Telltale’s ‘The Walking Dead’: Kirkman’s Skybound Discusses What’s Next

Six years ago, Telltale Games performed two minor miracles with one video game: “The Walking Dead” both reinvigorated adventure games and proved that television shows, “The Walking Dead” in particular, could be meaningful inspiration for award-winning video games.

The success of the game also highlighted what “Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman hoped to do with Skybound Entertainment: give creators control of their creations, no matter the medium.

Telltale Games’ business and creative partnership with Skybound seemed a match made in heaven — until it wasn’t.

Last month, struggling from months of apparent financial issues, potential investors AMC and Smilegate pulled out of deals with Telltale and the company essentially shut down. It was a surprise to everyone, including Skybound Games.

“We are plugged in with our partners, but these are businesses being run and we try not to control their business,” Dan Murray, president of Skybound Interactive, told Variety. “We knew some of the challenges Telltale was facing, but when the news hits so suddenly everyone was taken off guard.”

The sudden collapse left more than 250 people without jobs, severance, or health care. Less importantly, it also left “The Walking Dead: The Final Season” without its last two episodes and a beloved in-game character without closure.

In the weeks following the closure, game studios from across the industry stepped up to try and find jobs for the displaced. During last week’s New York Comic-Con, Kirkman also announced that Skybound would be taking over “The Walking Dead: The Final Season,” and doing so with the game’s original creators. Or at least that’s the intent, Murray told Variety this week.

“The game industry is always filled with challenges. It’s hard making games,” Murray said. “Whenever something like this comes up, our intention is to try and do the right thing, not just by the brand, but by the fans. This was our chance to do both. It’s also our intention to make sure to do right by the people we were working with. This is a business that is made by people, and when things like this happen there is a human cost. We are trying to do what we can to work with the original staff and provide a soft landing.”

Murray declined to share any of the financial information surrounding Skybound’s deal to take the game over from Telltale. He also declined to say how many people from the original team would work on the game or what sort of contract it would be — short-term or a permanent hire.

“We are doing our best to take care of the people,” he said. “Our intent is to work with the original team but there are a lot of moving parts. I don’t want to get into the specifics around the deal itself, but I will say this: We are doing everything we can to do right by the people making the game. There’s not a huge upside for the corporate entity of Telltale Games.

“This has nothing to do with Telltale Games and everything to do with the people involved with making ‘The Walking Dead’ game and trying to take care of them in the meantime the best way we can. That’s the process we are in: Save the game for the fans and provide at least a runway to the team as we finish off the game. This has everything to do with the people who are making the game, and the fans.”

While the former staff of Telltale Games continues to struggle to find new jobs and deal with the sudden closure, Skybound is trying to navigate those waters in a way that, Murray hopes, will help give those developers time to find footing and also result in a conclusion to the game.

When asked if Skybound might consider building out an in-house staff to start creating more of its games inside the company, Murray said that was unlikely, at least in the short term.

“There is a challenge to that idea,” he said. “We discussed it, but our company is built around creators, doing whatever we can and working with a creator’s IP to extend it outward. Bringing on a whole team is a big initiative and something we weren’t prepared for.”

Creating an in-house development team, he said, would limit the company’s ability to experiment with such a diverse selection of IP and genre.

Skybound is also still working through the details of how the game’s final episodes will be sold, he said.

While the sudden closure of Telltale Games could be interpreted as a sign that narrative-driven games aren’t profitable, Murray said that Skybound still believes in them. He also said the company continues to examine ways to tell more stories from “The Walking Dead” using the same sort of gaming approach.

“We believe in narrative games,” he said. “We believe in story games and we will continue to tell the best stories we can around ‘The Walking Dead.’”

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