A Season with Sam & Max

And so with the release of Episode 6: Bright Side of the Moon, Season 1 of Sam and Max has come to an end.

So, how did they do? Pretty damn good. Let’s talk about what this means for the future of adventure games.

Silhouettes

Sam and Max

I don’t want to turn this into a blow by blow review of the games in the series. There were high points, a few puzzles that were really clever, a few others that were really stupid. In other words, the series as a whole was about par for the course for a long, fairly well written adventure game.

What Telltale has done that is really impressive, I think, is that they have (apparently) come up with a sustainable way to write and sell adventure games. Profitably selling adventure games in today’s marketplace is an activity that some respected commentators have said is so hard as to be impossible. So how did Telltale pull this off?

Screw Retail

To the best of my knowledge, the new Sam and Max series is a digital download only. No boxes, no discs, no fighting for shelf space at Best Buy. One can only imagine that this let them focus on selling to the small pond that makes up their core market (because, let’s face it, only someone who already likes adventure games is going to download and pay for one) rather than just jumping into the ocean and drowning.

They are going to ship a box set in August. I’ll be curious to hear whether they sell more boxes or bits. I’m betting a good bottle of Belgian beer on the digital downloads. Anyone at Telltale want to take me up on that wager?

Have A Partner With Deep Pockets

Sam and Max was co-sponsored by Gametap as a way of promoting their service – the games are included in a Gametap subscription. This clearly gave them some breathing room. Having a partner can be a mixed blessing, but it certainly seems to have helped them out in this case, especially in terms of marketing.

Leverage Existing Content

The episodes take place over a long period of time, both in-game and in real life. This means that you can rely on players’ distance from the previous games to let you get away with more asset reuse than you could in one “in the box” game. Throughout the series we see the same incidental characters show up and get pressed into service for different roles.

I’m not just talking about the supporting cast. Consider TV show hostess Myra Stump from Situation: Comedy who shows up in Reality 2.0 as the avatar of an anti-virus program. If Sam and Max had been one 12 hour game instead of 6 2-hour games, the designers would probably have felt obligated to design, draw, render, and find a voice for an entirely new character. But in little doses each month, the reuse is not just effective, it’s actually charming.

This applies not just to characters, but to locations, many of which are reused throughout the series. All of this reuse probably reduced the cost of creating art assets, and also probably helped the design team meet their deadlines.

To Hell With Hardcore

Sam and Max was designed with the casual player in mind. The game autosaves generously. You can save whenever you want. The game is forgiving – there’s no way to “lose”. There’s a well integrated (and non-spoilerish) hint system built in to the game. Lastly, the episodic form lends itself well to enjoyment by gamers with jobs.

Let me tell you a story. Every so often, my co-author psu lends me some weird PS2 Japanese role-playing game involving gay porn and pouty boys with a lot of product in their hair. Some of them I’ve even sort of enjoyed (particularly Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne). I will typically play these games for, say, four to five hours over the course of two weeks or so.

Then, something happens. I’ll have a deadline at work, or I go on vacation, or some similar interruption. I ignore the game for a couple of weeks. Then, I come back, put the disk in the drive, and have no idea what the hell is going on. Where am I? Why is the earth turned inside out? Who is that guy? Why is he naked? How did all that product get in his hair? What’s with the ostrich?

Then I realize that not only have I lost the thread of the game, but that there are still another thirty-four hours of gameplay to go, and I give up, put the game away, and never play it again.

Many people who play games today also played them when they were teenagers. As such, we remember when video games were an excruciatingly expensive investment. The thought of spending $30, $50, $60 on a game that you could only play for a few hours was outrageous. We wanted the game to be padded out. We wanted the game to last for months and months, so that we could ignore our homework for the entire school year. Presumably, this is still true for a lot of younger people who buy games today.

But here’s the thing: many of us have grown up. For myself, I’ve decided that life is too short to play bad videogames. I have more money than I have time. I would much rather pay $30 for a game that gives me 10 hours of enjoyable gameplay than $10 for a game that gives me 600 hours of repetitive and pointless button clicking.

That’s who Telltale is writing Sam and Max for. And I suspect that they are making money hand over fist. Good for them.

“Adult,” meaning “For Adults”

That the developers of the game are writing for people with real lives is also apparent in the scripts. Too often, “mature” in videogames means blood, boobs, and lots of pointless use of the word “fuck.” Sam and Max isn’t above toilet humor – we are talking about a game whose protagonists are a phlegmatic dog detective and a gleefully psychotic lagomorph, after all – but the writing in the game is generally directed towards adults. Kids will get the occasional laugh, but anyone not solidly literate is going to miss half the fun.

In what is perhaps another side effect of digital-only distribution, Sam and Max is not rated by the ESRB. I approve of this. More publishers should blow off the ESRB.

They’re will be asking the ESRB to rate the boxed version. That’s another reason why the boxed version will be inferior.

The Future

So what’s next?

The first question is whether there will be a Season 2. If there isn’t, then you know that all my pontificating about how brilliant Telltale was in picking their market was wrong. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. Every single person I’ve talked to who has played the series has loved it.

I have no particular advice for Telltale in terms of game design. I think they did a fine job, and if I have quibbles about this or that puzzle, that all falls within the realm of authors’ privilege. The one thing I’d love to see is a Mac port of episodes as they are released. As their Bone series demonstrates, Telltale’s game engine runs great on the Mac, and I know that I’m not the only person who grows weary of rebooting into Windows just to play Sam and Max.

Crisp art, amusing and witty writing, a jazzy soundtrack, and a commitment to the gamer who has a life. Whatever Sam and Max games we see from Telltale in the future, I’m sure they will continue to bring these to the table.

And I’ll keep playing them.

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