three comes out and the same exact problem happens. Finally I get it fixed again. Then I play 75% of the way through episode 3 and decide to finish the rest the next day. Come back the next day and my save is gone once more. Note that I didn't 'forget to save'. I save compulsively (in many story driven games I save once every few minutes). I can't say I like episodic content versus a full product from the start, but I don't see an intrinsic problem with it. However, if you're going to have problems every time an episode comes out, forget about it.

Melchior111
Melchior111

Episodic content is nice and all but the truth is the whole is greater than the sum of its parts

DarthLod
DarthLod

I have ZERO interest in "episodic content", especially when it is nothing but QTE's. Either give me all of it at once, or forget it.

detonadoma
detonadoma

i think it would be awesome if telltale made a game based on The Thing

TheRelentless
TheRelentless

@nomadski69 I would say it only proved Valve hasn't figured out how to generate games in an episodic friendly time frame.  TellTale has done it right.  I've enjoyed every single one of their games, and releasing them in an episodic fashion allows us to begin playing sooner than waiting for a full-sized game that includes a seasons-worth of content.

TheZeroPercent
TheZeroPercent

@The_Gaming_Baby 

--yeah agreed

--you have to be "in the mood" for the point and click thing(tired of action?)

--but the story,atmosphere, consequences & flow of this game

--make it one of the most amazing gaming experiences available

petez34
petez34

@TheMolotovSoup yeah I played it twice through and the outcome doesn't change only some dialogue with existing characters do 'a little bit'. Not the revolutionary 'your choices make a difference' game I expected but still fun!

petez34
petez34

@Kaz32 I lol'd hard at the 16 agrees for the user who wrote his dog's poo looks more interesting. That made my day.

petez34
petez34

@Kaz32

lmao, Now to the people who want episodic content- Do you really want to wait 2 months for another crappy 2 hours of game? Let's see how many sales they have for the next episode. The only creativity developer's have these days are in ways to fvck up their own franchises. 

joke_man
joke_man

@TheZeroPercent

"A BIG part of what makes TWD so great is "the waiting""

And all of the other stuff that you ignored...i.e. Making action-adventure games relevant again; creating a great touching story; etc.

"telltale got a little lucky with getting a walking dead deal"

And making a game that millions of gamers and critics loved...

"now they think they know the future of gaming?"

When have they ever said that?  It's not their fault the media is head over heals making sensationalist articles because TellTale opened the flood gates by becoming more recognizable with an "unpopular "business model.

"NOONE wants video games in "episodes""

All games? Of course not...But it worked here and it could work with other games under certain circumstances...So really, what is your problem?

polishfish
polishfish

@TheZeroPercent I do!  if its as good and as reasonably priced as the walking dead has been so far


FOR SURE getting all of episode 2

BlackBaldwin
BlackBaldwin

@Coco_pierrot 

I agree I jumped on the ship expecting my decisions to impact my playthroughs inwhich it didn't inwhich will result in me not jumping on their next walking dead series game.  

shua83
shua83

@FidelSarcastro  LOL are you serious,more theatrical and in depth?. I haven't came across a game in the longest time that has had a in depth story because 9/10 of them are over before you even begin,where is the story there?    I think telltale got lucky with this one,because they don't even know how to take care of their customers let alone release a game on disk that works.

Kaz32
Kaz32

@petez34 I generally just wait till every episode is released then play them all at once.

TheZeroPercent
TheZeroPercent

@joke_man

im the biggest TWD fan on the planet

--telltale did an awesome job with the game

--but it was TWD's already laid down story telling/world skeleton 

--that telltale used as a "guide" 

--that made the game so "incredible"

--not telltale


TheZeroPercent
TheZeroPercent

@polishfish

--you mean "FOR SURE getting all of "season" 2" 

--when they say "episodic"

--they mean monthly or bi-monthly "episodes" that make up a full season over the year


Coco_pierrot
Coco_pierrot

@MateykoSlam Clementine is the only caracter that isn't impact with our "decision" , no matter what you say or do she will follow you. So, to me she doesn,t count at all. also the creator talked about using our save file for the upcoming TWD by Telltale and I wonder why ... it isn't like our decision really impacted ... Lily is still alive ? Chrysta and Omid are alive ? Even if they are alive would they seriously try to kill or treat baddly a little girl just because Lee ( we ) pissed them off.

H0rizon
H0rizon

@BlackBaldwin @Coco_pierrot 

I loved playing the game and I became very attached to the characters, but I too came upon this realization and it shattered my love for it.

mlcarter815
mlcarter815

@shua83 Movies can tell a story in three hours or less. Games can certainly tell a story in twice the time.

petez34
petez34

@Kaz32 me too. Im not one who enjoys waiting for months to play a 2 hour dlc. 

punksterdaddy
punksterdaddy

@TheZeroPercent @snxx 

Lol. What is the deal with this...?

--Say something in one line

--Say something else in another

--Then make it look as if you are making a list

--but really you aren't!

--I find this funny.

--I think this is

--the future of comments

--right here on gamespot?

--Roflmao.

--The End

TheZeroPercent
TheZeroPercent

@snxx

--i said telltale did an "awesome job" with the game

--they deserve ALOT of credit

--but their story, "decisions", mode, plot,character development(etc.)

--it was ALL based on TWD's pre-existing fundamentals

snxx
snxx

@TheZeroPercent@joke_manIf that was true, all games based on amazing franchises would be equally amazing. But we have lots of Star Wars (and others movie- or comic-based) games to prove us otherwise. A great fictional world and strong franchise does not guarantees a good adaptation - heck, sometimes it even hampers some adaptations.