The Next Episode

Telltale CEO Dan Connors explains why everyone is doing episodic content these days, whether they're calling it that or not

Telltale Games doesn't just do some digital products, it focuses entirely on episodic content, and has done since it was founded in 2004. CEO and co-founder Dan Connors spoke to about being the unusual position of watching others race to get to get to grips with a business model he's been working with for years.

In this exclusive interview he explains why people are pricing their digital content badly, why everyone is making episodic content these days, and why while using ready made franchises comes with a lot of advantages, Connors hopes to see an original concept some day soon.

Q: There's been a lot of talk lately around digital being this new thing...

Dan Connors: A new thing?! [laughs]

Q: How does it feel to have been working with digital, episodic games for so long, and to hear others talking about it in that way?

Dan Connors: I'd like to move forward and start talking about something else that everybody thinks I'm crazy about.

I mean, it's played out pretty much the way we thought it would, and it looks like it's just continuing in that direction. With iPad and iPhone being purely digital ways to get content, it just makes sense that the next generation of devices are going to do the same.

So, in my mind, the opportunities are just huge for new ways of doing things, and new business models, and new styles of content, and new ways of telling stories, and new ways of reaching audiences - which was always a big thing behind why we started Telltale. We've always believed in story as critical to being able to bust out of the niche that games have trapped themselves in.

Even though a lot of people are making a lot of money on it, there's still a cap on the available audience. And I think when you see something like Angry Birds getting out there to hundreds of millions [of people]... I just know what I hear, so I don't know their exact numbers, but that type of volume. There are no [core] games that can touch that yet, but hopefully in the next generation we will be.

Q: The common view is that we have casual players with Facebook games on one side and core players with guys with guns on the other. Do you see a distinction between the two?

Dan Connors: Well, there are definitely behavioural distinctions - platform choice, ability to use a controller - so we always wanted to be accessible, and there's nothing more accessible than point-and-click, right? That's just like moving across the web.

Core gamers look at us as something different, like a palette cleanser between shooting soldiers and zombies and fighting elves.

We've moved to direct control since then, but still we keep our button presses pretty simple, and pretty directed. But the core of your question is, core gamers look at Telltale as something different, like a palette cleanser between shooting soldiers and shooting zombies and fighting elves. They understand the language we talk in: the puzzles, how you solve problems, and the thought process.

Our production values have been competitive, and I think the writing and character presentation, the amount of acting that we do, the way we can deliver a line and a gag and a story is some of the best. So from a gamer perspective, we're doing the stuff that gamers like and most games ignore, and we're doing it well, and we're still working within core game conventions. People know what they're getting into with a Telltale game, and they like it for what it is.

As you move into casual, getting them to understand gamer conventions - getting them to think like gamers - is still a bigger challenge for us than building something that gamers like.

Q: Is console as open to episodic products as PC? I know Back To The Future was released on PlayStation 3.

Dan Connors: Well, PC is always going to be the most democratic, and we have our own channel there, so if we need to make an innovation in order to make something work then we just do it. And if we need to tweak the business model in order to make something work better, then we just do it.

Platform holders need to get closer to Amazon, but certainly it's improved since we started.

So there's always going to be that opportunity, and it's a huge opportunity that more people should take advantage of. But what we've been able to do is demonstrate things working and bring them to the platform holders. We talk about why we do X, Y and Z, it makes it easier for them to get on board, because they can take those learnings and improve their own systems. Episodic gaming is something that people have been trying to get at for a long time, and because we've done the work on the PC side we're able to go into these other channels and talk through the issues with them. It was a good back-and-forth, and we found good support there.

Obviously, their reach is massive, and they continue to get better and better as digital marketing groups. They need to get closer to Amazon, but certainly it's improved since we started. Their ability to cross-sell product, and their ability to manage price-point, their ability to engage people with different promotions; these are all huge advances as digital retailers.

So it's all worth it. Certainly worth figuring out how to work with them even if we have to deal with some of their older institutionalised systems that are starting to get a little outdated. But they certainly move faster now than they ever did before.

Q: The prevalent issue for most developers with console - and something Crytek, specifically, mentioned to me - they want to be able to make updates and changes on consoles as quick as they are on PC.

