Telltale's The Expanse interview - Developers on early development and appealing to new fans

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drummer in The expanse game

Recently, I had the chance to play the first episode of Season One of Telltale's The Expanse, their first game since returning as a developer.

As part of my preview, I spent some time chatting to Tommy Spampinato, who is Lead Environment Artist on the game, and Emerson Oaks, who is Art Director, about the early days of developing the game and how much they thought about trying to appeal to players new to The Expanse.

Below is our chat in full. We also have a full preview of episode one if you want to check out our early thoughts on the game.

Telltale's The Expanse interview

Tom Hopkins (Gfinity): Since it’s garnered quite a specialist audience, was making the game approachable for people who aren’t familiar with The Expanse a big consideration when making the game?

Emerson Oaks: Absolutely! I mean, as you put it, The Expanse has a fixed audience, so to make the game popular we need to bring more people into it. I think part of the way that we do that is targeting a much larger audience of people, fans of narrative adventure games, and Telltale Games.

Tom: Was that part of deciding to do this particular story in the Expanse  universe?

Oaks: Drummer is one of the most recognisable characters for anyone interested in the series, so it seemed like a natural fit.

Tommy Spampinato: Yes. I mean, she just stuck out right from the beginning from her first spot on the show. I think she first appears in season two, she ramps up more and more. But I think Cara, through her performance, she cemented her role immediately. Well, this is my speculation. I feel everyone has seen the show. I loved it so much. I was blown away. I mean, it's popular, but it's not as popular as you know, Game of Thrones was. Yeah. So I was completely blown away. And so I never really thought about people that hadn't seen the show. So the question you just asked made me realise like, wow, I’d never really thought about that.

A key choice in episode one of The Expanse
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Tom: Are you interested to see how players who don’t know the series create new and different versions of Drummer’s personality?

Oaks: Yeah, it'd be interesting to see how players who are not familiar with the series. She is pretty cool, because she does have an arc. She rose from where she's at in the prequel to where she ends up in Season 2 of the TV show.

Spampinato: I think people will realise she's like a no nonsense character. That's what attracted me in the show. She's really tough. And, you know, wasn't, I don’t know if flamboyant is the right word. She wasn't over sexualised in the show. Something drew me in; her attitude and just how she dealt with the people around her. Because she's to the point, yeah. And in the series she gets stronger and stronger. I'm not [going to] ruin it for anyone. And being able to know her outcome in the series allowed us to craft her story. And we also worked with that outcome to give us ideas on how we can take this character because she's really a compilation of a bunch of different characters from the books. And they created one character in the TV series, which was Drummer. But in the books, and I'm listening to audiobooks now and I haven't come across her, and I’m on book five. I think I just heard her name just recently.

Oaks: She seems pretty unflappable and vulnerable in this series. She obviously has trials and tribulations that she has to get over. But for her to get to that point, I think one of the interesting things that our writers had to imagine is what kind of experiences do you have to have to get to be that sort of person or have a skin that's that thick, and she's not as indestructible in the Telltale series.

Tom: You spoke about working with Alcon, how collaborative was that process with them when you were first coming up with the story?

Spampinato: I think in the beginning was very collaborative. And then you know, I guess I got to work so I didn't really hear much about it. It was a trust relationship. They certainly reviewed our builds and stuff and our game director did a great job communicating with them. I think they met with the writers of the of the books, as well as Alcon.

Oaks: Particularly in the early days.

Spampinato: It didn't seem to me as a Lead Environment Artist or as if they were micromanaging us at all. There was a lot of trust in there. And yeah, it was a great relationship.

Tom: As an environment artist, was getting the look and atmosphere to be like that of the TV show collaborative too?

Spampinato: Oh yeah. I mean, fortunately, I have seen the series three times, so I studied it quite well. So it was all the reference we needed. We couldn't have asked for a more perfect situation, in sci-fi too, because you know, you start building with modular pieces, we create this corridor. We did that right away, we created this corridor, the level designer was able to block out the story. And then the team was like, wow, this is starting to look like a game already. And it was great. We took the building and started to create a lot of environments, and then alter the textures so that we save time, when we created other environments with that texture set, because everything's built a certain way. You just have to change this through texture and all those panels were changed.

The Belt outside The Artemis in The Expanse
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Tom: Was it fun to work with the zero G environments?

Spampinato: Was it fun? It was exciting. It was not fun. You had to deal with collision, so you don't want to impede the player. So collision had to be simplified in a way. And you know, I really wanted to tear up the ship a lot more, but we certainly had to find the perfect balance.

Oaks: Yeah, I think one of the challenges that you have is that you want to make it feel like it's, you know, exploded and just completely chaotic. But there needs to be a sense of borders, there has to be an intuitive sense of how to navigate this space. So you're really trying to create the impression of chaos, while still having some structures around it. [To Tommy] So you guys did a great job on the Environment Team of creating signposting and having you know, elements that point you towards the next area that you need to go to. It's not a linear space, you do kind of have waypoints.

Tom: Did you find it rewarding to work with original characters as well as Drummer?

Oaks: Yeah, of course, anytime you get to create a new character, you get to imagine that on a blank page, it's great to see that we can put characters like Virgil, who walks into that universe. And, you know, they don't carry on into the TV series, but they fit in and they help tell the same character stories.

Tom: What's your favourite thing that you've added to the game was an original thing and not in the series?

Oaks: Oh that’s a great question.

Spampinato: I think it's the lighting. [Emerson laughs] We really developed the lighting. That was my favourite part to be able to see, and Emerson played a big role in that.

Oaks: What to add to The Expanse? I mean, the number of shipwrecks and the number of like, these kind of desolate spaces that you're exploring as a player are really, really interesting. That's something that you don't see a tonne of in the series.

Tom: I’ve only played five minutes so far, but do those spaces get quite varied as you progress, even past episode one?

Oaks: There are lots of different locations, or a lot of different experiences. We don't want to spoil it for anybody, but yeah, there's a lot of variety in the game.

Tom: The two week gap between the release of each episode is interesting, as it differs from other Telltale games. Why was that decision made?

Spampinato: I think people wanted to mimic the show.

Oaks: Yeah, part of creating that sort of cadence is to bring the community together and have a shared experience. I think it's one of the things that TV delivers. You'd have to wait the next week for an episode. You get to talk to your friends about it. If we extend the time too much we'd start to lose people on that thread.

Tom: Are there a lot of secrets that diehard Expanse fans will spot that are super obvious?


Oaks: There are some good surprises. There are some cool callbacks, or call forwards I should say. There's also a lot of things that like flesh out the world and the world that we've created and provide more depth to the characters. And if you find them, they also provide depth to the relationships.

Tom: Do you recommend people who haven't seen The Expanse before watch the show and read the books alongside the game or is this a good place to start?

Spampinato: I definitely think you can watch the show. The books are pretty detailed - listening to the audiobooks is great. I mean, that's what I'm doing. I would start with watching the show. For sure.

Oaks: Before you play the game? The game could be an entry point, right?

Spampinato: It could be, but at the same time you get to see Drummer. Like I said, she doesn't appear until the second season. So he really liked Drummer. Yeah, so I don't know. I love the show. I think it was awesome.

We'll have more coverage of The Expanse Season One when it starts to release this summer.

For more articles like this, take a look at our Features page.