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Why Telltale's Knocking on Death's Door

Telltale Games co-founder Kevin Bruner discusses the problems of Jurassic Park, introducing death for the first time, and the uncanny power of words.

Jurassic Park shook my confidence in Telltale Games. Sam & Max had run its course after several seasons, and following the beloved but mechanically aging Back to the Future, it was clear the studio needed to shake up its approach to designing adventure games. While Jurassic Park had the right ideas, it didn’t work.

Whether it was quick learning from the mistakes of Jurassic Park or the values inherent to a different development team, The Walking Dead represented a tremendous turnaround. It tapped every one of the right buttons. Riding the continued relevance of the comic and the mammoth success of AMC’s television show, The Walking Dead hit the mark critically and commercially. The first episode sold more than one million copies, a bona fide hit.

“The combination of the game being on all platforms at the same time and the TV show and the comic being fresh content that’s coming out brand-new has really let this take off,” said Telltale co-founder Kevin Bruner to me moments after witnessing some early moments of episode two at E3.

(I don’t want to spoil anything, but the next episode starts with a truly “Holy shit!” moment.)

As a Jurassic Park fanboy, I was especially crushed by what didn't work. But dinosaurs!

Telltale was ahead of the curve on episodic gaming, and remains committed to the concept. It’s played with how to deliver that content (Jurassic Park, for example, could only be purchased as a four episode bundle all at once), but a huge stumbling block has been delivering content in a timely fashion across all platforms.

The trouble with Microsoft’s “slot” system on Xbox Live Arcade has been documented in the past, and prior to The Walking Dead, Telltale was forced to work with other companies to deliver its content through XBLA. That changed in 2011, as Telltale became an official Xbox 360 publisher. That wasn’t possible in the past because Telltale simply wasn’t big enough.

Additionally, The Walking Dead episodes are being delivered as in-game downloadable content. That doesn’t require messing with the troublesome slot program, meaning episodes will hopefully arrive with less delay.

Both The Walking Dead and Jurassic Park are pushing forward on a central tenet for Telltale these days: what does a modern adventure game look like? Each approach came out of internal R&D tests.

“We don’t play just adventure games,” said Bruner. “What aspects do we like about those games? What do we think are missing from old school adventure games? We really like games that keep you moving along. That was a big thing with Jurassic Park and Walking Dead--the game doesn’t stop, the game’s gotta keep moving.”

Faults aside, Jurassic Park represented a sea change for one very important reason: death. Telltale was founded by ex-LucasArts veterans, designers who approached adventure games much differently than, say, Sierra Entertainment. I died plenty of times making it through those Space Quest games but never in Grim Fandango.

“That was a big mantra,” said Bruner. “It’s comfortable for the player because you know you can walk around and can’t die.”

Death introduces consequence and permanence to the player. Bruner said the debate to introduce death into Telltale’s projects wasn’t very heated, but as Telltale moved into subject matter that asked for interactivity beyond just solving puzzles, the studio was forced to reevaluate its position on killing characters.

There is plenty of death to go around in The Walking Dead, too. The loss of life is rampant in Robert Kirkman’s universe, a theme well represented in Telltale’s interactive tale. Death’s door is player-driven, too, as many of the first episode’s key moments were chances for the player to determine who will live to fight another day.

It didn't take more than a click of the mouse to die in many of Sierra's classic adventure games.

“That’s the kind of thing that, as we evolve, we can keep the story moving, keep it interesting, keep the pacing where we want it to be,” said Bruner. “And now we’ve folded in this choice mechanic where we don’t give you a lot of time to make decisions, and we’ve figured out ways to produce the content where you really do live with the choices you’ve made.”

Before showing off episode two, Telltale was running a slideshow of statistics regarding the first episode. It’s common for developers to be monitoring player decisions, but uncommon for it to make that information public. For one thing, The Walking Dead is actually tracking more decisions than any other Telltale game. The statistical results are built into the developer tools, as well, allowing writers to pull up specific decisions and learn what players chose.

