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Deathspank writer Sean Howard weighs in on Telltale 19 Feb, 2011 / 32 comments

The always-interesting Sean Howard - who you may know as a dialogue writer on the two Deathspank games - yesterday Tweeted about his feelings towards Telltale potentially making a sequel to classic LucasArts game Maniac Mansion. Asked to clarify his feelings, he posted this on his blog. It's an interesting, perhaps even important, read, and may reflect the feelings of some of you in this community:

I think Telltale is capable are far more than they are putting out. I don't hate them. I can't hate them. I'm disappointed. They've got so much talent behind their walls, and this is the best they can do? I don't believe that for a second. They SHOULD be the next Lucasarts. They could be BETTER than the next Lucasarts! The could be, but they aren't. And what frustrates me so very much about Telltale is that it seems like they aren't even trying. Puzzle Agent is the only one that seemed like they bothered, and even that didn't go far enough. They are announcing new games based on old properties, and there's very little evidence that they are making better games because of it.


What do you guys think? Is Telltale not fully living up to its potential? And if so, what do you, as outsiders to this development process, think is to blame? Post 'em in the comments section.

As a quick note, Mojo interviewed Sean Howard yesterday before he posted these remarks. The interview should be up soonish!
Comments: 32 / Source: Squidi

32 Comments

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    ThunderPeel2001 on 21 Feb, 2011, 21:35…
    If Howard is talking in terms of CREATIVITY, then yes, I totally agree on those terms... but I don't care. They're making licensed games in order to sell more copies. I can live with that, I don't necessarily care about new IP. If he's saying that their games could just be generally better, then I'm interested in hearing more. Puzzle Agent was beautiful and creative, but still flawed on many levels: The story wasn't as good as it should be, and the puzzles themselves were uninspired.
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    light_rises on 21 Feb, 2011, 20:37…
    Kroms, I would strongly -- nay, strenuously -- recommend playing 304 and 305. Put together, they realize much of the potential the first two episodes hinted at. They're very different, though: 304 has the strongest puzzle design of the season apart from 302 and (largely) avoids repeating well-trodden patterns, while 305 features some of Telltale's best writing yet (like AlfredJ said, it's pretty barren puzzle-wise, but I think the stellar storytelling combined with 304's existence help make up for it).

    And thanks for the welcome! :)

    Oh, and for the record: Count me among those who want to see Telltale come up with an original IP sooner rather than later. I would never ask them to stop doing licensed games altogether. I'm like TyraaRane on the fan fiction front, and Telltale are too damn competent at nailing what makes the characters and worlds of other people's IPs tick, succeeding where almost every other developer fails. I'm just itching to see what they could come up with on their own, with the added freedom of being able to build everything from the ground up.
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    DThrasher on 21 Feb, 2011, 19:13…
    I guess I can understand the disappointment, as far as the puzzles and game mechanics are concerned. The episodic format imposes real constraints on the difficulty of the challenges, since each episode essentially starts fresh.

    But the writing and art have been consistently great. Both the Sam and Max series and the Tales of Monkey Island deliver stories at least as good as the Lucasarts originals. (Which I've just recently replayed.)

    Should they be making their own properties, rather than working on other licenses? Perhaps. But I'm not sure it would work for their business model. Sequels are much easier to market than new, original works.
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    frankenfrog on 21 Feb, 2011, 16:51…
    I agree that TellTale's games are getting better. You can tell that their writing and character development have a lot of love put into them.

    However, much of the game-play can lack engagement and momentum. There are some genuinely good puzzles and action sequences, but I when I have an idea on how to solve a puzzle, I am usually disengaged by the length of time to do the action. There are times when every action has a small cut scene. The most recent example is the Jurassic Park game-play that was posted a few days ago. When the player selects an action, it is followed by a short clip (the character moves, but not controlled by the player, has a short dialog that tells you it is not the correct thing, and then goes back to where he was standing). But the player seems to have very little control, it takes time from when you realize your mistake to try again, and there really isn't much suspense (even with the T-rex about to stomp on you).

