by on Jun 22, 2009

Making point-and-click cool again

Telltale Games is busy. Not only is it the developer behind the new episodic Sam & Max and Wallace & Gromit games, but it’s also crafting a brand new set of Monkey Island episodes. It’s almost as if the company is leading a resurgence of the point and click adventure game all by itself. Intrigued and excited, we chatted to CEO Dan Connors to discuss the Xbox LIVE Arcade release of Sam & Max Season 1, rebranded to Sam & Max Save the World, but we also talked Project Natal, the PS3 and… hush hush, Day of the Tentacle. What blew your mind at E3?

Dan Connors: I thought the Shadow of the Colossus stuff was pretty amazing, and the Natal stuff was pretty cool to hear about. Obviously with us and the type of games that we make, the idea of making a person an actor inside of one of our adventures is an idea that’s been theoretical for a long time. It’s nice to see things happening that can get it closer. How would Natal be applied to the games you make?

DC: It’s a huge opportunity to give the user more ways to interact with the world than just the traditional cursor-based and dialogue-based way in which the games work. It lets people control the character in a new way and communicate with the different characters. It’s going to give them more options and more ways of interacting with the world. That’s really exciting to us, to not be limited by a mouse or a controller in what the user can do and how they can interact with the characters. Our focus is about creating really entertaining scenarios and characters, so removing barriers to experiencing that and making it easier and more natural to interact with, is a huge thing for what we’re doing. The number of ideas and the number of types of designs that you could do around it are… it’s just the kind of thing that gets your creative teams going. Who would have thought of Wii Sports before it came out with Nintendo? It’s the absolute perfect control for bowling. For us, having the user be able to be a character in one of the worlds and solve mysteries and puzzles is a huge deal, a huge leap forward. Is it conceivable that some of Telltale’s upcoming games might be compatible with Natal or make some use of it, or are we still a long way off from that?

DC: We haven’t talked to them enough about it. It really depends on where they’re at as far as exposing it to developers. We didn’t know about it before they talked about it so we didn’t have a lot of time to think it through, though we’ve just started that process. How we could use it in a product all depends on how far along the mechanic is and what’s the right product to build. But as of right now it hasn’t been in our plans until we heard about it at E3, so we’re just in the very early stages of putting together an opinion on what it can be. The idea of actually being Guybrush Threepwood on the screen in a brand new Monkey Island adventure is pretty exciting.

DC: Yeah, definitely. Or the idea of being a… (laughs) the idea of being Max is probably a little bit less appealing! You’d have to put on bunny ears or something! But Guybrush is a great character for something like that for sure. There’s a suggestion that gamers like to kick back and relax on a sofa when they play games, and the idea of having to stand up and flail about isn’t up their street. What’s your opinion on that?

DC: My opinion is Wii Sports and Guitar Hero. Rock Band – there’s no kicking back in Rock Band. There’s an assumption about what gamers want. Sometimes the industry has too much of an assumption of what people want to do. You look at the success of the Wii, Rock Band and Guitar Hero – people want to do more. They’ve been limited. They’ve made the best of what they’ve had. It’s just a natural position to be back on a couch with a joypad. It’s a very finger-focussed activity. That’s just the way it’s evolved to now. To be able to blow that door off is super exciting. I think it’s great. Moving on to Sam & Max, it’s been rebranded and released on XBLA. What advancements have been made?

DC: We’ve added Achievements. It’s in higher res. The Xbox is a great box for it. It’s really about adapting it to the controller and making it run on the system at a nice high resolution. Obviously it’s all the same jokes. It’s really about the HD and adapting for the controller and adding the Xbox LIVE support so you can get all your game stats. What’s your approach to Achievements? What works for a game of this type in terms of Achievements?

DC: In Wallace & Gromit we did a lot of solving puzzles in different ways and collecting items that might not have been on the beaten path. Our Sam & Max games are loaded with that kind of stuff. The designers put in so many deep levels of experiencing it, that rewarding the player for going in and finding the nuggets-it’s like a double reward. You get to see the great gag and you get rewarded for it as well. Season Two is being rebranded to Beyond Time and Space. What kind of release date time frame are we looking at for XBLA?

