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"Telltale plays it safe"

posted by Secret Fawful on - last edited - Viewed by 5.4K users
DISCLAIMER: In case you're coming into this topic thinking this is going to be about me saying Telltale is evil and bad and stupid, that's not the case at all.

Quoted from Deathspank writer Sean Howard's blog-
I got into a little trouble on Twitter for being a little bit negative concerning Telltale Games' new announcements. I was even called an "intellectual bully", which is a pretty cool thing to be called in my opinion. And admittedly, having worked on DeathSpank puts me within the Telltale sphere somewhat - at least to the point that it could be considered unprofessional to be critical of them. Heck, as one of the few companies that still makes adventure games, they could be potential employers one day. I think I applied there once a few years ago.

Anyway, my comment was basically that I heard a rumor that Telltale was announcing a bunch of games and that one of them could be Maniac Mansion 3. Maniac Mansion is a game that I hold VERY dear to my heart - so much so that I think Day of the Tentacle was a terrible sequel (great game, terrible sequel). And the idea of Telltale taking it over just filled me with dread. And I said as much.

After the announcements came out, I watched the GiantBomb quicklook for their upcoming Jurassic Park game. If you haven't seen it, it is pretty obvious they took more than a little bit of inspiration from Heavy Rain - which I like to joke is a sequel to Dragon's Lair. Anyway, some people asked why I hated Telltale. I don't. I thought I'd take a moment to express the true extent of my feelings towards them.

Telltale deserves a lot of praise. They are largely the only company that has managed to make episodic gaming work, and in no small way, have made adventure games a viable genre now. But to what extent? For the most part, Telltale is still the only company doing episodic gaming and they are still the only company making a profit off adventure games. What Telltale does is good for Telltale, but that success doesn't seem to translate to the industry at large. But that's okay. Good for them, I say.

What I take umbrage of is that the games they create are completely mediocre. That's not to say they are bad. No, bad is a different sort of thing. Mediocre means that they simple exist. They aren't too hard or too easy. They aren't too witty or too dull. They aren't too pretty or too ugly. They aren't too hot or too cold. Some people call this balanced. I call it tepid. Lukewarm. Benign. Uneventful. Boring.

Telltale plays it safe. They acquire really big properties with a high nostalgia value - most of their properties are from the 80s. I mean, Jurassic Park and Back to the Future? The create tepid games that don't push the envelope or do anything exception or exciting. The most that can be said is that they haven't actually screwed up the properties. And that is generally an accomplishment. But something like Sam & Max was built on being a little bit dangerous and subversive. The Telltale games feel lighter than the Saturday morning Fox cartoon.

Telltale has been called the new Lucasarts, but that's a bullshit comparison. The only reason they get that comparison is because Telltale has taken over two classic Lucasarts properties (Sam & Max and Monkey Island). Lucasarts was great because they created their own properties. People are getting confused. They are so thirsty for the heyday of Lucasarts that, finding no water, they drink the sand.

It's not that I hate Telltale. It's just that I think they are capable of so very much more than they are delivering. There's a lot of talent at the company. Hell, they've got a lot of Lucasarts talent there. But every game that comes out just plays it too safe. There's too many missed opportunities.

The first two Monkey Island games feature a very different Guybrush than what showed up in the later games. Telltale didn't screw up his character. That happened during the jump from LeChuck's Revenge to Curse of Monkey Island. Guybrush went from a mischievous, often cruel imp to a completely naive doormat who exists mainly to have funny things explained to him rather than be funny himself. Telltale had the opportunity to give Guybrush his bite back. They could've created that air of subversive satire and wit that permeated the first two games. But they didn't. They took the blandest version of Guybrush and made him even more bland. Then they made safe jokes about monkeys and grog, forgetting that the original jokes used those things to tell a different joke. They didn't just point and go, "look! monkey! Ha ha!"

Humor is incredibly difficult to do. When I come up with a good one liner, that's usually the end result of having thought up a thousand terrible ones. Some of humor is using your personal compass to recognize when something is funny, but mostly, it's about coming up with a hundred different things and trying to find the best one. Telltale seems like they stop at the first halfway funny joke they come up with. They could go further. They could press on. They could, but they don't. They stop at good enough. Maybe the breakneck episodic release schedule does given them the time to be perfectionists, but maybe that just means they should let the schedule suffer and not their games.

