Telltale Games Gabez Does Telltale

Gabez asks the difficult questions that you didn't have the guts to ask yourself. And Telltale answered!

Gabez sent questions off to Telltale Games about Sam & Max and Bone, and around four people bothered to write back. Included below are their answers. Also check out page 2 for an interview with Jared Emerson-Johnson, the composer responsible for the upcoming music in Sam & Max, as well as the soundtracks from Bone episodes 1 and 2.

What's the writing process like on your games? How do you get from conception to the finished script?

Heather Logas (designer, Bone 1 and 2; producer, Sam & Max): The designers sit down together and work out a story outline – often this will have very little gameplay involved, it will more be "these are the important story elements and the important things we want to convey about these characters". It will also list out and describe any new characters and environments, which gives the development team a heads up of what their schedules will be looking like. We will usually then send that out to the team at large and everyone involved in the project (occasionally people who aren't as well) get a chance to review it and make suggestions. Next we hammer out the nitty gritty details for the game like which parts are interactive dialogs, which parts are more involved puzzles, do we have any good ideas for mini-activities, and that sort of thing. Usually during this time period Dave Grossman likes to hold open brain-storming sessions once a day for an hour. Anyone in the office can show up and contribute. This time is usually spent hammering out particularly tricky spots of the game. Once we have a more fleshed out treatment that we're happy with, we once again go over it with the team. Not only do they have good story and game suggestions to offer, but this also gives everyone a chance to voice concerns about certain parts being too time-intensive to develop. So we take that information and modify the treatment, and then we dig into the actual script.

On Cow Race, Dave and I had a big spreadsheet which contained all the necessary dialogs, cutscenes, look at lines, etc. We split them up based mostly on who wanted to write what and then we went for it. We have a great tool set at Telltale which allows us writer types to basically write all the dialog and set up the dialog trees, conditions and what have you all at the same time and with no programming on our part. So any technical aspects to the writing are stripped out and we just have to worry about writing fun dialog. Once everything was written, Dave and I spent a few days reviewing each others' dialogs and emailing back and forth suggested edits. Once again everyone got a chance to review the script and make suggestions. Jeff Smith also had a chance to play through the game and give any comments he had.

What's a typical day like in the Telltale office?

Heather Logas: I'm not sure there's such a thing as a typical day....There's some chatter in the morning as everyone comes and settles in. Usually about mouse infestations, flooded homes, or the antics of pets and children. If there are donuts present there is often arguing between Jon and Emily over who took the crumb covered donut. Then we get serious and focused and there is very little talk that isn't work related until about noon. Around 12:30 or so, stomachs start grumbling and the "Lunch-time Tango" begins. People stand up and stretch and look around blinking while they try to decide what they want for lunch. Then there is the process of gathering interested lunch parties and going back and forth over where to actually go eat. And finally deciding who is driving. It's a process... The afternoon is also quiet, but punctuated by meetings and discussions over people's desks. Recently, it has also been rife with discussions of how dang hot its been. Then there tends to be another round of friendly gossiping as people get ready to leave for the day. I guess those are the things that happen everyday, but there are always interesting and random bouts of excitement – like when Dave Bogan spilled my sea monkey colony, or when the CSI consultant came in to show us gory photographs.

What's the voice casting process like? How do you know who to hire and who to send away?

Heather Logas: We get a lot of help from the friendly gents at Bay Area Sound Design. The designers write up a document with descriptions of the characters, and then our sound buddies submit them to an agency who returns a bunch of auditions via mp3. The team listens to them, and we all give our input. We also pass them by Jeff Smith (for Bone) and Steve Purcell (for Sam & Max). We generally know what we are expecting the characters to sound like before we listen to any auditions, because we will have discussed it thoroughly while creating the original document. So we have already set guidelines, but there is always a lot of discussion when we get down to the final two or three candidates. Sometimes it is really hard to decide.

