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Robert Kirkman, chief creative officer and cofounder of Skybound Entertainment and the creator of The Walking Dead, has been crossing media borders for decades. I’m very excited he’ll be a speaker at our GamesBeat Summit 2023 event, and I was even more excited to interview him this week to give a preview of what he’ll be talking about at our event.
The Walking Dead debuted as a comic book 20 years ago in 2003. It became a hit TV series in 2010 and had a 10-year run. And then the video game series from Telltale debuted in 2012 and sold more than 80 million copies.
That’s what we used to call transmedia until people decided it was a dirty word because all transmedia efforts failed. But somehow, Kirkman made it work and Skybound Entertainment became an umbrella for numerous creators trying to accomplish the same thing.
By making it through the jungle of Hollywood and games, Kirkman and his company became models for how big investments in things like a “writers room” could scale a franchise across numerous media and create new points of entry into the same creative universe. How do you spread a narrative across so many different platforms? And how do you accomplish scale without exhausting a franchise?
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We talked about these topics as a kind of preview for our event in May. The GamesBeat Summit 2023 event takes place on May 22-23 in person in Los Angeles and on May 24 online. (You can get 40% off the ticket price with this code: GBSDEANNEWS; early-bird pricing ends today; Facebook Gaming is the headline sponsor of the event and the session). Joining Kirkman in a fireside chat will be Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham, vice president of community development at Fortis Games and a former longtime leader at Twitch.
They’re going to talk about one of the key themes of the conference: Hollywood and Games — Are they one ecosystem, and if so, how has that changed? It fits with our general theme of The Next Level, and the session will address a big question: How can a video game, or any content, go to the next level?
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Part of the theme for our conference is this crossover that seems to be happening, perhaps with better quality than ever before, between things like comics and film and games. You’re right at the center of that. When you were starting out, could you describe what some of that process was like for you, and how we’ve gotten to a better stage now?
Robert Kirkman: The best example you could probably draw from is the original Super Mario movie and the new Super Mario movie. The contrast between the two is a good example of how things were done.
When I adapted a screenplay for Invincible for Paramount Pictures in 2005, the direction from the studio was, “How do we make this more like The Godfather so people will see it? You can’t have a movie with more than one superhero in it because no one will watch that. How do we adapt a comic book in a way that people will want to see?” It was all very much, “We need to figure out how to fix this dumb thing. People like this dumb thing. I don’t understand why. Let’s figure out a way to fix it so that more people like it.”
GamesBeat: A lot less respect for the original work.
Kirkman: Definitely less respect for the original work, and this mentality of, “We know how to make good things. We’ll take this thing and improve it.” You can see that in the original Super Mario movie. They jump. How do they jump? Give ‘em big metal boots. You can’t just fight a big turtle guy. Let’s have Dennis Hopper with weird hair. That might be better.
There’s a lot of budget constraints and things like that leading to certain decisions. But if I feel like the animated Mario movie was made even 10 years ago, there would be more effort made to change the visual designs. The fact that the movie has the exact same visuals from the games that everyone recognizes is a big deal. That’s significant. A massive team of designers would have tried to “improve” on that look many years ago. But after the Sonic the Hedgehog debacle, I think people see that if it isn’t broke, let’s not try to fix it.
GamesBeat: You mean the original design of the character that pissed everyone off?
Kirkman: Yeah, the trailer came out and they said, “What if Sonic had teeth? Let’s make him look more human.” And then the internet revolted and they scrambled to come up with a better design. The design they ended up with was pretty much the same as the game. It’s important to note that the reason they were able to scramble and go with a different design was because the design was already done for the game. They just pivoted to that.
I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that at some point along the way people realized, “Hey, maybe this stuff isn’t stupid. Maybe we should show it a little bit more respect.”
GamesBeat: I saw a comment on social that said, “It turns out that the trick to adapting a video game to the movies is actually adapting the game.” Your purpose is not to mess with it, but to try to execute it, to make it happen as it is.
Kirkman: I won’t name the show, but I know that there was a moment where Scott Gimple and I were talking to a showrunner on another show that was also based on a comic. We had just done a panel where we had described our process. Scott and I would take a chunk of the comic and say, “Okay, we’ll adapt from this issue to this issue this season. These are the high points. This is the structure of the season. Let’s build from these moments to structure the season.” But it was always about finding the best parts from the comic and putting them directly in the show and building around that.
