Magazin: interview

“We’re trying to stay agile”

May the zombies be praised: The Walking Dead has made Skybound Entertainment big. The U.S. company is now operating in many different parts of the entertainment sector – and enjoying quite some success. Since 2018 Skybound has also had physical products in German games retail, with NBG responsible for the distribution of games like The Long Dark and Death’s Gambit. “Classical retail is still a significant factor because many gamers still appreciate the value of a physical version with a nicely done packaging,” said Mark Stanger, Director EMEA at Skybound Games, in an interview with IGM (08/2018). Now we met Stanger’s colleague, Dan Murray, President of Skybound Interactive, at the Reboot Develop Blue conference in Dubrovnik. An interview about organic growth, zombie wine, and the “Wheel of Awesome”.
International Games Magazine: Mr. Murray, what can you tell us about Skybound?

Dan Murray: Skybound was founded by Robert Kirkman and his business partner David Alpert. We’re about seven years old now. The purpose of our company is to really build a new, next-generation media company where you place creators at the center of everything. So it’s really a platform for creators to bring their best stories that we can help to expand in many different ways. The company was mainly built on the success of The Walking Dead and the fact that Robert and David maintain the rights on the comic book. That has allowed us to build a merchandising division. Plus we have a team of people that go out to all events, selling comic books, as well as retail games, statues and tabletop games.

IGM: What role did the Telltale game have in the success of your company?

Murray: About seven years ago Telltale came and approached Robert and David with the idea of doing a story-based game. And that allowed us to build the Walking Dead Telltale game. And that’s really what fueled the company. It really put Telltale as well as Skybound on the map. So the story of the Telltale Walking Dead game is also the story of Skybound in a way – how we’ve been able to really kind of accelerate a lot of things that we wanted to do. You know, Robert could very easily have called this company ‘Kirkman Arts’, or ‘The Walking Dead Company’, or something else because The Walking Dead has that kind of universe that allows for lots of different experiences to be told – because it’s essentially about the beginning of the world, right? It’s not about the end. But Robert didn’t do that because he wanted to create something for others besides himself. It’s more of a spiritual reflection of Image Comics, where Robert is a partner. Image is a creator-owned comic-book label that also publishes The Walking Dead. So it’s really Image that allowed Robert to build this story and maintain those rights which eventually established Skybound.

IGM: How did you diversify your business?

Murray: We’ve built a lot of different businesses because The Walking Dead has allowed us to do that. And these are stand-up businesses from the people who have experience in those categories. Now I just run the games division. When I came in to help them expand their games division, we started by setting up an interactive division which is really dedicated to licensing because we’re not a corporate company that has raised a bunch of money or is public. So everything that we’ve done has been truly entrepreneurial. In a sense we’ve been building organically from success that we’ve been able to have one product at a time. So what that meant was: Hey, let’s start with licensing and go out and reach out to other game development partners and expand The Walking Dead from that perspective and see if we can change the dynamic between how licensing and video games might work.

IGM: In what way?

Our initial goal was to go out and publish a lot of different products. And then we had success. We invested some of this success back in our business. So we started a publishing unit about 18 months ago called Skybound Games, which is being led by Ian Howe. Ian is somebody that I had a former relationship with. He built 505 Games and was the president of that company. So we share a very similar philosophy with regards to game developers, and that is to try to get out of the way and allow them to do what they do and then figure out how to supplement with the resources that you have available to help them succeed.

IGM: So The Walking Dead is basically like a blueprint for all new products.

Murray: That’s a good way of putting it. It has allowed us to not just build a business model, but actually build a real company that’s producing things. And so we have a warehouse in Culver City with about ten guys who visit about 30 shows a year. We really have a team up in Vancouver as well which takes care of animation, led by Catherine Winder who produced Angry Birds: The Movie and Star Wars: The Clone Wars. We make television shows, movies, and comic books. We have the book label Skybound Books at Simon & Schuster now. Obviously we have the video games, where I live. And we even have an online programming department that controls the websites and speaks with the community. So it is a full-fledged media company at this stage. But we’re relatively small, considering everything that we do. And we’re trying to stay agile because we believe that that’s what gives us the advantage to move quickly and do things. But the real purpose of the company is to connect the creators to the consumers.

IGM: How do you do that?

Murray: Everything that we’re doing is building channels that allow these content creators to bring in a great story, whether it’s a comic book, a book, a video game, or an original game. So it’s not just about taking something as a comic book and licensing it out. It's really about building the pipelines for other creators to feed into this. We have a very juvenile description of our business model. We call it the ‘Wheel of Awesome’. It’s just the way that we decided to identify what the business model was. But it is just that: It's a circular model with lots of different spokes. And those spokes are contact pieces that compete. But the creators are the center.

IGM: Other companies also have strong IPs. What is the main difference between them and Skybound?

