The Walking Dead developer discusses the advantages and challenges of a multiplatform zombie apocalypse (interview)

The Walking Dead is seemingly one of gaming’s hottest properties this year. Call of Duty publisher Activision recently announced a first-person shooter set in The Walking Dead TV universe, and the franchise is getting its Farm Town on in a new social game.

Telltale Games — who previously worked on Jurassic Park- and Back to the Future-licensed adventure titles — released an episodic The Walking Dead spin-off game for consoles, Mac, and PC in April. Now an iOS port has gone live, and GamesBeat spoke with Steve Allison, the senior vice president of Telltale Games, to discuss long-term zombie apocalypse strategies for multiplatform games and the challenges and advantages of working on each individual system.

GamesBeat: Was The Walking Dead always intended to hit console, PC, and mobile?

Steve Allison: Yes. The Walking Dead is the first game series from Telltale that had all our initial platforms in production simultaneously from day one as the content was being created. In the past, games from us would generally come out on one or two initial platforms and then be ported to others over time. This was due to what resources we had to address all the platforms and what platforms we had open to us. Over the past two years, we’ve worked very hard to ensure that we had publishing agreements in place to release content digitally on every viable platform that existed and we’ve gotten better at simultaneous multiplatform digital launches. The Walking Dead launched on four platforms simultaneously back in April (Xbox 360, PS3, PC, & Mac,  and the iOS trailed just a bit given the touchscreen and content tweaks we felt needed to have a little bit of extra love before release.

Because we develop our games episodically, with a game series usually consisting of five episodes, multiplatform digital launches become significantly more complex than multiplatform retail launches. We essentially have to go final on five distinct products on five different platforms over a period of five or six months. Each has a submission, review, and release process digitally with each platform, all with different timing, processes, and issues.

GamesBeat: What factors determine which platforms you target?

Allison: Our games are very much narratively driven in that the IP and the story behind the games drives the design. As such, our company approaches core content with a different perspective than some other publishers. We believe in a philosophy of ubiquitous content brought to as many platforms as possible once we determine that a game will make sense for the audience of each platform. On the iOS devices in particular, we knew that by the time we would be done with The Walking Dead that the computing power of the devices would be good enough to consider iOS as a viable launch platform along with PC, Mac, Xbox 360, and the PlayStation 3.

GamesBeat: For a game like this, what are the more notable or interesting advantages and disadvantages of each platform?

Allison: Telltale’s games are always about narrative first, and as such our games are not as platform-specific on the control side as some other games. It’s really about the core content and the entertainment experience we take our players through, as opposed to worries about certain twitch gaming controls that may or may not work on a mouse/keyboard versus a gamepad versus touchscreen that many other games will face from other genres. Given the rise of smartphone and tablet specs that are now in the same range as our target PC and home console specs, as long as we make a great narrative entertainment experience, a Telltale game is going to be fairly rock-solid and consistent across every platform for the most part.

For us it’s really not about advantages and disadvantages as much as it is really about understanding the nuances of how to maximize our business with each platform and partner.

On PC & Mac, an advantage for our company is the thriving digital retail environment that is very consumer driven. PC gaming sales have been surging because consumers have become comfortable with the digital retailing they have access to and the idea of buying games online. Brick-and-mortar retailers abandoning PC games in a box more or less forced PC gamers to move in this direction faster than on other platforms. A great advantage of the PC environment that is particularly unique is that we are able to have our own store that we own and control. The advantage here is that it gives us the deepest connection to our most passionate fans. We sell them products, but more importantly, we’re constantly in direct conversations with them in our community, and this helps us make our games better. We’re also able to engage our community in other things in between episodes or game releases that we can’t do on other hardware platforms. We’re launching an entirely new storefront here at Telltale in the next couple of months that takes our retailing and community features to the next level. It’s a huge advantage for us to be able to have our own store that we control online.

It’s a complex process on PC/Mac, serving all the other digital storefronts we release our products on PC/Mac today. There are no less than seven, including our own store, and managing it all can get complicated. Our other PC partners include Valve’s Steam Store, who is an incredible partner for us, along with Origin, Gamefly, GameStop Impulse, Amazon PC Downloads, and Good Old Games. One of the challenges of this environment is that we have so many digital retailers to get content live with and work out launch promotions with. There’s a lot more front line heavy lifting versus consoles and iOS.

On Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, no real disadvantages for our content exist. They have really solid, healthy digital storefronts that are growing, and they have each partnered with us in different ways to maximize sell through on each.

The iOS devices require us to spend a little extra attention to the touchscreen UI and controls so that they feel as good as the other platforms. In the case of The Walking Dead, we decided it was something we wanted to spend a little more time on. We think for a game like The Walking Dead, which is a very intimate personal entertainment experience, that the touchscreen environment actually enhances this game just a little bit more because it becomes a much more personal experience, holding that iPhone or iPad close to you while you play. The App Store process is also distinctly different than the PC and the process on consoles for securing promotion and so on.

Discovery and promotion on all these platforms is challenging, each in different ways, and trying to tackle them all at once is a chore. So publicity and marketing that is strong and reaches people in a platform-agnostic way is super-critical in order to put the game in a position to be sought after by all consumers regardless of platform. A combination of very strong prelaunch awareness and digital retailer platform relationships is the way to maximize consumer desire and secure the best discovery option each platform partner can offer.

GamesBeat: Why did each version release at different times? Do you see a simultaneous launch as the best option whenever possible?

Allison: The PC, Mac, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 versions of The Walking Dead all launched simultaneously in digital terms. The game launched on all four of these platforms in the same week within three days of one another. Staging the console releases on the same day isn’t possible, as Sony and Microsoft each have different release windows for pushing new digital releases live, so the digital equivalent of simultaneous releases is same week release, which we did achieve as intended.

We took a little extra time on the iOS version of the game just to run the UI and control interfaces through a few more weeks of polish and tweaking. Our intent is to get the iOS releases of the subsequent episodes to be closer to the releases on PC, Mac, and consoles as we get further into the game series now that we’ve been able to lock in those tweaks. Episode 2 on iOS will be out this month — and we hope before Episode 3 releases on the PC, Mac, and consoles — and we’ll be working to get them to all be as close as possible.

GamesBeat: Would you like to see the iPhone and iPad become home to more adventure titles? Any tips or tricks for would-be developers in that regard?

Allison: We love the iOS devices for adventure games and narrative games because the touch interface plays to the strength of this type of content. We also hope to find our way to Android devices at some point soon. We really, really focus on writing and voice acting first above all else in our games because what adventure games or narrative games usually do not have is deep physics-based gameplay, driving mechanics to tune and tweak, or great shooting. We have our stories, our puzzles, and in our case, our “Tailored Narrative” mechanics to provide the pay off. Our games connect with people when they are well-thought-out stories, filled with tough choices and brought to life with great voice work. So if you’re making adventure games now, focus on writing, and if there’s voiceover in there, be brutally tough on the quality — and it will pay off.