7:15am PT by Patrick Shanley
How Skybound Saved Telltale's 'Walking Dead' Game From Certain Death
On September 21, 2018, the roughly 250 employees of video game developer Telltale Games were delivered news that every developer dreads to hear: the studio was shutting down.
The announcement came as a shock for those in the building and outside it. Fans, media outlets and other developers coped with the fact that one of the most celebrated studios in the industry was shuttering. As a result, the fate of Telltale's upcoming titles (which included partnerships with Netflix on a Stranger Things game and an interactive media project based on the Minecraft franchise, as well as the final season of its hit licensed franchise, The Walking Dead) was up in the air.
"I think everyone assumed at that point that we were done," Brodie Anderson, executive producer of Telltale’s The Walking Dead: The Final Season, tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Originally launched in 2012, Telltale's The Walking Dead is a narrative adventure game released in episodic chapters that make up seasons, similar to a television show's format. In the six-plus years since its release, the series has spanned over four seasons (and one spinoff miniseries centered on fan-favorite Walking Dead character Michonne) and over 20 episodes. the franchise has sold over 50 million episodes worldwide and earned numerous "Game of the Year" accolades from various organizations, as well as often being cited for revitalizing the adventure game genre.
Set in the same universe as Robert Kirkman's comics and the AMC TV series, Telltale's The Walking Dead centers on a young woman named Clementine (voiced by Melissa Hutchison), from her time as a young girl found by a caretaker at the beginning of the zombie outbreak to her role as a leader and guardian in her own right in the current fourth and final season. At the time of Telltale's closure, only the final two episodes in the story were left to be told.
"That was the really disappointing thing, that, in addition to not being able to come back to the office with all your great co-workers, that we wouldn’t be able to finish Clementine’s — the main character of Telltale's The Walking Dead games — story. The specter of that not being able to see the light of day was painfully difficult."
Over the next few weeks, Anderson, who joined Telltale in 2015, and other members of The Walking Dead team were unsure of their future. Behind the scenes, however, Kirkman, Jon Goldman and David Alpert's Skybound Entertainment were working to make sure the developers — and fans — could see the series' conclusion play out.
"I got a call late Thursday night — and we have a close relationship with the Telltale guys but it’s not like an after-hours call type thing — saying we’re shutting down tomorrow morning," Alpert, who is Skybound's CEO, says. "I just went, what? My head spun."
While Skybound had worked with Telltale on the games before, the two companies operated independently, so the game studio's closure threw a major wrench into the development of the last episodes of the long-running franchise. In order to get the final episodes of the game developed, Skybound would have to make sure the team behind the game didn't scatter and sign on with other studios to work on projects outside of The Walking Dead.
"Robert and I spoke on Friday morning and agreed that we can’t let that happen," says Alpert. "We agreed that we had to find a path forward."
Alpert insists that the decision by Skybound to absorb Telltale's staff from the game was not a financial decision, but one driven by a desire to finish the final episodes (which were roughly 90 percent completed at that point) for the fans.
"I’ve been in games a long, long time and it's rare that characters come along that fans really attach themselves to in the way our audience has fallen in love with Clementine," Ian Howe, Skybound Games CEO, says. "When you have that, to not complete the journey really wouldn’t be right."
That faith in the project was also shared by Alpert from the onset. "I remember going through the script readings for the [end of the first season] and I’m crying," he says. "I mean, a script for a video game is making me cry. This is it. This is what we want."
That passion is what led the team at Skybound to step up when Telltale declared it was shutting down. "I don’t want to overstate it, but there was some real brain damage trying to figure this thing out," says Alpert. "How do you convince that core team to stay? It really took a leap of faith on everybody’s part."
"One of the challenges and the thing that kept me up at night was wondering how to get the team back together knowing that the more time that went on, people would be moving on to other positions," Anderson says of the period following Telltale's closure. "To Skybound’s credit, they were really good at reaching out to the team and keeping everyone engaged and trying to keep communication lines open prior to the deal being secured."
Everyone involved had the same core mission: to finish Clementine's story.
"From the outset, we decided that the only people who could reasonably finish the game were the original team," Howe says. "We outlined the risks and our primary concern was to not do something that would further jeopardize their personal situations financially, or otherwise."
Kent Mundle, creative director of The Walking Dead: The Final Season, was one such team member who believed strongly in finishing the story he'd been working on for years. Mundle joined Telltale in 2011 as a cinematic artist and worked on nearly every game Telltale produced. "We wanted to make sure we were making the type of game that fans had come to expect from Telltale and doing that stuff the best we’ve ever done it," he says.
Still, good intentions only go so far and Howe had to deal with very real financial constraints when absorbing staff from another studio into his own small company. "Once we started looking at the money that would be required there was still a significant amount of development work to be done and millions of dollars of investment were required to make this happen," he says.
Luckily, he had the full support of Kirkman and Alpert. "Robert gave a very simple message: let’s go finish the story," says Howe. "At no time was a question asked of how much would it cost or how much we would make. It was always, can we finish this and can we do it with the same guys who did it originally? That was really the only directive that Robert gave."
"I couldn’t bear the thought that someone out there who had invested in us wasn’t going to get to see it finished," Alpert says, adding that being able to bring on the former Telltale team to wrap up the story was a "blessing."
Now, as the final episode of Telltale's The Walking Dead, "Take Us Back," is set to launch March 26, the team that weathered the closure of its studio, uncertainty about the future of both their own careers and their project and the absorption by an entirely separate entertainment company is confident about their last work and eager for fans to play through the conclusion of Clementine's story.
"Knowing that this is intended to be the final season of a series that basically changed the face of narrative gaming forever and is beloved by millions has always been a long shadow to be standing in," says Mundle. "If this is the finale of this format, I think this is a really strong note to go out on."
While Telltale may be no more, and the now-defunct studio's magnum opus drawing to a close, there may still be a future for the team members at Skybound and possibly more Walking Dead franchises in the future.
"Skybound is still a relatively small company. We sort of swelled ourselves to bring on all these Telltale folks and make that work. We would love to find a way to work with so many of them," says Alpert. "How that’s actually going to play out, I don’t know just yet."
Regardless of whatever else the future may hold, the team all agree that getting The Walking Dead game to its finish line was a major success in itself, and a silver lining on the sad ending for Telltale Games. "Anybody who plays this game who’s played all the Telltale episodes will feel that this is the fitting ending to this journey," says Alpert. "That is what we’ve been striving for more than anything else."