“The Walking Dead” comic book’s enduring popularity gave birth not just to two television shows and an eclectic mix of merchandise, but its world also laid the groundwork for more than a dozen video games. Four of those games are still in development. All of them remain in the canon of the comic’s over-arching world, none of them retell any of the stories told across 15 years in the nearly 200 books.
Where AMC’s “The Walking Dead” brings the original story of the comics to television — albeit a sometimes radically altered version of it — and “Fear the Walking Dead” exists within the realm only of television, the video games all stand apart, differing from the comic’s story and, mostly, each other’s.
How that’s done, how four different groups of developers managed to tip toe their way around not just the mainline of the comics, but also each other’s stories, involves a lot of interacting, a clutch of writers’ rooms, and a phalanx of Skybound employees who serve as the eyes and ears of creator Robert Kirkman’s stories and “The Walking Dead’s” brand.
It turns out that 2010 was an exceptionally important year for Kirkman and “The Walking Dead.” It was the year he and David Alpert formed Skybound Entertainment, a multiplatform entertainment company focused on helping creators both retain control of their works and expand their IP. It was also the year AMC ordered a pilot for a possible series based on “The Walking Dead” and Telltale Games announced it was working on a video game, also based on the comic. Those two deals saw an interesting fracture in “The Walking Dead” property, one that would lead to two sorts of video games stemming from Kirkman’s concept. AMC’s TV deal gave it the right to create video games based on the show, which was based on the comic. Kirkman and Skybound could also create video games based on the comic, but not the show.
It was Telltale Games, a studio masterful at creating narratively-driven games, that first convinced Skybound to make a game based on the comic.
“Telltale approached David Alpert about eight years ago, the television show wasn’t out yet, so they were really focused on the comic book,” said Dan Murray, president of Skybound Interactive. “Telltale wanted to do something new and tell a new story. What really got Robert and David excited was how Telltale was approaching the story.”
The two companies struck a deal and Alpert suggested to Telltale that Skybound and the game makers build a writers’ room to help rough out the early stages of the game’s story.
“He decided to follow a similar model to how TV shows operated,” Murray said. “Robert was very actively involved in Season 1, in helping to shape the story of Clementine.”
The result was an interactive story that handed control of the central characters’ choices over to the player. Avoiding the typical run-and-gun approach of previous zombie games, it instead focused on character development and storytelling. It was a perfect fit and quickly cemented eight-year-old Clementine’s importance in the canon of “The Walking Dead.”
Around the same time, Alpert and Kirkman decided to try their hand at creating a mobile game based on the comic through Skybound. “The Walking Dead: Assault” was created by the two working directly with Gamagio and then publishing through Skybound.
“It was obvious pretty early on that we weren’t quite set up to do that as an organization,” said Murray. “So the conversation started about how we could expand ‘The Walking Dead.’”
The company decided to start looking at multiple platforms, multiple genres, and talking to multiple game developers with different ideas in mind for the comic. And, as those developers started to line up, Skybound decided to follow the same approach that worked so well with Telltale Games and it’s award-winning title.
The first studio after Telltale Games to come to Skybound with an approach to “The Walking Dead” that the company liked was the Swedish developer behind over-the-top action games like the well-received “The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay,” “The Darkness,” and heist game “Payday 2.”
Starbreeze deputy CEO Mikael Nermark “flew out to the Steam developer conference and asked to take me to lunch,” Murray said. “He heard I was at Skybound and was interested in ‘The Walking Dead.’” The approach he pitched, which won the company the rights, was to take the cooperative action gameplay of “Payday” and combine it with the harrowing elements of “The Walking Dead” in a game about surviving the early days of the zombie apocalypse in Washington, D.C.
Next came Scopely, a mobile game developer partner network that wanted to create a role-playing game set in “The Walking Dead” universe for smartphones. Most recently, Skydance Media reached out to Skybound about creating a virtual reality game based on “The Walking Dead.”
The company also recently announced plans to team up with Sky to launch mobile-game focused studio Skybound Stories, which will focus on narrative games based on new Sky television IP.
“Sky TV was our first step,” Murray said. “We’re going to do more in this space.”
With every one of the four development studios — now responsible for 10 games between them — Skybound writers and its editorial team worked closely with the studio’s writers to flesh out how the narrative would take shape and how it would fit into the wider world of the comic. Ultimately, though, Skybound granted an immense amount of freedom to the developer.
“We encourage our partners to put their own identity into the experience and expand the universe,” Murray said. “But we lean in quite a bit when it comes to in which swimming lane they’re going to play in the universe. We also work to connect ourselves to them early on and specifically connecting Robert’s brain to their game.“Our editorial team for the comics is our superpower. We can access a lot of writers, but we have an editorial staff that is consistently working with Robert every month and they are the eyes and ears of the brand. They make sure to keep it consistent to Robert’s voice.”