I think Telltale is capable are far more than they are putting out. I don't hate them. I can't hate them. I'm disappointed. They've got so much talent behind their walls, and this is the best they can do? I don't believe that for a second. They SHOULD be the next Lucasarts. They could be BETTER than the next Lucasarts! The could be, but they aren't. And what frustrates me so very much about Telltale is that it seems like they aren't even trying. Puzzle Agent is the only one that seemed like they bothered, and even that didn't go far enough. They are announcing new games based on old properties, and there's very little evidence that they are making better games because of it.

Telltale is a company that has it within their power to be great. And I desperately hope that one day they realize that. Until that day, stay the hell away from Maniac Mansion. Taking a great property doesn't make you great. If you had an ounce of decency, you'd put in the effort to be great first. That way, when you actually got a hold of a great property, you can do it justice.
This is one of the most profound things in regard to Telltale I have read, and I find myself unable to disagree with any of it. Hayden thought it might be a good discussion topic, and yes I'm saying he thought of it so that I avoid any responsibility :D, so I thought what the hell. I agree with him; this is an important discussion to be had.

Allow me to add something of my own to this. Recently, due to fears about the reboot of King's Quest, a member of the Telltale company had this to say-
Sinaz20;454049 said:
This is a disheartening diatribe. I, for one, grew up with all the quest series. I have fantastic memories of playing through them with my best friend.

Now I have the chance to continue the series-- it's some sort of inadvertent dream job that I can't believe I landed in.

I want to do this series justice. But I also want to make it fun and accessible to a wide range of players- introduce a new generation to them.

Maybe that means incorporating puzzle complexity into the actual difficulty settings so that our hardcore Sierra ex-pats will have the option to play it old school. Maybe it means finding a new strategy to art and production so we can deliver huge environments like the original games. Maybe it means toggling fail events for the casual gamers.

Whatever the case, I wouldn't want to compromise the series. That said, I also have to play for the home team-- Telltale has vision, goals, and missions that I have to consider.

Ultimately, something I really fight for since being hired at Telltale is integrity of vision. And trust me, I am a demanding fan of this license.
Maybe, maybe maybe. Bah. Visions, goals, and missions. Don't tell me about missions. I've heard about missions and changes and innovations and goals and visions since Telltale started to lower their standards. You know what happens, IMO, when they start talking about goals and visions and missions? The people who make the games come to the people who don't make the games, the fans, and say, "We need a change." And then the people who run the company sit around and change and change and change and talk about visions and goals and innovation, and what has happened to the fans and the adventure gamers? WE ARE LEFT IN THE DIRT. WE ARE SLAPPED IN THE FACE. So, don't talk to me about visions and goals. A post like this, full with an attitude that is afraid to take risks and test their boundaries, is exactly what Sean is talking about and exactly why I agree with him. They aren't saying they have the fans in mind. All they are saying is that whether or not the gameplay will treat us with intelligence instead of babying us is up to the visions and goals of the company. Is Telltale too safe? Should it be counted alongside Lucasarts just because it has done Sam and Max and Monkey Island? Is that enough? Are they not living up to their full potential or are they wasting the talent they have at their company? Are they not taking enough risks? Can we no longer expect to be treated with intelligent, difficult gameplay that rewards the gamer for their troubles? I'm interested in what you think.

Discuss.
158 Comments - Linear Discussion: Classic Style
  • I am afraid that I don't have much time to respond to the whole post, but there is one thing that you both forgot and quite annoyed me - Telltale is not called the new Lucasarts because they created the new Monkey Island and Sam and Max games. I quite sure that they were called so before these games. I think that I even remember them being referred so in the Bone era. (I am very young, but I still knew Telltale then.) They are the new Lucasarts because they WERE Lucasarts. (The oldest members of Telltale worked for Lucasarts in the past before they created their own company, for those who don't know.)
    Also, while I agree that Telltale do 'play safe,' they are my favourite video game developers and I enjoy their games.
  • All good points. The biggest problem with the gaming industry (or any entertainment industry, for that matter) is that when the ones in charge are forced to choose between what's good and what's profitable, the latter always wins.

    I don't really think it's that Telltale's not trying. Adventure games are a niche market and generally agreed by most people to be a dead genre. The fact that Telltale would deal almost exclusively in adventure games proves that they're not interested solely in making money like certain other gaming companies. (I won't give any names, but I'm sure you know which ones I mean. :p )

    At the same time, though, Telltale obviously doesn't want to go bankrupt, and so some creative compromising has to be done. One of the things about the classic adventure games is its difficulty. If you weren't putting all of your thought in the game, you couldn't be expected to win. Even the old LucasArts games, which were impossible to lose, had plenty of puzzles one could easily get stuck on. If Telltale were to bring the difficulty of adventure gaming's past back in full force, most people would complain it was too hard shortly into the first episode, go "Fuck this game!", and never give it a second thought. Most people want games that let them shoot and punch, not games that make them think. It's sad, but it's true.

