JeuxVideo: Games like Sam & Max or Runaway prove that adventure games with a touch of humour a la LucasArts can still be major sellers, appealing to both core and casual gamers. So, how do you feel now towards Lucas still saying that the adventure genre is dead?
Dave Grossman: Perhaps "dead" is a more relative and subjective kind of term than we thought? It has long been my opinion that any lack of success adventure games have had as a genre stems mostly from there not being enough good ones, rather than from any inherent limitation of the form. That is, I blame the designers, not the tastes of the audience. Furthermore, I think that adventures' tools for the melding of story with game design are the kind of thing that will prove interesting to a more casual crowd.
JV: Online distribution is growing fast and is a great opportunity for indies. Even if you eventually shipped the game in a box, do you think digital distribution is the key for some gaming genres such as adventure. A way for it to reach a broader audience?
DG: Digital distribution allows you to reach your audience quickly and directly, without having to go through the trouble and expense of manufacturing a disc and shipping it to a store a thousand miles away. It has its own complications, but it's still great for indie developers of all types. It isn't necessarily the case that you'll reach a broader audience by going digital, but you can reach a narrow one more effectively once you stop thinking about distribution in terms of geography and start thinking about it in terms of what kinds of online spaces your audience might inhabit.
JV: And in a more global perspective, do you think it allows more creativity and a greater freedom for minimalist concept games that one may not dare to publish in a classic way? Let's say, like Portal or even your own WiiWare title, Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People.
DG: Neither Portal nor SBCG4AP is a title I would have been afraid to publish conventionally; they both seem like obvious winners to me. But yes, distributing digitally lets you experiment on a smaller scale, which means greater latitude with less risk, so I expect we'll see plenty more creatively interesting work in the days to come.
JV: What do you think of Mark Rein's recent statement about big publishers eventually running the digital distribution and getting it back under their control? (You can read the statement here.)
DG: What Rein said (or at least what was published in the article I read) is astute and basically true, though incomplete. What was once a battle for shelf space will now be a battle for consumers' attention, and the big publishers have a huge advantage there in terms of financial resources, manpower, experience, and the ability to make deals to occupy the choice real estate on major download portals. Which, if you're supporting a large-scale development effort, will be essential. What's not mentioned, though, is that there are other options for smaller operations. The principal hurdle is to generate interest in your game, and there are plenty of places to do that besides the front page of a big portal. If you've got a website and you can convince people to go there, you're in business, and while you won't see the same kind of numbers that EA will, you might be able to comfortably support a small development studio. The essentially limitless space of the internet store shelves creates a lot more opportunity for smaller publishers to carve out niches for themselves.
JV: As a matter of fact, it seems you're getting involved in console development as you recently announced a Wiiware title, again, a downloadable software. What do you think of the software size limitation on WiiWare or Xbox Live (about 150MB on this one)?
DG: Size limits keep you focused on the most important elements, sort of like writing poetry or short stories. But actually, 150M seems perfectly comfortable to me; Telltale's games don't tend to be any bigger than that anyway. Or at least, individual episodes aren't. The downloadable channels on the consoles are perfect for our episodic approach, where the games are small but there are new ones in the series coming out all the time.
JV: Couldn't that be an obstacle for more ambitious or risky projects? These are harder to publish on consoles and would maybe not be able to use the online channel to reach gamers anymore.
DG: It would only be an obstacle if by "ambitious or risky" you actually mean "large." For me, if I'm doing something innovative or strange or risky or otherwise interesting, I try to do it on the smallest scale possible.
JV: You've chosen to use episodic distribution, a trendy new way to publish a game. You're doing well with it, so does Valve, but we've seen some less fortunate attempts. How do you explain your own success?
DG: Five factors: Organization, professionalism, experience, a solid engine, and organization. And realistic expectations. Also, did I mention organization? Overlapping development of a bunch of titles with a small staff is not for the faint of heart, so we made a point of getting in the right people and doing a couple of test runs to work the kinks out of the engine and production processes before jumping into the real deal with Sam & Max. It's probably best to make sure you can make ONE small game in a few months time before trying to do six at once.
JV: Is creating episodic content that different from developing a whole one shot game? How do you manage to give enough stuff to the player on a first, short, episode to be sure that he will be eager to get the next ones? Knowing that this is probably what killed a game like SiN Episode 1.
DG: Episodic development is very different from building a single, larger game. You can't just treat it like slicing something up into pieces, you have to deliver a complete and satisfying experience with every episode. At the end of an episode I want the player thinking "That was great, I want another!" rather than "Where's the rest of it?" And that goes for all the episodes, not just the first one.
JV: I guess, in this matter; working with Steve Purcell, comic author, was pretty helpful?
DG: Having Steve involved is great for a lot of reasons. He comes up with many strange and interesting ideas and generally helps keep things feeling Sam & Max-y. And the Chapman brothers are amazingly useful with Strong Bad, I frankly don't know where they find the time. We also have an unusually large creative staff for a small game studio. The fact that we have more writers than programmers tends to surprise people, but it's really important for the kind of development we're doing.
JV: And at least, one last really important question: could you send me a Max's stuffed bunny? Seriously, not kidding,I need it!!
DG: Have you been good?
By the way, how come there's no such thing on the Telltale Store?
DG: That must mean there isn't such a thing anywhere. If it existed, we'd have it. I'd have it.