If Telltale Games’ excellent adventure series – Sam & Max, Strongbad’s Cool Game for Attractive People, and most recently Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures – have you nostalgic for the golden age of LucasArts adventure games, there’s a very good reason. Telltale Inc. CEO Dan Connors and Design Director Dave Grossman both started at Lucasarts, working on Day of the Tentacle and The Curse of Monkey Island, no less.
Aside from resurrecting a genre near and dear to PC gamers everywhere, Telltale has also successfully pioneered episodic gaming. Since many other companies have tried and met with minimal success (or failed entirely), everyone’s left to wonder – how can Telltale do what so many companies can’t? I was able to sit down with Dan Connors and Dave Grossman at GDC 2009 and ask them myself.
Telltale – you guys are the only ones who can really do the episodic thing. Valve may not have been the first company to come up with the idea, but they were the first to really try it, to get a product out there under that umbrella. It’s been about two years since Episode Two, and their episodes are about two years apart – which is better than six – but still. What’s the difference? How come you guys can make it work and other companies can’t seem to?
DC: One of the hugest things is that Telltale – from the very get-go – started with the aim of doing it. I think with valve, they have a whole business around the large AAA products. When they tried to convert that into a quicker release schedule, it just didn’t work to just cut the larger games into three parts, however they were trying to do it. It seems like to me – and I don’t know enough about it, what they did internally – but they probably took a lot of the processes they were using for their regular games and decided they would just cut things short.
Let’s just make it all smaller, then everything will get shorter.
DC: Yeah, and I think that’s not an easy thing to do in the industry. At Telltale, it’s been something we’ve done from day one with everyone that’s come in. We know it’s the goal, we design for it, we make a production plan around it, everything’s built to executing on it. That’s probably the key.
DG: I do think that the fact that that’s all we do is helpful. I usually list a couple of factors. Talent: we hire good people, so at the beginning we already know they’re good. We built up our own homegrown technologies to help us develop fast. And we really get the planning and productions so that they can be going on top of each other, so we’ve got people moving really intelligently between episodes and games, and very good at making a plan and then… not sticking to it when emergencies happen, but changing them so we can still stay on schedule.
You said that you guys had built your process from the ground up around this rapid release schedule and episodic gaming. Can you list a few examples that differ from the normal monolithic release structure that’s different about your process?
DC: I think the biggest thing – to Dave’s point number three – the tools allow for really rapid iteration on products. The key to making a good game with consistent quality is in the number of iterations you’re able to do before you ship. Our tools are almost like a 3D director, so you’re in there and you can make a change. If Dave sees something and says ’No, there needs to be a sound effect there,’ that change can be made instantaneously. Dave could probably do it in half a second.
DG: You can edit the game while you’re playing it.
DC: That makes a huge difference. I’ve been in production processes where if you wanted a change in animation, it was a three week process. If you’re on a monolithic team, you look at the animation and say ’God, that arm looks awful. I need to change that.’ And then the assistant producer comes over and says ’Well, let’s submit a change request.’ And then, ’well I gotta go, I’ll fill out the change request tomorrow.’ Then it goes to a guy and he schedules it out and says ’well, it’s in the next schedule, let me get it over to the animator,’ and you know… four days later and the arm’s fixed. With us, it’s like ’ok that looks broken, go.’
Seems like that’d only be possible with a small team – would you say that’s a part of it?
DC: Small team, and tools that allow for it, and processes that are built to facilitate a small team. It’s definitely a different mindset.
I would imagine these companies with larger staffs that make the huge AAA titles, if they could do that they would, because it’s just faster. Is there a tradeoff there between being able to change something quickly and the kinds of tools big companies use where they may not want to do that?
DC: I think with big companies and AAA productions, the sheer volume of people it takes to create a AAA title…
They’d step on each other’s changes?
DC: Exactly. It’s one thing to have four or five people in there doing it, it’s another to have fifty of them controlling it and all that. I don’t know what about processes are broken in other companies, but I do know Dave’s second point – at Telltale, everyone there in the upper levels have been in the industry for a long time. I mean Dave’s 73 and I’m 81 – in game years. We’ve been doing it forever. Everything stupid you could do in the games business from a production standpoint I’ve probably managed a team in doing that. We’ve decided at Telltale we can’t afford to make any of those mistakes and we don’t allow it. Everything else is optimized to prevent mistakes.
DG: Nothing goes on for very long before it gets seen by someone and reviewed, so things can’t get very off track.
DC: That’s a great point. If we get two weeks of schedule, that’s like thirty percent of our schedule.
Since you guys have releases so often, one might think that you guys are in crunch 24/7. Is that the case?
DC: I’m more of the mindset that we’re in crunch 8/5. Our saying at Telltale is ’It’s been a long week today.’ It’s because there’s never a day at Telltale where there isn’t something critical happening.
Do you prefer that environment – from a lifestyle standpoint?
DG: It’s not crazy – he’s making it sound like it’s crazy. At 7 o’clock – I work kind of a late shift so I’m around at 7 – there’s always somebody there, but there’s not a lot of people. Most people come in, they work hard all day, and they go home. I won’t say nobody’s spending the night, but they’re not spending the night all the time.
DC: It’s just a very busy day, there’s no wasted time. When you get into crunch mode at most companies, by the time people are pulling all-nighters, you’ve got people sleeping till 3 on the couch, going out and getting a slice of pizza, and then they work for a little more, but they’re living their lives around their jobs. That’s not as productive in some ways, you get people writing sloppy code –
You start getting diminishing returns.
DC: And negatives.
DG: I get mad at my guys when they come in on the weekends, I don’t like them to do that. They’re not fresh when they come in on Mondays.
Yeah, I’ve found as a writer just thinking about something else can really spark creativity. Well, just one more thing – is there anything you want gamers out there to know?
DC: We’d love to let people know Wallace & Gromit is out, it’s really a big evolution for Telltale Games in general. We’re excited about all the advances, so please check it out.
Alright! Thanks a lot Dan. Dave, is there anything you’d like people to know about who you are or what you do?
DG: What I do… wow. It’s hard, what I do.
Big thanks to Dan Connors, Dave Grossman, and Marketing & PR Representative Emily Morganti for talking with us. If you’re intrigued about episodic gaming, please check out Sam & Max. If you’re intrigued about what Dave Grossman does (and how hard it is), check out part 2 of our interview.