    So Telltale is left with the dilemma of how to take a genre defined by its enthusiasts and make a wide profit off of it, which leads to some unusual decisions. Why do you think almost every Telltale game has been licensed? Pre-existing names by definition get more attention than new ones. Telltale wouldn't be able to hook new consumers with an original property. This also means making things more accessible: easier-to-solve puzzles, easier-to-understand writing. Also note the graphics. Telltale's graphics are great, especially considering how small a company they are, but for an adventure game 3D graphics are also kind of restrictive compared to the things you can cram in using 2D. The Telltale Tool can do 2D graphics too, as evidenced by Puzzle Agent and Hector. Why don't they use 2D more often? Because tons of people judge games by their graphics, of course. Hell, they've been willing to do cross-promotions with Team Fortress 2 for the sake of sales.

    I'm not trying to bash or defend what Telltale is doing here, just point out that, even if we don't like what they do, they at least have sensible reasons for it. I'm just thankful someone is trying to keep adventure gaming alive.
  • I'm sorry, I know there's stuff in there that I'd love to reply to, but I'm still reeling at the fact that somebody else agrees with me on Maniac Mansion. It's gonna take some time for my mind to fully recover from that blow.
  • Some of what Sean Howard said could easily apply to Death Spank. Although it was a original idea it really didn’t push any kind of envelop and plays it safe. Tim Schafer over at Double Fine also releases a lot of original titles, but that doesn’t always pay the bills unfortunately. Look at Psychonauts. I consider it one of the best games on so many levels, but it failed to find the audience it needed in the general public.

    In a certain regard Telltale has to play it safe. Sam & Max and MI are very beloved franchises. So beloved they border on religious. Any huge misstep and Telltale would of been tarred and feathered long before acquiring and reviving many of these franchises. In a way continuing a Franchise with a large fanbase is much harder and riskier then a original idea that has no preconceived notions attached to it. Sam & Max Hit the Road was a a fun game for its time, but IMO Telltale have propelled Sam & Max to a much higher level of quality then it has ever had. Great Stories, great Voice Acting and Music and some hilarious situations and dialog. Notice I said ‘Great’ not Mediocre.

    While I can find faults with their games, and any game for that matter, I’m glad to have at least one company making games in a genre that I love and not messing up the franchises in the process. No small task. Telltale Could have just as easily ruined MI or Sam&Max and they didn’t IMO. I attribute some of that to them ‘playing it safe’ .. I’m sure the whole process is a juggling act. Pushing the franchise further while remaining somewhat safe. Like all changes it will both anger some people and make others delighted.

    Sean’s evidence for Mediocre is mostly tied to the episodic format Telltale uses. Graphics not ‘too pretty or not to Ugly’ is tied to the size of the downloads while the scope of locations and size of a episodes virtual space is limited by the same factors. As far as not too witty. I think a certain nostalgia has set in for those old LucasArts games. They were a mixed bag as well. Some very witty and enjoyable puzzles/dialog and some very stupid and bland/dull puzzles/jokes. The same kind of mix I find in Telltales’ games. Telltale so far maintains a high level of quality overall I think.

    If anyone has seen my posts I’m usually highly critical of Telltale, but mainly because I feel that only through critique can their products get better. With that said I feel they should find ways to address some of the issues people have with them. For one I think they should create Hard Modes for their episodes that rearrange some of the puzzles. That should satisfy the hardcore crowd who feel the games are dumbed down while still providing easy accessibility to newcomers or morons. They play games too you know.

    In the end Sean Howard complains about TellTale playing it safe then goes on to say how no other company has been able to make adventure games successful like TellTale has. Maybe he has answered his own questions there. I would like to see TellTale be a little more risky sure and from the recent announcement of games I feel they are doing that. Then again just trying to tackle many of these franchises is risky and as far as introducing new elements into them it has to be incrementally done otherwise the fanbase would scream foul and I feel Telltale has done well in that regard.

