The death of Telltale Games left a vacuum, and the game industry is starting to figure out how best to fill it. While Skybound is carrying “The Walking Dead: The Final Season” to its conclusion, what happens next for the franchise and games like it is a question mark.
A team of four Telltale alumni recently founded AdHoc Studio to carry the interactive narrative torch into the future. Three members of the team departed Telltale in February 2017 and joined Ubisoft to work on an unannounced project. AdHoc CEO Michael Choung spent time at Night School Studio after he left Telltale in 2016.
Telltale’s history of crunch and long hours may have had a hand in the creation of AdHoc Studio, as the team tells it. According to Nick Herman, AdHoc’s chief operating officer, the first discussion of striking out on their own came during a late night conversation at Telltale. The team had long dreamed of taking interactive narrative beyond what they were doing at the now-defunct studio. To do that would require a smaller group willing to take risks.
Dennis Lenart and Herman, former Telltale creative directors, and Pierre Shorette, a former director of writing, had hopes of forming a new studio at Ubisoft. Unfortunately, that didn’t come to fruition, so the trio teamed back up with Choung to build something original on their own.
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“Having to pitch something that ultimately fifty people need to understand and approve means a lot of the more adventurous or risky ideas often die early on for a bunch of different reasons,” Lenart, AdHoc’s chief technology officer, tells Variety. “We liked the idea that if it was just the four of us, we’d be able to more confidently wade into unfamiliar water.”
Telltale was slow to approve ambitious ideas. Prior to its collapse, the studio had a deal with Netflix that took years to get off the ground due to internal resistance.
While that partnership did bear some fruit in the form of a streaming version of “Minecraft: Story Mode,” the true potential was realized independent of Telltale’s involvement. “Bandersnatch,” an interactive movie in Charlie Brooker’s “Black Mirror” universe, shows how live-action and interactive narrative can reach new audiences.
“It feels like we’re at the precipice of a big shift in how we consume media where the lines between film, television and games are starting to blur,” Shorette, AdHoc’s chief creative officer, says. “With streaming platforms in our homes and cell phones in our pockets we’re in this unique time where the barrier to entry to interaction is gone. So as a group of people whose expertise and experience has come from making Interactive Narrative that sits in that space between, we feel now is the perfect time to form a studio that focuses on creating content for a new space.”
AdHoc is targeting the same kind of audience that latched onto “Bandersnatch.” Streaming television and film viewers are a ripe target, with 139 million Netflix subscribers and 23 million signed onto Hulu. It’s this group that AdHoc sees as primed for the work it wants to create.
“People are holding their favorite television shows and films in their hands, so what we’ve understood to be purely audio/visual experiences are now also haptic by default,” Choung says. “That should be good news for all creators since it offers them another dimension with which to tell stories, but it should be of particular interest to game devs since it’s basically what we already do. We don’t think of our audience as viewers, but as players. Players with agency that can manipulate what we put in front of them. So there’s a real opportunity here to be among the early innovators and we feel like with our partnership, which we’ll announce in the near future, we’ll be able to make real contributions to the form.”
AdHoc isn’t ready to discuss its first project or who it is partnering with just yet. However, the team is strongly hinting that its it will be an interactive, live-action experience. While full motion video games aren’t anything revolutionary, that segment has experienced a small renaissance thanks to Sam Barlow’s “Her Story,” CtrlMovie’s “Late Shift,” and Big Finish’s Tex Murphy revival, “Tesla Effect.”
“Making interactive experiences with real actors on the screen is something we’ve always talked about,” Shorette explains. We all have backgrounds and interest in film and television, so combining that with our experience in games is something we’re exploring right now.”
“Bandersnatch” opened the doors for Netflix, which says it will make more interactive programs. It also served as proof of concept for what AdHoc hopes to accomplish.
All four of the AdHoc founders have backgrounds in television and film. While there have been attempts at seamlessly blending live-action content with interactive elements, it’s only recently that technology has developed to the point where it can match what the studio hopes to accomplish.
