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Telltale Games: Bringing Great Stories to Life

February 24, 2006
 

At 3PM 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.


Bone: Out From Boneville

Conners 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

Heather 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.

"The 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.

Beyond 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.

Same 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.

Adding Dimension

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.

For 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.

As 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 extrapolate.

Characters 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.

Throughout 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.

Bogan 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?"

As 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 he goes."


The Sam & Max webcomic

Outlet for the Querious

Most 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.

Likewise, 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.

The 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.

_____________________________________________________


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