The showrunner of the other show came up to us and said, “It’s just so fortunate that you guys are able to do that. We get in the writers room and we have to build everything from scratch and figure out new ways into things. We’re not able to do that.” The guy walked away and Scott and I said, “He’s got a comic too. I don’t know why he’s not using it.” And I think the show suffered for that approach.
GamesBeat: I always did want to ask, what is the value of the writers room? How did you come upon that as one of the solutions for scaling some of your own imaginations?
Kirkman: I’d never worked in a writers room prior to Walking Dead. It was fascinating for me because once you entered into the room, you started to realize that every single person in that room has something to add. They have some angle into a different kind of perspective that they see every story through. It weaves this tapestry where I may not have experienced situation A, but this person may have. Or experienced something similar. If you’re really using the writers room to the fullest potential, it enriches every story. You have a bunch of different angles enhancing everyone’s perspective as they craft stories.
When we partnered with Telltale to make the Clementine game, the Telltale Walking Dead series, we were very adamant that we wanted to take that writers room approach and use it in that game, the way that the prior Telltale games really hadn’t. That was taking the TV approach and moving it toward video games, which seemed to have a pretty good result.
GamesBeat: It seems like the other benefit is you do get a lot more volume of narrative. If you need something for the Telltale games, you have that part of the team. You also have the mobile games that may have come along later. It seems like there can be so many narratives produced, whether they’re intertwined or separate threads. New characters. That’s something the writers room can be good for.
Kirkman: That approach for all of our games has allowed us to generate a tremendous amount of story in a very reasonable amount of time. You have a full team going. That’s something that you need to generate a lot of story for video games. I feel like most people know that, but it’s one of the things–I don’t want to write a video game, because a script for a video game is 10 times longer than a script for a TV show. That’s an insurmountable task in my book.
GamesBeat: I thought it was interesting that The Last of Us took the approach for an HBO series. Trying to squeeze a 25 to 30 hour video game experience into a two-hour movie, like with Uncharted–it seems like you could never pull that off. If you have maybe nine hours to work with on a TV show, so much more of the material can get in. You can more fully tell that video game story.
Kirkman: In my case, at least five hours of the 26 hours of Uncharted is getting the puzzles wrong. If you eliminate that it can definitely fit in a TV show. But certain things adapt in certain forms better, I think. If it was a game with less narrative–Sonic the Hedgehog. That probably works better as a movie because the narrative is somewhat succinct. It’s not as robust as you would see in something like a Naughty Dog game. Comics are the same way. I guess some graphic novels could make a good movie, but when you have a continuing narrative that keeps going for a long time, that also lends itself to television.
GamesBeat: Was there anything you thought was notable about the transition from comics to TV for you, things that make you think about what’s happening now? What was it like for you to transition to the Walking Dead television show compared to what you think might be happening with something like The Last of Us?
Kirkman: For me, I was lucky enough to be at the forefront of the time when people were starting to take comics seriously. The Iron Man movie had come out in 2008. That was extremely successful, and it was very faithful to the comics. Marvel’s comic division had a lot of input in how that movie went.
And Comic-Con was emerging as this huge vehicle that everyone was using to promote everything. If you had comic book street cred you actually had tremendous value all of a sudden. They would want someone like me to be able to attend Comic-Con and say, “Hey, everyone at Comic-Con, don’t you want to watch this show? I’m one of you! I love Comic-Con! Let’s watch this show!” I was fortunate enough to ride that wave. AMC wanted me to be involved. They wanted me to have a say in how the show went. When I spoke, people actually listened. Whereas in 2005 when I was adapting Invincible, it wasn’t quite the exact same environment.
That was very much a comics thing. What’s happening now, I think, is that we’re finally getting to the point where video games are getting respect. You can look at a game as strong as The Last of Us and you can see that there’s value there. Neil Druckmann, he’s someone to be respected and included, not someone to be brushed aside while you try to improve their work. It’s good that video games are finally getting the same kind of respect that comics have gotten for at least a decade.
