It is, as ever, a busy time for Telltale Games. This year the studio finished Batman's first season and Walking Dead's third, released Guardians of the Galaxy's first season and then Minecraft's and Batman's second. Oh, and it announced Batman season one on Switch. Phew!
Last month, Telltale announced some of its 2018 slate: a final season of The Walking Dead and a return for The Wolf Among Us. The latter, especially, came as a surprise - not least because, 24 hours earlier, Telltale's head of creative communications Job Stauffer had been cheekily telling fans not to get their hopes up.
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I sat down with Job for the first time at Gamescom last week, although we'd chatted via email previously - I'd read Telltale's misdirection on Wolf Among Us season two, and called it out as an odd move.
That said, I've long been a fan of Telltale's output, so it was great to delve into the history of The Wolf Among Us' first run, the evolving plans for the studio's long-awaited new franchise, and the future of series such as Game of Thrones. There's a fair amount of back and forth throughout - but I want to stress my chat with Stauffer was entirely lighthearted. In fact it was probably my most enjoyable interview of the show.
So here we are at Gamescom! You've been busy talking about Switch.
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Job Stauffer: Batman should be coming in the future starting with the first season, Minecraft season two will be coming soon, and Guardians, we just don't have dates yet. Switch is kind of perfect for us - we're looking at everything in our library and figuring out which titles we want to bring and when, but we love the platform.
Otherwise, we're just saying what more we can say about our Comic-Con announcements from a few weeks ago - which were, 'hey we're doing another season of Batman and it's out in a few weeks' and next year we have Walking Dead's final season and Wolf Among Us season two, finally!
That was a nice surprise! [laughs] It did sound like it wasn't happening, especially as Telltale had said the story of Wolf Among Us' first season wouldn't be continued.
Job Stauffer: Just know I did not lie! It was a very carefully worded response, and that was the truth. Where things left off at the end of season one, that is the end of that story. It was meant as a conclusion. It's an ambiguous twist, and we have an answer, but our lips our sealed. As we go into our second season, we know we have Bigby and Snow White, but as for where and when it will be set, we can't say for sure. But it will be a new story and mystery.
Four years later in time, we don't want to make a game which requires people to play the first, but that was never the intention. We had no plans to continue when we finished the first season. We never expected it to be as successful as it was. Fans, critics, sales, it was a huge surprise. We nearly cancelled Wolf Among Us two months before we shipped it. We had got to the point where we had something which was, frankly, a mess. Something which wasn't gelling.
I remember - there was a long wait between episodes one and two.
Job Stauffer: Yeah, it was between October and February. Years later we can finally state, to be perfectly honest, we ran into some complications that winter. The Christmas break and people taking holiday and thinking we were taking things in one direction... By the time we saw the reaction [to the first episode], we were thinking 'okay, here's where we're going to take things in episodes two through five. We needed a few weeks to course correct the story.
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Was there a character you changed your mind about?
Job Stauffer: The truth is, the state Wolf was in... It was development behind the scenes for about a year, we were working on it during The Walking Dead, and it resembled nothing like what it is today. It was kind of a cornball comedy, Cinderella was in the story at one point. There was a story which was nothing like the mystery, noir iteration of Fables we arrived at. We can say without a doubt it would not have been the game people fell in love with if we had shipped it as it was. That's the same as most video games, or TV or movies, of course - things evolve. But this series in particular went through so much change to get to where it was that is really what caused the gap between the first episode and the second.
We're thrilled to be able to do a second season. Living up to expectations - we have on our plate - so I can say it'll be in the second half of 2018, after seeing the final Walking Dead season in the first half.
The reason I ask about the character was fans found this guy -
Job Stauffer: Red Herrington? [laughs]
Red Herrington! I think that was him. In the game's files he was called Cryer, and people thought he was going to be the kid from The Boy Who Cried Wolf.
Job Stauffer: It was really funny - so, in that first incarnation of Wolf Among Us there was a character named Cryer. And [in the final version] you sometimes saw him in the hallways or buildings of Fabletown.
