on a Friday afternoon in a small conference room in Moscone West, in
San Francisco, off a hallway shaded from the bustle of the Wondercon
comics convention, Telltale CEO Dan Conners stands before a small crowd
of journalists and comic fans in cheap suits and rickety chairs for his
panel, named 'Telltale Games: Bringing Great Stories To Life'. He comes
with awkward tidings: Sam & Max creator Steve Purcell,
billed to back up the panel with his star power, has run into some
complications. Today it will just be Conners, his companions, and the
audience. A couple of people leave. Most stay.
introduces his compatriots, Heather Logas and David Bogan – designer
and art director, two out of thirteen team members originated from the
LucasArts pool, and collectively a tenth of Telltale's entire team.
Logas graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she was
acquainted with Michael Mateas of Façade fame; Bogan had worked for nearly a decade at LucasArts, animating such games as Grim Fandango and The Curse of Monkey Island.
Reflecting back a year, Conners recounted the fan reaction at the last Wondercon, when he first announced Bone.
People were upset; everyone who responded assumed Telltale would make
it into "a crazy action game". Conners said, in retrospect, that was a
natural assumption. When you look at what's out there now, that's the
image that video games tend to carry – in particular games based on
licensed properties. Nevertheless, what's important, is to match match
your gameplay with the kind of story you want to portray.
As it turned out, Bone
exactly suited the kind of game Telltale wanted to make anyway – a
LucasArts-style PC adventure. And just as fortuitously, most of the
writing was already done. This saved Telltale from worrying too much
about the script on the company's first project, in what is, by nature,
a very text-and-dialog heavy genre; Logas filled in most of the holes.
Eventually, Telltale intends to seek out more writers; Conners feels
the craft is rather underrepresented in the game industry, and hopes to
turn this situation around somewhat.
Substance of the Game
Logas went on to explain her side of the design process. "The first
thing is, where do we start?" she asked. What elements of a work like Bone will ultimately make it into the games? She decided on the themes inherent in the work. Bone
has a strong theme of friendship to it; of responsibility, both toward
one's own self and toward one's community. Whatever they do with the
game, it should emphasize those concepts.
characters are great, so we'll explore that. Everything the player does
should help illustrate the characters, one way or another. And the
world of Bone is just great," Logas said. "It's so rich and
defined." What a game can do is allow players to see more of it than
they might in passing, by reading the books. "What's great about
adapting to a game rather than, say, a movie" is that you "can put even
more in," rather than cut material. Ideally, you can explore the
subject in more depth, rather than less.
that, video games "remove much of the distance" inherent in other
media. They allow for a more subjective approach, where the player's
given perspective and range of choices are determined by the
perspective of the player's character. Different personalities can
offer different approaches to design, different experiences for the
player. And allowing the player control over these different characters
means they get to see characterization, to understand elements of the
characters, that otherwise they would not.
thing for the environments. In a video game you can "explore in depth
and at your own pace" – so if you want to hang around a place otherwise
shown only briefly in the comic, you can.
Before long, David Bogan stepped forward to explain the process of recreating Bone
author Jeff Smith's art in 3D space. The most important element for
Bogan was to preserve Smith's vision, which Bogan feels presents a very
clear, solid groundwork.
example, Bogan has extrapolated two major purposes for the environments
in Smith's books: they serve as a stage for the actors, and Smith uses
details in the environments to further story and provide atmosphere.
Any recreation of those environments should, therefore, be built with
the same philosophy and purpose to it.
for how Bogan recreates the environments, he said he basically just
studies the book as much as he can. "How do you translate a scene into
3D?" Bogan asked. "Well, what do you need?" He showed a colored frame
from the comic, a bar scene with several of the main characters sitting
around a table. Bogan then listed off the major elements in the scene:
table, bar; there's a bell in the background that becomes important
later. After that, follow through on little details for ambiance. Bogan
pointed out some paintings and knickknacks that made it into the final
level. Lighting, he explained, is mostly a mood thing. Most of it also
comes straight from the comics, though sometimes they have to
have three major elements to them. Wireframes are where Bogan captures
the proportions, the silhouettes, and other details. Skeletons then
allow posing, along what seems an accurate range of motion. Then for
animation, Bogan again goes straight back to the books, to study how
each character moves.
the design process, the team would be exchanging constant notes with
Jeff Smith; Bogan would send Smith renders of the characters, and Smith
would return them with corrections sketched on top.
touched on the element of comedy, and how intertwined it is with
animation. "How do we convey Jeff's jokes in the game?" he asked.
Later, in response to a question, Bogan responded that he had no
particular process in translating the humor; it was mostly a process of
constant communication with Smith. Conners added that the most
important elements of humor are timing and acting. He mused that
although games might have humorous elements to them, they rarely
contain out-and-out jokes, and the main reason is that it's so hard to
get the timing and the nuance down – so nobody bothers. "It's a subtle
thing, that no one thinks about." Conners hopes that, should Telltale's
games become renowned for their humor, maybe it will inspire other
developers to take a chance.
Look! Eez Dog and Rabbit!
Winding up the presentation, the three presenters collectively talked about their new Sam & Max game. Since they had expected Steve Purcell to give his own take on the project, they came rather less prepared in this regard.
They commented that Sam & Max
was an interesting contrast, in that whereas Bone has a very defined
world and narrative, Purcell's world is "consistent, but open" –
meaning that basically anything they can dream up is valid. Any
character can show up at any time, for virtually any reason. They
described their encounters with Purcell, where they would propose an
idea and often as not he would respond, "I don't know if that's 'Sam & Max-y' enough. What can we find that's a little stranger?"
one of the last thoughts before the floor opened for questioning,
Conners plugged the webcomic that Purcell has up on Telltale's site,
where to the best Conners can tell, Purcell "just figures things out as
Outlet for the Querious
of the questions involved the dynamics between developer and audience
(whether existing or potential). In response to one early question,
Conners explained how feedback helped to shape the second Bone
game. Although they had consciously designed the first game to be
linear and relatively narrow in the options available to the player,
the team received lots of complaints from experienced gamers who found
the game clunky and a little tedious; partially as a response, they
rebalanced the second game to offer "more choices, more options." As it
turns out, this expansion sort of follows the structure of the original
books anyway, so it works out kind of well.
Telltale's relationship with Jeff Smith was described as "symbiotic";
he would always be available to offer advice – though sometimes, not
being familiar with the nature of game development, his advice was not
always timed well. In particular, he apparently found a number of small
problems in the first Bone game just before it entered its final stages of production. Still, Conners told him, maybe they can be incorporated into Bone 2.
Later Conners touched on Bone's structure and business model. The game works as a set of episodic downloads, making Bone 2
the second episode in the overall game. Right now, each episode is $20
– although Conners wavered for a moment, and said they were still
working on the pricing model.
advantage of offering the game like this, Conners said, is that
downloads never die. As long as a game relies on qualities that date
well, its shelf life is basically indefinite. "Each time a [new] site
links us," Conners said, "it's almost like a relaunch." The company is
introduced to a new audience, and sales pick up all over again. Conners
admits that this sales model is kind of shaky right now – he describes
it as "Like the Wild West" – though he predicts in another five years
the channel will be more stable. And then, everything will change.