Telltale: “Right now, our work is about elevating the brand, in and of itself”

Telltale is entering a TV-like production model. We talked to the company about its new strategy just before announcements were made to radically downsize its workforce.

Shortly after conducting this interview, Job Stauffer, head of creative communications at Telltale, left the company. As did approximately a quarter of the workforce in what Telltale described as a “comprehensive company restructuring.”

Pete Hawley, CEO, said in a statement: “The realities of the environment we face moving forward demand we evolve, reorienting our organisation with a focus on delivering fewer, better games with a smaller team.” With an increasing number of titles, across an increasing number of franchises, the company could arguably be more focused in its releases – although the staffing announcement didn’t bring with it any immediate
title cancellations. 

The company added in a statement that it wanted to be “more competitive as a developer and publisher of groundbreaking story-driven gaming experiences.” And there’s no doubt its model, unchanged though it is for now, is still groundbreaking. 

Pictured above: Job Stauffer, former head of creative communications at Telltale

As Stauffer told us, the company has “owned episodic since its inception.” Where other publishers have tried and failed with the episodic model, Telltale has singlehandedly transformed the way these types of games are delivered on digital platforms. 

“Having episodic development and live development in your DNA from the get go has been key for us,” said Stauffer. “Obviously, some developers might be trying episodic with a different form of gaming, but we’re doing it in our own storytelling language – the language of cinema. But it feels more like TV and an interactive series that you might find on Netflix or HBO. Just the nature of what we do has set us up since the beginning to be leading in this space and we’re very proud of that.”

Going forward, Telltale has its sights set on an almost TV-like production structure, with yearly instalments of its games to help keep the momentum going on its current franchises – a trend that’s already in motion with the recent release of Batman: The Enemy Within. That now looks to be accompanied by a more focused release schedule.

“We wrapped up the first season of Batman earlier this year, and we’re now following that up with another season this year,” said Stauffer. “It feels a lot like what we set out to do – have series run like television. That’s not to say we’re immediately running into ten more seasons of Batman, but I think we have a lot of creative momentum within the team and a lot of ideas that we have left on the table. 

“Right now, our work is about elevating the Telltale brand, in and of itself, and how we’ve come into our own as more of a kind of interactive TV network and a studio that’s really doing something different where we’re writing and designing and releasing content on a regular basis across multiple different genres, whether that’s apocalyptic undead drama like The Walking Dead, a family-driven comedy adventure like Minecraft, or sci-fi action like Guardians of the Galaxy. 

"Right now, you’re used to seeing five episodes come out per series, and even something as simple as that could change very soon."

Job Stauffer

“To have this footprint now that sits firmly between video games and premiere narrative entertainment – something between video games and HBO and Netflix – that’s what we’re really proud of and how we’ve grown out right across everything.

“We don’t want to talk too much about what’s coming beyond – what’s next is finishing up Batman, the first half of 2018 will see the final season of The Walking Dead, the second half will see The Wolf Among Us 2. Will there be other creative partnerships with existing partners? Absolutely. And will there be original content coming from Telltale not based on any other existing franchises? That’s still very much in our future, yes, but right now we’re really enjoying the amazing work that we’re able to continue on in the studio, innovating and focusing on our fans and carrying out format forward. 

“I think you’re going to start seeing our format design start to change and evolve over the next 18 months, just as well as you’re going to see maybe our episodic release structure change and evolve. Right now, you’re used to seeing five episodes come out per series, and even something as simple as that could change very soon. 

“So, as we move into 2018, players can expect an evolution of Telltale both in design and release structure happening incrementally and hopefully with the games you’ve been wanting to see from us the most.”

INSIDE THE BOX

The innovation in its episodic approach may primarily lend itself to digital distribution, but the studio has been canny with physical releases too. The studio’s season pass discs, which often arrive at retail around the launch of the second episode of any given series, have also proven to be a huge hit for the company.

“It’s been wildly successful,” Stauffer continued. “We pioneered the sort of digital-to-retail model early on with The Walking Dead in 2012, and now that every console’s connected online, the season pass disc structure means we’re able to premiere in stores the same day we premiere digitally.”