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People definitely thought you were dropping hints it was him.
Job Stauffer: 'It's him! He's the killer!' I know - fans made some hilarious conspiracy theory videos that he was going to have been the killer all along. So... I think we ended up having fun with it - having him show up in hallways at certain times just to mess with the fans. I think they came up with the name Red Herrington? Maybe it was us, I don't know. But that's how we ended up remembering him.
When you were course correcting the story, was that with [Fables creator] Bill Willingham? What input did he have?
Job Stauffer: Bill didn't have as much to do with the story as some of our other partners [on other series]. He was kind of busy winding down the Fables comic book series. That is complete now, so he has a bit more free time - we're not sure what our relationship will be with him as we get further into development of season two but that said, we aren't constrained to doing things to any timeline - where we left off, the whole thousands of years of history. When are where we'll find Bigby and Snow along that timeline is still to be determined - we don't want to get hopes up it'll be a thousand-year-old prequel, or disappoint people if we're not stepping into those sort-of early '80s bathed-in-neon New York City streets again. The sky is the limit, it's just too soon to say.
Is Bill working with you or is it your own project?
It's very much our own project but it's too soon to discuss his involvement, right now.
So, Wolf Among Us in the back half of next year. Will that be alongside Game of Thrones?
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Job Stauffer: Uhhh... no. Not long after the conclusion of the first season we said would be continuing, and we had designs on the future of Telltale's Game of Thrones. Right now that is on hold. We haven't announced it, which does not mean it's never coming but I think right now we're anxious to get back into Wolf, Walking Dead and Batman and see where things go with the narrative of the [Game of Thrones] show before we really come back to the table with something we're excited about.
Right - obviously next year is the last season of the Game of Thrones TV show. So you'll be keeping an eye on that before making any decision?
Job Stauffer: Right now we're back into being huge Game of Thrones fans. So for us to say what will be the best follow-up to that [the first season] and when that's going to happen, is too soon to say.
Does that mean it'll be a slightly different take, or with different characters?
Job Stauffer: It means I literally cannot say anything about it. [laughs]
People want to know what happens next!
Job Stauffer: We do as well - but we want to know what happens next in the show before we talk about the hows and whens of our return to Westeros.
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Are you telling me they haven't told you how it ends?
Job Stauffer: I'm telling you I can't tell you anything. [laughs]
Job Stauffer: Are you still recording?
I can turn the tape off and you can tell me.
Job Stauffer: I'm wondering what stupid thing I've said already which will be taken out of context.
It's interesting what you think of Eurogamer. [laughs]
Job Stauffer: [laughs]
So, you guys have said the next Borderlands story will come from Gearbox, which effectively rules you out of revisiting that universe for a good while.
Job Stauffer: We're not saying never. As of right now we have no plans to make a second season of Tales from the Borderlands.
Obviously Gearbox hasn't said when Borderlands 3 will be released, but even if it was next year it feels like there would be no more Telltale Borderlands for quite some time.
Job Stauffer: I would say... that is an accurate prediction.
That's a real shame - I liked it and I don't really like the main Borderlands games.
Job Stauffer: We heard a lot of that - it was nice to introduce people to that world. Getting to the point where people cosplay as Fiona and pose for pictures at Gamescom with Angela Merkel is like... 'wow'. Regardless of reviews - which were great, sales - which were actually great. There's nothing better than that.
You say sales were great, but were they? Telltale alumni Nick Herman recently said there weren't.
Job Stauffer: So a few weeks ago Campo Santo did a big retrospective with people from the team who have since gone on to work at other companies. And one of my best friends, Nick Herman, who was always kind of bummed out, was like 'oh man, the sales were disappointing and the pressure was on'. The sales were not disappointing - to put that in perspective, they were not at the same level as Walking Dead or Minecraft.
You didn't lose money on the project?
Job Stauffer: No, no. We were very happy, I think 2K and Gearbox were very happy. Critically it was one of our most acclaimed games we've ever created.