    Even through the Sam and Max episodes, I was disappointed by the pacing and how diverse the puzzles are. There were times when I was excited that I could get through parts fairly quickly, but still be challenged by the puzzles, but then disappointed by how short that was and that I would be at a point where it seemed to take a long time to accomplish much. And when there was something new and interesting (like boxing the toy doll), it was very limited, not too much challenge, and there was no value to replay that moment where there was potential of making it a great replayable moment (where it could have had other matches that were more challenging, etc)

    I understand that point-and-click tends to be this way (which I love a lot of point-and-click games), but that doesn't mean that adventure games are limited to this. TellTale has the capacity to take adventure style games to a more creative and engaging level. Many other games from other genres successfully incorporate puzzle solving in them, such as God of War, the Zelda series, Professor Leighton, Braid, Give Up Robot, and World of Goo. Even through these are extremely different from TellTale's games, they do tend to keep players engaged because there is a constant interaction and sense of accomplishment rather than backtracking and walking from point to point.

    I feel TellTale does not need more engaging stories or characters (they've got them), but they need more engaging strategies of more fluid game-play that allow players to control/interact with the characters and challenges at a better pace.

    (sorry this is long. I do like TellTale, I really do. They are doing good things)
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    Kroms on 21 Feb, 2011, 15:41…
    AlfredJ, it's perfectly alright to post an essay! Hell, it's welcome, if it's as thoughtful and charged as yours.

    I don't know about others, but - for me, personally - the thing that's been hurting about Telltale, recently, is it seems they no longer care. That doesn't mean I no longer love them: but it's just that their games are shipped full of bugs, entire features are not implemented, and they've decided to settle on a "good enough" level that has me a little disappointed. I was always more in love with their potential than their output, though I was always overenthusiastic in the hopes I might encourage them to do even better. And I kinda wish they'd push themselves forward. No 3 trial structure. No predictable puzzling. No silly puzzles for the sake of puzzles.

    I want them to sit down, figure out what this game or story or thing really is all ABOUT and wrap their design around that. I want them to experiment and to surprise themselves, to write edgy, risky jokes and puzzles.

    Finally, I want them to live up their full potential. I want them to rival, conquer, and then exterminate LucasArts. Because they can. But they won't.
  • Avatar
    AlfredJ on 21 Feb, 2011, 12:15…
    Wow, sorry, got a bit carried away there. Didn't mean to write an entire essay on the subject.
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    AlfredJ on 21 Feb, 2011, 12:15…
    I completely agree with Tingler about Devil's Playhouse. Apart from the lack of puzzles in the last episode, the season is Telltale's best product yet. I do think the game is better if you play all the episodes closely after each other. I had several friends (who don't play these games as obsessively as I do) who had a bit too much of a hard time keeping track of the plot during those 5 months.

    I'm a bit surprised at the flow of negative responses hitting Telltale these past few days. I completely agree with some aspects - the releases seem to be a bit buggy when released (although I rarely encounter these bugs), which shouldn't happen, and the games are getting a bit too easy, the last episodes of ToMI, TDP and the first two episodes of BttF being the biggest examples. I think the games look great (granted, I don't really play 'real' videogames anymore, so I might be a bit old-fashioned in that regard), the voice acting keeps getting better (Puzzle Agent and Back to the Future taking the lead there), and the stories themselves, especially in Devil's Playhouse and Back to the Future, are better than ever. We're not even halfway, but the story of Back to the Future is shaping up to be my favorite of all Telltale's stories so far. Although there are some things they need to fix, the love is still there. Very much so. I think it's very healthy to have a discussion about the things Telltale needs to pay more attention to in the future, but saying that they're getting lazy and settling for 'good enough' is bending the truth a bit too much. All the major problems facing Telltale (and I don't think they're that major - they're still producing the best adventure games released these days) are mostly down to budget/time-constraints.
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    Kroms on 21 Feb, 2011, 09:58…

    The Tingler

    Anyone here criticising Telltale's handling of Sam & Max who's not played the whole of that season, please do so. It does indeed get better and better (the first episode is my least favourite).


    I think the first was my favourite of the three I finished, though 2 was a very close second. 3 kinda lost it around the second half, reminding me in bad ways of Season One.
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    The Tingler on 21 Feb, 2011, 09:16…

    Kroms

    Sam and Max 301 and 302 began something that should have continued, though maybe the second half of 304 and all of 305 deliver on that? Here's a studio that occasionally brushes greatness, but never seems willing to move in.

    Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse is the greatest thing Telltale have done, better even than Tales of Monkey Island (and I loved that). Anyone here criticising Telltale's handling of Sam & Max who's not played the whole of that season, please do so. It does indeed get better and better (the first episode is my least favourite).
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    tredlow on 21 Feb, 2011, 05:04…
    While I agree that Telltale games aren't exactly what I'd call polished, I do believe that they are getting better.
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    mish87 on 20 Feb, 2011, 16:34…
    Should Telltale Games do better? Sure, why not?
    But have they done very well till now? Indeed, they have!

    Although I feel like some things can be improved upon - they have done a ton of stuff since they began. And I really like the direction they're going with the whole "interactive movie" thing. I dig it. Very much.
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    Scurvyliver on 20 Feb, 2011, 14:45…
    I think he is challenging them to be better, and he is right, they should be. I think what they achieved when they started is amazing, but with each game should be growth and improvement

    My main concern with TellTale - technically they are proficient (enough for me anyway) - there needs to be more growth in story and puzzle development.

    I'm currently playing Back to the future, after playing TOMI two years ago - and the product does not seem much of an improvement. I'm not feeling the love.
  • Avatar
    Kroms on 20 Feb, 2011, 10:44…

    light_rises


    But that gets away from Sean's main point, where he more or less hits on what's been bugging me about Telltale lately: a sense of settling for "good enough."


    I kinda think that's my problem with them too. Don't get me wrong: I love Telltale. But I was also more in love with their potential than that they've settled on delivering. Sam and Max 301 and 302 began something that should have continued, though maybe the second half of 304 and all of 305 deliver on that? Here's a studio that occasionally brushes greatness, but never seems willing to move in.


    ( ... Huh. Feel a little awkward just barging in here, soooo: Hello! I'm light_rises, and yes, I do like more things than Sam & Max. :O)


    Welcome! :)
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    Capn_Nacho on 20 Feb, 2011, 06:56…
    I actually agree with him regarding the FOX S&M series comment. The Telltale games are occasionally pretty funny, but I think they lose even more of the callousness and sarcasm that makes the characters great. At their heart, not only are Sam and Max themselves bitter and sarcastic characters, but the structure of the storytelling of some of the best S&M stories also involves a cynical and detached style and a disregard for basically any kind of dramatic arc.

    Say what you will about the kind-of-crummy-but-occasionally-brilliant FOX series: it still managed to pull itself to pieces in a way I don't really think an episodic series of games could. Granted, it's fun when the Telltale games allow the characters to be fourth wall-breakingly self-referential, but my favorite "edgy" bits from the comics are usually when Steve took the piss out of his reading audience, and the FOX series managed that kind of thing on several occasions. I suppose the issue with the Telltale games is that a lot of the irony has been taken out, and a lot of the bite has gone with it.

    But that's all just my opinion. And also pretty off-topic.
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    Logic on 20 Feb, 2011, 05:43…
    The episodic format has certainly resulted in games with limited scope. Fitting things into wii-ware file sizes has certainly resulted in some games with outdated looking texture work.. I've enjoyed Telltale's output but I've also felt that sense that they could do much, much grander things if they put their energy into making a larger and more ambitious game rather than sticking to bite-sized chunks.
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    TyraaRane on 20 Feb, 2011, 02:44…
    My thoughts on his blog post got really long, so they've been outsourced. Look here if you've got trainwreck syndrome.

    Basically: I disagree with him on a lot of fundamental points. But I have to agree on some things on the basis that I'd give my left kidney for Telltale to stop licensing things and do something original.
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    light_rises on 20 Feb, 2011, 02:17…
    He makes some good points. I'm not sure I agree in regards to the humor (though that might come down to a difference in taste/sensibilities, maybe?), and I'm with Diduz -- the Telltale Sam & Max games are somehow lighter than the cartoon? If he had chosen the comics or HtR I would've been with him, but ... huh? And I say that as someone who believes the cartoon got away with a LOT and is much more smartly and incisively written than the fandom at large seems willing to acknowledge. Guybrush in Tales ... I'm half and half on that. No doubt Curse's influences were still in effect, but Guybrush managed to reclaim some of his snark too. Hardly makes him "blander."

