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Midlife Gamer Meets: Dave Grossman Of Telltale Games

August 17th, 2010 by

Let me sit you down and tell you a little story.

“Once upon a time Midlife Gamer toddled out in the world and stumbled upon many a strange person. In the hope of finding some interesting things out, Midlife Gamer started asking these people question upon question hoping that someone would answer. It turned out that many did answer and thus started a whole bunch of friendships that would last beyond the ages.”

Now my story telling might not be of any fine calibre but I know a man who should know a thing or two about putting a good story into videogames. He is Dave Grossman of Telltale Games.

Marconi: First of all, who are you and what is your involvement with Telltale Games?

Dave Grossman: I’m Dave Grossman, and I’m Telltale’s director of design.  This means I’m responsible for anything relating to game design or to writing, and also that other people do all of the actual work.

M: Now to make sure that the Midlife Gamer community is satisfied I must ask something we ask everyone here at MLG. What is your favourite biscuit (also called a cookie outside of the UK) and beverage?

DG: There are so many delicious cookies/biscuits it’s hard to choose just one.  I’m partial to oatmeal raisin cookies, lemon coolers, and vanilla wafers.  A friend of mine made some lemon sage cookies last week that were amazing.  I really shouldn’t be answering these questions before lunch, it’s making me really hungry.  My favorite beverage is plain old black coffee.

M: Can you tell us a little about Telltale and how it was formed as a company? What were the aims of Telltale in the early years and are these ideas that still remain?

DG: Telltale was formed in 2004 by a small group of people who had mostly been working at LucasArts on the cancelled Sam & Max Freelance Police project.  The studio was started with the specific goal of creating episodic, downloadable, story-centric games, and that is still very much our focus.  We refine the specifics all the time, but the underlying ideas remain.

M: The name of the company says a lot about the kind of games you are making. When creating a game or taking on a franchise, is the development and depth of story your main priority?

DG: Story and characters are the first priority, yes, and they drive everything else that we do.  When we’re designing a bit of gameplay, we’re always thinking, what is it about this piece that is advancing the narrative or exposing something about the characters?  If we can’t come up with a good answer, it’s time to try a different direction for that section.

M: Even though the history of the company is plotted with episodic adventure games your first game was a Texas Hole ‘Em simulation. Was it always your intention to make adventure games and use this as a test? Or did the poker game put you off making sim / arcade games?

DG: Before we were ready to tackle full-on episodic development, we needed to build out our game engine and other core technology, as well as our production pipelines.  The poker game was a way to focus those efforts narrowly on things that mattered most to us: characters and acting.  Sitting the cast at a poker table gave us a lively scenario for them to act and react to each other, without us having to worry about things like navigation, scene tracking and so on until the next project.  (For those who have not seen it, Telltale Texas Hold ‘Em is not so much a poker simulator as it is a scene about people playing poker together.  The interesting part is not the poker but the table talk.  Crude by our current standards, but interesting.)

M: What benefits do the players and developers get when playing / working with a title that is, from a cynical perspective, not complete on release?

DG: Ha!  Your cynicism is impressive.  An episodic game series is a lot like a television series.  If you were one of the eight zillion people watching Lost every week, half of the fun came in between the episodes, when you were speculating with your friends about what various things meant and what would happen next.  It’s the same with Tales of Monkey Island – some of the threads on our forums from while that series was running are just as entertaining as what’s in the games.  And all of the back-and-forth between us and the audience while the series is running makes for a much closer relationship with that audience, which is fun for everybody.  And that’s the main point – building a relationship between the developers and the audience over time, instead of just dropping a game and not calling again for three years.

M: Most recently Telltale has taken on the Monkey Island franchise, adding it to a roster that includes Wallace and Gromit, Sam and Max and CSI. Do you feel it was an obvious choice for Lucas Arts to give Telltale Games the Monkey Island license?

DG: We probably employ more designers, writers and artists who had already worked on the Monkey Island franchise than any other studio in the world, LucasArts included.  So I do think it was an obvious choice for them to trust us with the license.

M: Are there any other Lucas Arts franchises that you would like to work on? Is this something that the company is likely to pursue?

DG: I always get into some kind of trouble when I answer that question in any way.  So I won’t.

M: With some of the franchises previously mentioned, what steps do you take to make your products not only faithful to the original fans but also make your games stand out from the other franchised products on the market?

DG: Making our games feel true to the franchise is enormously important to us, both as developers and as fans ourselves.  The fact that we are fans ourselves is always a good first step, and we’ve never worked with a franchise for which there weren’t already some loyal devotees in the studio.  We also always do a lot of research to try to identify the elements that are at the heart of the property, and we work with the creators and get feedback wherever possible.  That last has been very good for us over the years.  With Sam & Max, for example, we already had a fair amount of experience with the characters, but we also had a good, established working relationship with Steve Purcell, who helped us get everything pointed in the right direction at the outset.  When we were making Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People, the Chapman Brothers were so involved with the production it was like they had a second job – they were critiquing puzzles, editing all of the scripts, doing all of the voice recording themselves, and so on.  And on Wallace & Gromit we faced the obvious hurdle that we’re not British, so we worked closely with an editor in England who had some experience with the license, and over the course of many iterations he helped us get the language and the humour right.  Aardman also gave us plenty of feedback, and we flew our designers over to do all of the voice recording in England so the characters would sound right.  This all has its own rewards, but I also think that the fact that we care enough to do it right helps our games stand out from some of the other franchised titles out there.

M: To date you have been mostly self-publishing your titles. What freedom does this allow you? What restrictions does this create?

DG: Self-publishing obviously means we have a lot of control over what titles we’re going to do, and what creative decisions we make when we do them.  It also makes it a little easier, or at least more possible, to keep to a strict episodic release schedule – the less we have to worry about the effects of someone else’s pipeline, the better.  On the other hand, it means we’re taking a bigger risk with any title we do, and also we don’t have a publisher to rely on for marketing and other kinds of support – essentially, being a developer AND a publisher doubles our responsibilities.  We think it’s worth it, though.

M: Most of your titles are now delivered through digital methods, do you think your games would do as well if they were released as a physical disc?

DG: We release a first run digitally, but then when the season is over we usually collect the games together and put them out on a physical disc, pretty much how you would with a season of a TV show.  So we get the best of both worlds!

M: Will digital delivery ever replace physical releases?

DG: Sure.  Or mostly, anyway.  The music industry is a good example to look at, with digital delivery rapidly becoming the dominant mode.  It’s not a question of if, but when.

M: Are there any plans to port your titles to handheld platforms?

DG: Our latest title, Puzzle Agent, is coming out for the iPhone and iPad.

M: Finally what is in the pipeline for Telltale? We hear that there are Jurassic Park and Back to the Future titles coming up…

DG: You hear correctly!  So, uh, yeah, speaking of working with franchises that people in our studio are huge fans of, we’re doing a Back to the Future series and a Jurassic Park series.  And they’re in the pipeline.  Look for them this winter!

For more information on Telltale Games, check out their website

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