Telltale fans lucky enough to attend the developer’s live Batman gameplay event at San Diego Comic-Con are in for a big surprise: the game will feature a new in-game crowd play feature, allowing the audience to influence the story through their smart phones.
For the event being held this weekend, Telltale will host 500 people gathered at the nearby Hard Rock Hotel to watch — and, indirectly, play — the first episode of the studio’s upcoming Batman series, which interestingly, balances role-playing the Dark Knight with Bruce Wayne in equal measure. To kick off the crowd play’s official unveiling, the attendees will be able to vote on every choice the host player encounters by logging into a short URL and entering a login code.
More importantly, when the first video game episode comes out in early August, players will have the option to turn on crowd play in the retail version to make the game a more social, group activity.
For Telltale’s creative communications head Job Stauffer and the rest of the studio, crowd play is something that’s been in the works for a long time, and has roots that date back to the era of classic point-and-click PC games of the ‘90s.
“A lot of us at Telltale who were raised on adventure games were just so immersed in this unique story-driven experience, growing up with all these different genres, whether it was comedy or noir or sci-fi,” Stauffer said. “[Because of that], it was rare that there was ever a two-player game, like arcade action or all the other multiplayer games that everyone grew up with.”
Not that that stopped anyone playing vintage adventure games from “multiplayer” play.
“A lot of us grew up playing with friends or family members crowded around one screen, going through the story and talking to the characters, with [everyone] pointing at certain objects or where to click or deciding what to say,” Stauffer noted. “It’s just something that we’ve kind always just done for fun.”
When Telltale’s original season of The Walking Dead debuted in 2012, Stauffer and the rest of the team found out that they weren’t alone, and began hearing stories about groups of players reviving that old-school adventure tradition. Stauffer recalls the team getting together when the game’s second episode was released for a group play party, which turned out to be a lot of fun.
“We really started thinking, you know, it’d be great if, instead of just shouting at the screen and at each other, maybe the audience watching the player could weigh in on the decisions and the roleplaying, and steer the story as a group in a more tangible way,” he said.
As Telltale started to take its games on the road, starting with an in-theater debut of Tales From The Borderlands at the Alamo Drafthouse in 2014, it quickly became clear the idea of crowd play had a lot of potential.
“Everyone was just shouting at the screen at the top of their lungs and it just became this incredible party experience and this celebration of what we were doing with the audience,” Stauffer said.
Meanwhile, the studio continued to tinker with its plan for the necessary infrastructure while waiting for the right time to debut it. Batman, it turns out, was the best possible candidate.
“It really opens up this door for Telltale games to be more of a social experience and a live one, [making it] an opportunity to get together with your friends and play stories together, instead of just debating about things the next day after you’ve both played separately,” Stauffer noted, mentioning that players will also be able to see which players in a session chose what after the episode is over.
“Even if players chose certain options, and they didn’t win because they were in the minority, you can see sort of how these players were leaning and what their behavior was,” he explained.
In any case, the approach is a natural evolution of what Telltale has always strived for.
“All of our games are built in the language of cinema,” Stauffer said. “So, it’s meant to be consumed on a screen, it’s meant to be consumed and observed and interacted with in a language thats just the same as how people consume television and movies. I think all roads have been leading to this point.”
Batman also presented the perfect opportunity for Bruce Wayne’s character.
“We’ve all seen Bruce lean in different directions in different stories,” Stauffer recalled. “It’s often tough to talk about this in the press, but internally we often refer to our games as more roleplaying experiences even more than we would call them adventure games. [It’s about] giving the player the agency and the opportunity to play a character in the way that they like to play them.”
Stauffer also observed that fans have yet to have a great Bruce Wayne game. He gives an example from the first episode, where Wayne is hosting a Harvey Dent fundraiser and Carmine Falcone, the most notorious crime boss in Gotham, shows up uninvited.
“He walks up and reaches out for a handshake. And the air is sucked out of the room as everyone is watching Bruce, the player. And are you going to shake Falcone’s hand or are you going to leave him hanging?”
As for the segments with Wayne, Stauffer says the aim is for something between a Michael Mann film and House of Cards. Whether playing solo or not, that sounds like the perfect combo.