Telltale GDC Report

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Last week I had the unequivocal pleasure of attending the Game Developer's Conference in sunny San Francisco (at least it was sunny for three straight days). The Game Developer's Conference (known colloquially as the GDC) is a gargantuan gathering of game industry professionals who come together in hallowed halls of convention centers to talk about games. And to watch other people talk about games. And to play independent games and stroll the endless expo floor to see what different companies want them to see and to watch the Game Developer Choice Awards and imbibe free beverages. I also enjoy illuminating other developers on why I'm right and they're wrong.

This was my third GDC, and it was once again a delightful event. I talked to many professionals, watched other professionals talk, played a few independent games, walked my feet to sore swolleness around the expo floor, imbibed many free beverages, and illuminated many developers on why I was right and they were wrong. Here, for your enjoyment, are the highlights of my trip. At least those that relate in some manner to Telltale. [readmore]

Why Doesn't the Game Industry Make Interactive Stories?

This was the first panel I attended, and everything in it pointed to a Telltale revolution!! The panel was made up of Tim Schafer of Double Fine Studios (designer of up-coming Psychonauts, also known for Grim Fandango and Full Throttle), Neil Young (not the singer but the VP and General Manager of Electronic Arts LA), Warren Spector, (who talks at just about every GDC panel: think Deus Ex and Thief), and my former professor Michael Mateas of Georgia Tech's Experimental Game Lab. Andrew Stern, Michael's partner in crime (who was, by the way, responsible for the AI in those cute Catz, Dogz, and Babiez desktop pets) moderated.

What became clear through the panel is that everything the industry at large is too risk-averse to dabble in, Telltale Games is ready to take by the proverbial horns. The salient points from this panel include:
  • Smaller games with deeper stories!
  • Pairing up writers with technology!
  • Integration of story and Gameplay!
  • Cutscenes do not a story make!
  • Introduce subtext!
  • Change focus of games from fighting outer demons to fighting inner demons!
  • Develop player empathy with the characters: create the sense that this world and these characters existed before the game was ever turned on!

Staring Contests with Tim Schafer

During the afore-mentioned panel, I engaged in a number of staring contests with Tim Schafer. I defeated him handily in every one. Either he wasn't aware we were engaged in a series of staring contests or else he is uncommonly terrible at this game.

Game Developer's Rant!

It is great fun to hear game developers rant, despite what my co-workers say. Here are the Telltale-notable details of this series of ranting:

The ubiquitous Warren Spector began by complaining bitterly of the developer/publisher business model in the gaming industry and encouraged developers to explore new ways of distributing their games to the world. You may not be aware that how the industry usually works is that we have publishers and we have developers. The publishers do many nice things for the developers, like paying for the game's development, marketing the product and making it appear in stores. In return, they keep all the profits. In this model, publishers are putting up the capital and don't wish to risk their cold hard cash on developers who want to try something new and experimental. Mr. Spector queried why this is the only distribution channel available to games when other media have multiple ways of presenting their materials to the public. He encouraged game developers to follow bravely in Telltale's footsteps by finding other distribution methods. He may not have mentioned Telltale by name, but I'm sure that's what he was thinking.

Greg Costikyan (some of you savvy in games outside of the digital world may know him as the designer of Paranoia and Toon) also praised the Telltale business model (without mentioning Telltale per se). Between his blisteringly scathing criticisms of the industry and the big movers and shakers within it was a message of how innovation is being forced to give way to greed. And how the future will continue to grow worse, as game development costs continue to grow, causing even less risk to be undertaken. But it is those like the intrepid brave souls at Telltale, who are striving to bring innovation to a stagnant market, that will bring the industry out from the slimy pit into which it is steadily sinking.

Spreading the Telltale Word

Like a true apostle of good times to come, I spread the gospel of Telltale Games, Telltale Texas Hold 'Em and our up-coming Bone game. Many people were very excited to hear that the former Sam and Max crew were busy charting new territories. As for Bone, there were one of two reactions: blank looks and nods or else jumping up and down with barely controlled glee. The gleeful quickly turned to their blank companions and explained the story of Bone and how it would make a great adventure game, ending their harangues with offers to loan out their one volume editions of the comic. The blank ones smiled and agreed to read it. I take all of this as very good signs.

Will Wright Declares Rebirth of the Adventure Game

The room was packed, and sweaty conference attendees stood in the hallways pressing anxiously against the doors trying to overhear the designer of SimCity and its children discuss a possible future for games. To this audience, Will Wright announced his new project: "Spore"�. This is a game that is hard to sum up in one pithy sentence. Imagine, if you will, a game that combines gameplay modes from Pac-Man, Populous and Civilization, allows you to infinitely customize the appearance of your own unique creatures and guide them through their humble beginnings as protoplasm to an advanced race that inhabits a world filled entirely with other cultures designed by other players and downloaded from a centralized database, and THEN take your culture to the stars to colonize new worlds and encounter other planets filled with other player-designed races. And this game all happens through procedural programming: Wright doesn't need a team of artists slaving away for years to produce every possible creature and their animations. The program allows the player to form the creatures of their darkest imaginations and then cleverly figures out how that creature would move, which appendages should be legs, which arms, etc.

At this point, you may feel your mind rending. You may also be wondering "what in the world does this have to do with adventure games"�? Everything. Because Will Wright is sticking it (as they say) to The Man. The Man says that we should only be making console games. The Man says that the next generation consoles are going to be incredibly expensive to make games for. The Man says that you players in the world are only interested in playing next year's football game or big movie licensed game. (The Man says that if you don't live in America and don't know what football is then you're not a viable market.)

Well, Will Wright is willing to stand up and say "Hah! I'm going to make a PC game with endlessly fascinating gameplay that has nothing to do with football or movie licenses and I'm not going to spend a gazillion dollars making it because I don't need a whole room full of artists working for five years and I'm going to fit a galaxy into 1kb of memory and this is all going to ROCK!"�

And we at Telltale are willing to stand up right next to him and declare our undying love for a supposedly dead genre and for the people who aren't willing to play next year's football or movie-based game. We are willing to dip our toes in the dangerous shark infested waters of downloadable games that cut out the publisher middleman, and to produce games that have everything to do with story and (very little) to do with blowing things up. As Greg Costikyan said in the game developer rant:

"You can take the blue pill, or the red pill. You can go work for the machine, work mandatory eighty hour weeks in a massive sweatshop publisher-owned studio with hundreds of other drones, laboring to build the new, compelling photorealistic driving game-- with the same basic gameplay as Pole Position.

Or you can defy the machine."�

At Telltale, we are all about defiance. And donuts. Especially the kind with the chocolate on top and the delectably creamy custard in the middle.

Yes. Those are quite excellent.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!
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