Telltale's Tales of Monkey Island saga is in full swing. Chapter one, Launch of the Screaming Narwhal, is out now on PC and WiiWare. Chapter two, The Siege of Spinner Cay, is due out later this month. We grabbed Telltale CEO and founder Dan Connors on the phone, while he was driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, to find out just what chapter two has in store for fans, and what the team's learned from chapter one. Oh, and don't worry, Dan wasn't driving.
VideoGamer.com: Did Tales of Monkey Island meet your expectations?
Dan Connors: Oh definitely, yeah. It was a great launch for us. We're really happy with it. I think it even exceeded our expectations. It's been pretty shocking how much love there is still out there for the Monkey Island series. It seems like a generational thing as well.
VideoGamer.com: Can you talk about sales?
DC: Unfortunately I can't get into the specific numbers, but I would definitely say it's our strongest performing franchise to date. We're pretty excited. It was number one on Steam for a few days. It did really well. It's been our best performing title from our side as well.
VideoGamer.com: Congratulations are in order then. Well done.
DC: Thank you. It's been great.
VideoGamer.com: Have you taken anything on board from feedback?
DC: One thing we noticed, with the exception of a couple of reviews, is that people are engaged still after the cliffhanger. That's the huge thing we were going for with this franchise. With every episode you're going to see it continue to build up to the finale. It's been a huge goal for us as an episodic company. To see the first one come out and have people respond well to the fact that they want to see what happens next, and they're thoroughly engaged in the story of Guybrush and Elaine, that's been the positive thing we've taken away from this.
Some of the other stuff we're hearing, a lot of it is around some of the control issues. We're just continuing to iron those out and make that feel better as we continue to push through on the series. But to date there hasn't been any one theme that everybody's like, this has to change. There's no soda poppers that everybody thinks is thoroughly annoying. Usually a lot of the feedback starts coming after the second and third episode.
VideoGamer.com: Did you agree with any of the criticism relating to any of the puzzles or the supporting characters?
DC: I'd have to think of the specific criticisms. We get a lot of constructive feedback, which obviously we appreciate. We'd rather have people caring to say that they don't like it as much as anything. I'd have to think what the specific stuff is. The world's going to continue to grow and grow as the series runs on. There'll be more and more characters that people will be able to meet. Some of the characters that we already have are just getting introduced, and they're going to continue to get more and more depth and more and more interesting as the adventures continue.
VideoGamer.com: Do you have any update on when chapter two will be released?
DC: We're still working on it. It'll probably be later in the month [August], but we haven't set a date on it yet.
VideoGamer.com: Have you had any interesting entries for the Game Designer for a Day competition?
DC: Oh yeah. We've had tons of interesting entries. It's always a blast at Telltale for us to read through and judge that stuff. The thing about doing episodic gaming is that we can do things like this, and it's a good way to interact with the audience, and see what they think and see what they think is funny. It's a great thing for us too, so we've been really happy with it.
VideoGamer.com: You mentioned that you're looking at some of the feedback regarding the control system. Have you had any thoughts on how it might change for episode two?
DC: We feel pretty good about how our controls are continuing to evolve. We're going to keep pushing it and making it better. Right now it's just getting a lot of different eyeballs on it, letting users play with it and get a feel for it and trying to understand what they find limiting about it, and trying to lift those limits and trying to make it better for everybody. We've got one of our best guys focused on it. We really feel like it's a major change for us, and we're happy with where it's going and how it's evolving.
VideoGamer.com: What can you tell me about episode two? What can you tell me about the story and how it picks up from the end of episode one?
DC: Well, obviously something's going on with human LeChuck. He seems to be getting along with Elaine a little bit too well. The fact that LeChuck is actually quite a nice guy apparently is going to be a big part of the next episode. At the same time the pox is continuing to affect Guybrush, so he's getting a little bit more zombie-ish. He's prone to outbreaks of getting angry and things like that. So there's going to be some character development that will be real interesting for people to see.
