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.

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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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