DC: We’re still working on it but it’s either going to be late summer or early fall. According to a fact sheet that I’ve read there are currently new Sam & Max seasons in pre-production. Can you give us any exciting news about how they’re shaping up?

DC: We reviewed the design just the other day. Chuck Jordan’s (designer) doing a lot of work on it right now. He’s got a pretty long history with these types of games with Monkey and the other Sam & Max episodes. He and Steve (Purcell, creator) and Dave (Grossman, design designer) got down and banged out some ideas. It’s going to be hard to top saving the world and going to hell, but they’ve certainly got a incredibly bizarre design on the table. It’s absolutely perfect for Sam & Max, but it certainly feels a lot more like the comic books than the first two designs. Some of the character designs we’re looking at were almost a little bit gross! Okay guys, let’s figure out if we really want to go this far! Sam & Max is the best universe you can create in, has always been my feeling. They’re capable of anything at any moment. With the right twisted creative minds it can just go anywhere. What kind of release time frame are we looking at for the episodes from Season Three?

DC: We’re still reviewing it. Monkey Island is the big focus now. As soon as that’s out and being released into the world we’ll probably be full-bore onto Sam & Max. So far your games tend to come out as digital downloads on PC and WiiWare and then they come to XBLA. Will that continue or are you looking to get a day and date for the XBLA versions?

DC: Wallace & Gromit was PC and XBLA. We’ve got to figure out with Microsoft what the right project is for them. We pump out so much content so fast. Microsoft has a pretty big infrastructure and there’s a lot of demand for the various slots. It’s something that we’ve got to work out with them, with timings and things like that. We’d love to be on XBLA with all our products, and certainly we’d love to day and date with specific products as much as we can with them. It’s just a matter of getting the relationship smoothed out to a place where our turnaround and their programming schedule match up and make sense. Sam & Max is obviously popular. How many seasons have they got in them?

DC: (Laughs) We often have talked about the 14th season of Sam & Max. To me the exciting thing is definitely the way the characters have developed over time, the way their universe has developed over time. So long as we can keep it fresh and original. I was really excited that Season Two was even better than Season One. Not to talk people away from Season One, I felt we got better at doing what we do and the stories were better and we were more focused on making it more episodic. It was just a better experience. If Season Three ends up improving upon that then Season Four will be a no brainer. It’s how long we can keep the positive momentum going for the franchise and making the experience better and better each time out. You’ll know – what exactly is Max?

DC: (Laughs) I have heard the term lagomorph and rabbity thing. A lagomorph is a bunny-like creature. Like a rabbity thing?

DC: (Laughs) A rabbity thing, yeah. I think a lagomorph is the scientific description for anything with big ears. Browsing through Telltale’s forums, some of your fans have wondered about your support for the PS3. We haven’t seen any of Telltale’s games come to the PSN. Is there a reason for that?

DC: Telltale’s been growing rapidly and nailing the episodic production process and going after these licenses and building a company. We just got on Xbox in May. The PSN’s our next target. We’ve just got to get the plan in place to start moving stuff over in that direction as well. We want to be on every channel. We want to get there as fast as we can, but there are limitations of hours in the day! It’s certainly a huge deal for us and we want to be there. It’s exciting the way Sony’s pushing PSN. One of the most interesting things for me between the three consoles is the way they’re all evolving their own downloadable experience. They all have a different approach to it. For us, being able to get in each of them and make our content appropriate for their understanding of the online space helps us be more flexible and dynamic. What’s required that’s different for a PSN version of Sam & Max or Monkey Island for example?

DC: Aside from the differences in the hardware of the boxes, Xbox is focused on the Achievements and leaderboards. To them that’s a huge piece of driving sales and keeping players engaged and making the online experience special for the users. For them that’s a big deal that they always push. They happen to be try before you buy, so you always have to do a demo and your demo has to motivate people to come over and buy the product. And then they’re also very much a multimedia box now. The way you communicate to people about your games through movies and different theme packs and all those things that enhance the game experience, Xbox is pretty far along with that stuff.

