Telltale's new chapter: Minecraft and a top secret original IP
An interview with new CEO Kevin Bruner
Kevin Bruner is the new CEO at Telltale Games, but he's not the new guy. He was actually one of the co-founders back in 2004 and until recently was president, CTO and director. He takes the CEO role as the company rides high on the success of The Walking Dead and Game Of Thrones and prepares for two new massive challenges - a series based on Mojang's Minecraft and a brand new, original IP.
We spoke to Bruner last week to find out what the company's priorities are after more then ten years telling stories, and why he gets more nervous than ever about launching new titles.
Q: How will your new role change Telltale?
Kevin Bruner: We just turned ten so it's a good time to reflect on what we've done and where we're going. Behind the scenes most people know that Dan [Connors] and I have run the company together for a long time. So it's not that dramatic, it's not like there's a big shift at the company internally. It's just I'm stepping up into the CEO role, so we say maybe we'll trade every ten years.
It feels like we've really kind of invented a genre of bringing scripted entertainment into the interactive world, which is where our ambitions always lie. We're way more successful than we dreamed, or maybe as successful as we dreamed we might be when we first started it.
Now it kind of feels like we have the tiger by the tail and we're ready to see what the next decade of interactive scripted entertainment looks like and keep challenging gamer's expectations of what gamers could be. Keep challenging television and movies on what it looks like when you're telling stories using game consoles and mobile devices and smart TVs and all this crazy stuff that we have at our disposal.
Q: How did the Minecraft deal come about?
Kevin Bruner: Like most things start at Telltale, with everybody just geeking out about something and being real, genuine superfans - there's a lot of Minecraft advocates at Telltale. Lots of servers and people spending unhealthy amounts of time dedicating themselves to Minecraft. So then organically it becomes what might Telltale do in the Minecraft universe? And it's really interesting because it's so open-ended.
In some ways it's a blank slate but there's also a lot built in to Minecraft that's about exploring and building and spending time with your friends and playing together. There's surviving, when you think about it there's a lot to build off of.
The other thing is there seems to be a big appetite for Minecraft stories, if you look on Amazon and YouTube there's huge amounts of Minecraft narrative content out there as well so it's a pretty rich world to tell stories in. We've been working with Mojang for a while now on how might this all work, and glad we're able to finally announce it to the world. It's moving really fast but we're super excited. I think a lot of people looked at it and scratched their heads but we've been thinking about it for a while and I think the more time you spend thinking about it the more sense it makes.
Borderlands was the same thing, how do you tell a story in the Borderlands universe? But working with the Gearbox guys Borderlands is so rich, it didn't seem that strange to us.
Q: Did the Microsoft acquisition change anything with the project?
Kevin Bruner: No, we were working with Mojang before the Microsoft acquisition but we also work with Microsoft a lot and everybody at Xbox and Microsoft games so it's been really organic, there's no bombshells, nothing blowing up, it's been a good situation all round.
"Most people start with gaming first. Game mechanics, some sort of gimmick... We always start with the story"
Q: What can you say about the new, original IP you're currently working on?
Kevin Bruner: Well, it's called… No, I can't [laughs]. I'll say we've spent a lot of time experimenting over the last decade with how powerful a storytelling tool interactive can be and when we thought about building something from the ground up that gave us absolutely everything we could dream of as storytelling tools. The right kind of story, the right kind of setting, the right kind of people involved, everything.
It kind of rose organically and doing your first original IP is a pretty big deal for any company so it's something we're pouring a lot of love into. It's probably the most ambitious thing the company has ever done but we feel like we're ready for it. We're very excited to talk about it, but we can't say much more right now. But it is the perfect thing for us.
Q: You mentioned the way technology is evolving and there are lots of ways to use those for interactive storytelling, why aren't we seeing more of it across more platforms?
Kevin Bruner: I think it's a new tool for storytellers, interactive, combining gaming but I think one of the things that we do differently is we approach it from a storyteller perspective. I like to go back in time and think of when sound was introduced to movies, when colour was introduced to movies, when cable changed broadcast, every time technology provided new tools for storytellers it look a little while for it to evolve and get up to speed and interactive is more for games and there's a lot of games that have good games and good stories inside of good games.
But we really approach it from the interactivity and gaming as a new medium for storytelling, so we always put the storytelling first and then when we think about interactivity as a tool for storytelling that's where it's kind of nascent, we feel like we're the tip of the spear for that. It's really exciting, and particularly when we're working with some of the best storytellers in the world.
I think the reason we're not seeing as much of it as you're describing is most people start with gaming first. Game mechanics, some sort of gimmick, that anchors the playability and builds the story around it. We always start with the story and the cast and then think of how to get people to do what they organically really want to do while playing it that environment.
Q: Game Of Thrones is on its second episode, it's an IP with a pretty rabid fanbase, how has the reaction to it been?
Kevin Bruner: It's been amazing, the fans are rabid, they really appreciate all the detail that's been put into the game, subtle references and homages. They understand content that's coming from the book and the TV show and the whole Game Of Thrones world from the audience to the creative, HBO, it's an amazing thing to step into, it's truly a phenomenon from all angles.
"We are biting our nails every time something launches"
We're just thrilled that we're being accepted and holding our own in that world.
Q: These days do people come to you with their IP?
Kevin Bruner: That is probably the biggest change. It's a 180 degrees than it used to be. We used to spend a lot of time knocking on people's doors, trying to explain to them what we meant by playable story and seeing if we could be able to apply our trade in their world. Now we've got things that I just can't believe that people are coming to us either with properties they want us to work on or creatives who come and want to work with us.
I mean, if even five years ago or ten years ago when we started if we said we were going to be working on the biggest HBO property it would have just been a dream. Now that's it's actually real it's amazing. We definitely have people coming to us from all angles and people that are frankly just knocking our socks off with just how impressive they are and they appreciate what we're doing and want to work with us. We're constantly honoured and amazed.
Q: But is there IP out there still on the wishlist?
Kevin Bruner: Yes, there is a lot of stuff on our wishlist. The last time I answered that question I got in trouble because everyone thought that we were making those games. So yeah of course, we're just like everybody else. We're superfans of all kinds of stuff and one of the neat things we take pride in is we feel like we can make a Telltale game out of things like Minecraft and Borderlands. There's nothing that really we don't kind of think we could do very well.
When we look at stuff and we say we could make anything into a Telltale game, that's also where the kind of thinking of what would be the perfect thing? What would be the thing that fits in to all the ways that we want to tell stories interactively? That's kind of where the original IP came from. We just have a real perspective on how powerful something built from the ground up could really become.
Q: Are you nervous about entering the world of original IP?
Kevin Bruner: Every time we launch something new we are terrified.
Q: Even after so much success?
Kevin Bruner: Especially now. It's funny because our games are different, we don't necessarily do all the things that people expect. We don't do 50 different endings, we don't do some of the things that people might expect when you think of interactive stories and it's not because we have any disdain for that, it's just not where our creative instincts lie. So every time we go out we feel like we're doing something a little new and a little challenging to people and we are biting our nails every time something launches.
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