This allows writers working on later episodes to include specific callbacks to a moment in an earlier episode, even if there were no plans to address it originally. Telltale’s updated toolset allows writers meaningful flexibility to have that choice unfold in a way no one could have originally expected.

Walking Dead includes a "rewind" function on player decisions but Telltale said no one uses it.

“They [writers] can go back to look at episode one and say ‘Oh, it would be really cool if a character responded in this way if you had screwed them over back here.’” he said. “We can look back and say ‘Well, only 2% of the people screwed them over, so even though it might be a cool thing to do, nobody’s going to see it. Let’s spend our energy somewhere else, where people are going to see it.’”

One of the stats Telltale was displaying represented a life-or-death decision for two characters near the end of the first episode. I won’t spoil who or why, but 75% of players went with one character, only 25% with the other. Bruner said Telltale doesn’t view that outcome as ideal--they want a 50/50 split.

“We really struggle with the text that’s displayed for choices,” he said.

Bruner said the team were constantly tweaking dialog to avoid influencing a player’s decision. There’s an instance in episode one where Clementine asks the player “What should we do?” At one point, that line was “Should we stay?” In playtests, Telltale found even suggesting the player should stay pushed too many players to do exactly that.

“You want it to be ambiguous,” he said. “You don’t want to use words like ‘best’ because you want people to struggle with these decisions and not feel like there’s a right or wrong.”

Telltale is putting the finishing touches on the next episode of The Walking Dead, and hopes to have it available on every platform before the end of the month. The iOS version is still in development, too, and should be available soon.

Patrick Klepek on Google+
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Posted by patrickklepek

Jurassic Park shook my confidence in Telltale Games. Sam & Max had run its course after several seasons, and following the beloved but mechanically aging Back to the Future, it was clear the studio needed to shake up its approach to designing adventure games. While Jurassic Park had the right ideas, it didn’t work.

Whether it was quick learning from the mistakes of Jurassic Park or the values inherent to a different development team, The Walking Dead represented a tremendous turnaround. It tapped every one of the right buttons. Riding the continued relevance of the comic and the mammoth success of AMC’s television show, The Walking Dead hit the mark critically and commercially. The first episode sold more than one million copies, a bona fide hit.

“The combination of the game being on all platforms at the same time and the TV show and the comic being fresh content that’s coming out brand-new has really let this take off,” said Telltale co-founder Kevin Bruner to me moments after witnessing some early moments of episode two at E3.

(I don’t want to spoil anything, but the next episode starts with a truly “Holy shit!” moment.)

As a Jurassic Park fanboy, I was especially crushed by what didn't work. But dinosaurs!

Telltale was ahead of the curve on episodic gaming, and remains committed to the concept. It’s played with how to deliver that content (Jurassic Park, for example, could only be purchased as a four episode bundle all at once), but a huge stumbling block has been delivering content in a timely fashion across all platforms.

The trouble with Microsoft’s “slot” system on Xbox Live Arcade has been documented in the past, and prior to The Walking Dead, Telltale was forced to work with other companies to deliver its content through XBLA. That changed in 2011, as Telltale became an official Xbox 360 publisher. That wasn’t possible in the past because Telltale simply wasn’t big enough.

Additionally, The Walking Dead episodes are being delivered as in-game downloadable content. That doesn’t require messing with the troublesome slot program, meaning episodes will hopefully arrive with less delay.

Both The Walking Dead and Jurassic Park are pushing forward on a central tenet for Telltale these days: what does a modern adventure game look like? Each approach came out of internal R&D tests.

“We don’t play just adventure games,” said Bruner. “What aspects do we like about those games? What do we think are missing from old school adventure games? We really like games that keep you moving along. That was a big thing with Jurassic Park and Walking Dead--the game doesn’t stop, the game’s gotta keep moving.”

