Creating a game with a single licensed property comes with no small amount of baggage for a developer's creative and business teams. Telltale, the developers behind last year's episodic hit The Walking Dead, are no strangers to negotiating those issues, having tackled nearly a dozen franchises for licensed games throughout the lifetime of their company.
Even for them, Poker Night is almost unthinkably ambitious. The aforementioned baggage - securing the license, creating content around it, portraying characters in a faithful manner and working under licensor oversight - is present fivefold for Telltale's table gaming series. Even though they borrow limited inspiration from the source material (one or two characters from each franchise), the series' creators had to jump through the same hoops.
Still, there aren't many games like Poker Night and its recently released sequel, Poker Night 2. Licensed games aren't a rarity, but games featuring multiple and unrelated franchises certainly are. It's a forumla so arcane, Telltale senior vice president of publishing Steve Allison told Polygon, that the developer discovered it more or less unwittingly.
"It's kind of a happy accident that Poker Night even exists," Telltale senior vice president of publishing Steve Allison told Polygon.
Telltale's first game as an established company was a poker title, albeit one without licensed characters. Telltale Texas Hold 'Em was an experiment, Allison explained, designed to test the digital distribution model and build the company's engine. It wasn't much of a sales success, but the studio was nonetheless fascinated by how it created surprisingly deep conversation between its cartoonish characters.
"In 2010, I was new, there were a few new people here, and we sat down to go through the catalog of our titles. We came across Telltale Texas Hold 'Em, and what was so cool about that game with a fresh set of eyes was it made you feel like you were sitting at a table with real people, like a poker night out with your buddies. Most card games are pretty clinical and sanitized. This felt really different.
"We had, I don't think 'insane' is the right word, but genius people who started talking about how we definitely didn't want to do what Telltale Texas Hold 'Em did, with generic characters," Allison added. "So the ideas started coming about geek culture characters, video game characters, our characters. And everybody said, 'Yeah, let's do geek characters, let's do our characters' - basically said yes to everything."
The studio's creative team, an outfit which included Michael Stemmle, Poker Night lead writer and veteran LucasArts alumnus, started adding names to the board. They worked in tandem with Allison, who spearheaded the license acquisition for their top picks, assuming they were acquirable.
"Sometimes we threw character suggestions over to Steve Allison, who would go off and hunt them down with an intensity that was somewhat frightening to behold (at least, that's what I've been told ... I've never beheld Steve's license-hunting intensity)," Stemmle told Polygon.
Brock, Claptrap, Ash and Sam sit down for a hand with GladOS dealing.
"Other times Steve would come to us and say something like, 'Hey, I just had drinks with Betty White's agent, what do you think about putting Rose Nylund at the table,' and we'd make collective frowny faces or google-eyed grins depending on how we felt about the characters in question. For the record, the Rose Nylund example never happened ... and besides, if we did get Betty White, we would've gone with Sue Ann Nivens."
Character selection for the first Poker Night was a "random, organic" experience, Allison explained. The team ended up deciding on characters from companies Telltale had worked with in the past. The studio had pre-existing relationships with Penny Arcade and Valve, making two of the licensed characters at the table - Tycho, the more erudite half of Penny Arcade, and Team Fortress 2's Heavy - a shoe-in. The remainder was pulled from Telltale's back catalog, bringing Max, the rabbit-eared sidekick of Sam & Max, and the titular lead from Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People into the fold.
While character casting for Poker Night was a"random, organic" process, it was not entirely without direction, Allison explained. The creative team had to keep in mind how the characters would interact across the table, ensuring that their personalities wouldn't leave conversations stalling, or hitting the same punchlines over and over again. Just like casting a motion picture, the creative team had to make sure its characters worked well together.
"Ease of writing individual characters rarely entered into the equation (because our egos are Just. That. Big), but we did try to keep an eye on character balance," Stemmle said. "Too many alpha males, or straight men, or 'wacky' guys at the table, and you suddenly find yourself in a lot of 'odd man out' situations, where one character is constantly being excluded from the conversation."
The game launched on Steam in November 2010, and performed well, Allison said. He attributes its success to a partnership Telltale formed with Valve, in which Steam users could unlock Team Fortress 2 hats by achieving certain milestones in Poker Night. It brought hat-hunting players in droves.
"We found that people came for the hats, and stayed for the poker," Allison said.
The studio found itself preparing for a similar lull between releases in 2012. Telltale was halfway through development on the first series of The Walking Dead, and knew there would be quite a bit of dead air between the first season's last episode and second season's first. It needed a smaller project to launch between the two, and a sequel to Poker Night was the logical fit. This time, though, character selection wasn't so random; the studio knew they wanted to cross over into the realms of television and film.
Allison was able to leverage connections with other entertainment companies to make that desire a possibility, he explained. MGM was more than willing to partner with Telltale to put Evil Dead protagonist Ash in the game - Allison said he has a long-standing relationship with the company, which is why they were eager to cross-promote, especially with the rebooted Evil Dead film still fresh in theaters.
Cartoon Network was similarly eager to work with Telltale to bring one of the creative team's most requested players into the game.
"We have some strong connections at Cartoon Network whom we love, and who really like our company, and we also have some Venture Bros. fans in the building," Allison said. "Brock was an internal favorite choice from the beginning. And Cartoon Network basically was all in from the first time we mentioned it, and they made that deal happen fast."