Dan Connors: Well, I'm with Crytek, but it isn't Crytek or Telltale that are going to change that - it's consumers, and I think consumers are without a doubt ready for instant updates. They're not going to wait around, so when other platforms have this constant stream of new, fresh content coming online, to compete they're just going to have to figure out systems that allow them to speed up and make that happen. Customers are going to demand it.

Q: How have you found the difference between customers on each platform?

Dan Connors: People understand us on the PC a lot better, there's not a ton of explaining that we have to do. I think when we try to be different on the PC we get a little bit more harsher critique, and on the PSN and Xbox and iPad, iPhone, people are getting introduced to us for the first time. So it's a new experience for them, and we really need to figure out how to hold their hand and teach them what a Telltale game is and what it's going to be like to play it.

So there's work on both, and there's product choices that need to be made, and then there's definitely communication issues, and this is something that we're really trying to work on now and try to get right.

Q: And how do you manage pricing? Is it different for each machine?

Dan Connors: The platforms definitely work for different price points. One of the advantages of being an episodic content company is we can offer different slices of content. We don't have to take $59 of content and sell it for 99¢. There'll be a giant sale on iOS where a major company may offer up its entire library for 99¢ and some of that includes $59.99 retail products at console. And say they move 10 million units, well at 99¢ each that's $7 million right? But that's $600 million dollars worth of content, if I'm doing the math right. So someone just sold $600 million dollars worth of content for $7 million, and considers it a success. It's still early, and volume is king, you can just say volume in a lot of places and and daily average users, monthly average users, number of install, it's all very sexy, but the amount of dollars attached to the user, from a business standpoint, is where the rubber meets the road.

Free-to-play with microtransactions is in a way episodic, it's just additional content to keep the player engaged.

So figuring out ways to slice up the content and deliver it to different formats, episodes provide that flexibility. And I think other ways you see that people are beating it or dealing with it is free-to-play with microtransactions, it is just a way of meeting people at the price point they're comfortable with and selling them more and more and more.

Q: What are the secrets to episodic success? Just because someone buys one, two and three, they might not buy four.

Dan Connors: We sell the subscription, a lot, and we've certainly moved to that model rather early because at least on the PC and even the console people wanted that. People wanted to buy the whole thing, and that was just the preferred way, customers would come and that would be the way they would purchase it. So we adopted it, and because of our reputation of being able to deliver we've been able to keep that going. And maybe we've been spoiled by that, but I think the thing that people don't realise and the thing that is most exciting for me is when you're building the game, you're building the episodes, and you have an existing audience.

You're working in an environment where you have people who are playing what you're doing, so there's like this live experience, you're creating it together with the audience thing, that we didn't have with Jurassic Park. Jurassic Park is the first thing that we've released as a full product, and now that we don't have it I completely miss it, I wish we did. Because it just changes the experience, there's a lot more "oh my god, how did that end and what's going to happen next?" which is part of the value that we offer that I don't think we realised before how much excitement that added to the product. And there's us responding and delivering on that in the next episode.

I kind of sound like a development dork here, but that is the type of stuff that's super exciting. The secret to success with it, and I think a lot of people are doing it now, they're just calling it different names, there's a DLC campaign for everything and there's multiple DLC campaigns for everything so they're just installing a bigger initial chunk and then building off of it. Free-to-play with microtransactions is in a way episodic as well, it's just additional content to keep the player engaged.

Because getting the first install is the hardest thing right? So with the first install you can either pay $20 million in marketing, get it placed in all the stores etc, and then sell it for a large fee or you can make it free to cheap, get the same volume of people without the marketing spend, because there's no marketing like free, you could get every banner on every site of the web "for $3.99" or you could say "free today" and you probably get more with putting the word free in there and then sell it from there. So that first install is where the value lies, keeping people engaged after the first install is the skillset required now in the world of digital distribution.

So episodic, we're the only ones who still call it episodic, but I think it is what everyone's doing.

Q: What attracts you to specific licences? And how do you attract them?

Dan Connors: Right now we're definitely into the idea of only Telltale. When a franchise comes out and someone says "who could do a game of that?" Well, only Telltale. And that feels like a success to me. And our commitment to the franchises and telling the stories of the franchises resonates with licence holders. Entry into gaming for licences has gotten more and more difficult, because there's the few no-brainer franchises, Batman and Spider-Man were two that just directly marry to a game, and then there's everything else. And if you don't want your game to be turned into a mechanic that doesn't represent what the licence is about there's not a lot of avenues.  So our willingness to go out there and work with the licence holder and try to enhance the story and try to enhance the franchise and become an additive part of the franchise instead of just turn it into a game really resonates with creatives.