The Bone games have a varied array of gameplay in them, from mini-games to actions sequences, to conversations, to more traditional adventure game puzzles. Which of these types was hardest for you to create?

Heather Logas: Personally, even though they can be tricky and require a lot of tuning, I like designing the mini-games/puzzles because it's fun and sometimes just as much a puzzle to design it as to play it. I think the hardest for me is the traditional adventure game inventory based puzzles. I am very resistant to puzzles that just don't make any logical sense to the player, so it is sometimes really hard to figure out a puzzle that makes sense and isn't completely ridiculous. It takes a lot of work, a lot of brain-storming, and a lot of bouncing ideas off other people in the office. And then you have to hope that the gamers' brains will work like your brain and the brains of the people you've bounced it off of. Occasionally we'll come up with something that isn't completely satisfying but in order to get the game done we just have to leave it. Maybe we'll get a chance to come back to it, maybe not.

What was the art process on the Bone games like? How was it different to making game art for a non licence title?

Dave Bogan (art director, Sam & Max): Developing art for the Bone games starts with Jeff Smiths comics. We study the environments and characters very closely and basically convert the two dimensional imagery into three dimensions. Jeff is closely involved with our efforts making sure he is happy with the translation into the 3D world. We try to create a good balance of letting the player visit the places they know in Jeff's comics and also try to expand on those environments to show new perspectives or even show completely new places that the players are not familiar with. The important thing to remember when creating art for the Bone games is we must stay true to the license, so any new characters or environments we introduce the player to must feel like they were lifted right out of Jeff's comic pages.

As for the difference between developing art for Bone and developing art for an original IP, in Bone the groundwork is already there. We already have an entertaining and appealing story, characters, and environments to refer to. Developing art for an original title requires designing art that is both unique and appealing from scratch, something that takes a lot of time, love, energy, and creativity.

Reference humour is great for a laugh! Are we going to see more of it in future games?

Heather Logas: No worries there.

Did you intend for the Bone games to come out so... cute?

Heather Logas: All cuteness is intentional. My favorite adventure game is Hero's Quest (Quest for Glory I). Despite the fact that much of it is rather tongue in cheek, it also has a lot of charm. Most of my favorite games from an aesthetic standpoint have a strong sense of charm. Many of the major adventure games since adventure gaming's hey-day are fairly dark and serious, but I don't feel that the only way to make a good story is to cover it in storm clouds and grimaces. Human beings have a very wide range of emotions, and games should explore the gamut. This charm is something that is built into the Bone books from the beginning so it also feels authentic to go this way.

Is there a danger with the Bone games, that you focus too much on telling the story and forget the gameplay? What steps do you take to make sure that the player is always playing the game, and not just watching events unfold?

Heather Logas: There is always a bit of a danger with this, because the books are so rich in story and some of it is conveyed in ways that it doesn't make a lot of sense for the players to control directly. There are some parts of Cow Race where we started out with a cutscene and hacked and hacked and hacked at it so it wouldn't be too long. But we try very hard to put in a minimal amount of cutscene. We start out from the very beginning when planning a Bone game highlighting the parts that would be fun for the player to play. We really want to deliver the story in an interactive way, because that's what is going to make it a different experience than reading the comics.

What were the hardest things to program in the Bone games?

Graham McDermott (programer): In my opinion, to a certain degree this almost depends more on when something was programmed than what. Our engine technology is always evolving alongside game development, which can mean that large chunks of functionality are incomplete or entirely missing early on in the development of the product. The early stages of programming a game like Bone necessarily involve a good amount of strategic planning and setting up systems used throughout the game, so waiting for the engine tech to come up to speed can result in a lot of "faith-based programming" on the game side, so to speak. This was more of an issue for Bone 1; from what I remember the characters couldn't walk or engage in dialogs at the very beginning of production, two rather important mechanics in a point and click adventure game. By Bone 2 our tech had had a chance to mature and gel a bit, though it's hard to completely escape the problem since we're always improving things on the engine side!

