How Telltale Games Might Change Gaming Forever

Perhaps you’ve heard of Telltale Games. They are responsible for a few fairly recent “cult classic” adventure games, such as the Sam & Max series and Tales of Monkey Island. That is what they do; adventure games. Telltale’s modern point-and-click adventures are responsible for the only small light of general appeal the genre still carries. There is little else between modern adventure games and obscurity. This is precisely why the fate of Telltale Games has been up for debate recently. You see, there is somewhat of an unspoken spotlight on the company. Being the spearhead of an entire genre raises expectations, but more importantly, demands consistency. If there is anything Telltale games isn’t, it is consistent.

Being a consistent company is perhaps the most crucial aspect keeping most developers afloat. The obvious example here would be Radical Entertainment’s story, which ended late June of this year. Going through the history of the game developer’s long list of titles would be pointless. The only thing relevant today is the sales and reception of their current generation titles. Back in 2009, Radical Entertainment was responsible for a controversially well-received title that had quite the cultural relevance. This, of course, was Prototype.

Prototype wasn’t controversial for its excessive amount of gore. Instead, it was controversial because of another game released just a month ahead. On May 26th, Sony published their own, exclusive, open-world title that wowed both critics and gamers That game was “inFamous.” People naturally drew comparisons between the two titles because they played very similarly. Both are open-world titles. Both are original IPs. Both have you playing in this expansive world as a super-powered “freak”. InFamous was fighting a game that hadn’t even come out, yet it was still losing. Even a month before launch, Prototype was set up to completely knock inFamous out of the charts. The reason was simple. This had nothing to do with quality (remember, inFamous was very well-received), but had everything to do with the fact that it was a Playstation exclusive.

Having a much bigger audience, Prototype accomplished exactly what it set out to do. Prototype topped the sales charts for the launch month of June, but more importantly, it heavily outnumbered inFamous. By the end of the month, it was pretty clear that Prototype won, despite falling short of inFamous’ staggeringly impressive reviews.

Looking back, things couldn’t be less clear. In the wake of Radical’s closure, it would seem that Prototype won the battle but lost the war. In terms of company-stability, it would be unfair to pit Activision’s Radical Entertainment against Sony. However, Radical’s war was lost in round two. Sony made a smart move by launching inFamous’ long-awaited sequel nowhere in sight of Prototype, a little over two years after the original. With two years of hype, its hard to believe that inFamous 2 was a success. Popular gaming outlet IGN scored the sequel at a 9.0/10. Furthermore, the game sold better than its 2009 counterpart, all while still being a Playstation exclusive. Unfortunately for Radical Entertainment, Prototype 2 did not hit that same high note twice.

Simply put, Prototype 2 was a failure, proving that quantity(sales)-over-quality(reception) is not a long-term solution. Prototype 2 topped the monthly charts once again, but didn’t quite sell the figures it did two years prior. While exact figures were never released, GameInformer claims that April 2012’s was a “grim” month for the industry. According to  retail-tracker NPD, physical software dropped 42% annually. Including hardware, that is a 33% drop from 2011. Furthermore, Prototype had no launch competition, followed by a poorly-received Kinect-exclusive title on the sales charts. This would have been easier to stomach if reviews weren’t average-to-mediocre. Very shortly after the sequel became available, Radical Entertainment was shut down by Activision.

What does this all mean? It means that Telltale Games was given more than enough chances to prove its worth. In between the Prototype games, Radical was working on a soon-cancelled title that obviously never saw the light of day. Prototype, both the original and the follow-up, were the only chances Radical had in today’s dying industry. Considering recent attempts by Telltale, the same fate was a sound conclusion. The company’s two biggest titles of 2011 were Back to the Future: The Game and Jurassic Park: The Game. Both were episodic downloadable adventures that failed to hit the company’s past heights. Back to the Future received a 7.5 from IGN’s Greg Miller, but didn’t accumulate general interest. In the long-run, the title was neither memorable nor popular. Jurassic Park, also reviewed by Greg Miller, was received much worse. The game was given a 5.5, and the review specifically cites its failure to live up to Telltale’s glory days. With the industry’s dying interest in adventure games, Telltale Games could have had a comparable future to Radical.

The tides started to turn when Telltale announced their adaptation of The Walking Dead. Once again being a episodic, downloadable adventure, a lot could have gone wrong. The one thing Telltale had going for them was, for the first time, genuine general interest. The Walking Dead IP was, and still is, in its prime. Both the show and the comic blew out of proportion by early 2012. This was the right time to make a Walking Dead game. Being an adventure game, the focus would be on character drama, rather than shooting zombies. Robert Kirkman, creator of The Walking Dead franchise, has now even endorsed the game, saying that it is in line with what the Walking Dead is all about. With adventure games being an abandoned genre, people were becoming more and more curious to see what this game was all about. The result was a cultural breakthrough.

A game receiving positive reviews is nothing new. Telltale isn’t changing the game industry by making a good game. Not quite, at least. Much like Minecraft, The Walking Dead was in the right place at the right time. Minecraft has been playing a role in the indie scene that is comparable in size to the early Xbox LIVE arcade classics, like Super Meat Boy and Braid. It’s pricing model and “open” philosophy is springing new life into the industry. Take DayZ, for example. DayZ is a mod running off of Arma II, a PC-exclusive military shooter. The mod became so successful that it spawned development for its own game, much like CounterStrike did all those years back. The DayZ team have stated that they will approach release in a similar fashion to Minecraft. The exact quote off of the standalone game’s website is as followed;

“Development and updates of the mod will continue in parallel with the development of the game, so anyone who is playing the mod now will be able to continue to do so. The project will follow the Minecraft development model; fast iterations with the community alpha available for a heavily discounted price,”

A wildly successful episodic/downloadable adventure game is completely against the norm, just as Minecraft was when it first launched. It is not hard to see that this is the beginning of the fall of the $60 retail game.