As we've increased our ability to publish digitally and have been able to generate a return and some dollars and are able to make an upfront investment that makes it easier too. If you can tell people you're going to generate half a million sales of their content, that's interesting to them.

Also with Back To The Future and Jurassic Park we've been involved in these campaigns that were big launches for the franchise on to Blu-ray. And having the Telltale game come out just raises the profile of all of that, to get people talking about it and raising interest in the franchise and make it relevant in new media.

Q: What's been your most successful licence so far?

Dan Connors: Each launch is getting bigger and bigger, when we launched Jurassic Park on five platforms on day one, Xbox and retail and the first episode on iPad 2, and it was also on PC and PlayStation, that was the largest launch we'd ever done, and probably the only day one launch that's ever been like that in history. So just being on that many platforms makes it that much bigger. And we've never been a Christmas retail launch title on Xbox so that's been a big deal as well.

But Back To The Future and Monkey Island I think, leading up to Jurassic Park, have been the big ticket items. But the Sam And Max franchise as a whole, because we've done three of them, has also been really successful for us.

Q: Is it more of a financial commitment or a risk with licence?

Dan Connors: That's going to be a risk with anything, because the royalty is tied to the success of the product from a sales standpoint, so if we get it wrong everybody loses. I think the value of the licence from the awareness that it brings just pales in comparison to the cost.

We look at it a lot differently from other people. We don't only look at the marketing part of the puzzle which is how much awareness is there about this franchise? How can we talk to those people? But we also look at what's the value of all the concept art that there is? What's the value of all the story? There's a real belief that original IP is the Holy Grail and I think if you can hit it out of the park and nail it that's great, but there's a tonne of work that goes into figuring out a world, and a character.

My dream is that Telltale will one day make my original concept. I'd love to do Spinal Tap too!

I mean every detail needs to be figured out, and if you have source material like The Walking Dead, like Back To The Future, like Sam And Max, somebody has already thought that through and likely they're probably pretty brilliant. So when we sit down and write the fourth Back To The Future story with Bob Gale, I mean that's just incredible! You can't put a price on that! And for everybody, for our team, for the product, for the fans, it's amazing. So that's been something that we believe in, and is the core of our company, and so the money doesn't really play into it that much because it's so offset on both development and marketing.

Q: So what's next for Telltale? And are you expecting any big changes in the industry in the next 12 months?

Dan Connors: Change is usually pretty slow. It's all built on the previous thing so I don't see it seeming super dramatic. I would think someone will hit something that will be like "where did that come from?" I refer to Angry Birds again, they figured out then right way to play with that device and it really worked. So I'm not sure what it's going to be but I'm sure there'll be something.

I think this year is all about connecting the experience across multiple devices in the right way. Like right now people are moving their content from device to device but nobody's figured out how to really support the product on different devices and make a holistic thing.

So with Walking Dead for us, being that the show is coming back on and people are really loving the show, figuring out the right way to let people know that the game exists and all the stuff you have in the show, there's a lot more to the story and it lives in this other media, that's our big challenge. And I think with Fables after that we're looking at that later in the year and that's going to be a real interesting one too, because it's another comic book. So I think this is going to be our serious graphic novel year. And we'll probably announce another licence as well.

But I think with Jurassic Park launching on five platforms simultaneously worldwide, I think that was a big fight for us and we've been chewing on that one for a while, so being a little more deliberate with our goals this year is going to be a big deal. Dialling the products in really well, giving them the time to get them right for each platform, and maybe separating out the launches a little bit. Just making sure that each platform launch is right.

I think amount of work around the interface, because the Jurassic Park interface was unique to us in the first place, making that work on the PC and on the pad and phone was more dramatic than anything we'd had to do before. Going forward I think we're going to make sure we're getting the game on each platform right for that platform audience.

Q: What would be the dream licence for Telltale?

Dan Connors: My dream is that Telltale will one day make my original concept. Now that I've done so many franchises... I'd love to do Spinal Tap too!

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