WiiWare on the other hand has its 40MB limit and is more of a direct store. No demos for WiiWare at all. The system for the movies and the around the game stuff, they’re not as demanding about that stuff. So it’s a different mindset over there for the type of content the WiiWare audience is used to.

And then my assumption with PSN and especially working with Home, is you’ve got to think about the whole experience for the user when they enter the franchise world and get in and interact with your product. It’s real interesting what they’re doing with that and there’s a great opportunity to build interactive storefronts and things like that, to help you introduce people to your games and characters. Obviously for us it’s a huge deal because you need to get to know Sam & Max a little bit before you’re ready to jump in and make the purchase. Is it just that making it work for PSN and Home is a pain in the arse?

DC: You know it’s different. It’s a different box than the others. They all have their own things about it and you can only focus on one at a time. With Strong Bad, it seemed like such a great Wii title that we started working on that one first. Then Wallace & Gromit, we talked with Microsoft about that one for a long time and they really wanted to do it, so we ended up there. So really it’s just the next in line, and it brings a lot of challenges. It’s unique, it’s a different box. You need to focus on it and you need to focus a team on it. It’s just having the time to sit down and do the work. Once it’s over then we’re just going to undo the tap and all the content is going to pour into the PSN. Hopefully we can figure out the right arrangements from a business standpoint. So your PS3-owning fans have much to look forward to?

DC: Oh yeah. We’re definitely trying to get there as quick as we can with everything. Once we’re there we’ll be on all three services and that’ll be a huge accomplishment for the company. Moving on to Tales of Monkey Island, it’s been announced for PC and WiiWare. Why not an XBLA version?

DC: Right now the Special Edition is going to be up on XBLA so we wanted to give that some room, but it may end up there. Obviously we’ll talk with Microsoft about getting it up on XBL as soon as we can and as soon as it makes sense. So you’re actively trying to get it on XBLA then?

DC: I don’t know if I can really talk about what conversations we’ve had with them about it but it’s certainly of interest to us. It seems odd that Telltale is doing this brand new set of Monkey Island chapters and LucasArts is doing the remake internally. Was there any chance of Telltale doing the remake?

DC: I don’t think the remake was what we would want to do. They were looking at what was going on with a lot of games coming back through digital distribution and being successful with the idea of being up-ressed and made current. For them with this library of content if there’s an avenue to enhance the graphics, add voice and deliver a product that has an audience, I think they really want to find out what that is. At the same time coming up with a new property and adding something to help push the name of the product and get Monkey Island top of mind is like a double whammy. Players will have the new Tales of Monkey Island that Telltale’s doing, that’s the latest and the greatest and the newest thing and the continuation of the story, and at the same time, for everyone who loved the original, LucasArts is bringing back the original content but with Dominic (Armato, The Curse of Monkey Island and Escape from Monkey Island) doing Guybrush’s voice and up-ressed graphics. It’s a dual plan for them to get the franchise out as widely as possible. Why is now the right time for Monkey Island to return?

DC: There’s some momentum in the genre with what Telltale’s been doing. Digital distribution is mature enough that there’s a real market there, that you can get your game up to a niche audience that wants it without having all the overhead of doing retail product. Telltale and LucasArts came together at the same time and said let’s just do this. People have been asking for it forever. Why not do it now. Let’s make this happen. The hardcore gaming population obviously loves Monkey Island. Is there a need for it to appeal to a wider audience now?

