Interview: Telltale talk Wallace & Gromit

Fright of the Bumblebees, the first episode of Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures, recently debuted on PC and is soon to arrive on Xbox Live Arcade.

We spoke to Dave Grossman, the Design Director for the season, and Dan Connors, CEO at Telltale Games, about what it’s like to work on the series; what challenges working on the famous claymation franchise brings, why sheep eat slippers, and the eccentricities of coffee markers.

Dave Grossman has played a huge part in the adventure genre over the years, working on the likes of The Secret of Monkey Island, Monkey Island 2 and Day of the Tentacle. Dan Connors founded Telltale Games with Kevin Bruner and Troy Molander back in 2004 after having worked with LucasArts for over eight years on titles such as Sam & Max: Hit the Road.

DarkZero: Where did the idea first come from to develop an adventure styled Wallace and Gromit game?

Dan Connors (CEO): After finishing the first season of Sam & Max, we were thinking about what types of franchises would make a good Telltale game. There were many Wallace & Gromit fans at the studio and the idea of making a game featuring those characters and set in that world generated a lot of excitement.

Dave Grossman (Design Director): It all started when I woke up one morning and there was a sheep eating my slippers. I looked in the phone book for a pest control service, and… OK, no, it was a little more mundane than that. Basically, as creators of adventure titles, we’re always on the lookout for rich, entertaining characters who get themselves into trouble by being clever, and get themselves back out of it again by being more clever. Wallace & Gromit has always seemed perfect for us, and it were on our list of things to think about for as long as I can remember.

Previous Wallace and Gromit games from other developers were not all that well received. Were Aardman Anamations aware of this, and did they take much convincing that things may be different this time round?

Dave: We did have to prove ourselves a bit, though I don’t know that it had to do with any previous experiences so much as a naturally protective attitude towards their creations. We put together a package with a 3D model of Wallace and one of the rooms in his house, along with some story ideas and basic information about our studio and what we do. Then one of our founders, Kevin Bruner, took it all with him and stopped in at Aardman one afternoon on his way back from a conference in Scandinavia. They liked what they saw, and things went reasonably smoothly after that.

Dan: Basically, we told them we wanted to make a game that was true to the franchise, where the focus would be on the stories and character development. That sounded good to them, but we still had to prove we could get the look, so Brian Gillies, one of our senior artists, created a beautiful, spot-on living room. When Aardman saw that, they were convinced we could deliver on the art. Once the project started, they were deeply engaged in the story creation and script writing part of the process.

Aardman are well known for their unique animation style in the Wallace and Gromit films and shorts, which is a lot different than the style almost all games are known for. Was it a challenge to translate that stop motion clay animation style in virtual form?

Dave: Yes, there are certain aspects of claymation that you have to work to recreate when you’re working with virtual models that are not, for instance, actually subject to gravity when you animate them. Part of it is a learning process for the animators, but there are also things we can do technically. For example, by judiciously adjusting the frame rate at which characters are drawn, we can make what would otherwise be an ultra-smooth computer animation look more like double-framed film.

Dan: We visited with Aardman and got important pointers about critical poses and mouth shapes, which really added to the authenticity. Also, our animators studied the shorts and films and tried to capture the feel. I think they did a great job.

Gromit does not speak, and does not even have a mouth. How do you convey his expressions and emotion under such limiting circumstances?

Dan: It’s a great challenge for the animators and designers to figure out how to communicate what Gromit is thinking. And the challenge is doubled because Gromit is the hero! You’re playing as him half the time. Aardman has been doing this for a long time and they gave us many great examples of how it can be done… and done in an incredibly funny way. Some of the best moments in the games are Gromit’s responses.

Dave: Gromit is the consummate mime, conveying an enormous range of expressions and emotions using only his eyes, brows, snout, body position, actions and so on. It’s a bit tricky in an interactive situation where you have to generalize to some degree, but we try to emulate what Aardman does with him as much as possible.

Sam & Max: Season Two seemed to be a much more focused effort than the duo’s first season. Do you feel a similar improvement will be on show with the move to Wallace and Gromit?