So why not make another season then?
Job Stauffer: We're committed to... If we announced Borderlands season two we'd have nothing but fans asking us where was Wolf Among Us season two.
I mean, you are making Wolf Among Us season two.
Job Stauffer: I'm saying we're not going to announce it because we're not working on it.
That is a good reason not to announce it.
Job Stauffer: I agree.
I'm just curious what the blocker is here. You say you want to make it, that it was critically acclaimed and now you're saying sales were great.
Job Stauffer: I think right now we want to see what Gearbox does next with the franchise. End of quotes for NeoGAF to be mad at me about.
I'll ask Randy Pitchford.
Job Stauffer: Yes! Do that. [Pause] And then he'll say 'I don't know, ask Telltale.' [laughs]
Another thing fans like to ask about is when that mysterious new IP you announced back in 2015 is coming out.
Job Stauffer: It won't be this year, and it won't be next year. Our appetite for what that project has evolved into, and the fact it is a completely original IP from Telltale, is still very much on the horizon and part of our future. But it's not something players will see before the final season of Walking Dead and the second season of Wolf Among Us.
Why did plans change?
Job Stauffer: It's tough to give a definitive answer. We want to have the right content, that our story and universe... That we have the right story for when we come out swinging with something that's entirely our own. And right now we have fans who are more passionate about seeing projects we've just announced than a desire for something they've never heard of before. We're very fortunate to be in a position where we can choose exactly the projects we want to do and projects fans want. And we'll be ready to hit the market with our own story when the market is right and we feel it is something fans will love.
Is it still planned to be in the same 'super show' medium? It was a little vague, but what got mentioned of it was taken, rightly or wrongly, to be a bit like Quantum Break - half video game, half live-action.
Job Stauffer: Yeah, it was never planned to be the same format as that turned out to be. And obviously that was sort of a TV-show interspersed with a Max Payne-style shooter in a completely different language to the language of cinema. All our games are in that language of cinema, of interactive storytelling. What we've had in mind and where we want to land with our original content has evolved with the technology and services which are becoming prevalent in the marketplace - like Netflix and HBO - and more devices capable of streaming narrative content. Frankly, more devices in the home more capable of playing games, that you might not think of as game-playing devices, like set-top TV boxes, Amazon Fire TV, cable boxes, tablet devices. Places were you might not think about playing games are all very ripe for a unique and modern Telltale experience which services story in a way players really haven't seen before.
Quantum Break had a 50GB download of TV episodes to sit on a hard drive if you didn't want to stream it. I'm presuming you don't want to do that.
Job Stauffer: No, no we don't.
You say the medium might have evolved - has the story evolved too?
Job Stauffer: We're waiting for the right time to come out of the gate with something strong. Right now we have so many fans telling us to make something they love. The next 18 months are really about turning our attention and direction toward the fans, making sure we can deliver everything they want and then more, while continuing to evolve our format and innovate and push our gameplay forward in ways people haven't seen from us yet.
It sounds like you're making a new engine?
Job Stauffer: Uhhh, no - I would say over the last year and a half we've invested a lot of time and resources into improving the performance of our engine, which is most apparent in Batman: Enemy Within which launched a couple of weeks ago. In terms of performance, lighting techniques, things are looking better than they ever have. We've also poured resources into updating the first season of Batman and bringing that up to par. If you've been playing on PC and noticed a big update, you should play season one again and you may notice some big improvements.
That's good to know. What else is happening next year, then? You've got The Walking Dead's final season and The Wolf Among Us season two - what else?
Job Stauffer: Well, Minecraft's second season will run into the start of 2018 - and the same with Batman. There will be more happening in 2018 which fans don't know about yet. And I would stay tuned in the months ahead for news on... other projects.
See you at The Game Awards.
Job Stauffer: [Pause, laughs] I should hope to see you there too!
Why the last season of Walking Dead now? Why not let it run longer?