The teams for those games also often spend quite a bit of time getting up to speed on the nuance of what has already happened, and where it happened, in the comics.
“Every new team member’s first assignment is to read every edition of ‘The Walking Dead’ series and the novels,” said Scopely’s Jori Pearsall. “It’s very rare to have a work assignment that has you go off and read comics for a week.”
Developer Starbreeze also has everyone on the team reading the comics.
“We take notes, we have a group Slack chat,” said writer Kelsey Howard. “People are in there talking about specific panels and pictures. We are nerding out about what’s already out there. … An interesting thing about ‘The Walking Dead’ is that it has a very universal story and is keyed into the human experience.”
Once the teams are up to speed on the comic’s story and the canon of the world, Skybound usually has a meeting to help build out a sort of writers’ room. The approach does change a bit depending on the specific needs of the game, though. Not every game needs a full writers’ room, Murray said.
“The Walking Dead: The Final Season”
Days before the layoffs decimated Telltale Games, designer Mark Darin and “The Walking Dead: The Final Season” creative director Kent Mudle, chatted about the formative years working with Skybound to build their studio’s take on “The Walking Dead.”
“When we first started working with Skybound it was a lot of back and forth and trying to figure out what the game was supposed to be, who the characters were, what would be the setting, the gameplay,” Darin said. “Skybound wasn’t really involved in deciding the gameplay, but they were a partner in talking about it. Once that first season was successful, they became less hands on. We understood what ‘The Walking Dead’ was about and that trust was a bond that grew over the years. Then we were able to develop our own ideas and create our own stories without them being so involved.
“There is such a responsibility that comes with this now that we are synonymous to ‘The Walking Dead,’ a responsibility to the fans and the world.”
As the first game’s success grew, so did the size of the Telltale team working on it.
“For the first season we had just started putting together a writers’ room to figure out story and season,” Darin said. “In the early days, writers, designers, and directors were just one person. As the studio has grown, we’ve specialized, we have gone out and sought writers who are experts in their field.”
Mudle added, “I’m pretty sure the designers were doing the dialog.”
When asked if Telltale Games might work on another title set in “The Walking Dead” universe after “Final Season” wrapped up, Mudle sounded optimistic.
“Theoretically, yes,” he said. “’The Walking Dead’ universe is super broad. You can tell all kinds of stories as long as you follow the rules of the timeline and what zombies do.”
“The Walking Dead: Road to Survival”
Skybound brought in just two writers to work with Scopely early on for its mobile game “The Walking Dead: Road to Survival.” One of them was Jay Bonansinga, who co-write the novel “The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor” to help build out the backstory of the game.
“That was a difficult challenge: How to introduce a new story, a meaningful story to a game type — turn-based combat in a 3D space — that hasn’t been conducive to heavy storytelling,” Murray said. “They found an angle and decided to lean into the backstory of the Governor. We brought in Jay, paired him with a game writer who had worked at EA on the ‘Medal of Honor.’ He understood what we were trying to do in the free-to-play space. He and Jay worked together to lean into what Jay did on the novels, but also create a new storyline.”
Pearsall, senior vice president of product at Scopely, said the process was exciting for developers IUGO Mobile Entertainment. The idea was to create a game that was “really intense, gritty, and dark,” he said. “Development started about a year prior to launch. [IUGO] developed the core of the game relatively quickly.” The team then spent the rest of the year working on innovation in the mechanics of the game and trying to nail the authenticity of the world.
“A lot of effort went into how the world would play out through key decision moments,” Pearsall said. “We were making an authentic social experience for the game and having players face life or death, or morally ambiguous decisions.”
Telltale had already released three of its games based on “The Walking Dead” and they were immensely popular, so Scopely decided to go after a space in the comic world that was both unique to the mobile game and complimentary to Telltale’s titles.
“Our game is really about creating decision moments for players, creating an ecosystem where you are responsible for joining up with other survivors,” he said. “There is an opportunity there for you to tell your story in an authentic ‘Walking Dead’ world.”
Telltale, on the other hand, guided players through a rich story. The games seemed so complimentary, that in 2015, the two studios teamed up to introduce some of Telltale’s characters to Scopely’s game.
“We took those characters and kind of extended out that storyline to give to our fans,” Pearsall said.
While “Road to Survival” is carefully packed into the space shared by the comic’s Governor and some of Telltale’s characters, IUGO were careful not to replicate what had already been played out in the comics. Instead, they worked to recreate the comic’s world and then tell stories in it adjacent to the ones readers may know and love. That allowed them to include authentic characters and settings while also creating new characters and new storylines.
The approach seems to work for the game, it’s in its third year now with a customer base that Pearsall says continues to grow. Players spend an average of 22 hours a month playing the game and more than 40 million people have it installed it since its release in 2015.
