Features & News
Interview: Dave Grossman of Telltale Games
October 15, 2010, Author: Ray Willmott
Having been a gaming journalist for This Is My Joystick for almost a year I’ve accomplished some incredible things. I’ve worked on my several podcasts for the first time, I’ve reviewed cutting edge games, I’ve spoken to some amazing people who work for some amazing gaming companies, I will be attended the Eurogamer Expo for the first time as press and I’ve been able to try games before they have become made available for the general public. However, this interview with Dave Grossman may very well be my defining moment.
Dave Grossman is currently the figurehead for Telltale Games but his past merits have seen him working for Humongous Games on the Pyjama Sam series, but also at Lucasarts on classics such as Day of the Tentacle, The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2 Le Chuck’s Revenge. In addition to that, Dave has even written some children’s books for the Spongebob Squarepants series. Seeing as how I’ve gone on record to say Monkey Island 2 is my all-time favorite game alongside its predecessor, I think it’s fair to say I was more than a little excited to have my questions answered by a man I’ve considered one of my gaming idols since a very young age.
In this interview, I talk to Dave about the episodic model TTG have made so successful, but also about working on established intellectual properties, new material, the Telltale Pilot Scheme and of course the recent deal with Universal to make new games based on Back to the Future and Jurassic Park!
What did Dave have to tell us? Read on to find out…
Q. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to This Is My Joystick. I’m a huge fan of your work, both with Telltale and Lucasarts, so this is a huge privilege for me. I’d first like to ask you about Sam and Max Season 3: The Devil’s Playhouse.
Since both Playstation 3 and iPad are new formats for Telltale Games, I wonder if you found the development cycle for Sam and Max Season 3 more difficult than with previous games? Do you feel they are easy formats to develop for or did the unfamiliarity impact on the seasons release?
“The platforms didn’t seem to be inherently more or less difficult than others we’ve got our engine running on. What was tricky was combining that development with all the other technical improvements we were trying to do simultaneously, using the same people. I have an ingenious plan involving cloning, a time machine, and slowing the speed of the earth to lengthen the workday, all of which should make things easier in the future.”
Q. Now that you have developed for both Playstation 3 and iPad, do you feel any further Telltale franchises could find their way onto both formats in the future?
“Sure; we’ve already got Tales of Monkey Island out for Playstation, and Puzzle Agent is coming out for iPad and iPhone. What else would you like to see?”
Q. Can you elaborate on the decision not to include Sam and Max Season 3 on Xbox 360 and Wii at this time and why Playstation 3 and iPad owners were given Season 3 as an introduction to the series before releasing Seasons 1 and 2? Having played ‘The Devils Playhouse’ I understand that Season 3 plays very differently from the first two games, do you feel that the control layout wouldn’t work with both Playstation 3 and iPad?
“I’d love to have every title running on every platform in the world, but we can’t fit enough people into the building, so we have to pick the best opportunities at any given time. So the call wasn’t “let’s not do 360 or Wii now,” it was “let’s get onto PS3 and iPad now.” We wanted to lead with our best foot, so we put The Devil’s Playhouse out first, and designed it so that it would be a perfectly fine place to start the series if you hadn’t played the others.”
Q. You’ve been champions for episodic gaming from the very beginning, choosing digital distribution over boxed games at retail. With your name now established within the industry, do you feel that this will remain the case for the foreseeable future or can you envisage yourself utilising retail more for boxed copies of your games? I noticed you did this with the Wii versions of Sam and Max Season 1 & 2.
“Our general approach has been to do the first run of a series episodically on one or more downloadable channels, and to collect the episodes together on a disc afterwards, like you would with a season of a TV show, and sell that at retail. I imagine we’ll keep doing that, unless people stop buying games at retail altogether.”
Q. You recently announced that much of your back catalogue will now be available on Apple Mac systems. Why do you think it has taken so long for games to come to Mac?
“Math. Mac has historically had a considerably smaller market share than Windows PCs do, so it hasn’t been a high priority for many developers. We, obviously, feel that the audience we’re going to reach on the Mac is large enough to be worth the effort it takes to get our games to the platform.”
Q. How do you feel the launch with Mac has turned out? Are you satisfied with the results? Where can you go from here?
“I imagine we’ll keep on making Mac versions of our games for the foreseeable future.”
Q. Did you ever play old school adventure games such as Kings Quest, Broken Sword and Touché? How do you feel the adventure genre has evolved since this time? Where do you see it going?
“Sure, I’ve played a few old-schoolies. The first adventure game I ever played is the one that the genre is named after, “Adventure”, which I came across in the late 1970’s. Later, while I was working at LucasArts, I played some of the Sierra titles, and others, you know, checking out the competition. I found those games interesting and challenging, but ultimately very frustrating. They tended to punish curiosity with death, and they had all these puzzles where the solutions were amusing but often arbitrary and more or less impossible to figure out. It was like no one was thinking about what it would actually be like to PLAY the game. I claim no personal innocence on this point, by the way; I did write and design some games at that time which, while somewhat friendlier, are decidedly old school with some of their puzzles. I’m still apologizing to random strangers on the street for expecting them to think of hypnotizing a monkey as a rational way to turn him into a monkey wrench.”