He was not worried about gamers potentially trading in those season pass discs, either: “The disc itself will access the content as it becomes available, which is a little different from buying a code or purchasing the rights digitally, as the discs are tradable, exchangeable and sellable. So it becomes this nice in-between where consumers are happy, we’re happy, retailers are super happy, and we’ve been finding a great amount of success with the model.”

Indeed, Stauffer said Telltale has “big expectations” for the season pass discs of Batman: The Enemy Within and Minecraft: Story Mode – Season Two, and that the company’s also looking into shipping more games on disc in full once they’re completed, such as the recent physical edition of Minecraft Story Mode: The Complete Adventure for the Nintendo Switch. 

“We’re really happy about [The Complete Adventure on Switch], and we expect to see more of our games heading to Switch very soon, too,” added Stauffer. 

“The next game you’ll see [on Switch] after Minecraft may very well be the first season of Batman, as it’s still fresh in the studio right now, and we expect to follow it up soon with other titles such as Guardians of the Galaxy and Minecraft: Story Mode – Season Two.”

Those might sound like rather ‘safe’ and family-friendly choices compared to the rest of Telltale’s slate, but Stauffer assured us that nothing is outside the realms of possibility for Switch.

“We’re looking backwards and forwards [in our portfolio] and we’re really excited about the Switch. To say we’re steering away from other content because the audience isn’t there isn’t true. Looking at The Walking Dead, for instance, I don’t think we’re in as much of a rush right now, because looking into earlier seasons might require some additional effort to bring our content up to speed and up to Nintendo’s standards.

“No series is out of the question for us to bring to Switch. We’ll be examining everything and hopefully making a lot of fans happy. Plain and simple, the Nintendo Switch is a perfect match for Telltale. [Development has been] seamless and perfectly suited to everything that we do.”

TO BE CONTINUED

The recent announcements at Telltale puts the company under far greater scrutiny, and while job cuts are never welcome, a promise to update the underlying technology behind its games and to focus on the biggest brands will please many of its partners. 

We wish those departing Telltale the best of luck with their future careers, and for those remaining we hope the company becomes stronger and more stable in the long term as a result of this move. That the cuts were carried out without any title cancellations looks to show an organised approach to the redundancies. With a continued focus on storytelling, episodic content and brand extension, Telltale really should be able to thrive in the current market, though only time will tell if that’s going to be the case.

What's the date, Mr Wolf?

Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us is finally getting a second season in the latter half of 2018, but according to ex-head of creative communications Job Stauffer, the title might have never seen the light of day had it not been for a last ditch attempt from the development team to save it from being canned.

“The truth is that in 2011 we announced we were working on The Walking Dead, and a game based on the Fables comics at the same time,” Stauffer told MCV. “It was before The Walking Dead show had really taken off, so while Walking Dead was enjoying its success in 2012, Fables was in development and it was never actually very good until almost a year and a half’s worth of revisions.

“At a certain point, it was almost a comedy, although frankly not very funny and almost un-shippable. We really weren’t sure how we were going to execute it, and when it feels like there’s nothing you can do to save it, it takes that for the team to really rally and find that last wrench to throw into the machine and make it work. They did and we really found our tone with it.”

Fortunately for Telltale, the game was a hit: “When we premiered in 2013 and finished at the end of 2014, never in our wildest dreams did we expect to be the success that it was, both critically and – I think – financially as well. It was very successful for us.”

However, once the studio had finished the title, it already had a number of other projects on the go, making a second season a tricky proposition at the time.

“By the time we were finishing, we were already committed to doing some new projects – such as Tales from the Borderlands, Game of Thrones and Minecraft. So finding a time where we could follow up The Wolf Among Us and really do it justice was always in play – and for the last two years, every tweet we’ve sent out of our company has been, ‘That’s great but where’s Wolf Among Us S2?’ And you know, that passion and that energy from the fans I think really pushed it into the forefront for 2018 and we’re excited to get back to it.”

The Wolf Among Us Season Two is currently slated for PS4, XO, PC, Mac, iOS and Android-based devices.