“[“Bandersnatch”] seems to have scratched an itch that people didn’t quite know that they had,” Herman says. “That’s really exciting, and what we want to do is to make clear that live-action interactive isn’t a novelty, it’s unexplored territory that can be both creatively and commercially viable. For that we’re really excited about what we’re doing, and who we’re working with and that’s a hint at a project that we’ll have more to say about in the near future.”
It’s that connection to a broader audience that motivated AdHoc to start with interactive narrative. Their time at Telltale helped clarify the opportunities and challenges that exist when laying out the welcome mat for those who do not typically identify as part of the core gaming audience.
“We saw a lot of people who wouldn’t traditionally consider themselves ‘gamers’ connect with what we do, which was exciting,” Herman explains. “That said, it did create a little tension trying to developing for traditional gamers while keeping things simple enough for people who are new to the idea of interacting with their entertainment. It’s really important to know who your audience is to get them the balance they’re looking for.”
Telltale’s “The Walking Dead” was revolutionary, winning numerous game of the year awards, but the studio started to see diminishing returns from the adventure genre it helped revitalize. Despite a variety of different licensed intellectual property, compelling characters, and snappy writing, the samey gameplay kept Telltale from evolving its offerings. In its last years, the studio was accused of reducing the genre to a formula.
“I think the [genre’s] reputation is largely deserved,” says Choung says. “Luckily we’ve had the good fortune of working on titles that are cited as exceptions to the rule. Games are just really difficult to make, and more often than not devs end up having to prioritize in ways that aren’t conducive to great narrative. For us, the narrative is the game. Just that small difference in priority should yield interesting results.”
Part of breaking out of that box is using tools that are better suited to the task. Telltale was on the verge of leaving behind the aging Telltale Tool engine in favor of Unity. The transition created a number of challenges, but would have positioned the studio to expand its options.
The AdHoc team was unwilling to say much about their reasons for departing Telltale. Choung left in October 2016, while the others stayed on until February 2017 (a month before Kevin Bruner was ousted by Telltale’s board).
“I think when we look back at our time there the memories are mostly happy ones,” Herman says. “But at a certain point you just get the sense that the party’s over and it’s time to move on.”
Despite remaining largely quiet about their time at Telltale, there’s a sense that the AdHoc team wants to correct one of the biggest complaints about Telltale’s senior management. The studio, especially under co-founder Kevin Bruner’s leadership, had a reputation for stifling creative talent to the point that people like “The Walking Dead’s” Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman opted to leave.
“I’ll just say that because we’re creatives ourselves, we’ll really be focused on recognizing, empowering, and ultimately retaining creative talent,” Choung says.
Despite embarking on an interactive narrative project as their inaugural project, AdHoc doesn’t see itself as limited to that genre. They want to put emotional engagement at the center rather than a particular play style.
“Working at Telltale for as long as we did, you can kind of get stuck in the thinking that you’re only working in this very specific band of choice-based games,” Lenart says. “Between the four of us, we’ve gone on to work for both AAA and indie studios since and what we’ve found is that a lot of what we learned at Telltale still applies to a much broader set of experiences.”
Games are a series of choices. The trick is making them meaningful. Sometimes those decisions impact the moment-to-moment gameplay, like picking the right weapon or skill upgrade for a situation. Others drive the narrative, fostering deeper relationships between the player and non-player characters.
AdHoc sees choice at the heart of the games it plans to develop.
“Most of our conversations center around maximizing the dramatic potential of those kinds of moments, while making sure people still feel agency and responsibility over what’s going on,” Herman says. That ethos has impact that could reach far beyond interactive narrative, all the way to action games, including first-person shooters.
While that’s not in the cards right at launch, Choung doesn’t want to pigeonhole AdHoc Studio. To that idea, he simply says, “Let’s not rule anything out.”