Notes on GameDev: Dave Grossman
August 4, 2008
"Judgment day is at hand, and it's time for a showdown with the guy downstairs to bargain for Bosco's soul." Just another day in the lives of Sam and Max, the popular characters debuting in a series of Telltale's episodic games. We nabbed up Director of Design Dave Grossman for an insightful and fun interview about all the happenings over at Telltale. I mean, who wouldn't be having fun with chumps like Strongbad to hang out with?
So hey Dave... You have a pretty cool job. How did you get to be involved in the episodic game format as Director of Design at Telltale Games?
Telltale was formed from the beginning with the intention of taking advantage of the emerging downloadable game space and the possibilities of episodic presentation within that space. I personally got involved with the company more for the former than the latter, and because Telltale was going to be doing the kind of story-based games that I like to work on. But creating games episodically has turned out to be an interesting challenge on many levels, from the standpoints of narrative, gameplay, and production.
For all of us designerly types and developers looking for the golden ticket, can you explain the benefits of episodic games as a distribution form and play style?
Episodic games are meant to fit in with your life better than traditional one-shot titles, and in a more regular, almost habitual fashion, like having a favorite TV show rather than going to see a twelve-hour Lord of the Rings marathon. There's an ongoing relationship between the developer and the audience, which is great whether you're the audience and you want reliable entertainment, or you're the developer and you want a reliable audience. From a narrative standpoint, the episodic format allows us to follow characters as they grow and change over time, and to examine them from many different angles. I think we've really only barely scratched the surface.
In your experience with a gamut of examples, what do you feel are key factors to designing successful episodic games?
From a design perspective, an episodic series is mostly about managing the balance between familiarity and change. On the one hand you want people to have some idea what they're getting into each time, as they would with, say, any given episode of "Friends" - the characters, the humor style, the length of the experience, even the game mechanics ought to have a certain consistency. But you also need to be
changing things all the time, introducing surprising situations, growing the characters, growing the game mechanics, and so on, to keep people interested. You have to think not just about the game you're building,
but about how that game will evolve over time.
A "Friends" episodic game, now that's a thought. How do you choose the franchises to develop into episodic games?
We look for strong characters and rich worlds, for the obvious reason that we want to be able to base a whole lot of stories on them instead of just one, and the more there is to work with the better it will all hold up. We try to pick things where interactions between characters are central to the experience. Sam and Max, for example, occasionally drive wildly around and might pull their guns now and then, but mostly what they do is talk to each other and make fun of stuff. And if I think other development studios might have difficulty applying their core gameplay strengths to a license, that's usually a good sign.
Now I know this sort of game play is heavily reliant on returning players... How do you integrate the players as a community into the content of Telltale games?
The community on our web forums is vocal and active. We listen to those people, and their comments about the early episodes in a series can affect what we do later on. If they like certain characters, we'll give those characters more attention. Unpopular characters may find themselves in hot water or worse. We've also been known to bring forum members in for focus groups. Ideally, as games in general become more
closely tied to the internet, we'll be able to do much more.
Awesome! Once you know what needs more attention, what tools do you use to develop successful episodic games?
I use a lot of pieces of paper, and four different colored pens, and most everything still starts either there or on a white board. Post-Its are good, too. Many of our software production tools are proprietary elements we developed in-house, including one for scriptwriting and the engine we use to run all of our games. Notable off-the-shelf items that are important to us include Maya and MS Project. Oh, and organization and flexibility are also useful tools for dealing with the short, overlapping schedules....
I can just imagine the walls of Post-Its and character concepts. What's your favorite episodic series out of Telltale currently?
Please! I love all my children equally. Even little Billy, and yes, even after he set fire to the drapes. Sam and Max have their delightfully warped sensibilities, Strong Bad has his bravado and lots of unusual side-activities, and Wallace and Gromit are just so unfailingly charming. Goodness, I think I might... could someone get me a tissue?
Thanks to Dave for his time! I'm off to get a tissue.