The Walking Dead may be in an even better position that Minecraft was back when it officially launched last year. Even though 2012’s fall season has only just begun, it seems that the gaming community is indirectly nominating The Walking Dead as a Game Of The Year contender. Alongside Dishonored and Mass Effect 3, there are no other obvious inclusions this far into the year. What may not be so clear to the average gamer is the impact that this will have on the next generation of gaming.

The next-generation is getting harder to define every day. This lack of clarity initiated with Nintendo’s Wii U. Michael Pachter, well-known video game analyst, expresses his frustration with the Wii U rather frequently, claiming that it is a “new console running on old hardware.” What many don’t understand is that the Wii U plans to innovate in unconventional ways. It is the title of “next-generation” that is bringing Nintendo down. Simply put, the Wii U is making its own path. Nintendo firmly believes that tablet-gaming is the next step for the home consoles. This may be the next generation, and therefore, is Nintendo’s innovation.

But perhaps Nintendo is wrong. Perhaps the next generation is a step in a completely different direction. Of course, I am referring to the Ouya, which is a Kickstarter-funded console that will sell for one hundred dollars. The idea of an affordable, Android-based console has hit home-run with gamers everywhere. According to the official Kickstarter page, the Ouya has raised over 8.5 million dollars (almost 10x its original goal). This money came entirely from its fans. Then there is the possibility of the future embracing stronger virtual-reality gaming. The Oculus Rift, another wildly successful Kickstarter project, plans to bring us just that. Cliffy B, Gabe Newell, and many others have endorsed the Rift, which resulted in the pledging of 2.5 million dollars (with a pledge goal of $250, 000).

The message here is that there is an uncertainty surrounding what the “next-generation” really is. If there is one thing analysts agree on, it is that the next generation of consoles will be the last. The last traditional consoles, that is. The “Xbox” or “Playstation” appear to be a dated concept. Questions are raised as to why we need giant box, hundreds of disks, and multiple wires to play games. Why are we spending $60 on a game in the first place? Traditional forms of distribution are becoming the enemy as we rise towards an era of cloud-saving and Kickstarters. All of this, and I haven’t even mentioned Free-To-Play gaming.

If $60 games are falling, and The Walking Dead is presenting a new format for new releases, a VGA nomination for Game Of The Year will give the game the audience it needs to make this new vision a reality. The Walking Dead is in the wake of becoming the spearhead of not only an entire genre, but the next generation of gaming itself. That is, of course, if its finale can satisfy the audience it has already established, all while increasing its public momentum.

Telltale’s Walking Dead may very well be the best zombie game to date, but that’s not what makes it special. It is the charm of Telltale themselves. The same charm found in their previous titles, both poorly and well-received. It is the writing, the striking visual style and the tight hold on a submerging genre that make The Walking Dead special. Adding that to a vulnerable industry, now more desperate than ever, and Telltale Games may very well make history.

//Update//

This article was written well before the official list of Spike TV’s VGA nominations were announced. I am very glad to see The Walking Dead appear on the GOTY list.

//Update//

The Walking Dead won Game Of The Year at the 2012 VGAs.

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4 responses to “How Telltale Games Might Change Gaming Forever

  1. I don’t think it’s agreed upon that consoles are going anywhere necessarily. One day, there might be a digital distribution method, or the Kickstarter console, or the tablet future, but there’s a lot of doubt that the next generation of consoles will be the last. Pachter can say so all he likes, and there are people who agree it’s possible, but GameStop and other games retailers will have a lot to say before consoles go down that easily.

    • Hey Alex, I appreciate the read and comment.
      It is generally agreed upon. In episode 5 of IGN’s Future of Gaming, multiple “experts” weigh in on the subject, coming to that conclusion. Although that doesn’t make it certain. We will definitely see a push with digital content before anything that extreme happens, but Nintendo and Sony’s financial losses (Nintendo is even selling the Wii U at a loss) may very well be signalling something. I’m interested in what kind of power GameStop has in this scenario.

  2. If TWD’s success represents anything, it’s a shot across the bow of more traditional forms of entertainment. Episodic content (even if it comes in the form of traditional DLC releases) is all the rage right now, with even more traditional games like Halo 4 picking up the mantle with its weekly Spartan Ops releases.

    Could we see a future where more games are released piecemeal or, hope against hope, games begin to usurp television as a form of storytelling. Imagine the possibilities of a honest-to-goodness soap opera in an interactive format ala TWD!

    That said, I think you may be right in predicting that the PS4 / 720 generation might be the last we see of the dedicated console systems, with more ambiguous multi-use set-top boxes taking over after that, if only to help companies ASSUME DIRECT CONTROL of your media consumption.

    • Thanks for the comment and read 🙂
      I see what you are saying about episodic gaming, but that is a trend that I think still hasn’t reached its peak. Buying a “Season Pass” for a game series isn’t really the norm. Season Passes are still directly related to DLC, like map packs.
      I love your concept of a “video game soap”, and I would say that there is a small push in that direction already. Heavy Rain was more a drama than an action game, and Mass Effect mixed the two beautifully. Its an interesting thought, though. Can a narrative-heavy game survive without violence? This is something I would love to see explored in the future

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