“As for where it’s going now, I see a shift from puzzle games with story to story games with puzzles, if that makes sense? The story and characters, which were probably always the most compelling part of the experience anyway, take center stage, and the challenge offered to the player is whatever best supports the moment and the scene at hand, instead of whatever makes the designer look clever. The games are also often being made less lengthy and more accessible, to fit with the busy lives of modern players.”
Q. What is your favourite character from all of games made by Telltale and why?
“I don’t really like to play favorites, but I suppose if I had to pick one I’d go with Morgan LeFlay from the Tales of Monkey Island series. She’s a character with some dimensions, depth, flaws. She’s likeable but imperfect, does some good things and some bad things, and you hopefully understand why in both instances. She was a good counterpoint to Guybrush in that particular story, someone with similar enthusiasms but a very different approach, which led to interesting situations.”
Q. Have any characters been influenced by Telltale employees or friends of the company?
“Monsieur Papierwaite, from The Devil’s Playhouse, is rumored to have been drawn to look like our marketing director, Joel Dreskin. As far as I can recall this is the only time we’ve done this, though it’s also true that designer Mark Darin can pull off a great Reginald van Winslow (Tales of Monkey Island) when he’s wearing the correct sideburns.”
Q. Why have you only now decided to release a new intellectual property and have instead used previous, established properties such as Monkey Island and Sam and Max to build up the bulk of your portfolio?
“We have worked with a lot of established properties because it makes our job easier in some respects; we start from day one with canon that allows us to evaluate creative decisions, and anything that feels like it belongs in that canon means we’re on the right track. With a new property we have to make that stuff up as we go, which is riskier and takes time. That said, we’re all pretty gung-ho to do original properties, and the pilot program under which we released Puzzle Agent is a way for us to do just that. Expect more.”
Q. You are one of the few developers to have games on almost every single gaming format out there right now. With that said, which system do you feel is most friendly and accessible to your ideas and which is the most difficult to develop for?
“Sure, being on a lot of platforms helps us to reach a wider audience, which is always nice. There’s no good rational way for me to play favorites among them; the ones we’re on are all good places for our games or we wouldn’t be developing for them. That said, when we release through our own website it means we can make all our own decisions without involving anyone else at all, so in some respects that is easiest (note that that does not necessarily mean “best”).”
Q. Have you considered the Nintendo DS or PSP as a platform to introduce your games? With Telltale games now available on the move with the iPad, do you think this is a possibility in the future?
“Anything with a download channel is a possibility. I’ve been thinking we should develop for those new smart meters the electric companies are putting in, though I think the graphics are somewhat limited on those.”
Q. Do you feel Playstation Move, 3DS and Natal will be a benefit to you? Will it have an impact on the way future Telltale games are made?
“Only time will tell. New tech is always fun.”
Q. How did the deal with Universal come about? Did they seek you out, did you seek them out or was it a more mutual understanding?
“We had been talking to each other for a long time about wanting to do a project. There was a feeling that the working relationship would be good, so it was mainly a matter of settling on the right property, or, as it turned out, properties.”
Q. Of all the Intellectual Properties available to you, why did you decide to go with Jurassic Park and Back to the Future? Was this entirely your decision or did Universal have a hand in what they wanted to happen?
“Certainly any such decision has to be mutual; we would neither work on something we didn’t feel was right, nor would we expect Universal to hand us whatever property we wanted without some inkling that we’d do the best job with it. That said, what we like about Jurassic Park and Back to the Future is that they’re both strong on story and character, have audiences that are still passionate after many years, and have a number of fans already employed at our studio.”
Q. How will the games fit in with the timeline of both Jurassic Park and Back to the Future? Will it take the films into consideration at all, or will they be entirely new properties altogether? Can you tell us a little bit about the storyline in these games?
“I don’t want to say too much about the specifics of what we’re doing with the stories, but I will say that our general approach is to take what happened in the films as canon, and to add more to that canon in whatever way fits best.”
Q. When developing Jurassic Park, are you considering Michael Crichton’s original novel at all or will your game be completely based on the films?
“We’re basing our work on the films. This has nothing to do with any judgment on the novel, by the way, it’s all about the convoluted way that intellectual property rights work; we have rights to the films but not to the book. Some of the team members who hadn’t already read the book are not going to do so for that exact reason, so they won’t accidentally include things we’re not supposed to. Anything not referenced in the films we make up on our own.”
Q. Why did you not consider these games for the Telltale Episode Pilot Scheme like you did with Puzzle Agent and instead opt to produce full seasons for both games?
“The pilot program is all about taking some risk on properties that are not already established or have other potential pitfalls. Back to the Future and Jurassic Park have stood the test of time; we don’t think they’re the least bit risky and we’re perfectly willing to go ahead and devote the time, money and people it takes to produce a full season from the get-go.”
Q. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for all of the work you’ve done in bringing the adventure game genre back into our homes and to commend you for the amazing work you continue to produce.
“Thanks and you’re welcome! Glad you like it; please know that we are committed to keep bringing you quality entertainment far into the future.”