How Telltale teamed up with 'Game of Thrones' and Borderlands

The upcoming Tales from the Borderlands series wouldn't have come to fruition without The Walking Dead's success and a few rounds of tequila, according to Steve Allison, senior vice president of publishing at Telltale Games.

"We were backstage at the [2012] Spike VGAs," Allison told Polygon. "And Gearbox was sitting at table one and we were sitting at table two — we were there for The Walking Dead. We got to talking a little bit, and I don't remember when it the night it became, 'we should do this thing," but it happened over a few cocktails."

Allison said the two teams discussed their award-winning properties — Borderlands 2 and Walking Dead — for some time before the idea of a Telltale and Gearbox collaboration came up.

"We could have easily left it and chalked it up to too much tequila, but we followed up when we got home," he said. "And they remembered the conversation. The Borderlands universe has so much story potential, all those great characters. There's a narrative there in Borderlands 2 but it serves a certain purpose, and we can serve a difference purpose with it for fans of the franchise."

In the end, Allison said Telltale approached Gearbox with the determination to pitch the project. And Gearbox accepted.

"Another long standing desire, especially for our founders, is to apply our concept of episodic entertainment to a giant gaming franchise," Allison said. "When properties become a franchise, people fall in love with the characters. [Co-founder] Kevin [Bruner]'s dream was to find one that has great characters and passionate fans and try to do something with it."

As for the challenges of quite literally switching gears from Borderlands to Tales from the Borderlands, from a shoot-and-loot run-and-gun action title with a breakneck pace to a more narrative- and character-driven affair, Allison said it's not a particularly difficult challenge. Telltale feels the Borderlands' universe is a rich field of content to pluck from in terms of stories — and there absolutely will still be guns.

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In addition to Tales from the Borderlands, Telltale announced a second project during the 2013 VGX awards show: an episodic game based on George R.R. Martin's high-fantasy Song of Ice and Fire books and the HBO television adaptation, Game of Thrones.

Allison said Telltale's take on the series will draw from both the original books and the show, but will defer in most cases to the show in terms of representation and major elements. However, this does not mean Telltale won't pull material from the books that didn't make an appearance on television.

"Creatively, we're going to defer to the show because we are using HBO's license," Allison said. "Playing the game should feel like watching the show and we'll be making lots of decisions the same way the showrunners do. We've talked with them about how they make their decisions and how they pace their scenes, what they do when they face a big plotline and what to keep and cut. We're taking their expertise and applying it to the material we bring to the table."

Initially it was Telltale that approached HBO about making a Game of Thrones game, largely due to the studio members' passion for it. During Telltale's "long meetings," developers would look at everything currently on the market — popular franchises and properties — and decide to pursue what most interested the staff.

"We looked at things we wanted to work on and the most important things are what are we passionate about," he explained. "After that we ask, is there enough of an audience at the end of day that would play this thing?

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"We want franchises that are really difficult to translate into traditional gaming, we don't want to make another Walking Dead first-person shooter," he added. "What works with the franchises we have it the characters, the story and drama and the relationships. We look for franchises that are huge and have all those elements."

In the end, Telltale decided Games of Thrones fell "in the same bucket" as The Walking Dead. The franchise is a "pop-culture icon" with an audience numbering millions. Allison noted the Games of Thrones project, though still in early development stages, took more than a year of conversation with HBO to seal the deal — a multi-year, multi-title deal, to be exact.

"We're super happy to work with them, and we'll be working on a lot of games for many years to come," he said.

Currently, Telltale has four series in the cooker: The Walking Dead, which just began its second season; The Wolf Among Us, based on the Fables comic series; Tales from the Borderlands; and Game of Thrones. Allison clarified that although the studio has all these projects under its belt, they are not all in development at once. As The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us wind down, fans can expect to hear more about Borderlands and Game of Thrones.

"We all work in the same office and we don't outsource our work," Allison explained. "People who come to Telltale from other video game companies struggle with how we make games because it's so different from working at other studios. The concept of teams here doesn't necessarily exist; we have groups doing certain things like building sets or animating scenes, and a leadership team that has producers to keep people in check and directors to direct episodes."

Allison explained that studio members will move between projects as needed. Animators and other developers could work on one episode of The Walking Dead before moving on to create scenery for The Wolf Among Us and then back to Walking Dead again. The team is a series of moving parts that build where things need building at any given time.

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"The idea of having four teams working on four different things doesn't exist here," he said. "The way we make the games, it's just not the same. It fits with the way they build the game, the episodic nature and the way they play like television shows. It's not 50 guys working on the same game for 18 months."

As Telltale moves into 2014, the goal is to "work on three or four great things" every year moving forward.

"We have this mission that we're philosophical about: we want to bring truly interactive stories, bring in the television model for storytelling and let people interact in a way that traditional gameplay doesn't let you do when you're running around and blowing shit up all the time," Allison said. "That's not what we're about. Once we got to a certain place with the company and we started working on all the things we started working on ... we are in a position to handle that in a way that doesn't compromise our quality. The way we do things and the way we design from a structural standpoint not everyone agrees with. But there are no compromises on the way we do anything on these series."

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