If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
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Telltale Games has established itself as the go-to studio for adapting recognisable properties into video games. Its focus on memorable characters and narratives driven by player decisions has earned it the kind of reputation that allows it to work with Marvel, DC, and HBO. Over the years, however, the framework in which it delivers its stories has become well worn.
At Gamescom we had the opportunity to talk about this with Job Stauffer, Telltale's head of creative communications. In the interview, we discussed why Telltale's format serves as an advantage for the studio, how it approaches incorporating feedback on an episode by episode basis, and more.
GameSpot: Telltale has gone from being a small adventure game developer to a studio handling the biggest franchises in the world. How many developers are at the studio, and how do you juggle all these properties?
Job Stauffer: Not everyone realizes Telltale's a company that's over 12 years old. When I started at Telltale, I was employee 110 or 115. That was early 2012 before Walking Dead. We're now at about 350 in 2016, which is still very, very small compared to certain studios that might have 500 or 1,000 members. They're putting out a game maybe every two, three, or four years.
We are structured a lot more like a TV studio. We have talent and team members that will work on multiple series, jumping back and forth. We always like to retain season leadership for creatives and some team members are just compatible across multiple projects. They're learning from one series then bringing it to the next.
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In 2014, when we had Season 2 of The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us rolling, there were things we were learning from The Wolf Among Us that we applied to Season 2, same for Game of Thrones, Borderlands, and then this year with Michonne, Minecraft, and Batman. It's always been in our DNA to be working episodically and working live.
We focus on storytelling. We pride ourselves in being the best at interactive storytelling, the best we can be. When we look for game developers, we're looking for, no matter what you're practicing and no matter what you're focusing on at the studio, as long as you also have the same interest and have the same beliefs of games being as powerful as an interactive storyteller medium as we all do. That's where we are as a team or as a studio. We're all still under one roof in the center of California. Only very recently are we starting to work with some outside groups. It's still very much us in California.
You mentioned earlier, you're very much a live development studio. You're finishing up Episode 2 of Batman. How do you incorporate feedback into that? It seems to me Episode 1 just came out. How do you take that feedback and put it into the next episode at such a late stage when surely you'd be finalizing?
Being in live development, we always consider the player to be the last piece of the development process. When we kicked Tales from the Borderlands off in the end of 2014, there were characters in that first episode that we've really only fully intended them to maybe be there for one episode. It wasn't until we were playing that game live in front of an audience at the Alamo Drafthouse, where they were yelling at the screen, [that] we saw what the response was to certain characters and certain elements that we maybe didn't even have an idea that fans were going to respond so well to. Having that ability to lean in and say we already know where we started... We know where we're going to be ending.
Being able to stay on our toes and adjust the script and adjust certain elements of the story is also a part of our DNA. It's just a part of how we've approached game design for more than a decade. You've seen that in The Walking Dead Season one. It's funny; there's a scene in Episode 2 of Walking Dead where Lee is talking to Duck. They're trying to figure out who stole the food from the motel. Duck comes up to Lee and he says, "Ooh, a mystery. You be Batman and I'll be Robin. Let's try and sort this out."
On the one hand, that was us trying to contain ourselves. We knew even back then we were going to be doing Batman at some point, but we also heard from Episode 1 that people weren't really in love with Duck. People didn't really like that kid in the first episode. They thought he was very annoying. What has to happen to Duck in the third episode is he has to die. It's not going to land with audiences if we knew already that they don't really like him.
Being able to adjust certain scenes like that, lean in towards the audience and understand what their expectations are, it's never about giving the audience what they want. If it were about giving the audience what they want, the stories would be bland. The stories would be terrible. We need to be able to understand how to subvert their expectations. Every Telltale game since Sam & Max Season 1, with the soda poppers who were characters that fans just hated--they loathed them. Eventually they sent them to hell.
You said something interesting there. You knew you were working on Batman as far back as Season 1 of Walking Dead.
We knew it was a very high possibility.
We don't foresee our games becoming more mechanically difficult, but we are always striving to make them more engaging.
You're one of the few studios in games that is capable of working with Marvel and DC at the same time, as well as a whole bunch of other beloved franchises. Is it you going to these companies and pitching ideas or are they coming to you? I imagine at this point people are like, "We need a Telltale game for this franchise."
That's flattering, but it is absolutely a case-by-case basis. It depends on the project. In the case of Tales from the Borderlands, that was really just a matter of us being old friends with a lot of the guys at Gearbox and having way too much tequila one night at a party. The next thing we knew we agreed to do this game. We're very glad we did. It's one of the games we're proudest of. In cases like Batman and Wolf Among Us, we have this incredible relationship with DC and Warner Brothers. With Wolf, it just turned out really, really well. We had this story that we wanted to do that was much more Bruce Wayne's story than it was a Batman story, and just diving into Bruce's psyche. That worked out quite well. It's a mix; there's never one definitive way. Right now, there are a lot of projects coming in our direction. We have to be very selective.
Is The Wolf Among Us coming back? When are we going to hear about season two?
We're asked that on a regular basis ever since that series concluded in 2014. We're so very proud of it. We've not announced a second season.
You ended on a bit of a cliffhanger though.
We never got to say anything about [the ending]. There's a definitive answer to what was happening. We know what that answer is. But we'd never want to spoil the fun and try to tell everyone what to think. We've seen a lot of different theories and interpretations. One of them is correct. We'll never say what it is. Our lips are sealed.
The other big project obviously is the Marvel thing. When are we going to hear about it more?
We'll be able to talk more about it later this year, but it won't be kicking off until '17.