GamesBeat: I happened to interview Lisa Joy when The Peripheral came out, as well as when Westworld came out. She was saying that they had a pretty complicated metaverse plot to The Peripheral. You’re in one world but you’re transferring yourself into another one. She was saying that she was very thankful to the Marvel movies for introducing the multiverse idea. It set the stage in the mainstream for people getting an idea of what this whole metaverse thing was all about. She felt like, “If I have a really complicated story to tell, at least I know people know what a multiverse is already.” Hard science fiction and some of the complex stories to tell there–the way was paved for that. I don’t know if you see some of this happening on your side as well. The Walking Dead seems like it paved the way for a lot of things too.
Kirkman: I was going to say, are you trying to insinuate that The Walking Dead paved the way for The Last of Us?
GamesBeat: Well, I don’t know about that. But it feels like we’re in a much period of success right now compared to–
Kirkman: I think every little piece of fiction widens the experience that the audience is open to. The Walking Dead had the fortune to be debuting–I want to say it was four months after the end of Lost. Lost was a show that was definitely boundary-pushing and ground-breaking in a lot of ways. It brought a lot of different science fiction concepts and action storytelling, a lot of different things to a huge television audience that made them accepting of things that were somewhat unusual on TV.
There’s a lot of cop shows, a lot of lawyer shows, things like that. There were shows like The X-Files. Something like The X-Files probably helped make Lost popular, because it brought a bunch of different things that made it okay for them to appear in Lost. That helped The Walking Dead tremendously, because it opened an audience’s eyes to something new. In that respect, yeah, I think that The Walking Dead definitely set the stage.
I’m sure there are certain people on this planet who would have felt like a show like The Last of Us was beneath them, at a certain point, if there hadn’t been popular shows before that had introduced genre elements in a way that made it okay to watch it. It’s the same reason that Marvel stuff is now cool and it’s okay for the masses to enjoy it. People were getting picked on in the ‘90s for enjoying Marvel comics, but now you can’t go somewhere without seeing the plainest normal person wearing a Marvel T-shirt.
GamesBeat: Are there some lessons from The Walking Dead that you’ve taken to the other properties that Skybound is backing now?
Kirkman: My main lesson I’ve learned from The Walking Dead is to always try to provide the audience with something different, something new, something that they’re not expecting. That’s the thing that led to the success of The Walking Dead, whether it was the shocking character deaths, or the simple fact that it was zombie mythology being treated like it was a serious drama. There were a lot of elements to The Walking Dead that were unexpected and provided a unique experience, a vastly different experience than they were getting anywhere else on television. When I’m working on something like Invincible, or the movie Renfield, or our various video game projects, I’m always trying to find the angle to them where there’s some kind of different element.
Invincible is a superhero story that is appealing to an audience that’s familiar with superhero stories, but it has horror-movie violence. It’s a long-form character drama in a way that you haven’t really seen in other superhero TV shows or movies. There’s always some kind of element that–it’s not necessarily shocking for shocking’s sake, but I’m trying to give people an experience that they can only get from my stuff.
GamesBeat: Are there thoughts or advice you might have for franchise owners when it comes to also making video games?
Kirkman: One thing that Skybound tries to do–the video games are often an ancillary product. It’s a side project, an extension of the core. Skybound tries to avoid that at all costs. We try to make sure that our video game projects are worthwhile in and of themselves and could be the core of the concept in and of themselves.
The best example of that is the Walking Dead Telltale series. The characters, Lee and Clementine, are viable, interesting, core Walking Dead characters. Anyone who plays that video game could have only ever experienced The Walking Dead through that video games, and they would get an experience that is worthy of The Walking Dead, that is an authentic Walking Dead experience. It’s not dependent on having an experience with The Walking Dead prior to that game.
You could watch the TV show and then play that game, or you could read the comic and play that game, or you could play that game and watch the TV show, or play that game and read the comic. It’s possible that you wouldn’t even know which one came first. That’s why The Walking Dead as a brand is so strong, just through all the things that have been done with it. That core aspect keeps it viable. You can’t really say that about Star Wars. Especially up until recently. Recently there have been some great games, but most Star Wars games have been a side offshoot. This character or this character are going to do some things. They never really had a narrative that lived up to the original trilogy, at least until recently.