    But that gets away from Sean's main point, where he more or less hits on what's been bugging me about Telltale lately: a sense of settling for "good enough." And -- at least from my under-informed, outsider perspective -- this seems to be largely attributable to them stretching themselves too thin in all the wrong ways. It would be more forgivable if they were doing this while having more of the likes of Puzzle Agent in their roster, rather than that being a striking exception.

    I wonder if Telltale should have stayed a "one-game-at-a-time" company a little longer than they allowed themselves to. Or at least increased their output and license acquirements at a slower pace and put their increasing resources to better use. It's hard to say, though. I'd love to be proven wrong, that some of their recent stumbles are just growing pains preceding bigger and better things to come. I think the next two years are going to be very telling.

    ( ... Huh. Feel a little awkward just barging in here, soooo: Hello! I'm light_rises, and yes, I do like more things than Sam & Max. :O)
  • Avatar
    Kroms on 20 Feb, 2011, 01:24…
    I always kinda confused his sarcasm for dumbess, though I was looking at it with the lens of CMI and EMI. It was only until I played Rise of the Pirate God that I realized he was sarcastic.
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    Ascovel on 20 Feb, 2011, 01:16…
    It's easy to say to someone: "You could easily do better than this." Telltale are evidently working like crazy, have a working model that works for them very well commercially. I don't think those two things will change any time soon.

    Yachmenev

    Tales was a massive achievement though, where they captured Guybrush´s cynical and misschievous personality


    There can be different opinions about certain things, but, come on, Guybrush never did have a cynical and mischievous personality in any of the games! You must have had him confused with Simon The Sorcerer.
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    Bloody_Eugene on 20 Feb, 2011, 01:13…
    Looking at the actual adventure's market, where over the world companies falls down like flies, I can understand the "safe" Talltale politics.
    And It's safe only to a certain extent, because dealing with a license like Monkey Island and succeed where Lucasarts failed is almost a miracle. Or launching a "Pilot" program, a new path to explore. Or even taking some more action IP with a game like JP, or a challenging hard adventure like King's Quest.

    Scenes like "Unholy This", or the ending of Sam&max season3 will be forever in my preferred top-notch adventure moments.

    Yes, there are also some let-downs, primarly due to management of resources. But. Telltale is an unique company, focused on the "adventure genre", and doing it episodically with charme and quite good tecnique. And they are not only surviving the crysis but improving themselves to this extent.

    I think that Sean Howard will never find a new Lucasarts, simply because now it's 2011. Today no-one will ever put a millionaire budget on an old SCUMM-like adventure game anymore. You have to live with it, and I'm even happy that my mouse nowadays understand by itself if I want to walk somewhere on the screen.

    Telltale are not mediocre, they're just unique and non-derivative - and they are truly changing the adventure market as we know
    with games that are mainly and heavily story-driven, something that even bigger software houses forget to have on their over-hyped games.

    Yeah, it's Telltale phylosophy: just take it or leave it.
    But even if they are not 100% perfect, I think they deserve much credit.
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    Rum Rogers on 20 Feb, 2011, 01:03…
    I started to think exactly what he does since after S&M Season 2.
    Aside from ToMI, which I really enjoyed, it's been a long time since I'm losing interest on Telltale more and more everyday. Glad to know I'm not alone. Too bad, Telltale.
  • Avatar
    Wikbi on 20 Feb, 2011, 00:33…
    Oops. Glad there's an edit button, if only such a thing existed in the real world :D
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    Kroms on 20 Feb, 2011, 00:22…
    Sean Howard isn't a Hothead employee :)
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    Wikbi on 20 Feb, 2011, 00:19…
    I agree, to some extent at least. Telltale should be able to make even better games and their necromancy of old properties (MI and S&M excluded) could get annoying.

    That said, Telltale are doing great as a business and probably considerably better than Hothead. Deathspank proved to be a pretty dissapointing game and with fatal bugs on the Xbox that still haven't been resolved. So in short, working with Telltale would be a step up for him.
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    SurplusGamer on 20 Feb, 2011, 00:10…

    Kroms

    SurplusGamer

    This man is absolutely right.