Allison described Telltale's relationship with Venture Bros.' licensor as particularly close. When asked if that relationship had started over discussions of a full-fledged Venture Bros. game developed by Telltale, Allison evaded.
"It's possible," Allison said, laughing. "But it hasn't happened. Yes, we talked to them about all kinds of things that we didn't end up doing. I can't say we've actually negotiated a Venture Bros. series deal, we haven't. But we talk about all kinds of things with those guys."
Claptrap, the one-wheeled smartmouth of the Borderlands series, came to the game by way of Gearbox's admiration for the first Poker Night.
Oh look, GladOS brought a friend.
"We have good friends at Gearbox, who basically said, 'If you guys ever do Poker Night 2, we want to be in,'" Allison said. "So once we knew about it, we gave Dave Eddings and Randy [Pitchford] a call, and said, 'Do you want in?' And they gave a very enthusiastic 'Yeah,' with an 'F' in front of it. That was very easy to put together."
The table also needed a more personable dealer for Poker Night 2, the creative team behind the game decided. The studio wanted to work with Valve again, but didn't want to dip back into the Team Fortress 2 catalog for fear of repeating themselves. The solution was obvious: Portal antagonist GladOS would serve as the dealer, offering up her trademark stream of constant, clinical criticism.
The fourth seat would be filled by a returning character from one of Telltale's titles; which, surprisingly, was the trickiest role to assign. Sam - the other half of the Sam & Max duo - ultimately made the cut, but his wasn't the only name on the list. For example, Marty and Doc Brown from the company's Back to the Future games were considered at some point, but were vetoed due to Poker Night 2's Mature rating, which it earns with occasionally vulgar language.
The team also discussed adding a character from The Walking Dead to the table, but ultimately decided that any character from the series wouldn't be a particularly sound thematic fit.
"We had a very long discussion about having Lee at the table, or Larry, which I think would be awesome, as did many other people," Allison said. "Maybe they'll make it into future Poker Nights. The only reason they didn't was because that series was so fresh. There was extensive conversation about, 'Can we really put characters from a game that makes people cry in a poker game?' So we respected that, for now."
Telltale had only provided a voice for one of these characters in the past, but Stemmle said he didn't let unfamiliarity get in his way. He dug into fan-made content on the internet to learn about the characters he was writing for; content that offered far more depth than the actual products the characters had been pulled from.
"Although I re-acquainted myself with the source material a lot, I also cheated," Stemmle said. "It's scandalous how much I absorbed just by looking up clips on YouTube. Also, fan-wikis. The Borderlands and Venture Bros. fan wikis are in-freakin'-sane."
Learning enough to give licensed characters a voice is just half of the equation, Stemmle explained. When dealing with multiple franchises, it's not enough to make sure each character behaves the same way as their source material counterpart - you have to make sure they can intermingle, too.
Poker Night 2 includes PS3, Steam and Xbox 360 unlocks.
"Once you've gotten in the habit of maintaining the true 'voice' for a licensed character (the hard part), it's not that hard to get them interacting," Stemmle said. "The tricky part is finding things for them to talk about that ring true for the various combinations of characters. I mean sure, Ash and Brock are gonna talk about weapons and manly stuff, but what can Claptrap and Ash talk about? And what sort of topics can all four of them have in common, besides, weirdly, zombies?"
Both Stemmle and Allison stressed that the oversight process for each of the license holders was fairly hands-off. Each offered notes on the dialogue Stemmle had written into the game, but none were overbearing about it.
"I had umpteen skads of creative freedom, all things considered," Stemmle said. "There were a few rules we tried to adhere to internally, like keeping the metatextual humor to a minimum, trying not to insult the player too much, and stuff like that. But otherwise I was given free rein to let the characters babble about whatever popped into my caffeine-addled mind."
That freedom, not to mention Telltale's ongoing relationships with most major entertainment companies, stems from trust in Telltale's licensing capabilities. The studio has proved itself, Allison said, changing the dynamic of the licensee/licensor relationships he maintains. Companies are now reaching out to Telltale, to inquire about how to get their intellectual properties adapted.
"From 2011 until today, I think Telltale is the only company that speaks positively about licensed games as a company strategy," Allison said. "Now, my job day to day is I'm actively talking to everybody, from Warner Bros. to MGM to Cartoon Network - everybody. We all know each other well, and they're generally pretty enthusiastic about trying to find a way to work with Telltale."
Allison attributes much of the studio's success to its refusal to shoehorn franchises into game genres in which they don't belong. The Walking Dead, he said, was a great example of how Telltale "evolves" a genre to make it match the franchise; most developers approach that process in reverse.
"I think what's difficult for people who've been doing gaming at other companies for so long is it's hard to get out of the mindset of 'How do I make a shooter out of this?' You probably can't. Like, James Bond in Skyfall only kills four people. Every bullet means something, every death means something. But in James Bond games, you probably kill a thousand people by the time you're done. That's arguably not an accurate way to present the franchise.
"Those are the issues our industry struggles with on licenses - it's hard for us," Allison added. "We struggle with that too, and we definitely don't get everything right. But we try hard."