    IMO if they do just as much justice to Maniac Mansion that they did with Sam&Max I'd prefer that to no game at all. Maniac mansion had its moments, but I think its held up a little too high on a pedestal. Even the original developers saw it as a flawed game. The concept to me was the winning formula. With that I wouldn't mind just seeing a game made with no tie to the franchise, but in the same vein as Maniac Mansion.
  • Ohh that explains why they have not bought out willy beamish since I am sure it cost next to nothing to have it because dynamix and what not is dead. Oh well could have been a simpsons like thing they had going on with willy beamish.

    kindda like manic mansion

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    play it safe I guess?.......and buy Bill and Ted.
  • When they were only making one or two games at a time, I was rooting for them to keep just making licensed games, because they were so darn good at it that it would be a disservice to stop doing it. Now that they can apparently be working on 3 or 4 or 5 projects all simultaneously, I would be happy to see them tackle an all-original project or two from time to time, especially now that they've established their name with the mainstream gaming press and could get a game some attention even without familiar characters.
  • I hate to say it, but he's not wrong. The "Telltale Formula" (three sets of three puzzles, followed by a finale puzzle) hasn't changed since the beginning, and it doesn't leave much room to go outside of the box. As their games get easier and easier, the formula starts to show its cracks, and the witty dialog is no longer enough.

    This has become most apparent in BttF. I normally play every episode on day one, and yet I have "Get Tannen" sitting unplayed on my hard drive. BttF should be ripe ground for mind-bending puzzles and exotic locales, yet I can already see that we're going to get neither. I've heard that Get Tannen is actually EASIER than the first ep, and I don't even see how that's possible.

    I *love* Telltale to death, but when I realized that I couldn't disagree with Sean Howard's criticisms, I also realized that I'm more a fan of Telltale's writers, musicians and artists than the games themselves. There's not a single game from them I dislike, and some that I do indeed love, but the gameplay is not the strongest suit.

    Airing of grievances aside: There's a distinct irony in a Deathspank writer giving lessons on humor. :p
  • ShaggE;458825 said:
    I hate to say it, but he's not wrong. The "Telltale Formula" (three sets of three puzzles, followed by a finale puzzle) hasn't changed since the beginning, and it doesn't leave much room to go outside of the box. As their games get easier and easier, the formula starts to show its cracks, and the witty dialog is no longer enough.

    This has become most apparent in BttF. I normally play every episode on day one, and yet I have "Get Tannen" sitting unplayed on my hard drive. BttF should be ripe ground for mind-bending puzzles and exotic locales, yet I can already see that we're going to get neither. I've heard that Get Tannen is actually EASIER than the first ep, and I don't even see how that's possible.

    I *love* Telltale to death, but when I realized that I couldn't disagree with Sean Howard's criticisms, I also realized that I'm more a fan of Telltale's writers, musicians and artists than the games themselves. There's not a single game from them I dislike, and some that I do indeed love, but the gameplay is not the strongest suit.

    Airing of grievances aside: There's a distinct irony in a Deathspank writer giving lessons on humor. :p
    I'm starting to become weary of the "Telltale Formula". I'm glad they are doing something different with Jurassic Park with "heavily inspired by Heavy Rain" gameplay. I wonder if there will be even more drastic changes for The Walking Dead. I do think they should offer difficulty levels, but I know that their release schedule is pretty aggressive, but it's something that they need to seriously look into.
  • If Telltale wanted to make great games, they wouldn't try and tailor their games to "a wide range of players and introduce newcomers to the genre". Demon's Souls didn't find success because it was made for the masses. It found success because it's a bloody difficult no-compromise well-designed game.

    You can't aim for the average (masses) if you want to make greatness.

    I think that's where the "play it safe" mentaility comes in, and the fact that they just want to run a company that makes games for a living. And who knows, maybe the adventure game genre IS their safest place to be? Maybe Telltale just wants to be that little café in the corner of a small town that just wants to make the ends meet? I guess that's good for them, and the customers who don't really ask for much, but it certainly isn't enough for me.

    It's odd, Telltale made a new Monkey Island game, three seasons of Sam and Max, a season of Wallace and Grommit, they're making BTTF and Jurassic Park and King's Quest. Look at that list! It's insane! They have the licenses to be the best game company EVER, yet they rarely get any higher that mediocre! They have the ingredients to make gold, but barely manages to make bronze.
  • I definately think that Telltales games are staring to show their wear. One of the main reasons for that is the difficulty. Oddly enough, they seem to have perfected the hint system with BTTF and Puzzle agent, but the games BTTF is probably the easiest game they've made so far, without the hints!

    But as a student of business, I can't really blame them. They saw a niche (adventure gaming) and exploited that, to develop a core base. Then, as sales were starting to plateau, they had to broaden themselves a bit. The only ways of doing that would be to make games in other genres (which would be expensive, as they would have to hire lots of new talent, as well as do lots of market research), or to make adventure games appeal to the masses. Given the main gripe with adventrue games, and the reason for their decline was the difficulty, and the obscurity of the puzzles, the best way to do that was/is to dumb the games down (at least in terms of difficulty).
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