Murray: To be perfectly honest, we have The Walking Dead. We’re not shy to admit that that’s a rare opportunity to have something that has not just a global fan base, but also is constructed in such a way that allows us to take a lot of risk in how we create new content because it’s a world that offers up lots of different ways to interact in that universe and still kind of feel authentic. And the main thing for us is that we lean into our editorial team for instance a lot when it comes to the narrative spines. And sometimes they don’t have to be story-driven games, for example. We have a Walking Dead wine that has an AR label on it. But there’s a narrative component to that. What I mean by that is there’s something in it that does feel authentic to the comic book and the universe that Robert created. That’s our goal.

IGM: To put it crudely, does the Walking Dead Wine have to appear in all of your shows?

Murray: No, not at all (laughs). But they’re just things that you can give to the fans that are fun and feel authentic. Not everything has to connect back to the source. It’s really about building things. We treat everything that we do as primary, be it a bottle of wine, a cruise, a video game, or a novel. It should exist because it should exist as that, not because it’s trying to service another medium. And then we find the ways to connect those other media together – if it makes sense.

IGM: How important is transmedia storytelling for Skybound?

Murray: We often describe Skybound as a transmedia company. Sometimes it’s a good thing. But I tend to push back on that because a lot of times transmedia tends to create expectations that all these things have to work together. That’s great when it works and when you find those opportunities to do it. But when you set out to do that from the get-go, these things take a lot of time. It’s difficult to set those expectations upon a game production which may take twice or three times as long as a TV show or movie. Those are all different ecosystems, so it’s better to treat these things as a primary piece of content, even though it’s something that’s made around the sources in some other format. Games will lead the way in my opinion.

IGM: Why?

Murray: Because they have back-end services built into the products themselves. So there’s technology tied to them, but there’s also the ability to create ecosystems digitally that allow us to create more content on top of it, as a live service. Other forms of media can learn from that! That’s how we think about how we can create transmedia opportunities. We don’t have to put everything on game development itself, but we can say: “Look, we know what’s happening in January. Let’s start planning for that.” That’s a piece of content that is achievable from a production standpoint.

IGM: There have been other transmedia projects, e.g. the Defiance game that didn’t live up to expectations.

Murray: Look, I actually liked Defiance. We at Skybound don’t try to create false expectations. We just try to be honest and transparent. For us it’s finding those ways to connect things later. And what’s more important: is actually building an ecosystem that we can continue to connect to the consumer. And that’s where I think the whole way of talking to the consumer was driven by traditional marketing means, which was really based around creating awareness. Whereas we know now, that’s a very different ball game because people are interacting with content every day on their phones, on their social channels. And they’re talking about it. So it really is a conversation. And that’s a tricky thing for a lot of companies who make and publish content to try to figure out. Because if it’s a conversation, it has to be real, it has to be authentic. You don’t want to feel like you’re being sold to. So we’re trying to figure out those solutions and find ways to create content that connects to consumers in an authentic way.

IGM: Could you give an example of that?

Murray: AMC had the brilliant idea to make a talk show about The Walking Dead. And The Talking Dead became - I believe - one of the most successful factors on why the TV show has lasted as long as it has and continues to do so. It naturally created a conversation. The show took off and grabbed a lot of people from a content perspective. But The Talking Dead was bigger than any network show as well. So that was a huge piece to how people talked about the brand all year long. So The Walking Dead never really had a break. It’s always sort of out there. People can dive in and out as much as they want. So that’s an example. And I think in games you see it all the time with influencer-connected content. Let’s take Fortnite for example. People are making content all day long in that and that’s what sort of becomes the driver for people to stay in the game because they’re constantly watching other people playing with their content. If somebody dances on the football field and that’s a Fortnite dance, the kid who’s watching that suddenly becomes a fan of that player. That’s a conversation! And that’s why it's hard to fake it or hard to plan for. You have to build the channels that allow for it. Fortnite is a free-to-play game, and so they have the opportunity to constantly iterate and build new content and they’re feeding that content in because they’re seeing what the players are doing. So they’re reacting to that and providing service through content. They get to understand the consumer. It’s not a black box any more.

IGM: You're also entering the VR sector.

Murray: Yeah, we’re working with Skydance in VR right now. So that’s a product that has been announced. We don’t have a date yet, we’re still in production on a Walking Dead game called Saints and Sinners from the team at Skydance.

IGM: The hype about VR has faded over the years. But you still think that is has a lot of potential?

Murray: Yes, I think it has. It showcased a new medium, and now it’s starting to take off in other categories that people didn’t expect. Everybody always gravitates towards entertainment first because it’s a thing that people want to touch and feel and get retained by. We’re seeing some success on the PlayStation now, on some of these devices. The main thing is that anything new takes a while to get the devices in people’s hands. That’s kind of a longer road than maybe a lot of people expected at first. So it’s not really about VR, it’s really just about how long you can get it into people’s hands to actually interact with. And so the location-based stuff is something that I think will grow. They’re putting stuff into destinations and in creating more of a shared experience or watchable experience that you can go into. That definitively makes sense to me. (Achim Fehrenbach)