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Telling Tales

Kevin Bruner on how the episodic model is working for Telltale Games.

Right from the start, Telltale Games made a clear commitment to delivering game content in episodic form rather than following traditional models. In the three years since the company was founded that hasn't changed, and Telltale has seen success with the Sam and Max and Bone series of episodically delivered games.

GamesIndustry.biz sat down with co-founder and chief technology officer Kevin Bruner at the recent Nordic Game conference to find out more. Read on for Bruner's perspective on why the episodic model works, what challenges it presents and how it's changing games for the better.


GamesIndustry.biz: What would you say are the benefits of delivering games episodically?

Kevin Bruner: From a developer's viewpoint, there's less risk, less monetary commitment. I don't think there's less actual commitment - some people think that they can get the first episode to pay for subsequent episodes and that's not a good idea.

It encourages a little bit more risk taking and allows you to fine tune things as you go along. At Telltale we tend to stay about 3 episodes ahead of what's on the market. That gives us a little time to course correct; we did that with Sam and Max, episode four was the first episode where we responded to consumer feedback.

So I think from a developers' perspective, since the risk and cost can be lowered up front, you have a little more control over your game. You can be a little bit more experimental. Then you've made the game you want to make and you can take it to more traditional channels.

Presumably you're sticking with the episodic model for season two of Sam and Max?

Yep. We were built from day one to distribute episodically. We did our Bone games that way, we also make the CSI game, which is not distributed episodically but there are five episodes in a box. The company is 3 years old now and we were very committed from the beginning to making episodic games.

Did Bone perform as well as Sam and Max?

It's a slightly different audience. We partnered with BHV at retail and it's being localised all throughout Europe in several different languages. Bone is aimed at a younger audience and it's harder to get them to spend money online so being partnered with BHV is going to go a long way for that.

You've talked about the benefits of the episodic model, but what are the challenges? What are the biggest lessons you've learned?

The biggest one is the schedule. It's unrelenting. There are a lot of games around that are called episode one or two that aren't on a regular schedule. When we announced Sam and Max, we announced all the release dates when we put out the very first episode.

We think it's critical to be really reliable with when the games are going to come, so from a development perspective you can't slip at all. If you slip once on a traditional game it's no big deal, but if we slip two months we slip the whole series two months.

The other thing is design considerations. The games are much shorter and being able to get a complete feeling of beginning, middle and end in a four or five hour sitting is a big deal. So we learned a lot about designing short games, what makes a good satisfying experience in that short a time.

What's your message to the critics of episodic gaming?

There are a lot of perceptions of episodic gaming that float around. One of the big ones is that you just create a game episodically to charge more for it; that you take a 10 hour game that you would sell for USD 30 and chop it into five, two hour games and sell them for USD 20 each, and suddenly you're gouging the consumer USD 100 extra.

We believe that games are too expensive right now so we sell each episode at USD 9 each or you can buy the whole season, which is the equivalent of a retail product, for USD 35. So we think that our games are priced correctly but a lot of episodic games and games in general are priced too highly.

We also think that games are too big. We like being able to interact with the customer so regularly. Once you get over the production challenges of making a game a month then it's a really attractive model. I've made a lot of traditional games and I much prefer to work this way than spending two years making one game and when it comes out, if you've screwed something up then you don't get a chance to fix it.

So I think consumers are going to really enjoy the episodic format, you get a much longer relationship with your game than you do traditionally. It's like a TV show as opposed to a movie. With a TV show you can get around the watercooler and talk to your friends about what's going on. You can do that online with an episodic game because it takes six months, in our case, for everything to pan out. You get a lot more value for your money.

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Ellie Gibson

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Ellie spent nearly a decade working at Eurogamer, specialising in hard-hitting executive interviews and nob jokes. These days she does a comedy show and podcast. She pops back now and again to write the odd article and steal our biscuits.