Faults aside, Jurassic Park represented a sea change for one very important reason: death. Telltale was founded by ex-LucasArts veterans, designers who approached adventure games much differently than, say, Sierra Entertainment. I died plenty of times making it through those Space Quest games but never in Grim Fandango.

“That was a big mantra,” said Bruner. “It’s comfortable for the player because you know you can walk around and can’t die.”

Death introduces consequence and permanence to the player. Bruner said the debate to introduce death into Telltale’s projects wasn’t very heated, but as Telltale moved into subject matter that asked for interactivity beyond just solving puzzles, the studio was forced to reevaluate its position on killing characters.

There is plenty of death to go around in The Walking Dead, too. The loss of life is rampant in Robert Kirkman’s universe, a theme well represented in Telltale’s interactive tale. Death’s door is player-driven, too, as many of the first episode’s key moments were chances for the player to determine who will live to fight another day.

It didn't take more than a click of the mouse to die in many of Sierra's classic adventure games.

“That’s the kind of thing that, as we evolve, we can keep the story moving, keep it interesting, keep the pacing where we want it to be,” said Bruner. “And now we’ve folded in this choice mechanic where we don’t give you a lot of time to make decisions, and we’ve figured out ways to produce the content where you really do live with the choices you’ve made.”

Before showing off episode two, Telltale was running a slideshow of statistics regarding the first episode. It’s common for developers to be monitoring player decisions, but uncommon for it to make that information public. For one thing, The Walking Dead is actually tracking more decisions than any other Telltale game. The statistical results are built into the developer tools, as well, allowing writers to pull up specific decisions and learn what players chose.

This allows writers working on later episodes to include specific callbacks to a moment in an earlier episode, even if there were no plans to address it originally. Telltale’s updated toolset allows writers meaningful flexibility to have that choice unfold in a way no one could have originally expected.

Walking Dead includes a "rewind" function on player decisions but Telltale said no one uses it.

“They [writers] can go back to look at episode one and say ‘Oh, it would be really cool if a character responded in this way if you had screwed them over back here.’” he said. “We can look back and say ‘Well, only 2% of the people screwed them over, so even though it might be a cool thing to do, nobody’s going to see it. Let’s spend our energy somewhere else, where people are going to see it.’”

One of the stats Telltale was displaying represented a life-or-death decision for two characters near the end of the first episode. I won’t spoil who or why, but 75% of players went with one character, only 25% with the other. Bruner said Telltale doesn’t view that outcome as ideal--they want a 50/50 split.

“We really struggle with the text that’s displayed for choices,” he said.

Bruner said the team were constantly tweaking dialog to avoid influencing a player’s decision. There’s an instance in episode one where Clementine asks the player “What should we do?” At one point, that line was “Should we stay?” In playtests, Telltale found even suggesting the player should stay pushed too many players to do exactly that.

“You want it to be ambiguous,” he said. “You don’t want to use words like ‘best’ because you want people to struggle with these decisions and not feel like there’s a right or wrong.”

Telltale is putting the finishing touches on the next episode of The Walking Dead, and hopes to have it available on every platform before the end of the month. The iOS version is still in development, too, and should be available soon.

Staff
Edited by altairre

What a clever headline. For a moment there I thought Telltale is in bad shape.

Posted by NMC2008

I thought I killed death in the Castlevania games, he's not home anymore Telltale!!

Posted by Ehker

Bigger lesson they learned... don't borrow jeeps.

Posted by Mesoian

Oh thank god. I thought Telltale wasn't doing well from the title...

Posted by Maystack

Oh man Patrick, you scared the shit out of me with that title. I didn't want another great developer to be in trouble.

Posted by Irvandus

@Maystack said:

Oh man Patrick, you scared the shit out of me with that title. I didn't want another great developer to be in trouble.

Same here, I expected Telltale to be going under and that's why the episode was delayed.

Online
Posted by Jolt92

@altairre said:

What a clever headline. For a moment there I thought Telltale is in bad shape.

Posted by Sparky245

God dammit, you fooled us all! I thought they were going under!

