Telltale's "A New Frontier" Story Generator

posted by Kevin Bruner December 15th 2016

Hey everyone,

Kevin from Telltale here again!

It’s been four years since we launched The Walking Dead Season One, and so much has happened since that game exploded for us! For the first time we had millions and millions of players and it’s been skyrocketing ever since. Now we’re here, four years later. We've released “400 Days”, Season Two and explored a whole new aspect of the The Walking Dead with the “Michonne” mini-series. We now have 14 different Walking Dead episodes spread across a dozen or so different devices. When we were getting ready for “A New Frontier” we faced a problem: how do we make sure all these players can continue their story when they may not have their old device and save game, or their platform isn’t supported any longer? We had to make a “Story Generator”.

We started thinking about the kind of questions we should ask, such as “did you save Doug or Carly?”, “what did you do at the end of Season One?” or “how did you leave Clem at the end of Season Two?”. But we ran into a problem. These choices cause branches for sure, but they don’t really paint a great picture of who YOUR Clementine is. They show us what she did, but it didn't capture WHY she did those things. And WHY you make a choice is what matters most in our games. As many have pointed out, our “tailored stories” don’t have endless branching. Each individual play through shares many plot points and events with different play throughs. There is more shared content than branched content. But still, they somehow feel very different and personal despite this. That’s not by accident, that’s our intent. We spend a ton of energy working on that. It’s the difference between an old school “choose your own adventure” and Telltale’s unique role-playing experiences. This is why we open each episode letting you know the story is “tailored by the choices you make”. It’s also why simply asking which branch you took doesn’t give us enough to know who YOUR Clementine is, and what motivated YOUR choices. For example, there are only two big options at the end of Season One, but there are many different types of Lee and Clementine’s out there. That last choice is representative of some pretty complicated motivations, and we wanted to capture THAT.

example question Customizing a backstory means recreating the adventure's emotional consequences

So we had a problem. How do we capture “that", when “that” is a feeling? Well, one thing we have is mountains and mountains of data. We have millions of play throughs stored on our servers. You’ve seen the “You and 25% of players did this or that”, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Though we don’t keep any personal data, we have every single choice everyone has made. Every dialog line, every thing you clicked on, how long it took you to make a choice, etc. Literally billions of data points. So we thought, is “that” hidden in that sea of data? Fortunately, we live in the era of big data and we’re headquartered just up the way from Silicon Valley. So we found some big brains who know how to find patterns in big data.

They started truly blind. We had no assumptions about what we’d find. We just wanted to know whatever the data told us. We simply couldn’t mine the millions of play throughs by hand, so we started with about 44,000 play throughs (which our brainy friends told us was a "statistically significant data set"). We decided to map 2,200 choices in each play through. These choices are lines of dialogs you selected, things you clicked on, inventory you used, etc. So we have 2,200 choices and 44,000 play throughs, more than 96 million data points. Our brainy scientist friends decided to do a K-centroid analysis with an eJaccard distance function (this is really cool stuff, Google it for more). The way I describe it is that the 96 million data points are like a grassy hill that has different paths worn into it, and this is how we get visibility into those paths. We didn’t know what paths we’d find or how many we’d find, but now we could really see them!

Turns out the number of paths we saw was 42 (coincidentally the answer to life, the universe and everything). There are 42 different “styles” of playing Walking Dead so far. That’s what the data shows us. And when we looked at what made each path different, it all made sense. Some of you are pragmatic, some of you are family driven, some like joking with Kenny, some HATE Jane, some empathize with Sara, and of course, those big branchy choices were there as well. The game is kind of like a weird “personality test” that lets you know who you are (or at least who you’re pretending to be).

cluster 9 This is an example of the kind of the insight our clusters generated

Now all we had to do was figure out the right questions to ask, and then we would know which of these 42 paths YOU are probably on. That’s what the “story generator” does. We start with those 42 paths, and ask a question that eliminates some paths, until there’s only one path left. This is how we quickly get to a version of Clementine that will feel right for you, even if we don’t have your old save games. It obviously won’t be 100% accurate, but it’s within a statistically measurable distance from what you probably did, and that distance is small. The math checks out.

Getting here was a fascinating process, and really highlighted what we value about the choices offered in our games. Role playing has become the backbone of what we do. It’s why we call it tailored story telling. Hope you enjoyed a peek behind the curtain, and hope you enjoy “A New Frontier!”


P.S. A special shout out to our all the amazing folks in our on-line team who made all this possible!