Comic characters are first experiment in new format

It’s been a long, strange trip from comic book ink to episodic game for the dog and rabbit crime-fighting duo Sam & Max.

When Steve Purcell created the characters twenty years ago he could never have imagined they would become the first experiment in episodic gaming, a new form of videogame told in installments like a TV show, instead of one big chunk like a movie.

“At the time I just wanted to do a comic book that I could feel proud of. I didn’t know if I would ever have a chance to do another one so I put a lot of effort into it,” says the veteran illustrator, who now works in the Story Development division at Pixar Animation Studios.

The cult comic book series helped land Purcell a job at LucasArts where the company took a liking to his critter creations. They made cameos in many titles and in 1993 appeared in their own PC adventure game, “Sam & Max Hit the Road.” It took nine years for LucasArts to announce the sequel would go into production. Between that time Sam & Max appeared in an animated TV series from 1997-1998 on the now-defunct Fox Kids Network, further expanding the reach of the franchise.

But in 2004 LucasArts abruptly halted production of the sequel title “Freelance Police” and cancelled the game for good, much to the disappointment of Purcell and the game developers. Instead of leaving their passion project on the drawing room floor, several of these LucasArts employees left to start their own vidgame banner, Telltale Games.

“As soon as the rights to Sam & Max finally reverted back to Steve Purcell, we leaped at the chance to be able to make it because that’s something we had all loved from the beginning,” says Telltale designer and writer Brendan Ferguson, who along with lead designer and writer Dave Grossman developed all six episodes of “Sam & Max: Season One.”

The many mediums Sam & Max have ventured into over the years helped secure a distribution partnership with Turner’s videogame download service GameTap, which also liked that it appealed to a somewhat older demo than the typical teen-driven vidgame.

“Being able to use a franchise that was going to cross a lot of age demographics was important to me,” says Rick Sanchez, VP of Content at GameTap.

But perhaps the more important reason Sam & Max was a good fit for GameTap is the episodic gaming model.

“These are essentially comic book characters who live their existence in episodic format so they just make sense for an episodic game,” notes Sanchez. “You didn’t have to have some really drawn out dense stories to make them work. You could have a really wacky, simple story that you could play in four or five hours and feel really good about.”

Now GameTap is using the Sam & Max model of an episode-a-month release schedule with other games. The company recently announced that its popular multiplayer online game “Myst Online: Uru Live” is being turned into an episodic game and a 24 episode series titled “American McGee’s Grimm,” based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, will launch in the spring of 2008.

Though he has a full time job at Pixar, the Sam & Max writers took Purcell out for dinner frequently to brainstorm story ideas for the games.

“Our office is between where he works at Pixar and where he lives so we can just rope him in on his way by,” says Grossman. “He comes up with a lot of crazy ideas and we do our best to work them all in and that’s part of what makes it fun.”

Twenty years after creating Sam & Max, Purcell indeed seems to have no shortage of wacky concepts for the anthropomorphic dog and his “rabbity-thing” sidekick.

“We would go to a local restaurant and bat around ideas for each episode,” says Purcell. “For me I was always looking for what’s tangible in each episode. What’s fun to do when you become a lunatic rabbit President?”

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