Posted by samcroft90

I think Patrick was exploring the uncanny power of words with that title

Posted by CptBedlam

Glad that the first episode made Telltale some money. It's the first episodic adventure game I played (thanks to the GB quicklook) and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Telltale did some great writing with this game and I'm surely going to buy the rest of the episodes. It's also remarkable how expressive the characters in this game are despite the simple art style.

Online
Posted by ShakeItBaby

Jesus Patrick, that title bud

Posted by LordKorax

Both The Walking Dead and Jurassic Park are pushing forward on a central tenant for Telltale these days:

"Tenet," man, come on.
Posted by BlazeHedgehog

I can't wait for Episode 2. My body aches for it!
 
Also, of course nobody uses the rewind feature yet - there's only one episode! When I saw the ability use rewind to pick new choices, I definitely marked it in my head as something I wanted to do later after I see how my current choices pan out.

Posted by HadesTimes

Great headline man... Anyway, the story is awesome. Would like to say that I think the central problem with modern Adventure games is probably two-fold. One is that many times they devolve into pixel hunts and most players just won't deal with that anymore. I know many developers have definitely tried to steer clear of this, Telltale included; but I think it still comes up a lot. But the real problem I think is that Adventure game graphics are just not good enough. In the old days Adventure games sported, many times, graphics far beyond anything that could be done in a regular engine. Making them seem more impressive than they actually were. I think in the old days many games sold on this basis. Today, while some games certainly have good graphics, like the aforementioned Walking Dead. The marketable currency of excellent graphics is just not there.

I know a lot of people will disagree with this and say that graphics don't matter. Well, they don't, not to the hardcore. But then if these companies were making it selling to the hardcore we wouldn't need to be looking at ways to make better Adventure games. I think you make over-the-top graphics to pull people in and then tell them an excellent story and BANG! You have a win.

I'm not a game developer or marketing guy; I just am commenting on what I've noticed by watching old Adventure game videos and playing new Adventure games.

Edited by TentPole

@altairre said:

What a clever headline. For a moment there I thought Telltale is in bad shape.

I did too, but I think that very fact kinda makes it a bad headline.

Edited by Yummylee

Eagerly awaiting Episode 2. Hell, so is my 15 year old brother who's gaming habits primarily lie within shooters and open-world crime games. I think that speaks to how great TT's Walking Dead game is when it can pull in that kind of audience without alienating adventure game fans.

Posted by rjayb89

I thought Jurassic Park bombed so hard that Telltale was going under or something.

Posted by SupernormalStep

@samcroft90 said:

I think Patrick was exploring the uncanny power of words with that title

Posted by Chumm

@LordKorax said:

Both The Walking Dead and Jurassic Park are pushing forward on a central tenant for Telltale these days:

"Tenet," man, come on.

"Bonafide" should be "bona fide," and "meaningfully flexibility" should be "meaningful flexibility."

Crowd-sourced copy editing is my favorite thing about Klepek's work, though it was an interesting read as well!

Posted by Ghostiet

Sam & Max had run its course after several seasons

Say what? Season 3 was one of the best, cleverest games I've ever played. If anything, they finally got it 100% right.
Posted by killacam

there's a rewind function?

Posted by Lunar_Aura

Man I totally thought Telltale was going under because I can't be bothered to read subheaders or the actual article. Go me!

Posted by Grimluck343

Fuck that headline!

Posted by Kerned

The more I hear about this game the most interested in it I become. Jurassic Park was... well, not great, so I had no interest in this when it came out.

One of the more interesting things I learned about from reading this (and the linked Penny Arcade piece) was the existence of the "slot" system. No wonder so many developers talk about have a hard time publishing on XBLA. Gross.

Posted by Lokno

I'll be sure to check out the first episode of the walking dead when they release it for free. Jurassic Park burned me too, and I'm not really ready to give them another shot. Also not into horror or zombies.