Randy Tudor (programmer): For me it was the middle section of the game, when you can switch between playing any of the Bones. The logic behind any adventure game can get convoluted -- trying to work with three characters who can complete many different tasks in just about any order makes things much more complicated.

Why did you have to have to trade so many little cows for a big one?

Heather Logas: We wanted to have an easter egg in Cow was something we wanted to do in Boneville but just didn't have the time. But with Cow Race it all worked out perfectly to have this easter egg with the cows. We already had the catapult game, it worked great with the story and it was a nice but not super-complicated to create payoff. There was a lot of talk back and forth about how blatant to make it that this was an option, etc etc...the number twenty was sort of arbitrary, but it was one of those things where by the time we were playing through and thinking "maybe that's too many..." all the voice was already recorded and we couldn't re-record. So twenty it is!

I was sad enough to win the cow race mini-game twenty times. Just wanted to let you know.

Heather Logas: Yay! That's great! I think it's completely worth it, personally.

What's the most important part of a game?

Heather Logas: The gameplay. The game has to be fun, or forget it. It has to be an interesting and enjoyable experience. The story and gameplay can work together to do this, but without the interactivity it isn't a game. Art and sound are also important to the overall experience, but the gameplay is the core.

Dave Bogan: There are many types of games, so with that in mind, I feel the most important part of a game is the entire experience. Was the player sucked in, and were they satisfied when it was over? Did it make them laugh, feel sad, or get their adrenaline pumping? Did they learn something about the characters in the game? I guess the answer for me is immersion. If we can get an emotional response out of a customer for any particular style of game, whether it's action, arcade, or story-based, I would consider that a success.

Graham McDermott: 50% immersion, 50% stimulation and 50% imagination!

Randy Tudor: I've always felt that story and dialog were the driving forces behind any good game; that's probably why I don't play too many shooters. The way I see it, a game is a lot like a book -- if you're not telling an interesting story, or if your writing skills would make an English teacher cringe in agony, then why waste my time? There are plenty of other games out there with interesting and intelligent narrative.

Do people ever disagree about how things should be done? If that happens, then how do you decide what to do?

Heather Logas: Cage match.

Have you got any tips for people who want to get into the games industry?

Heather Logas: Yes. Study and learn about what you are interested in. Play games, read about them, love them. Put yourself in a geographic location where there are many local companies making games. Go out and meet people by going to local conferences and IGDA meetings.

And speaking of that, what's this I hear about Telltale internships?

Heather Logas: We sometimes hire interns. Sometimes we work with a specific school, and sometimes someone sends us an email cold and we think we could work with them. But it's not like we have hordes of interns to go get us coffee and fan us with palm leaves when it gets too hot in the office. Although now that I am thinking about it, I'm wondering why that's not the case.

Lastly, and this goes to anyone, what's the best thing about working for Telltale?

Heather Logas: There are many great things about working at this company, but I think number one is the people. I love working with the people I work with. I love it that people can be open-minded and accept suggestions from anyone walking by their desk (or at least think about the suggestion for more than a half minute). I love we can all work hard and be dedicated to what we do, and also laugh together at the end of the day. It's a great group of folks.

Dave Bogan: The best thing about working for Telltale Games is the small company feel. This office is filled with great and creative people and it feels like a family. Secondly, the chance to work with really great licenses is very satisfying for me as an artist.

Randy Tudor: Telecommuting! I live almost an hour and a half away from the Telltale offices, and being able to telecommute 3 days a week makes a huge difference. Telltale is more concerned with the quality of your work, unlike other companies I've worked for, where the most important thing was that you were there warming a seat, not that you were actually producing anything.

Graham McDermott: For me it's being a part of a group of people that aren't afraid to attempt new, untested ideas in an industry that seems deathly afraid of originality and risk.

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