Telltale Games – Leaving LucasArts to Defining a Genre

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The story of how Telltale games rose from the ashes of a cancelled Sam & Max game to become one of the more prolific studios on the planet;

It was the late 90’s and Point and Click adventure games were riding the crest of a wave and at the pinnacle of that wave was LucasArts. It was during the preceding decade that the American studio had dominated the market – Indiana Jones, Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, Grim Fandango, The Dig and Sam & Max were all critical darlings and topped the sales charts. Unfortunately, due to market saturation and the unexpected rise of the first-person shooter genre, demand for point and click adventure games started to wane. They weren’t the draw they once were and LucasArts started to dedicate more and more of their resources on their slate of Star Wars titles which continued to sell well. Eventually, after years of development, they cancelled the only 2 point and click adventures they had in development – Full Throttle: Hell on Wheels & Sam & Max: Freelance Police. “After careful evaluation of current market place realities and underlying economic considerations, we’ve decided that this was not the appropriate time to launch a graphic adventure on the PC” was the message delivered to the press by the then acting general manager and VP of finance and operations, Mike Nelson. It didn’t go down well with many long term LucasArts fans.

It was this decision by LucasArts that would inadvertently changed the face of point and click adventures.

Disappointed by the cancellation of Sam & Max: Freelance Police, 3 LucasArts employees who were working on the game – Dan Connors, Troy Molander and Kevin Bruner – left the company to start their own. Working with attorney Ira P. Rothken, the trio founded Telltale Games in July, 2004.

Less than a year later, thanks to a group of angel investors, Telltale released their first game – Telltale Texas Hold’em. One of only 2 games that the studio has ever released with wholly original characters (the other is Puzzle Agent), Texas Hold’em was released to test the digital distribution market as well as a proof-of-concept for the “Telltale Tool” (and a successful one at that). The Telltale Tool is a proprietary game engine built with rapid creation and portability in mind. It’s an engine that is still used today (although heavily upgraded and altered since the release of Texas Hold’em) and is what enables Telltale to release and update games so quickly and on so many different platforms simultaneously.

Having ironed out the bugs of the Telltale Tool with Texas Hold’em, the studio ploughed into developing their second game – Bone: Out from Boneville. In collaboration with comic creator Jeff Smith, Telltale bought Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, and Smiley Bone to the mainstream gaming audience in September 2005. While the game released to mixed critical reception, it was the first sign of Telltale’s intention to redefine the Point and Click genre…

Speaking with Rosemary Young back in 2005, Telltale founder Dan Connors discussed some of the game design goals the studio had;

“First, we have made the solemn adventure game vow that the puzzles need to make sense in the context of the story. Second, we are focused on improving our dialog system to make it more flexible and varied than what people are used to. Third, we are working on ways for the player to solve puzzles in a more active way. We want our game worlds to really come alive for the players. That means that the world continues to move around them and doesn’t just wait for players to interact with it. Ideally, we would like our puzzles to not only make sense within the context of the game world, but also within the pacing of the story.”

12 Years On and I think it’s safe to say that Telltale have achieved those goals. They stand out as one of the best, most successful and most prolific narrative game designers in the business today and are pioneers of the episodic game model that they started all the way back in 2006…

To release Bone: Out of Boneville, Telltale had started to recruit and most of their new staff were old friends. Graham Annable (animator on Full Throttle, The Dig and Curse of Monkey Island) joined them as creative director as well as LucasArt veterans Graham McDermott, Jon Sgro and Randy Tudor. The team was rounded off by Heather Logas from the Georgia Tech Experimental Gaming Lab. To say there was a wealth of point-and-click game development experience at Telltale would be an understatement.

Over the next 6 years, they put this experience to good use creating a plethora of great point and click adventures while pioneering the episodic release model. They worked with Ubisoft to create 3 games using the CSI license (3 Dimensions of Murder, Hard Evidence & Fatal Conspiracy). Once the Sam & Max license ran out at LucasArts, Telltale swooped in to work with Steve Purcell and the Freelance Police once again. Ex-LucasArts developers (including Brendan Ferguson and Dave Grossman) worked closely with Purcell and Telltale went on to create 3 incredibly funny and innovative seasons of Sam & Max (Save the World, Beyond Time and Space & The Devil’s Playhouse) becoming the first ever game to release in episodes on a tight monthly schedule. Telltale continued their trend of working with left-field fiction sources by bringing Homestar Runner character Strong Bad to life in his own series. Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People is still considered by some to be one of the best Wii games ever released. Jurassic Park. Law & Order. Wallace & Gromit. Back to the Future – Telltale worked with them all. They even got to work with the Monkey Island license when the stars seemed to align and the then-new president of LucasArts, Darrell Rodriguez, started to renew the company’s interest in P&C adventures (something we now know was to be short lived).