Posted by Scodiac

I've played some Same & Max but The Walking Dead is the first Telltale game I'm really into and I'll be definitely getting each episode as soon as they're released. I'm not even a huge zombie guy but they definitely got me with this game. The characters and story are great and it's a refreshing change from most video games I play.

Posted by myketuna

Don't be an ass about it, Patrick. Reading the headline scared me a bit as well.

Glad the game is coming along. Debating on whether to purchase the full season on PC.

Posted by triviaman09

Do they teach you how to come up with pithy headlines in Journalism class?

Posted by liako21

adventure games i love u!!!

Posted by artgarcrunkle

@triviaman09: You are asking Patrick "Proofreading" Klepek about journalism.

Posted by GrandHarrier

So what is up with the Walking Dead game? Weren't we promised an episode a month?

Posted by CrashTanuki

I was expecting this to be about Telltale being on the brink of going out of business despite The Walking Dead doing so well.

Edited by jozzy

Would have liked to know why they are delayed more than a month with the second episode already (edit: if it comes out the end of the month). You'd think with such a tight schedule they would have that episode ready on the day of release of the first one, with the third one well underway. Extremely optimistic planning on their part.

Posted by killacam

would you guys lay off the trickster already GODDAMNIT!

Posted by Subjugation

The title made me think Telltale was going under. Dick move. I don't need a scare like that.

Posted by Twiggy199

Major Boobage!.

Posted by Xaviersx

I've kinda let the Walking Dead game fall of my radar. It didn't engage me as much as I thought it would. Played through once, pretty neutral to helpful, regretted little, and when done, almost hit delete but no, that would preclude not getting the next episode. Maybe I'll pay/play the next hoping for a little payback to a certain grumpy character.

Posted by golguin

I did my first playthrough and felt satisfied with the majority of my decisions, except for the one during the argument that says I supported one character when I clearly felt I supported the other. For the second playthrough I simply copied the file and rewinded the game to right after the farm.

I can't imagine that a vast majority of people didn't use the rewind funciton.

Posted by myslead

phew

for a second there...

damn you patrick

Posted by TheHumanDove

So misleading titles are a thing now

Posted by NovaDTH

Sweet shock headline bro

Posted by Yummylee

@golguin said:

I did my first playthrough and felt satisfied with the majority of my decisions, except for the one during the argument that says I supported one character when I clearly felt I supported the other.

Happened to me too - exactly even, as I'm sure you're referring to standing up against Roy, yet the game said you sided with him on the stats screen. Pretty sure that's a bug since a lot of people had the same issue.

Posted by baxterpunch

Ahhhhhhh that headline is terrible

Posted by teh_destroyer

I can not wait for episode 2, they are apparently going to work the main character here into the tv show. I would be okay with that.

Posted by Ronald

I had to reload the main page several times to see if the sub-headline doesn't show up on it. But then I checked Twitter, and anyone seeing the tweet about this article only saw the headline. So yeah, I can see how some people would flip out over the title.

Posted by golguin

@Yummylee said:

@golguin said:

I did my first playthrough and felt satisfied with the majority of my decisions, except for the one during the argument that says I supported one character when I clearly felt I supported the other.

Happened to me too - exactly even, as I'm sure you're referring to standing up against Roy, yet the game said you sided with him on the stats screen. Pretty sure that's a bug since a lot of people had the same issue.

I remember the stat screen at the end of the game showed that the majority of people messed up in the same way. I remedied the situation in the 2nd playthrough by taking the forceful approach and making it clear that it wasn't happening.

I did do that scene a few times and some of the responses were kinda funny.

Posted by blacklab
Walking Dead includes a "rewind" function on player decisions but Telltale said no one uses it.

It must be pretty well hidden because I have the game and had no idea the rewind function existed!

Posted by Ehker

@blacklab said:

Walking Dead includes a "rewind" function on player decisions but Telltale said no one uses it.

It must be pretty well hidden because I have the game and had no idea the rewind function existed!

Same... beat the game and didn't know about it.

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