One of the most interesting interviews I conducted at this year’s Emerald City Comicon was with Dan Murray, the president of Skybound Interactive. I knew their comics well, of course, but I didn’t have much perspective on the video games side of the company. I was fascinated by a lot of information Murray shared, including how and why games are chosen and the differences between creating games and comics. There’s a lot in the interview below that should interest both games fans and anyone interested in the business of running a multimedia company.
To download an mp3 of this interview, click here.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: Why don’t we start with you telling me about the next Walking Dead game.
Dan Murray: We have our latest mobile game based on The Walking Dead from a team based in Boston called Disruptor Beam. It’s called Walking Dead: March to War. Disruptor Beam are previously known for doing the work on Game of Thrones: Ascent, which was a mobile game. It was a Facebook game that turned into a mobile game. They most recently did a game called Star Trek Timelines.
We’ve been talking to Disruptor Beam for a couple of years. We really like what they do, which is adding narrative to mobile game play, which is not always what you find on that platform. When I first saw Game of Thrones: Ascent, it reminded me of the old-school pen-and-paper RPGs I grew up playing. It married to that aesthetic and that style of gameplay. It was a natural fit. As soon as I started playing Game of Thrones, I was like, ‘Okay, this could work in an interesting way to tell stories in a different type of format.’
It’s a free-to-play mobile game. We’ve gone through a couple iterations. We have our current game on the market now with our partners at Scopely called Walking Dead: Survival Instinct. It’s a tactical RPG. When we look at the world of The Walking Dead with a gameplay focus, we see that it’s a large world. It’s a really large tapestry from which to create multiple types of gameplay experiences for fans. Some people might play different types of games on different types of platforms.
From a game perspective, it’s about the beginning of civilization, not the end. And it’s about the tribal aspect of putting yourself into groups, creating guilds or clans, and fighting with other groups or teaming up with other groups. The whole idea of that social interaction that’s sort of core to the property lends itself perfectly to games.
With Disruptor Beam, we saw a great opportunity to let the players tell their stories. It’s a departure from what we’ve done with our other games – like with Telltale for instance. That’s very much a narrative experience, and you’re telling a new storyline. The same with Road to Survival. We’re telling multiple storylines, but it’s an RPG, so it’s based around the characters.
In this case, it’s a strategy game. It’s very focused on the multiplayer, social component of what it means to be inside of a strategy game. It’ll be interesting to see how it develops because it’s a map-based strategy game where the players get to form their base. It’s all about the alliances they’re gonna find out there with other players. It’ll be interesting to see how those storylines connect as the players continue to develop the world.
CB: There’s an interesting parallel to the world of the Walking Dead comic– to building a world. Because players literally are building a world with their clans and alliances.
Murray: Yeah, with mobile devices being able to reach so many players, it has that broad reach. It felt like a great way for us to create a platform for the players to interact. It’s still going to be within the world, so the characters exist in the comic.
While you won’t play the characters, per se, from a gameplay perspective, you will be recruiting them as council members. They will offer certain attributes and different advantages depending on what type of comic book canon player you choose to lead your council, and then you recruit survivors within that.
Another thing that we found that was extremely difficult to solve, especially on a mobile game that’s free-to-play, is dealing with player death. It’s something that we’ve been banging our heads against for a while because one of the main components of The Walking Dead is that people die. It’s that emotional kind of connection to loss that is integral to the IP. In this case, you can lose players. We found a way to do that without necessarily creating that sense of –
When people invest in things, you don’t necessarily want to just take them away. But we found a very clever way with Disruptor Beam to still inhabit that same sort of sense of loss. There will be certain survivors that are members of your crew. You will have to manage them and take care of them. And if you don’t, they will go away.
CB: Do all the games work from the same universe?
Murray: Yeah, there’s a shared ecosystem. I came from game development. I worked for a company called Foundation 9 before I joined Skybound. I actually had known David Albert for many years prior to Skybound ever becoming an entity. I actually read The Walking Dead from the first issue.
So it’s something that I’ve been following for my whole career on the game development side. Traditionally when you deal with known IP, game developers are managed by the publishing organizations and they’re not quite linked to the actual creators.
That’s one of the things that we wanted to solve right away. Fortunately, the Telltale-Skybound relationship has already proved to the market that, when you do that, you have a better chance of creating something that feels authentic to Robert’s voice. We’re taking that even a step further because now that we’re building up multiple game partners, we have an ecosystem.
It’s about the fans and finding a way to put the fans into an aggregated community that’s about the fan base around The Walking Dead and other Skybound properties. For example, when we launched the Road to Survival game with Scopeley, we provided a way for Telltale characters to come into that game. I don’t think that’s ever been done before from a licensor’s standpoint, where you have two different partners working on very different properties – and then creating that opportunity for them to basically cross-promote and basically share their characters and do things creatively that are organic to gameplay. The point was to not just do it as a marketing effort, but actually put it into the game.