Dan: Our Wallace & Gromit game has evolved more during its production than any of our previous efforts, and it has resulted in several milestones for the studio. The rendering system is new and the game looks much better than anything we have done to date. We have evolved the control scheme in a way that allows us to be much freer with the camera, which has resulted in the most cinematic game we have ever done. We’ve continued to expand the ways in which characters interact with you and with the rest of the world in order to make them more lively and interesting. And we have evolved the UI in a way that is much more user-friendly and accessible. So where Sam & Max Season Two was a better version of Sam & Max Season One, Wallace & Gromit is completely fresh.

Can you explain the way the game controls, as it still seems to cause a bit of confusion for those than have not played the first Episode? You directly control the characters this time, right?

Dan: Right, it’s direct control. On PC, you move with keyboard and select things with the mouse. On the PC you can also use an Xbox controller or Logitech gamepad, which makes for a great experience. I am very happy with the results.

Dave: I’ve been calling it “direct and select.” With the Xbox controller, it works like this: You directly control the character’s movement in the scene using one stick in the usual manner. The other stick is used to control what object or person the character is paying attention to, and that functions similarly to the way human beings naturally move their focus between significant objects. Say I’m looking, for instance, at a picture on the wall. Down and to the right lies my printer. When I look from the picture to the printer, I don’t really pay attention to the wall space in between, it’s not significant so I just skip right past it. In the game it’s the same: I’m focused on the picture, I move the stick approximately down-and-right, and my attention snaps to the closest significant object in that general direction. That’s the basic idea, though there are many refinements and alternate ways of doing things.

The PC controls are similar, using both the keyboard and mouse. The keys move the character around while you point and click things to interact with using the mouse. It’s intended to combine what you like about directly driving the character with what you like about pointing and clicking, and it does a surprisingly good job. It may be the only adventure interface ever to satisfy both me and Kevin Bruner simultaneously (we’re both rather finicky about things like this).

Was the new control system built solely with the XBLA audience in mind? Would we have seen a more traditional point and click style interface if the game was developed for PC only?

Dave: Actually, probably not. One of our goals with this project was to emulate the Aardman cinematic style, including setting up camera shots the way that they do. In our previous games, the camera used while you are doing your basic navigation has had to show a fair amount of the floor or ground; it’s simply a consequence of some sticky issues that arose from trying to use point-and-click to navigate a 3D environment. They would never use cameras this way in a film. It doesn’t look very good. As soon as we drive the character directly, the whole problem vanishes in a puff of smoke and we can put the camera practically wherever we want. So, the game isn’t just controlled differently from point-and-click, it also looks a lot better, and that factor alone would likely have gotten us to redesign the controls.

Dan: The point and click mechanic, while tried and true, is also very limiting from a game development standpoint, especially if you want to have a cinematic presentation.

With the move to 360, Achievements will have to be included in the game. Will the Achievements be unlocked over the course of one playthrough, or used to add extra longevity to the game?

Dave: Some achievements you must definitely gain by the time you’ve played through once. Some others are awarded for finding special items or for trying interesting things, these are more like Easter eggs, requiring exploration and/or creativity, and you wouldn’t necessarily find them on one playthrough, or indeed ever. And I think there are also a few that are sort of skill based, but not many.

Not to sound disparaging, but US versions of English things, particularly TV shows, don’t usually end up very good – at least in our eyes. How do you keep the distinct humour the franchise has built up intact?

Dan: First, we’re very sensitive to the fact that you feel that way. Second, we know that there are many people in England who appreciate our sensibility with Sam & Max, amd third, we aren’t too arrogant to ask for a little help! Our biggest goal in working with a franchise is to deliver the experience so whatever it takes to get the right feel.

Dave: One or two of us have lived in England, but we’re still all Yanks, and we’re aware that our interpretation of Wallace & Gromit is therefore likely to have a certain “humour accent” in it. So, step one, as always, is research. We studied all the Wallace & Gromit films and shorts, other Aardman material, old Ealing films (Nick Park cites these as inspirational for Wallace & Gromit), and even recordings of people from Lancashire to try to get the tone in our heads. Step two is called “Tristan.” Tristan Davies is a (suitably British) editor Aardman hooked us up with, who has collaborated with them on Wallace & Gromit before. We’ve been working with him since the early story pitching stage, and he’s the one who will generally tell us, “With Wallace and Gromit, it would probably happen more like this…” He also takes a pass at the scripts to try to refine the voice, remove blatant Americanisms, fix jokes that don’t belong, and generally polish things up. Step three is Aardman, who are signing off on things all the way along, including the finished script. And after that there are still the voice actors! We’re recording with a British cast, with the help of Outsource Media, a London-based recording studio, so if anything that feels wrong has managed to slip through that far, they’d be somewhat likely to catch it. So, while you still might notice a difference since we’re not actually Aardman, we’ve gone to considerable lengths to try to ensure that you won’t.

