Sam & Max team forms new studio

Telltale Games sets up shop in Northern California and pledges to resurrect the adventure game genre. GameSpot has an exclusive Q&A with CEO Dan Connors.


Enthusiasts of the point-and-click adventure game, take heart: There's a new development studio pledging to resurrect the dying genre. Industry veterans Dan Connors, Kevin Bruner, and Troy Molander, along with other key members of the team that was developing Sam & Max: Freelance Police for LucasArts, have formed a new studio called Telltale Games. The San Rafael, California-based developer will concentrate on "reenergizing" the adventure game market.

Connors, Telltale's CEO, says that fan reaction to the cancellation of Sam & Max by LucasArts last year played a big part in helping the team to make the decision to start their own company. "When Sam & Max: Freelance Police was abruptly cancelled last March," Connors said, "we were moved by the ground swell of support from the fan community, including an online petition to continue the development of the game."

"When we saw the petition and how upset people were, we knew we had to start Telltale Games," Kevin Bruner added.

Adventures Cut Short

There was a time when point-and-click adventures were the most popular genre of computer game. Emerging out of the days of text adventures like Zork, graphical adventure games such as King's Quest and Leisure Suit Larry challenged players to find and use items to solve puzzles, usually through mastery of a set of text commands. Later, as a new, strange input device known as the "mouse" came into wide use, new entries in the genre replaced typing with pointing, dragging, and clicking.

LucasArts soon got into the act with titles of its own, revolutionizing the genre with creative, edgy, and hilarious adventures like Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island, not to mention Sam & Max Hit the Road, which was based on an indie comic by Steve Purcell about a rabbit-and-dog team of "freelance police."

Considered one of the best--if not the best--in the genre, Sam & Max featured beautiful cartoonlike graphics and razor-sharp wit, and it seemed at the time to herald a new, exciting future for the genre. It turned out to be right at the end of it. The near-universal shift to 3D graphics spelled doom for the genre. King's Quest wasn't nearly as fun in 3D, and even though LucasArts' Grim Fandango was critically acclaimed, it was the only high point in years.

"I don't think 3D was ever done right," Connors said. "Once the switch was made, the budgets went up and developers couldn't afford to create the immersiveness you expect in a 3D world. Done right, a highly immersive 3D adventure game could push the genre back into the mainstream."

Telling Tall Tales

What else does Telltale plan to do to turn things around? First and foremost, it hopes to create games based on popular licenses to drive market interest. In our exclusive Q&A with Dan Connors below, he points to the success of the Law & Order and CSI games, both of which have fit well with the genre.

And yes, Telltale is hiring--Troy Molander says that the company is currently looking for talented programmers, artists, and storytellers. "Our goal," he said, "is to build a company where creativity is fostered and anything is possible."

But what about the question on everyone's mind--is a new Sam & Max title coming? Although Telltale Games hasn't specifically said anything, the upcoming first press release from the company does mention the game three times, then ends by saying that Telltale is currently "in the design phase on a well-loved license." Could it be? We'll just have to wait and see what Telltale Games has up its sleeves.

Q&A: Dan Connors

GameSpot: The classic adventure game genre is very, very close to dying a tragic death. What happened within the corporate structure of companies like LucasArts that caused the genre to decline?

Dan Connors: I think it is pretty amazing that the adventure game mechanic has stayed so similar all these years. I mean, what is a classic third-person action game? A side-scroller? Like other genres, the adventure game is evolving.

Currently, it feels like there is a revitalization of the genre happening with games like Law & Order and CSI. These are two hugely popular licenses that use the adventure game mechanic, because the mechanic works for making those licenses interactive. A Law & Order action game would definitely lose many things about the license that its fans love.

As far as the corporate structure is concerned, the simple fact is that it is a huge business, and to get and keep shelf space you need to do massive numbers. In order to make those numbers, you need to throw down serious cash marketing the product. With that kind of money at stake, there isn't much room for a boutique product. There are ways to make boutique products and be profitable, especially if you know your costs, know your market, and can solve distribution, but for larger companies the margins don't work. A 2,000-person company has a lot of overhead.

GS: How do you see your approach affecting the overall health of the genre? In other words, what will you bring to the genre that may have been missing?

DC: Telltale is all about storytelling and character. Kevin Bruner, our CTO, is a huge fan of Infocom games because of their ability to immerse a player in an unfolding story. The work he has done since then, including a major stint on Grim Fandango, has continued to inspire that vision. It's very easy, as an adventure game developer, to focus on just wiring the puzzles and making them work. At Telltale, our focus is on filling out the world and story around the puzzles. I definitely agree with Steven Spielberg when he points to interactive storytelling as a place for huge growth in the industry.

GS: The original Sam & Max Hit the Road is considered one of the classics of the genre, perhaps even the best ever made. What would you say are its most compelling features? Are those features significant still, in the context of what you intend to build into Telltale's products?

DC: The characters, the creativity, the art, and the quality writing of Stemmle, Clark, and Purcell. All that is tremendously significant. We have worked with great writers like Mike Stemmle and Tim Schafer, and we know how to execute their vision and deliver their punch lines, which is not something you see very often in games. Going forward, we are always going to seek out writing talent.

We also consider the art to be amazing, and we want to hit that same level. Not in a "Wow, did you see those dynamically lit particles?" kind of way, but in a "Wow, that is a great animation!" kind of way.

GS: How is your working relationship with LucasArts today? Is there one?

DC: We have lots of friends over there, but on a business level it's hard to get traction. They are very focused on dealing with what's in front of them. So unfortunately there is none, which is sad because we really love those old licenses, and of course Sam and Max. We do chat with Steve Purcell from time to time.

GS: When do you expect to announce a publishing partner?

DC: We may not. The proliferation of broadband has opened a direct channel to fans of these types of games. We started Telltale to push the market forward and quickly take advantage of advances in technology. There are many behemoths in the industry going about things in a very formulaic way; Telltale isn't down with that. If we do choose to work with a publisher, it will be because we have a shared vision.

GS: What does it take to embark on the road toward a startup?

DC: You need to believe in yourself and your partners, you need to be confident in your vision, and you need patience to deal with all the ups and downs.

GS: Thanks very much, Dan.

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