I guess one of the major questions that people have now is whether you'll be changing up the way you deliver your narratives. Mechanically, you have a framework now and people are starting to ask for it to be changed up. Is that something that you want to do?
The familiar framework and format is intentional. It is fully our intention to develop a way of interacting with stories that is common between everything we're doing. Batman, Walking Dead, Minecraft, there are younger audiences now learning how to play a Telltale game micro-story mode and moving on to things like Batman. They're coming of age in the other franchises. We talk about this from time to time, but looking at what we do, that format that we developed has allowed us to become a multi-genre studio. When we think about the games that we're making, we don't think of them as adventure games. For the games industry it always has to find games better mechanics. For racing games, RPGs, fighting games, it's common and easy for the games industry to put games into pocket space and how we're interacting.
With us, we have the same philosophy as TV and film. When they go to the movies, when they turn on Netflix, we sort by western, drama, crime, etc. We're producing content in the same fashion. They're producing sci-fi action comedy, Tales from the Borderlands. We're producing apocalyptic drama, Walking Dead. Neon noir thriller, Wolf Among Us. Family action comedy, Minecraft Story Mode. That common interactivity is intentional. The innovation in design happens with storytelling. Moving from the first season of Walking Dead with one playable character to something like Tales from the Borderlands where we're having two different playable characters and interactive narrative and seeing two sides of the same story.
For something like Game of Thrones where you're expanding that to five different playable characters, all in different places, and then having those scenes start to intertwine and have multiple different perspectives... We'll see more innovation and more storytelling techniques evolve and develop that you've never seen before in a game, but every game is different if they're defined by their story themselves, just as books are different and movies are different. Telltale games are different even though they're consumed in the same way. With the third season of Walking Dead in particular, having a two-POV story between Javier--our newcomer, Cuban-American looking for his family--and Clementine, the season itself was serving as both a continuation of the first two seasons and the new beginning for anyone who hasn't played the other two.
That means there might be players who don't know who Clementine is anymore. There are definitely millions of players who are dying to see what happens next to Clementine especially after they had a different outcome or got to different places at the end of Season 2. Reconciling that and delivering in a big way to both audiences at the same time is a huge challenge for us creatively and narratively, but the payoff is well worth it, we feel.
People always say, "I wish the fighting or shooting was a little better," but if you were to elaborate on those mechanics would it detract from what the focus of Telltale's games are?
The idea is that, mechanically, we want our games to be easy to interact with. It's the same with the controller on a big screen TV as it is using your fingertips on your phone. It's the same game. It's platform-ubiquitous. The difficulty doesn't come with the mechanics of playing a Telltale game. It's about the emotional difficulty; it's about the narrative difficulty. It's about deciding which Batman you want to be. Do you want to be the noble Kevin Conroy animated series Batman, world's greatest detective, or are you going to be the Frank Miller Batman who's beating a criminal to a bloody pulp and punching them in the face and going full Jack Bauer?
Are you going to save someone's life and give them the last of your rations or are you going to save it for yourself and focus on your own survival? These are difficult and emotional decisions that we want to challenge players with far more than we ever want to challenge a player mechanically. We want to dissolve that barrier to entry with video games and with interactive narrative. We don't foresee our games becoming more mechanically difficult, but we are always striving to make them more engaging.
What do you say to those people who see a Telltale game and say, "I bets it's going to run like crap"? You've had some issues with Batman. How would you address those comments and concerns?
Personally, I've been working games for well over a decade. It's not an isolated issue for Telltale. Every developer's going to run into some bumps along the road. We're really proud of the enhancements and visual fidelity we've poured into Batman for this year. We've seen that in the third season of Walking Dead and everything else before. Aside from some driver configurations in the first six hours for people playing on PC, which were smoothed over very quickly by the fans and by our tech team, we're really happy with where Batman is. For anyone that is experiencing [issues] for any game--not just a Telltale game--if you're allowing minor technical quirks to get in the way of your enjoyment of the entertainment...
[At this point, Job pauses, searching for the right words. The silence lingers, reaching the point of becoming awkward. I wait, patiently.]
Hang in there.
You almost said something bad there.
[Laughs] Let the developers ensure they can smooth things out as quickly as possible.
Final thing. Telltale has done some interesting thing with The Penguin in Episode 1 of Batman. Can you talk a little bit about the process of reimagining that character.
It's funny; the first episode of Batman you don't really see a traditional Batman villain. We see Carmine Falcone and then we have a run in with Selina Kyle and Harvey Dent is still Harvey Dent. Oswald Cobblepot is your old long lost friend. In telling a Batman story that is first and foremost a Bruce Wayne story, we need to humanize him as a character. Just as much as we want to humanize the icon of Batman himself, it is imperative that we also humanize the villains. Allowing Bruce to have this relationship with Oswald and effectively the Penguin not even being a factor right now allows us to see how characters like Harvey or Oswald may go down these paths. We get to understand them from a human perspective so that we can empathize. If we're just showing a two-dimensional evil villain from the start, then we aren't doing our job. It's not a Telltale game. We need to layer on the complexity; we need to layer on the humanity and the empathy. With a character like Oswald, his story is tragic. He is the other side of the coin of Bruce Wayne's privileged life. We learn that Bruce Wayne's privilege may not have been hard-earned. His parents may have been corrupt from the get go.
There's a lot of Oswald's angst that is reflective of an audience or world populace that is also disenfranchised with the 1%. Oswald is definitely not in that group. Putting the player in a position to empathize with both sides of that situation is going to make it all the more interesting story and dynamic between not only Bruce and these potential villains, but other potential villains that we haven't even touched on that you will see later in the series. If I say anything else, I'll be spoiling some very big surprises.
Condiment King! You're talking about Condiment King, right?