“Overkill’s The Walking Dead”
Skybound’s approach to the writers’ room for Starbreeze was similar to what they did with Scopely.
“We wanted to still put it into an environment, place the game in a location familiar to fans,” Murray said. “But not the same location as Scopely or Telltale.”
Where Scopely’s “Road to Survival” shadows the comic book storyline, while still telling its own tales, Starbreeze took a completely different approach to its story.
“We chose to explore Washington, D.C.,” said Saul Gascon, global development director at Starbreeze. “To give another angle and explain in the canon of the story what happens there as the comics are happening.”
The game has entirely new characters, an entirely new story, and a setting that will eventually be near to a central location in the comics, but well before when that happens in the comics. Tantalizingly, the game’s story will be the closest we’ve seen yet to the moments when the outbreak occurs.
“We want to explain the events before you see what happens in the comic books,” Gascon said. “It has been very exciting because we wanted to evolve the Kirkman universe with Skybound, with our team, and with Kirkman himself.”
“Overkill” writer Kelsey Howard said the game takes place around the time Rick is waking up.
“Not a lot of time has passed since the outbreak,” he said. “We are definitely dealing with a world in the grip of this outbreak. We are telling our own story, but everything is interconnected.”
The game’s first real villain will be Reina, the leader of a group called The Family.
“You encounter them throughout the city,” he said. “Reina group is a direct threat to your camp and your character.”
In Starbreeze’s shooter, players work to build an encampment and then keep it safe by going on runs and helping out those inside the encampment and those who may join. While the game has the initial look and feel of a typical shooter like “Battlefield” or “Call of Duty,” but with zombies, it doesn’t take long for players to realize they need to be much more cautious in their approach, both with zombies and the non-friendly humans.
“We tried to make the human enemies as menacing as the players,” said Gascon. “To survive you need to work together as a team.”
Instead of simply allowing players to run around shooting zombies and avoiding other survivors, the game is mission based. You have camps you need to maintain, survivors to rescue, food and supplies to gather, and folks to help outright. As you grow your camp those missions become bigger, further into the untamed corners of D.C., asking much more of you.
The game started as a simple idea of working with other players to survive in “The Walking Dead,” Gascon said, and then they started working with Skybound to flesh it out. As the story and location came into focus, the team at Skybound made sure that no one else encroached on the developing storyline and at the heart of the new story is working directly with Kirkman, Gascon said.
“We don’t want to retell or explain the stories that have already been told,” he said. “That doesn’t make any sense. You have experienced that in the comic books and the TV series. We are expanding the universe with Kirkman. We have our own stories to tell with Kirkman.”
Howard added that the feedback Skybound provides to the game developers is immeasurably helpful.
And, as with Scopely and “Road to Survival,” the story of “Overkill’s The Walking Dead” won’t end with the November launch of the game.
“For launch, we will have a full story,” Gascon said. “Then like in ‘Payday,’ our strategy shifts to live operations. We launch a game and then we evolve the game with the community and then we work on what we want to do from a narrative and gameplay perspective. Every month after launch we will do something new for players. Whoever gets the game is going to be entertained for a long time. Think of it more as a TV show with episodes rather than a movie.”
“The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners”
The most recent addition to “The Walking Dead” stable of games is an upcoming, virtual reality game from production company Skydance Media. While Skydance is perhaps best known for feature films like “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” and “Star Trek Into Darkness,” the company launched an interactive division in 2016. That division released “Archangel” last year and announced plans to create a virtual reality game set in “The Walking Dead” universe.
“We felt no one had told the story of living in the world of ‘The Walking Dead,’ yet, just looking into it,” said Guy Costantini, vice president of global interactive marketing at Skydance.
So Skydance called Skybound last year and pitched them a virtual reality game where players are dropped into that undead-infested world. Skybound liked the idea and introduced a full writers’ room for the project, bringing in several writers they had worked with before plus a couple of new people. The room took the same approach that was used with Telltale’s first game.
“We wanted to build a very strong narrative component to this game,” Murray said. “It is much more about using VR as a vehicle to immerse a player.”
Over time, the concept behind “The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners” evolved to become a game that has players trying to survive the flooded remains of New Orleans, exploring what remains of the undead ravaged city.
“New Orleans wasn’t part of the original pitch,” creative director Todd Adamson said. “We came to it after the fact because it’s a super unique setting and New Orleans is prone to natural disasters.”
Murray calls the setting a “rich, identifiable environment” and said because of the culture and city’s real history, it gives Skydance a chance to expand upon what may be happening to the players.
In preparing their approach to the game, the team didn’t just read through the comics, they also checked out all of the video games. (Adamson called Telltale’s games “fantastic.”)
“It’s kind of a noir-esque in how you unravel the story.”
