Telltale’s publishing chief on reviving licensed games, championing the episodic model and taking on TV

Matthew Jarvis
Telltale’s publishing chief on reviving licensed games, championing the episodic model and taking on TV

Game of Thrones. Minecraft. Marvel. The Walking Dead. Jurassic Park. Back to the Future. Telltale Games' library of titles reads like a licensing wishlist.

Working on any of these million-selling franchises might seem like a chance that any games firm would jump at but, even as recently as a few years ago, licensed titles had become somewhat abandoned by developers and publishers.

While many people in the games industry lamented the pitfalls of making games based on licences, we believed it was a poorly-served market, especially with way that our industry was creating products,” recalls Telltale SVP of publishing Steve Allison.

Formed just over a decade ago, Telltale's licensing drive started out reasonably low-key, adapting comic books Bone and Sam & Max, before moving onto franchises such as CSI, Wallace and Gromit, Back to the Future and Jurassic Park.

But it wasn't until the first season of The Walking Dead in 2012 that Telltale really made its name, with the game becoming the firm's fastest-selling title to date; the first episode alone shifted one million copies in under three weeks.

Since then, Telltale has snowballed, picking up Game of Thrones, Minecraft and Marvel partnerships, as well as two more seasons of The Walking Dead. And they're selling in the millions – not bad for a segment previously shunned by the industry.

Over the past few years we've purposefully gone after the concept of making great narratives based on IP that people are passionate about,” says Allison. With everything we do our goals are pretty simple: put people into a narrative within a universe they are super passionate about and give them the ability to drive and connect to the narrative the way they want to as opposed to sitting back and watching TV or a movie passively.”

Telltale's catalogue is notable for the huge popularity of the media it adapts – between Game of Thrones and Minecraft alone, it holds two of the biggest licences in both television and games. So how does the firm go about handling such precious IP?

We tackle each series we work on as a vertical or ‘made for fans' first, and build the content entirely around the things those franchise fans are passionate about,” Allison explains.

Each fanbase – be it The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones or Minecraft – requires different game plans to ensure we get the message out to everyone in a way that will resonate. Our partners like HBO, Skybound and Mojang play a big part in getting us in contact with those fans.”

But, Allison continues, there is another set of players that has started to emerge alongside these existing audiences.

We do have a nice side benefit of having a secondary ‘Telltale fan' that buys our games because they like what we do so much,” he observes. It is becoming a difference-maker that lets us take more creative risks.”

This popularity can mean that games even out-perform the material they are based upon.

We've had over 30 million unique people play our Walking Dead games across all the platforms we support, which is as large an audience as the biggest television shows draw worldwide.”

"The benefit of the episodic model is having this six- to eight-month relationship with consumers during the run of the game series."

Steve Allison,Telltale Games

Seemingly inspired by comic books and television series, Telltale has championed the episodic release format since Sam & Max Save the World in 2006. Episodic games have become increasing prevalent since then, recently being utilised by Square Enix's Life is Strange and Capcom's Resident Evil Revelations 2.

Episodic works for what we do very well because we build our games like television shows, with strong stories and cliffhangers that leave players – when we do it right – really wanting more and ready for the next episode,” explains Allison.

The benefit of the model is having this six- to eight-month relationship with consumers during the live run of the game series. With active editorial support and lots of fan conversation, it keeps mind share high versus the traditional game launch that tends to fade into the background after a few weeks.

Each episode being consumable in a focused 1.5- to 2.5-hour playthrough is satisfying for the people who love what we do and we leave them wanting more. The dynamic that drives passionate television viewers also drives passionate Telltale Games players when the episodes are in the live launch phase.”

While episodic releases can keep a game at the forefront of players' minds over a longer period of time, this can also backfire – Telltale has been criticised in the past by people who are tired of waiting around for the next chapter.

The challenges of timing and the impact of delays are a huge factor and are what makes building content this way amazingly difficult and stressful – more so than conventional triple-A development,” explains Allison.

He also warns that companies which attempt to shoehorn a title into the episodic format without fully considering the risks could find their game's longevity reduced, instead of lengthened.

I hope we'll see more episodic games, but my strong belief is the format really only works for strong narrative-based games where story is the focus of the gameplay,” he states.

It's not a model where you can take a traditional shooter or action game and chop it up into five pieces and – voil – ‘episodic game' appears and it'll work. What we've seen when companies do that are titles where gamers feel like they run out of content to play, and really lose interest after the initial episode.”

Between IP such as Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead and its episodic release structure, Telltale's inspiration clearly lies in television. The next year will see the company increase its links to the platform in the form of ‘Super Shows', a combination of gaming and TV-style content that will work together to tell a single story.

We view ourselves as a scripted entertainment company focused on interactive experiences, rather than a traditional games company,” Allison says. Our new Super Show format is an innovative and logical step for our creative evolution, combining first-class television entertainment and our episodic games into a new format, using gaming-enabled devices as the ‘network'.”

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