    Oh, surely The Penal Zone was at least good? Not biting, risky humour, but it could be a good LucasArts game!



    Sure, they've done a few great things, but they should be doing better and they should be putting out more polished product by now. And lately they seem to be getting worse at that, instead of better. This isn't good enough, and we as fans should be less, not more forgiving of their flaws.
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    Yachmenev on 19 Feb, 2011, 23:57…
    I don´t agree with him. I´m one of those who loved Monkey Island 1&2, but just accepted Curse and hated Escape. Tales was a massive achievement though, where they captured Guybrush´s cynical and misschievous personality, wrote a really funny game, built up an interesting story, played with emonitions few adventure games barely touch and did all this without overusing old puzzles like Curse and Escape did.

    When he criticizes Tales like he does, I stop listening.Telltale are nowhere near the brilliance of Monkey Island 1&2, DOTT or Grim Fandango, but they are better or at least as good as the rest of LucasArts old adventure games. The Devil's Playhouse is way beyond Hit the Road for example.

    When you try to break down Telltale as he does, then you just come across as a nostalgic bitter old fool. Telltale haven´t surpassed LucasArts yet, but they ARE quality and keep getting better all the time.

    I have been playing adventure games since the early nineties. I love the old LucasArts games, I hate games like Runaway, Frogwares games and the games from the makers of Ankh, and I think Telltale are great.

    I quite liked Deathspank, but being one of the authors behind those two games really doesn´t put you above everyone else. They really aren´t that good written.

    (as for my bad english, I´m swedish :P ).
  • Avatar
    Kroms on 19 Feb, 2011, 23:53…

    SurplusGamer

    This man is absolutely right.


    Oh, surely The Penal Zone was at least good? Not biting, risky humour, but it could be a good LucasArts game!
  • Avatar
    SurplusGamer on 19 Feb, 2011, 23:45…
    This man is absolutely right.
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    Diduz on 19 Feb, 2011, 23:37…
    I've been quite critical of Telltale's last endeavours such as Puzzle Agent (nice story and characters, but too much of a Layton clone for me), TOMI's ending or Back to the Future's puzzle recycling (stop that sniffing!!!), but I think he's being unfair in some areas.
    They could be better if they slowed down a bit, I am sure of that, but saying their Sam & Max is a watered down experience when compared to the Fox cartoon.... well, THAT's bullshit, Sean. I'm sorry.
    And I think their Guybrush was the best Guybrush since Monkey Island 2.
    As far as the "original properties" go, LucasArts also made two GREAT Indiana Jones adventures, a sequel to Maniac Mansion (DOTT), a licensed game (Sam & Max) and three Monkey Island sequels.
    I just think Telltale is one part of the "next LucasArts", the others being Double Fine, Autumn Moon, etc. etc.
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    Capn_Nacho on 19 Feb, 2011, 23:35…
    I think that S&M season 2 had some fairly bitey moments, but yes, I otherwise pretty much completely agree. I'm not a fan of Curse, even, so I really didn't dig a lot of things about ToMI.

    Watching the videos we've seen so far of Jurassic Park, I really do feel a bit like Telltale is biting off more than they can chew. I wish they would put their expanded staff to use improving the quality of the games they've got rather than using them to push out more games than they ever have before. I still love them, though; they're obviously great and talented folks.

    I'm still looking forward to Puzzle Agent 2, though-- a big part of what makes it seem better and more polished than a lot of TTG's other stuff is the undeniable beauty of most of its hand-drawn graphics. Puzzle Agent was a joy to look at and I really hope part 2 can push that aspect.* Even most of the art in the trailer was already splendid!

    *I also hope it's a bit less linear, but I'll take what I can get!
  • Avatar
    Kroms on 19 Feb, 2011, 23:31…
    Both Sam and Max got a lot better as the games went on, though I agree that the humour lost some of its teeth. Monkey Island's third, fourth and fifth chapters gave sarcasm back to Guybrush, though. I just wish they were there from the start.
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    simonph on 19 Feb, 2011, 23:26…
    I wholeheartedly agree with him, i couldn't play through any of the Sam 'n' Max episodic games. They lacked the edge, punch and humor (for me) that i loved in "Hit The Road". Same thing with ToMI.

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