They're off at sea and they do a bunch of island hopping in this adventure. Going around to different islands and exploring more of the area that is the series of islands that Guybrush lives on. There's a lot on the ship, a lot with Winslow, and you get to find out who is the one that puts the sword to his throat at the end of the last episode. Much is revealed, new relationships are established and the affect of the pox starts showing itself.
VideoGamer.com: You're not afraid to give poor old Guybrish a hard time are you?
DC: That's the beauty of him, right? He is the most unflappable guy. It's been a long time since anybody's spent time with Guybrish. You realise what a likeable character he is, how it's almost impossible to hate Guybrush. But at the same time it is very fun to give him a hard time and put him in difficult situations and see how he deals with it. At the end of the day, his character is one of the best, and it's almost uniquely gaming from that time period. I don't know from what other genre Guybrush could have come into existence. Even just his name. You've heard the story of how he got his name, right?
VideoGamer.com: For those of us who don't know, tell us.
DC: They were using DPaint [Deluxe Paint] to create him. DPaint created .brush files. The first name that Steve Purcell gave him was Guy, so he was Guy.brush. Then that just stuck. He's such a creation of that era, that innocent, geeky, young, kind of the heroic geek. He just deals with all situations just by being smart and clever, or not smart! He kind of bumbles his way through. He's a great character.
The first episode felt to me like it spent a lot of time setting things up for the rest of the series. The supporting characters, the ship and the narrative were laying the groundwork for what was to follow. Is it a challenge when creating episodic content in that the first episode always has to spend time doing that, and gamers have to accept it?
DC: One thing about it is on all previous episodes we went far to make sure every episode was standalone. With Monkey Island, because it is such an ongoing series anyway, you only have to think of the full games, one, two, three and four, they're all very much connected with continuing story lines - we believed that for this one we wanted to go after a narrative that gets told over five episodes. So it is the first time, probably since Bone actually, we are using the first episode to set up so many story lines.
It is going to take a certain amount of acceptance from gamers, but the good news is Telltale has at this point, you put the name Telltale around the experience and there's an expectation that it's something you're going to be engaged in over a five month period, and it's not just a one off experience. A lot of people who are coming over to play this, especially the people that dug Monkey Island, are open to the concept and seem to be responding well to it. If this was the first one out, it would be an unfathomable risk for us to take, but this is our sixth series.
VideoGamer.com: Do you have any update on an XBLA version? Last time I spoke to you, you mentioned it was something you were considering and having conversations with Microsoft on.
DC: We always want to be on every platform. It's just a matter of dealing with the programming needs of the channel, and the different things required to get LIVE on the channel from a business and development standpoint. It's certainly something we're interested in talking to them about. I know that the LucasArts Secret of Monkey Island remake seems to be doing really well there, so we definitely know there's a huge fan base for this franchise and this type of game that exists there. It's a huge priority for us to get there.
VideoGamer.com: But nothing concrete at this stage then?
DC: Nothing I can talk about or make any guarantees on unfortunately.
VideoGamer.com: I assume that's the same situation for PSN as well?
VideoGamer.com: You mentioned the remake of Monkey Island on XBLA. Have you had a chance to play it?
DC: I just got a demo of it over at Lucas. I thought the art was beautiful. To have the people go in and have the talent that they have over there, and they're repainting all of those scenes, is just amazing. Of course, hearing the voices inside of the Secret of Monkey Island, which I don't think has ever been voiced, really added a different level to it.
It's so funny, if you go through and play it, if you think of the involvement of Tim [Schafer] and Ron [Gilbert] and Dave [Grossman], it's just amazing writing. A lot of the jokes and the situations still read. What I've seen of it I really liked. It'll be interesting to see how a new generation of game players responds to the complexity of it. But I think the hint system and Achievements are a couple of ways to make it more accessible.
VideoGamer.com: You can play the game with the classic graphics or the redrawn graphics. Do you have a preference?