GamesBeat: Do you think that tying these things together across media–are we at a point where that’s as good as it can be? Or do you think there is a next level where this all comes together in some kind of metaverse, something like that?
Kirkman: As far as coming together in a metaverse, I don’t know what these buzzwords actually mean. Does that mean hanging out in a virtual space playing a video game while I’m watching a movie? There have been attempts to have–The Matrix was the first one, where there were scenes in the video game that tied into the movie and explained plot points from the movie. I think the last attempt I can remember was The Dark Tower, where the movie was going to tie into a TV show. I think there was going to be a video game component as well? Somebody’s going to get that right at some point. I don’t think it’s happened yet.
I think there is, on the horizon, some kind of connecting narrative where you get that video game experience and that TV show experience, the movie experience, the comic book experience, and it all ties in and holds together as an overall experience that benefits from having all the different parts.
GamesBeat: It seems like the thing that everyone should get right first is the world. The world and its characters.
Kirkman: It’s hard to just start with that. All those media are so complex in their own right. It’s hard to build something of value while you’re trying to do all those things at once. That’s a hurdle. But at some point someone is going to be able to marry all these things together and it’s going to be pretty spectacular.
GamesBeat: I’ve heard people talk a bit snarkily about how they’ve mined all of comics, and now it’s time for video games. Movies exhausted the material that they had in comic books and now they’re looking for new things to exhaust. Is there a way to do this without hitting that wall? The idea that people get tired of what you’re doing with–not necessarily Marvel. But you can hit the wall, it seems like. Is there something to do to try to avoid that?
Kirkman: I think people take the wrong lessons from everything. If Marvel’s recent string of movies has not been as profitable as the string of movies before it, it doesn’t necessarily–I mean, it’s absurd to think that all comic book ideas have been mined. We’re producing Invincible season two and three. I’m confident that those are going to be absolutely amazing and cool as hell. I’ll just say that on the record. I’m very excited about that kind of stuff.
There’s an infinite number of comic books being adapted right now into various projects. A lot of people equate superheroes with comic books. “Comic book” is not a genre. It’s a medium. There are a thousand different kinds of comic books that haven’t been adapted yet. I think it’s somewhat cynical to say, “Oh, comic books have been exhausted and now we’re going to video games.” If video games end up being a massive wellspring of ideas that adds excitement and success to TV and movies in the same way that comics did, that’s going to be great. I don’t think that means people will draw less on comics. It just means that there will be two engines driving things.
Again, I also would not count Marvel out. If there is a slump, it just gives them a comeback story. People will be excited about that. I’m sure they have all kinds of things up their sleeve.
GamesBeat: What are some things that–when you think of the next level, are there things you want to see happen? Some of the more interesting collaborations that might be possible?
Kirkman: I don’t know. I’m watching the Super Mario Bros. movie. The thing that excites me about what’s coming with more adaptations of video games, and better adaptations of video games–when I see a comic book adapted that I was very familiar with, it’s exciting for me to see the stuff that I saw translated in movie form, where it’s moving and it’s got sound and it’s three dimensions and it’s real. In the best cases it’s an enhancement of what I’ve experienced in a really cool way.
What struck me in the Mario Bros. movie is that there were parts of the movie that were not designed to have an emotional punch or a deeply emotional moment. It wasn’t baked into the movie. It wasn’t intentional. But because of my experience playing the game – I’ve played Mario games forever – there were deeply affecting emotional moments that shouldn’t have, but because it was taking me back to my childhood and reminding me of my experiences I had while I was playing those games, it ended up being more effective and more engaging than I think the filmmakers even thought possible. That’s interesting.
I watched The Last of Us on TV, but I had never played the game. I never got around to setting aside the time to play it. I’ve actually bought four versions of that game, because every time they would update I would buy it and think, “Okay, this is the one I’m going to play.” I just never got around to it. I can only imagine that if I had played that game, the show would have had way more effect on me. In a sense–it’s not a comic book you read or a story you experienced. It’s a story you lived. There were decisions that you as a person made that led to events you were then seeing in the TV show.
I think there’s an extra level of personal investment in games that, when filmmakers and showrunners on TV–when they figure out a way to tap into that stuff, that’s very exciting. That’s going to result in some really interesting things moving forward.
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