The success of Telltale Games with their slew of adventure titles is something to behold. They’ve explored the worlds of The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Borderlands, and Minecraft in unique ways thanks to their episodic adventures. We sat down with Job Stauffer with the intention of discussing where things are with Telltale and where things are headed in the next year.
We even had a bit of a surprise, as not only was Job Stauffer there to discuss what Telltale Games are up to in the coming year or so, but we were also joined by Anthony Ingruber who is best known for being ‘John Doe’ or The Joker in the Telltale Batman games. Obviously I was unprepared for Anthony being there, but I did my best to include him where possible.
You can listen to this as an audio interview below – tap the expandable section for all the details – or continue beyond the fold for our written feature.
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Naturally when you’re in the same room as someone who has taken on the role of the Clown Prince of Crime, it’s important to know how it felt stepping into those illustrious shoes. “It’s exciting and nerve-wracking in equal measure,” Anthony explains, “but it’s also a huge honour that Telltale is trusting me to play this role that’s so iconic.”
One thing I’d always wondered was how Telltale decide which IPs to create games from and whether it’s a case of they are approached by the owners or the owners are approached by Telltale. “We get asked this question from time to time,” Job admits, “We think of the IP holders as creative partners. It’s kind of like having people who think like you, who were storytellers inherently, and so are the writers of the comic book stories that we are basing our own stories out of.”
“Story is the common language we have with most of them and game design is the language we share with the other two, where story isn’t something they can shine the spotlight on their own. Whether they approach us or we approach them, it’s difficult to say. It’s a bit like dating. We’re not sure who liked who first, but we all know we like each other and are happy with where things are taking us.”
If that was how good relationships begin, are there any cases of non-starters? “Yes, unfortunately,” Job began, “We’re proud to handle the amount of content we are producing at a quality level that we’re proud of. We are humbly at a point where we have to say no to some things. We’re fortunate to be at a point where we’re working on the things we’re most passionate about and wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the interview for me was their response to the feedback regarding their game styles as ‘formulaic’ and the elephant in the room that is people saying their engine was ‘out of date’.
“We hear it referred to as a formula, but formula would be inaccurate. We’d call it a format. The company is 13 years old now and it took a long time to get to the format we had with The Walking Dead. It takes iteration to find success and it took time to get to a successful format we were comfortable with and that we can expand upon and tell different stories with.”
“The innovation comes with the storytelling techniques, the writing, characterisation, and role playing, but that isn’t to say the format isn’t going to evolve in the next 18 months. Beginning with Batman: The Enemy Within we’ve pushed our engine and performance to new levels, which we are proud of. It’s a bit difficult to say without showing you, but what a Telltale game looks like in the next 18 months will look different to a Telltale game from the last 5 years.”
Regarding the engine itself though, Job tells me the trend as they see it seems to be largely positive. “It’s certainly been an elephant in the room, especially over the last year or so, but Batman: The Enemy Within has been our smoothest performing release in years. We’ve actually gotten feedback even from critics that the performance was great, and we put a lot of time and resources to revamp our engine and toolset to perform better. We’ve even put a lot of effort into updating and improving the first season of Batman to bring it up to today’s standard as we see it.”
“Elephant in the room or not, we’re happy with where our technology has gotten us. We’re never going to be creating games that are photo-realistic, like Quantic Dream and Naughty Dog. For us, we’re focusing on realism and emotion in storytelling, and being based mostly on comics, finding a style that’s going to stay a little more timeless is hard to do.”
One question I was asked to ask Job from our staff was why it took so long between Season 1 and Season 2 of The Wolf Among Us. “For one, we never expected it to be as successful as it turned out to be. We announced The Walking Dead and the Fables titles at the same time in 2011 and The Walking Dead was still just a comic book at this stage – we were fans of the comics first. Then The Walking Dead took off. We also named it The Wolf Among Us, so we weren’t sure if people would make the link.”
“The biggest challenge was that it was in development for over a year while The Walking Dead’s first season was rolling. We got to a point where we weren’t sure if we were going to finish the project, it was nearly cancelled!” He then said later that “At one point it was more like a comedy, and not a very good comedy at all. Even two and a half months before it premiered, the plug was almost pulled. So from the get-go, we never anticipated that, back from almost certain doom, we’ve released something into the marketplace that fans are really responding to.”
“When the finale hit in 2014, we had already committed to doing Game of Thrones and Tales from the Borderlands and Minecraft Story Mode. It took a lot of outcry from the fans and we really wanted to get back to it, so it was about finding the right time to do it.”
Telltale are also getting heavily involved with publishing games from other developers, a popular trend among higher-end independent developers such as Team17, while other dedicated publishers tend to have a hook, such as Devolver Digital. I asked Job what they’re looking for in order to publish a game.
“Really we’ve just got to love it. If we don’t love the game, we’re not going to have the passion and energy to fuel what it takes to make that publishing arrangement a success.” He then went on to say that it’s a similar way of thinking to how they develop games and choose which IPs to cover – if they can’t get passionate or aren’t passionate about a project, they won’t do it.
“There’s no better position we ask to be in than where we are now, where we can pick and choose, and be selective with what we are working on internally and who we work with externally to publish games with.”
Thanks to both Job Stauffer and Andrew Ingruber for taking the time to answer my questions. You can follow Job on Twitter @jobjstauffer. Andrew doesn’t seem to have a social media presence, but you can hear some of his impressions here. His Mark Hamill Joker was uncanny as are some on his channel!