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 The Walking Dead : Zombies, shotguns and feelings
The Walking Dead: Zombies, shotguns and feelings Exclusive
June 22, 2012 | By Eric Caoili

June 22, 2012 | By Eric Caoili
More: Console/PC, Design, Exclusive

How did Telltale's The Walking Dead, an episodic action-adventure adaptation for the gorey comic book and cable TV series, become the fastest-selling title in the developer's eight-year history?

Some would immediately point to the popularity of Robert Kirkman's zombie franchise -- it's long been a favorite amongst comic book fans, and the AMC show continues to pull in huge ratings. The Walking Dead is one of the hottest properties right now, so it's no surprise people are flocking to a game based on its license.

But Telltale has worked on plenty of tie-ins for big films and TV shows before like CSI, Back to the Future, and Law & Order. None of those games had anything like the success of The Walking Dead, which has already sold over a million episodes (70 percent of those for Episode 1: A New Day). And that's after releasing just the first episode of the five-part series; Episode 2: Starved for Help ships for PC and XBLA/PSN later this month.

There's more to crafting a hit like The Walking Dead than picking up a well-known name, the game's story consultant and screenwriter Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli) tells Gamasutra. He stresses that Telltale sought to play to the strengths of the series' story -- which is just as much about dealing with conflicts between the living as it is about surviving the undead -- to create a game that would meet players' narrative expectations.

"[The setting] is just a great forum for human drama because it reveals people for who they really are," says Whitta. "People's true natures emerge. The hero and the villain exist inside every one of us. You often don't see the extreme versions of those personalities in our comfortable world where there's not really a lot of drama around day-to-day.

"But when you strip civilization away and people are fighting for their lives, and the lives of themselves and their loved ones are on the line, people really kind of emerge as kind of amplified true versions of themselves. So, it's a great way to create these very extreme human dramatic moments. They gave themselves a great foundation to start from."

Though Telltale's game features an original story with its own cast separate from the comics and show (with some cameos), it's managed to attract and appeal to the franchise's fans by emphasizing the drama between characters, and forcing players into making life-or-death decisions.

So it's not entirely about blasting off the heads of zombies with shotguns -- though there are certainly portions of that.

Matching story-based design with emotional moments

Understanding that it needed to emphasize the toll a post-apocalyptic zombie-filled world would take on survivors, the Walking Dead team decided on "a design approach that was very heavily focused toward story -- less worrying about creating puzzles and traditional graphic adventure game-type elements, and more about creating an almost interactive TV show," says Whitta.

He adds, "I think a lot of the player choices and a lot of the moments that really resonate with players are less about kind of the classic intellectual puzzles of traditional video games like 'How do I find the key that opens the safe?', and more about 'Am I going to let this person live or die?' or 'Who am I going to side with in this very difficult situation where there's not really any correct answer?'"

Whitta argues that this kind of approach allowed the group to create a more accessible title that could attract broader audiences compared to typical adventure titles. The appeal of making meaningful decisions that impact the story and other characters in a big way can be much easier to convey to others than the satisfaction of solving a tricky puzzle.

"I think [we're] engaging a part of the brain that is not typically used when people play games, because games haven't been very story- or character-driven," he says. "They haven't been really driven by emotional concerns. They're usually driven by these very kind of logical, pragmatic concerns. 'How do I solve this challenge? How do I move forward?'"

But he believes that more studios are making efforts to offer emotionally engaging experiences in their games, and opportunities to feel the weight of their choices. Whitta praises BioWare as one of the developers that's really designed its games with this in mind -- he mentions a devastating Mass Effect 3 moment when one of his choices to save one alien race resulted in the extinction of another (his favorite race in the game, no less).

"I think that's going to be a bigger developer target," he predicts. "I think the whiteboards in development offices are already starting to look very different. I think the questions on the boards are more like 'How do we emotionally engage the player?' rather than 'How do we intellectually engage the player?'" says Whitta.

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Josh Rough
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They've done a very good job with this particular game and I'm glad they're seeing success. Their games are already a choose-your-own-adventure style experience so you'd expect them to get story very right eventually and create a pipeline that traditional storytellers can work very well in (which they've done). Don't think it's quite the game changer he imagines, and I'd wildly disagree with several of his suggestions, but they still deserve a lot of credit for creating one of the better licensed games to date.

Travis Flynn
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Really enjoyed this, as did my Girlfriend. She keeps asking me when the next one will be out.

warren blyth
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* typo: the end of the article is missing? "He adds, [END]"

* I think it's selling well because it makes good/meaningful use of player agency. repeatedly, at the start.
Thus the opening is very strong and delightful, in that magic way that makes you want to tell your friends "you gotta play this!" without being able to just tell them each instance that worked.

For Example (i can't resist trying to describe):

*spoilers from first 5 minutes of game*:

-The opening in the back of car, where you are handcuffed. You can't do anything but look left and right, which mimics the restrained state of your character.
- having no choice but to walk up to the dead guy, and get his keys. This is the classic Resident Evil trick, where you have no other option but to walk into a trap.
- hunting for something "shiny" (clickable) in the woods. You feel stuck, then you wonder if there's ANYTHING you can click. you swipe your mouse over every pixel, waiting for it to indicate anything at all is interactive. You find a tiny spec which may or may not be a child in the distance. And you realize you've actually just spotted a zombie in the distance. and by clicking it, you've kicked off the next action sequence.
Thus you self paced the classic horror movie moment where a character says"over here! help! ... OMG, RUN!" moment.

these all struck me as great choices that use established gameplay ideas to effectively tell the story. nom nom nom.

* Plus i DEEPLY love the idea of letting people compare their choices to others', in a choose your own adventure sort of game.