You guys seem to have your own trademark humour as well. Has it made it into the game, or are the laughs more in line with the usual humour the W&G series is known for.

Dan: This series is definitely more Wallace & Gromit, but there are little touches sprinkled about that are very Telltale.

Dave: It doesn’t read anything like Sam & Max, if that’s what you mean. That would just be… well, wrong. The established Wallace & Gromit style is the field within which we play, and we’ve worked hard to be faithful to it and maintain consistency. That said, I’m sure that the preferences and strengths of the individual writers will influence the way it feels within that paradigm. An episode designed by Andy Hartzell will feel a little different from one designed by Joe Pinney, because different aspects of Wallace & Gromit appeal to them. But in either case it will still be Wallace & Gromit. (It might also be worth mentioning that the writer/designers on this project are different people from the groups that penned our Sam & Max and Strong Bad series.)

Did Aardman give an outright ‘no’ to any of your ideas for possible scenarios? Were they strict in regards to what was allowed to happen in the Wallace and Gromit universe?

Dan: Oh, there was a great idea early on that involved Wallace creating a cloned Wallace and Gromit who got along perfectly. Over time the real Wallace and Gromit got more and more agitated at the clones and eventually sent them away. Unfortunately it created a sticky situation in the universe having two clones of Wallace and Gromit on the loose, and disposing of them was definitely not an option.

Dave: Indeed, many of our story treatments were ultimately abandoned because of something at the core that didn’t quite work with the Wallace & Gromit universe. I’d say we went through a couple of dozen before settling on the ones that comprise the season.

You recently confirmed the Wallace & Gromit season would last for just four episodes, which is a small step down from the amount seen in your other franchises. Has development of the game been more strenuous, leading to fewer episodes, or was four episodes decided from the beginning.

Dan: We’re always trying to do what feels right for the franchise, and in the case of Wallace & Gromit, four episodes was the right number. We look at the series as a whole and focus on building a satisfying experience across all of the episodes. The amount of content we’re providing in this series is pretty much the same as what our fans are used to. We’re just breaking it up differently.

wallace-gromic-fright-5Will we always play as either Wallace or Gromit over the course of the episodes, or will there be small instances where we get to control other characters? For example, maybe penguins or a certain sheep.

Dave: This season, you’ll always be playing either as Wallace or as Gromit, typically switching at the major act breaks in the story. Maybe next season?

Is there any reasoning behind the lack of PS3 support? PC to 360 seems to be a natural transition; however with lack of competition on PS3 you’d be sure of some good sales. Why not taking advantage?

Dave: That’s historical, actually. As it happens, we made a CSI game for the Xbox a while back, so our engine, while it required some work, was already running on the platform. Much simpler for us to do a game for a platform we’ve worked on before than to tackle a new one. That said, we’d eventually like to be doing games on every platform known to man, so we may get to the PS3 sooner or later.

In a similar vein, handhelds seem like they’d be a perfect fit to this style of game – in particular the DS and iPhone, due to their touch controls. It is possible we may see such games in the future from Telltale.

Dave: Every platform known to man. When we’ve got games running on your programmable coffee maker, I’ll be satisfied. (What would the user interface be like? Interesting…) Seriously, though, the DS and iPhone do seem like they might be appropriate platforms for our stuff, so I’d probably put them higher on the list than the coffee maker.

Any update on the XBLA release of Wallace and Gromit yet, or is it still just the rather vague ‘spring 09’? Also, has a price been settled on yet?

Dave: We haven’t announced dates for the Xbox Live Arcade version yet. The first episode has been released on PC from Telltalegames.com, with the other three scheduled for May, June, and July. Also, you can play the demo now. Quick, what are you waiting for?

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