DC: We’ve always believed that adventure games and the adventure game mechanic is something that’s easy for anybody to do. If the games are good at engaging the player then anybody can come in and play it. We’ve seen it with Sam & Max – we’ve introduced a lot of new people to Sam & Max. They might have heard of it because their brother’s played it or maybe their dad picked it up and they played it, but we’re getting a lot of new fans to the franchise. That’s always our goal with Telltale. We’re not in this to serve a small part of the market. We’re in this to figure out how to bring this great content to everybody because we believe everybody can enjoy it. For us that’s always been the design challenge – keeping the challenge there so the core that loves these games will be satisfied, will have positive things to say about it and will be happy, but at the same time make it so that the new people who come in aren’t left at the door saying I don’t understand this, I can’t play this. To play these types of games you really have to get your head in a different space than what you’re used to. If you’re an old school gamer you remember that space very well. It’s like an old friend. It’s like a comfortable place. If you’re a new gamer it’s pretty foreign to you. We really need to work people into the experience and get them in that mindset that makes solving puzzles and adventuring a fun and rewarding experience. That’s Telltale’s goal. With the Special Edition it’ll be interesting to see if, with the hint system, new people can make it all the way through the game and have the same experience people had previously. There’s that thing about rose-tinted nostalgia goggles where you look back at games and think they’re a lot better than they really were. Perhaps Monkey Island and games of that type don’t suffer from that because the quality of the writing had a lot to do with the quality of the game and it still stands up.

DC: Oh definitely. In those older versions there’s so much of it. For us, I wouldn’t want to talk about necessarily Monkey Island in that way but if you go back and play the original Sam & Max and then you play Telltale’s episodes they really feel like two different things. I mean they feel the same, but yet they feel very different in the way you experience them. You mean better of course!

DC: The writing’s great in the first Sam & Max, but we wouldn’t send you to go to use the fish grabbers inside the giant ball of twine to get the ring. Our puzzles are probably about three steps shorter! You know what I’m saying! They make more sense?

DC: Yeah, in their own weird way. What was your approach to getting voice actors on board for the game? Was it terrifying?

DC: Well getting Guybrush was huge. Having Dominic do it was a huge deal. The other characters aren’t as critical as Guybrush. He’s the signature voice. After finding new voices for Sam & Max we’re used to the abuse! We’re pretty used to hearing from people that love the products and hearing their opinions. I always say it’s better to have people caring about it and talking about it, even if they’re being critical and giving you their opinion, than to have them not care. So not necessarily terrified, but incredibly happy to have Dominic as the voice of Guybrush. It’s amazing he still sounds the same after all these years. It’s such a signature voice. You’ve done Sam & Max and you’re doing Monkey Island. When will you be doing a brand new Indiana Jones adventure?

DC: (Laughs) I was expecting you to say Day of the Tentacle. I will afterwards.

DC: We’ll see, we’ll see. It all depends on how it goes. Hopefully it works out for both companies and it just is a no brainer to keep adding the franchises on. Is there one you have a particular personal desire to give the Telltale treatment to?

DC: To me I always think of the big three as, and maybe it’s just because of when I was playing and when I was first starting at LucasArts, I always think of Sam & Max, Day of the Tentacle and Monkey Island as the big three franchises. Having access to Steve and access to Dave Grossman and everything else… I really love Day of the Tentacle. Although I wanted to do, and my ideas always get shot down, but I wanted to see, like a 32-year-old Hoagie, or Bernard, Hoagie and Laverne all grown up with jobs and what not. But we’ll see if that gets any traction. I can’t believe your ideas are shot down given your position at the company. Surely you can just put your foot down and make whatever you want to happen happen.

DC: (Laughs) Yeah, but everyone says, “I don’t know Dan, I don’t see Hoagie working a job, I don’t see Hoagie as a computer programmer”. Oh okay, I guess, you’re right. But that would be a fun one for sure. We’re certainly not there yet on it, and we’re just having a “wait and see” approach with Monkey. Hopefully everyone that plays the Special Edition and plays Tales really enjoy what the games bring, which is the great stories and characters of Guybrush and Elaine and LeChuck. When you look back on it, and you think about what we do with episodic and you think about Monkey Island 1 and 2 and the way they were released and the endings, it really is the perfect soap opera. In all seriousness, if your Monkey Island game and the Special Edition prove successful, is a new Day of the Tentacle episodic Telltale release feasible?

DC: I would say feasible is a good word.

Sam & Max Save the World is out now on Xbox LIVE Arcade.


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Day of the Tentacle

on PC
Day of the Tentacle

Release Date:

26 March 2006