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The Telltale Games Pilot Program

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Today's Dose is part awesome and part ridiculously interesting. As I'm currently playing through Telltale Games Sam & Max The Penal Zone Episode 2: The Tomb of Sammun-Mak in preparation for a review, I thought I'd take the time to follow some Telltale news. What I've discovered is a very interesting initiative they are currently in the process of implementing. 

The company is focusing their attention on a somewhat ambitious Pilot Program. Similar to the Pilot Series comic book developer Top Cow Studios are implementing and the more conventional TV show pilots we are accustomed to, Telltale will create pilot episodes for games. The idea is to take ideas the folks at Telltale have been toying with, develop a pilot episode and release it. The future of the project will then be in the hands of fans as their feedback will determine whether the game should go to series. One would assume this will partly come from sales figures but also from fan critiques of the quality of the game and the idea behind it. 

I say “episodes” because Telltale games have rebuilt their point and click adventure game catalog around episodic content. As CEO Dan Connors states G4 "We built Telltale to take advantage of the digital distribution revolution and build ourselves up as a publisher who can put product into the market through digital distribution." Games like Sam & Max are now released online as four or five episode stories, greatly reducing the risk associated with developing a large, big budget game.

Through the Pilot Program Telltale are further reducing the risk associated with their projects. As Connors says it "allows us to try some new ideas without having to [take as much risk] and learn more what people like about it before we commit to doing the whole thing." Telltale will also be able to dedicate smaller teams to the projects currently in development Puzzle Agent, the first Pilot Program game, has a development group "about the third of the size of an average team". That means their already large stable of in-development, higher budget games are not affected by a project which may turn out to be a bust.

Puzzle Agent will be out in June and is being developed in partnership with Graham Annable, creator of the Grickle series Puzzle Agent is based on. In the game, players will (courtesy of the press release):

"Take on the role of Nelson Tethers, the lead (and only) agent in the US Department of Puzzle Investigation, sent on a rare field assignment to Scoggins, Minnesota to investigate why output at the town’s eraser factory has come to a screeching halt."

The game looks set to combine elements associated with other Telltale titles, puzzles, and brainteasers, but still be far different from other Telltale games we know like Sam & Max. It is for this reason that Telltale is advocating the Pilot Program. It allows them to do some different things and explore some new ideas without as much risk. It also allows the studios to take a chance on some more pre-existing properties, like Puzzle Agent, as Telltale may "look for partners to work on something… where somebody is incubating an idea or a concept that's just a really cool franchise and has an installed base and taking a shot in the interactive world makes sense".


This idea has me really excited. Obviously this sort of pilot episode style can only work with certain types of games and certain companies, but seeing it implemented at all is great. In this age of heightened communication and interactivity it is nice to see a company taking the time out to actually give fans a hand in deciding what developers will make. As Telltale seems to be implying — what is the point, as a company, in having Facebook, Twitter, and greater ways for you to interact with your fans if you aren't going to listen to what they have to say. What fan wouldn't want to be instrumental in it's future development?

Additionally, the opportunity this provides for other media to get a game for their franchise is great. I can see a few webcomics, which fit Telltale's criteria of having an interesting idea and loyal fanbase, getting the Pilot Program treatment. From a business, and I guess fan, point of view, Telltale has also managed to find a way to ensure their next wave of characters will be launching into a receptive environment. They will know which new characters and elements have done well in a relatively cost effective way. It's like demoing a title, except that Telltale can actually make some money on the program. Maybe studios like EA, who are toying with charging for demos, can learn something from Telltale. If they could find a way to make a short, self-contained episode based on their game, a stand-alone prequel chapter perhaps, then gamers may be more willing to pay for it than they would a demo. It would also provide developers with an opportunity to alter facets of the game which fans find they don't like before the title is released.

Anyway, I'm really looking forward to seeing what the reaction will be to the Pilot Program and it's first outing, Puzzle Agent, which debuts in June on the PC, Macintosh, iPhone/iPod touch, iPad, and Nintendo Wii. Apparently Telltale are already throwing around some ideas for the next lot of Pilot Program games and it will be interesting to see whether they are existing properties or something new. What do you think about the Pilot Program and the greater role fans will play in the future of Telltale games?   





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