“We wanted to make sure we are creating our own version of ‘The Walking Dead,’ and something that could only be done in VR,” he said. “All of those games are super unique too, but ‘The Walking Dead’ is a pretty vast playground to play in and the medium of virtual reality has some interesting challenges.”
Between their vision and the constraints of virtual reality, the team quickly honed in on a concept.
“There is a lot of opportunity that you have in the VR spaces that the medium allows you to explore in more depth,” Adam Grantham, narrative director on the game, said. “Normally you press x and that’s how you slash, in VR it’s all about motion control, presence. You are controlling each hand, each slash. You want to feel the motion.”
The team also wanted to allow the players to define who they are in the game.
“We’re not going to tell you who you are,” Grantham said. “What a lot of people feel when they read the comic, or watch the show, or play other games, is say, ‘This is what I would do?’ We want people to be able to define who they would be in ‘The Walking Dead.’”
To deliver that experience in virtual reality, the team said they changed the pacing of the game, slowing it down from what one might expect from a typical action game and they leaned into the survival horror elements of the franchise.
“There is this feeling of being in a rundown house, not knowing how many Walkers are in there,” Grantham said.
“Maybe you are opening a dresser drawer, but that’s the one that creaks,” Costantini added.
What the team didn’t want was a game that had players running around shooting mindless zombies, an approach that likely wouldn’t have worked well in virtual reality anyway. Instead, it’s meant to be tentative, exploratory, and frightening.
“Consequence is something we want to deliver in the story as well,” Grantham said. “What about that dresser drawer? What if you open it anyway because there is a gun in there? Every little action, everything you do has consequences. If you take that gun and walk down the street shooting zombies, here comes the rest of the herd.”
Both the story and the team’s approach to the game were shaped by the setting.
“A big part of this was New Orleans and all of the opportunities that come with a new region,” Grantham said. “Mystery is a huge part of what we are doing with the story. Players need to be very active in uncovering clues, following threads and piecing together the story. It’s kind of a noir-esque in how you unravel the story.”
The team wanted to differentiate the game from others visually, too.
“We wanted to make sure the art style is very unique to what we are doing,” said Jake Geiger, art director on the game. “We have been doing a lot of iteration and research to make sure that the art style and visual imagery is something that is compelling and achievable in VR.
“Doing something absolutely photo-realistic in VR is a challenge, so our goal was to create a visceral experience for the player without having to lean into being super photo-realistic.”
The team hopes that when the game hits in the first half of 2019 it will add Skydance’s own lore to “The Walking Dead” universe.
“We have the constraints of the IP, but we still have a big chance to contribute to the world,” said Mark Domowicz, production manager on the game. “’Saints & Sinners’ is in the universe, but it’s a standalone experience. You don’t have to be steeped in the universe to enjoy it.”
Telltale, which served as such an excellent kickstart for “The Walking Dead’s” plunge into the world of video games, also became a bit of a cautionary tale. In September, just days after several top team members spoke with Variety for this story, the company laid off 250 employees and essentially shut down, throwing it’s latest “Walking Dead” episodic game, not to mention the lives of those employees, into turmoil.
In the following days, Skybound Games stepped in to take over “The Walking Dead: The Final Season,” which promised to finish Clementine’s story started back in 2010. The company said it would also work with members of the original Telltale team to finish that story. But the sudden, unexpected even to Skybound, crumbling of Telltale Games, and harsh treatment of its massive studio of employees, left fans and developers unhappy.
After the collapse, Murray said while he knew the studio was facing some “challenges,” he didn’t realize how dire things were for the company. He said in the aftermath Skybound discussed once more trying to take game development in-house.
“The game industry is always filled with challenges. It’s hard making games.”
“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. Ultimately, Skybound decided that its current approach to pairing IP with developers was the best one.
“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.”
Beyond “The Walking Dead”
The editorial team, the writers’ room, the hands-on, then hands-off approach, all seem to have helped fuel a sort of renaissance for “The Walking Dead” games (There has been at least one bad one, but it was an early AMC/Activision-created project). With the improved quality came a drop in pitches. Now, Murray said, he only gets pitches maybe once a week, down from nearly half-a-dozen pitches a week.
“It’s proven that zombies in video games are a great combination,” Murray said. “We always start with the creative and then it comes down to the other side of the table. We spend a lot of time iterating back and forth and taking their proposal and having a direct conversation about is this the right fit. We’re also thinking about the fan. Do we think that they will really like what is going to come next?”
Perhaps most importantly to Skybound Entertainment, the company’s approach and success with “The Walking Dead” is now being used to build an approach for how the company will move forward with other IP.
“’The Walking Dead’ is the beginning,” Murray said. “It’s allowed us to extend ourselves into all kinds of different formats and create a sort of blueprint for how we move forward in terms of creating community around an IP that focuses on players and the fan.”
“The whole goal is to treat each IP as their own mini platform,” he added.