Telltale Games were a rising star, their profile and reputation for creating great point and click games mixed with a little something extra expanded with each release. However, it was in 2012 when all of their Point & Click adventure experience mixed with the DNA of graphic novels and “interactive fiction” that their then biggest success was formed…

Telltale’s The Walking Dead. It was with Lee and Clementine that Telltale coined a new genre. A emotionally charged, narrative heavy point-and-click style game that included action elements which evolved based on player choice. This was unprecedented at the time. Over the games 5 episodes, the player was forced to make difficult, uncomfortable choices to survive which altered the future events of the game. The games destination was the same but each player’s journey through the series would be personal to them. It stayed true to the nature of The Walking Dead comics, focusing on the human aspect of survival rather than zombie-shooting (which was popular at the time). It was all the better for it. 2 years later and Season One of The Walking Dead has sold a whopping 28 million episodes across all formats.

Season One of The Walking Dead was the launch pad for Telltale. The branching paths, narrative driven point-and-click adventures with the comic book art style have remained a staple for them ever since. While Telltale exploded in popularity, they always stuck to their core principles that the Telltale founders set out 12 years prior but now they apply those same tenets to other genres in new ways. Job Stauffer, Telltale’s head of creative communications spoke to GameSpot in 2016:

“With us, we have the same philosophy as TV and film. When they go to the movies, when they turn on Netflix, we sort by western, drama, crime, etc. We’re producing content in the same fashion. They’re producing sci-fi action comedy, Tales from the Borderlands. We’re producing apocalyptic drama, Walking Dead. Neon noir thriller, Wolf Among Us. Family action comedy, Minecraft Story Mode. That common interactivity is intentional. The innovation in design happens with storytelling. Moving from the first season of Walking Dead with one playable character to something like Tales from the Borderlands where we’re having two different playable characters and interactive narrative and seeing two sides of the same story.”

It’s a testament to Telltale that “A Telltale Game” has seemingly become a genre all of its own. They’re not the only episodic storytellers out there, but the design philosophy, consistent learning and spliced genres that Telltale have pioneered and made their own stand them out from the competition. Whether that be the laugh-a-minute Tales From The Borderlands or the grim apocalyptic drama of The Walking Dead, you know what you’re going to get with a Telltale game.

It’s also a testament to Telltale that they have always managed to do their subject matter justice. It shows a respect and care for their chosen collaborators that few other studios have ever been able to replicate. With The Wolf Among Us, they managed to bring the much loved comic book characters to life with an original story that felt as one with the long running series. With Tales From The Borderlands, they created one of the funniest games ever committed to polygons, fleshing out the Borderlands universe in the process. With their Game of Thrones series, they replicated to harsh brutality of George R.R. Martin’s best-selling book series, perfecting those “Pulling the rug from beneath your feet” moments. With Minecraft: Story Mode, they managed to tell a fun, family-friendly tale while incorporating the culture that has built up around the best selling game. With Batman, Telltale spun a fresh and surprising angle on characters you thought you knew like the back of your hand with great effect. With The Walking Dead, they continue to set the high bar for engrossing, human-centric drama. Telltale do this consistently – an incredible achievement for each and every one of the 350+ employees there now.

And it’s a consistency that’s set to continue. Season 3 of The Walking Dead – The New Frontier – recently shipped its 5th and final episode and it was as equally enchanting and harrowing as the first season. The Guardians of the Galaxy series is onto its second episode and, so far, has been hugely entertaining. Telltale have also confirmed that there’ll be a second season of Minecraft: Story Mode, something my kids and I are excitedly waiting for. There’s also the promise of the original IP that Telltale have confirmed they are working on as well as the projects they have yet to announce.

Telltale have a storied past and a bright future. From the ashes of a cancelled Sam & Max game rose a studio that would go on to define what point-and-click adventures look like today. They’ve legitimised “interactive media” for the masses and have consistently delivered branching, narrative-based adventures on an unprecedented schedule. I can’t image that when Dan Connors, Troy Molander and Kevin Bruner left LucasArts in 2004, they’d even dream of working on games with giants such as Marvel & DC comics – but they (and the teams at Telltale) have made it a reality, not just for themselves, but for the fans of these franchises too. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

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