Job Stauffer: If we let it run longer at a certain point it would run into the ground. It's not really common in the games industry for a developer to commit, to say 'you know what? I feel good about this as an end point' to put a cap on it and feel good about it. To be in a position as a developer to give finality to a story and, frankly, a character that means so much to us, and so much to fans, is not something you see a lot of these days. Not only in games but across entertainment. Clementine's story began in 2012 and she's been a part of our lives, fan's lives - we effectively feel like we have raised this little girl. We've seen her come back after go away for a little while in New Frontier, and seen her mature and become strong and instill in her the ability to be able to go off on her own again. So, to write the final chapter of her story is really appealing to us. Rather than to let it run for another 40 seasons and it lose all meaning of what is special about it to us.
Like the TV show?
Job Stauffer: No, not at all. We're big fans of the TV show and the comic books. Robert [Kirkman] has said there's an end-point for the comic as well. I can't speak to when that's going to happen, but game-wise, Clementine's story arc-wise, we want to put an end point on this. We want it to have impact and meaning, with things all the way from season one having an effect on the final season. That feels a really interesting creative challenge and one that hopefully will pay off in a creative way for fans who have wanted to get back to Clementine's story.
Please don't kill her.
Job Stauffer: That's the thing, it's been terrifying thinking about 'how do we announce the final season without fans automatically assuming she's going to die?' That's not the case, it doesn't mean she is going to die. But it means that it will be her final story arc for Telltale.
Well. Please don't kill her.
Job Stauffer: Noted.
To what extent will previous decisions affect the final season? Any returning characters? New Frontier was something of a soft reboot.
Job Stauffer: With it being a final season and being back fully in control of Clementine's story, I think everything you've done for the previous three seasons could come back into play. There are a considerable number of characters left on the table who may or may not show up. Or it could be entirely new... We know she is desperate to find AJ, who she has been separated from, and that she is on her own now. That's all we can say.
How many people work at Telltale now?
Job Stauffer: What if I told you we were now about 400?
I would say that sounds about what I expected, considering the number of episodes per year you release, on a huge amount of platforms.
Job Stauffer: Yeah, the last few years we would say, 'well, it's between 350 and 400 people' and we'd be told 'oh my god, you guys exploded'. But if you compare us to, say, Ubisoft - I love that company and what they do - they have so many studios around the world. Ubisoft Montreal alone is 3000 people. If you compare output to output, quality for quality, we are considerably efficient at what we do and how we specifically make our games.
And that's all my questions.
Job Stauffer: Cool. Can I grill you now? [laughs]
Go for it.
[We chat about games at the show for a few minutes]
Job Stauffer: What's the most sensationalist headline you've come up with for this interview while we've been sitting here?
Ooh, something about Game of Thrones being on hold.
Job Stauffer: Did I say that?
Yes you did.
Job Stauffer: I would rephrase that and say... we're deep into production of Wolf Among Us, Batman, and Walking Dead... and when we'll return to development of Game of Thrones is still to be determined. But saying it's 'on hold' is... alarmist and crazy.
Are you saying your own words are alarmist and crazy?
Job Stauffer: [sighs] Do you want to know who lives and dies?
I would take that bargaining chip. [laughs]
Job Stauffer: It is fine to say that [it's on hold], but it's also right to note it is because we're doing Wolf Among Us and Walking Dead. Fans have been wanting those more and we've been wanting to do those more. The time just isn't right for us to go back to Game of Thrones yet. We're excited to get back to it but... right now Wolf and Walking Dead are next in line. Fans should not expect to see it until after those. End quote!
Fair enough! We're back to me asking questions - do you want to do a Monkey Island season two?
Job Stauffer: No.
Job Stauffer: Hmm. It is a proud part of Telltale's legacy, but not really part of Telltale's future.
Sam & Max?
Job Stauffer: Same answer.
Job Stauffer: People like poker! You never know.
Will it be called Poker 2?
Job Stauffer: Poker 3. We've done two pokers - actually, we've technically done three pokers.
So, Poker 4? That's my next headline sorted.
Job Stauffer: [laughs]