DC: I would play it in new for sure. I'm not really nostalgic for the old graphical limitations. I think the artists can do a lot more. Maybe some of the painted scenes, I would go back to the old ones just because I love the artists who created the original work as well. It is neat to see that painted rendition of Guybrush and Elaine, and the way they visualised Guybrush in that first Monkey as kind of a young boy, and Elaine as a young girl. It's really nicely done.
VideoGamer.com: Last time we spoke, which was about a month ago, you mentioned that you were just starting to look at the process of using Microsoft's Natal technology. Have you had any cool ideas since then?
DC: No unfortunately we've been really busy at the moment! But we're certainly looking at building out some of the R&D parts of our company to continue to look into that stuff. It really feels like a natural fit.
VideoGamer.com: Although the idea of playing Sam & Max with motion sensing I think you mentioned might be a bit out there.
DC: [Laughs] You know, I think the game industry is one where out there still works!
VideoGamer.com: THQ's CEO Brian Farrell said in a conference call that Natal is coming late next year. Does that sound about right to you? Have you been exposed to that information?
DC: He might have more information than I do on it. I haven't talked to them for a bit.
VideoGamer.com: You haven't talked to Microsoft for a bit?
DC: Well about Natal anyway.
VideoGamer.com: At the Develop Conference in Brighton, self publishing digital download games was described as the sex pistols of the games industry. As self publishing, digital download pioneers, do you think it's as revolutionary as everyone thinks?
DC: It's definitely a major change. What you're going to see now is companies focussed on taking advantage of it. You're going to see it continue to grow, and you're probably going to see a transition to even more digital distribution with the next round of hardware. The companies that are in it now are going to have a real opportunity to grow.
At some point there's going to be new people that own the channel, and they're going to have great control, the same way Wallmart or Game Stop or Best Buy does. That doesn't exist yet, so there is an opportunity in time right now for people to get a foothold in and it's very democratic. That's probably going to shift in the next few years, but for right now it certainly is a huge opportunity for everybody.
VideoGamer.com: Is digital distribution where you'll find innovation over the next half decade or so, as opposed to in the traditional blockbuster sequel?
DC: In one way the fastest iteration and the quickest innovation and most volume of innovation is going to happen through digital distribution. You can get out and you can get to a very targeted audience and you can experiment with that audience and try new things. Telltale's whole changing the way the dynamics of a game works from a single shelf product to something that occurs monthly is a pretty huge innovation that relies on digital distribution. The huge Spore style innovation is still going to require certain individuals getting large budgets to pull off that level of innovation.
VideoGamer.com: Do you see innovation occurring in both digital distribution development and big budget development?
DC: Some innovations just take $25m to do it in. There are some innovations that require 150 people to make it happen. From a graphical standpoint even, or a completely new massive multiplayer experience - those are going to require huge investment and huge retail returns in order for it to happen. But I think digital distribution allows for more rapid prototyping and rapid iteration and more volume of iteration.
VideoGamer.com: Bringing it back to Tales of Monkey Island, is an iPhone version something you would consider?
DC: I believe right now they've put the Secret of Monkey Island out on the iPhone, so I don't think we're going to try to compete with that. But we are looking at iPhone for our other stuff.
VideoGamer.com: That's interesting. Like what?
DC: Well everything. We just have to figure out what's the right mechanic for the phone and what people are going to respond to the best.
VideoGamer.com: After Tales of Monkey Island, what's next for Telltale? Is there a known IP you're currently looking at, or might we see something completely original from you guys?
DC: We're looking at a bunch of different IP, and we've got a few original designs floating around the studio we're getting closer and closer to a position to green-light.
VideoGamer.com: Is Day of the Tentacle one of them?
DC: That's not one that we're currently working on at the moment. But we'll see. We're certainly always interested and open.
Tales of Monkey Island is now available to buy for PC and WiiWare. Chapter two, The Siege of Spinner Cay, is due out later this month.