We want our partners to actually share in each other’s success because, ultimately, it becomes about the fans.
For instance, we have an API in all of our games, which is our own digital network which is called Skybound Insiders. When you go into the games, we’re always finding creative ways to give players something in the game that they can opt into. Whether that’s a character or an in-game item – some sort of benefit for them to basically say ‘I really like what Skybound’s doing’ or ‘I really love the world of The Walking Dead.’ I want to go into this community and find ways to communicate and build that digital community as we grow.
It’s about giving people benefits for that. We want to be finding ways to reward the fans that follow us – the hardcore fans of The Walking Dead, for instance. Games are a great way to do that.
CB: Do you feel lie this builds a virtuous cycle between the TV, the comics, and the games?
Murray: Absolutely. When you have something like The Walking Dead that has such a big following – I think the thing that we wanted to avoid was to create something and then launch it brand new every time, where it just feels disjointed in that way.
And that’s not to say everyone is the same. Each partner is very specific. We want each partner to have their own interpretation. That goes to how we want to work with game developers, specifically. We want to treat them like creators. Just like any comic book artist, or anybody – it’s their interpretation of the property. We want them to have their own distinct voice in that world.
Telltale’s game has a very specific look, a voice and a feel to it. Whereas Disruptor Beam’s game – the art style on that game, for instance, is a complete departure from anything that we’ve done with the Dead.
It’s a very abstract art style done by a guy named Richard Anderson. Richard Anderson came from the console PC game world. He worked on Guild Wars, as well as Batman: Arkham Knight with Rocksteady. That’s another thing to take somebody at that sort of level. He’s used to providing art assets at a very specific level of quality. That’s not to say that mobile games aren’t high quality. It’s just that we’re taking a very specific look and feel that, for us, has never been done in this world in The Walking Dead. It will feel unique.
CB: When the company is developing new comic properties, do you start thinking about their application as games?
Murray: Absolutely – 100 percent.
CB: So, there’s the possibility of a Redneck game or something like that?
Murray: Our process on the game side, especially when it comes to the existing properties in our catalogue, whether that’s coming from comics or tabletop games, it comes down to the game developers. I spend 99.9% of my time talking to developers and literally meeting every developer I can find. Because I came from that, and I have that perspective.
I want to align ourselves with them. Video games are a very expensive property to build. The biggest challenge is figuring out ways to get these things financed. We’re working on that because, again, sort of building an infrastructure and network of fans suddenly increases our ability to raise awareness for some of the other properties that are coming through our catalogue.
It becomes about the fans and figuring out a way to build a community. That’s the biggest path forward for us to grow as a company.
CB: Do you have any other games you want to tease for us?
Murray: There’s another angle to the company, which is bringing in game development and games as property first. We brought in three original games this year.
It’s not just comics going into games, but actually brining in games and figuring out other things to do with them. Whether it’s tabletop, comics, movie, TV – whatever makes sense for the property.
The first one we did was called Oxenfree, which has been out for almost a year now and won a bunch of awards for best narrative and best original. It’s gone up against Uncharted in a lot of the awards.
Oxenfree is a beautiful adventure game. It has a great story about these kids who are dealing with a supernatural element on this island on the last day of high school. It’s kind of like Goonies meets Stand by Me – a little Amblin quality to it.
We have a game that’s coming out this spring, as well, that will be launching on Oculus Rift. It will be our first VR-only title. It’s called Giant Cop. It’s basically kind of like Rampage, where you get to inhabit the body of a giant police officer who is basically going through a micro city. It has a very blocky art style and a 1970s style of irreverent humor. He’s going off and solving crimes as a giant in this tiny town.
Then, we have another game, which is called Labyrinth which is on Steam right now. It’s a CCG RPG. It’s a collectible card game, so it has card mechanics, but it’s an RPG on a board so, it’s really more like a tabletop game. If you think of Star Wars: Battle Chess, it’s very similar in aesthetic. We have these 3-D characters on a board, but you’re able to create your own dungeon and fight other players. It’s all asynchronous, turn-based. We’re going to be moving that into VR, as well. Although it’s a PC game, it’ll come out on mobile.
The VR component is really interesting because, as a player, your perspective is to look down on the board, but you can push a button and immediately be transferred into the body of one of the characters and see these big bosses and monsters that look like they’re twenty feet tall.
Virtual reality is an amazing perspective for gameplay. That’s why everyone is so excited by it – because it is a new medium, essentially. There’s lots of fun to have there, too.
CB: You obviously love working in games.
Murray: Skybound’s a great place. What I love about video games is that, every year, they reinvent themselves in some manner. It never stops moving and reinventing. People are always taking what came before, and they might actually work on something similar. A game might come out and feel similar to something else, but they’re usually innovating and moving forward. If you’re not doing that, you’re probably not trying hard enough.