Earlier this week we were given the opportunity to wing a few questions in the direction of Telltale’s Mike Stemmle; fresh from design duty on Tales of Monkey Island and basking in the glow of another episodic title timely delivered to critical acclaim. With a background that spans Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Sam and Max Hit the Road and numerous Star Wars titles, Mike is well placed to give us an insight into what makes Telltale tick.
7outof10: Firstly, could you give us a little background as to the role you undertake at Telltale and your history in videogame development?
Mike Stemmle: I’m a game designer at Telltale Games, which basically means that I’m responsible for coming up with puzzles, stories, dialog; though the programmers HATE it when I do it, code. I’ve been designing games professionally since 1990, which is actually quite frightening to contemplate.
The buzz surrounding fighting games and adventure games in 2008/9 has come as a real boon for fans old enough to remember gaming in the 90s; do you see Telltale as having had a pivotal role in pushing a genre presumed dead back into the limelight?
I’d like to think that Telltale has something to do with it, but it was probably mostly the legions of screaming adventure fanboys and fangirls that brought about this renaissance. Good on ya’, ya crazy scamps!
The deal with Lucasarts for Monkey Island came on the back of the collapse of their previous attempt at resurrecting Sam and Max, and the subsequent Telltale re-invention after the licence had lapsed; were they happy with the direction the series had taken or did they voice any concerns for upcoming games?
While I think that LucasArts was happy with what we’ve done with Sam & Max, it should be said that the only person we really have to keep happy with that license (aside from the fans, natch) is their creator, Steve Purcell. With Monkey Island, I think both Lucas and Telltale were very keen on bring the franchise back to its roots, with lots of juicy pirates, voodoo, and genre-appropriate silliness.
Are you worried that the massive audience of younger players won’t have even heard of Monkey Island as a franchise, let alone be able to appreciate delving back into the shoes of Guybrush? Did you approach it as a fan service project or something to really crack the mass-market as new?
There’s definitely a sense that we’re re-introducing these characters and this world to a whole new audience, which is why we worked our fingers to the bone coming up with a series opening that establishes all you really need to know:
There’s this pirate, Guybrush. He’s married to another, more sensible pirate, Elaine. There’s also an evil undead pirate named LeChuck. They have a history, and it often involves monkeys.
That said, we’re not going to skimp on the fan service. Monkey Island has a rich (if occasionally convoluted) backstory, and we’d be prize chumps not to make use of it where appropriate.
For many fans, the quality of humour and writing in Telltale titles has provided the impetus to delve back into adventure games, can you give us a little insight into how the company focuses on this creative process?
Most of our games are “gang-designed” by a small group of designers responsible for the entire season. After the story and puzzles for an episode are in reasonable shape, the designer assigned to the specific episode goes off and furiously writes dialog for a couple of weeks, all the while getting feedback from other designers. The feedback runs the gamut from the practical (“we need a response for when Guybrush uses the cat with the vacuum cleaner, ’cause players’ll definitely try that”) to the creative (“try using ‘marmot’ here instead of ‘albatross’… it flows better”) to the obscure (“I like pie”). It’s a lot like making sausage. Funny, funny sausage.
As one of the few developers to have successfully produced episodic content in a timely fashion, what are the secrets to your success? Is the quality level difficult to maintain?
There are two secrets to our success:
1) An insanely talented crew of veteran professional game developers.
2) A solid game development tool that keeps us from re-inventing the wheel every time.
As for the console market, having distributed on both XBLA and Wii, did you find any problems with submitting for either system, and with the increasing profile of PSN, is Telltale considering porting any old games or developing new ones for the Sony system?
I didn’t have any problems, but then again, we have wonderful producers here who shield my sensitive designer psyches from those sorts of issues. As for PSN and other possible platforms, I’d wager that Telltale won’t rest until we’ve got a foothold in every game platform available. It’s only a matter of time.
Does Telltale have any plans to dabble in other genres in the near future? Do the casual titles from the likes of PopCap distributed on XBLA, Steam or PSN hold any attraction and inspiration?
If there’s a game with a story to tell, Telltale’s interested in it. How’s that for mysteriously ambiguous?
Tales of Monkey Island for PC can be found here; review incoming.