Copyright Telescope Game Studios

We wanted to expand the playing field beyond Berlin’s already rich and healthy game scene

Co-CEO Reza Memari and Studio Director and Producer Mafalda Duarte

Telescope Game Studios - an subsidary of the Telescope Animation GmbH - create interwoven story universes containing animated films, series, games and immersive experiences. With Co-CEO Reza Memari and Studio Director Mafalda Duarte we talked about the advantages and challenges of transmedia storytelling, the support of regional funding institution Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, and why the rhythm game genre is perfect for their first game "Rise of the Leviathan".

Why was founding a games studio a logical step for you after successfully building your animation studio?

a. Reza: Telescope was always meant to be a multi-platform production house, so we had always planned to open our own studio for games – it was never an afterthought. We believe in creating story universes that span more than one media. For example, our first big IP The Last Whale Singer is an animated feature film with a game prequel and a series that continues after the feature film and leads up to a feature film sequel. I used to work in the games industry as product and development manager, so games aren’t foreign to me, and I still play passionately. In 2018, when we founded Telescope Animation, real-time game engines were pushing to attract new markets to their tech. Since we always wanted to make movies, series and games anyway, it was only logical for us to embrace this –for animation people then revolutionary- real-time approach for the entire company. By working within the same tech sandbox, our games and animation studios can share assets and knowledge freely and save a lot of resources and time. But not all our IPs are meant to be kicked off by our animation studios. We are already developing game ideas which can spin off into animated films or series.

How do the two media influence each other in your daily work?

a. Mafalda: I would say our relationship is like a language exchange. We elevate each other with new perspectives, with cross-media references to inspire each other's work, with different frameworks, techniques, and needs but also a common goal of being storytellers first. For this particular project, the IP started at the animation studio so of course we are always asking “what are the film’s goals” for the characters and universe as a first step in ideation, but then we give our own unique additions and suggestions to build on their vision and that creates a fuller universe, shaped by the two media perspectives.
b. Reza: Our studios are set up to be on the same level with each other, meaning no studio is “above” the other. Therefore, we encourage the exchange between our games and animation teams. There has been a trend of gamification lately, where films and series are structured and designed like games, while more and more games are striving to achieve that glossy feature film visual quality, so both our worlds are always in dialogue, inspiring and challenging each other.

What are the advantages of transmedia storytelling, both for the sake of the story and as a business model?

a. Mafalda: Story-wise, my favorite thing about the transmedia approach is the way that it opens the door for experimentation, not only with the possible storylines but also aesthetics, alternate universes, and experiences. It is a very exciting structure to be creative in, and that spills into the business advantages as well. We can experiment with different audiences or carry our fans from one platform to the other in a world that’s more and more interconnected. Everyone is everywhere. The public is no longer confined to the TV, the cinema or sitting at a computer. They are in their room, watching a film while playing on Steam deck and checking their phone. The uniqueness of our business model is that we are not trying to force transmedia into our stories, but creating stories and story universes that have transmedia at their core.
b. Reza: From a business perspective, it’s becoming increasingly hard to stand out in the heavily fragmented games and film markets – especially when creating original IPs like we do! You need to come out with a bang and deliver quality entertainment or no one will see you! We stand a much better chance that consumers will recognize “The Last Whale Singer” if the title pops up as a game in app stores, while the film is shown in cinemas, on streaming, and on TV, which is where the series will also become available. We further support this transmedia roll-out with books and merchandising. From a storytelling perspective, it’s obviously more enriching and entertaining when you’re able to go much deeper into the characters and worlds you’re creating. By threading an interconnected web of stories, we allow audiences and players of various age groups to look at the story universe from multiple angles and enjoy theoretically endless adventures. But we’re also learning that while virtually any story can be turned into a transmedia project, it’s not always necessarily a good idea to do so. The worlds we create need to lend themselves to transmedia organically, or otherwise, it will seem forced. Consumers can smell quick cash-grabs, so we want to be very deliberate about which stories we turn into a transmedia story universe, and which stories we enjoy specifically because of their intimacy and singular uniqueness.

Why did you choose to spread your offices between Berlin, Potsdam and Hamburg?

a. Reza: Almost all German film and game projects are supported by some form of government funding, but every region has a different focus and expertise. And so we ended up setting up our animation studios in Hamburg because of the city’s renowned, excellent animation support and strong artist pool. We chose Potsdam/Babelsberg for our games studio because we wanted to expand the playing field beyond Berlin’s already rich and healthy game scene while enjoying the proximity to the metropolis and the Babelsberg Film Studios, where some very exciting production technologies are currently being developed.

Your first game IP, Rise of the Leviathan, is a musical adventure game and is the prequel to your animated feature film “The Last Whale Singer”. How does this genre benefit the story and get your message across?

a. Mafalda: Well, everything starts with “The Last Whale Singer” universe, so we knew singing needed to be our core mechanic, and of course fighting the Leviathan. The starting point for this was to explore musical mechanics in games, and that turned into going towards rhythm games, which are a subset of action, so fighting was also covered. Although this is where we started, we wanted to make a non-violent game from the beginning and cater to an adult audience that could relate to a deeper message. So our team tried a new perspective, and we ended up developing a more introspective, intimate and magical narrative. It still has its action moments, but our game and story moved from action - focusing on physical challenges and quick reactions - to adventure - focusing on puzzles and exploration - giving us more opportunities to intertwine the story with gameplay. That change also affected the rhythm aspect, so we started to think about the singing as the musicality of the player's actions instead of quick reaction matching sequences. Our game is now centered in the Musical Adventure genre, supporting our ability to tell our story with musical puzzles, exploring the environments and through player musical actions, evolving our understanding of our ability to use the language of games to tell this story.

Is it easier or more difficult to develop a feature film and a corresponding game at the same time instead of successively? Why?

a. Reza: I’d say it’s certainly more challenging and more complex to develop both at the same time, but it’s also advantageous thanks to the constant exchange of story updates, and ideas from the game team that can flow into the production of the film and vice versa. This way, we can truly say that both projects stand on their own, and no project was an “afterthought” of the other. On the other hand, game development and film production are such different beasts, that they require their own dedicated workflows and pipelines, so there is also a lot of independence and freedom, which our teams enjoy.

You are funded by Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg. How do they support you during the development process?

a. Mafalda: As a newly established indie studio, having Medienboard support is an immense privilege. In addition to the financial assistance, their team and regional impact are significant for our ability to kickstart a game studio and new projects. We have point-of-contact people we can reach out to with questions, and who guided us through the process with check-ins and milestones. Another very big thing that has helped us as a studio, is the support Medienboard gives to the development of a healthy ecosystem in the region. Through other organizations, like medianet or Games Ground that have also been supported by Medienboard, we have been involved in multiple networking events, a few online workshops and other growth opportunities that have propped up our abilities to create, learn and connect with our peers, leading to new opportunities and knowledge.

@Mafalda: You have been an Ambassador Coordinator for Women in Games since 2022. What does this job entail and why is it important to you?

a. Mafalda: I joined the Women in Games Ambassador volunteer program in 2020, and the power of community, communication tools and confidence I got in return impacted my journey in game development deeply. At the end of 2021 when the opportunity to join the core Women In Games team as an Ambassador Coordinator came up, a support role for other ambassadors around the world, I jumped in. I was overjoyed when I knew I got the role. I love everything I do in my roles as producer and studio director, but it is very special to me to be able to work for a nonprofit organization with a mission that aligns with my core values and allows me to make an impact beyond what I could only dream of, collaborating with amazing women from across the globe, and giving back the confidence, tools and community I received when I first join the program.