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The Walking Dead Mobile: Dead App Walking
You’ve heard of The Walking Dead. I know you have, because it’s huge. From its humble beginnings as a cult comic series, the franchise has only grown. Right now, AMC’s TV series is one off the biggest shows on TV and the spin-off game by Telltale is one of the greatest examples of story-telling in gaming. And it seems the series is only set to expand. A new ‘companion series‘ to the show is set to release in 2015, and a new game tie-in to the T.V. show has just been announced. After the disappointing release of Survival Instinct, which met with an overwhelmingly negative reception, the new game can only mean good things for gaming fans of the show. Except it won’t, because it’s on mobile.
So that probably comes across as flippant, but it honestly comes from a place of love for the platform. When you believe that something can truly be good – when you actually care about it – it’s painful to see bad things happen to it. And, let’s face it, bad things are constantly happening to it, releasing on it and developing for it. Although it feels like I’m passing judgement early, I can’t help but feel the newly announced Walking Dead game being developed for mobile will follow that trend instead of bucking it.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you’re AMC. If you haven’t had experience being a television channel before, this may feel unusual- but bear with me. You own part of a massively successful and popular franchise. Brilliant. You’ve got one of the biggest shows on TV. Great. You’re affiliated with a much loved, critically acclaimed video-game series. Fantastic. You’ve got more good-faith pouring in from your collective fanbase than you can handle – so why not try to milk it a little more? Your first big attempt to do so is a flop. You released your own video-game which was so unpopular that you’ve burnt some of your bridges. It hasn’t completely eradicated your reputation, but you know you can’t tread down that same road again. Next time you’ll have to play it safer. You need something more people will hear about, but less people would care about. Somewhere where there’s already abundant precedence for lazy, low-effort franchise cash-grabs. The mobile industry.
I could be wrong of course, but there’s nothing about the whole affair that fills me with hope. AMC has chosen to work with a brand new, small development studio called Next Games on the project. This is apparently due to the team’s “outstanding creative and technical talent, as well as a willingness to re-imagine the unique and compelling world of The Walking Dead”. According to the press release, the team is made up of veteran developers from Disney, Rovio and Supercell- but whilst I have no doubt that this is true, the details seem to vague to sound reassuring. The team may well be made up of “veterans”, but in what capacity did they work for those big names? And, as a completely untested studio, what evidence is there of outstanding talent? They possess it individually, but there’s ultimately no proof that they can function together to create anything at all. I’m not trying to put a downer on a small developer who’s just starting out, or to cast judgement on their abilities, but I’m simply trying to see it from the cold, calculated perspective of a lizard. I mean businessman. So why would you hand over your multi-million franchise to a group of people when you have no idea they can deliver? Unless, maybe, you don’t want to hand over creative control to anyone. Because you’ve done that before, and you ended up with Survival Instinct, and that turned out horribly. So this time you need a small developer, so you can bully them into letting you call the shots, and they’ll make whatever little money earner you tell them to. Or maybe Next had a really, really good pitch. Either is possible.
That’s not what’s got me really worried, however. In one tiny, innocent little phrase, the newly formed Next tells us about their plans for the future of game design: “[we focus] on crafting gorgeous narrative-driven games with engaging free-to-play mechanics.” Now, to me that sentence doesn’t make sense. A game that is narrative-driven is fine. Better than fine, in fact; many of the greatest games you can play are narrative driven. And so is free-to-play, when it’s done right. That’s a rare occurrence, of course, as I’ve been at pains to point out in the past, but is nevertheless viable. But combining them confuses me. The very nature of a free-to-play game requires the withholding of certain aspects of game-play. Yet the crux of a narrative driven game, in which the story and the plot are inseparable is that- well, the story and the plot are inseparable. Once you start mixing the two, you begin to get problems. Imagine, after performing a violent action in front of the group in Season 1 of The Walking Dead, a small message pops up on the screen; “Clementine will remember that- for just $2.99!”. The only mechanics of a free-to-play game that differ from that of any other game are those that seek to separate the player from the full experience. In a game that’s truly driven by narrative, this fragmentation dissolves what could have otherwise been an enjoyable or meaningful story.
When all is said and done, this is just speculation. Nothing I’ve said could be true. The game could turn out exactly as I fear, for the reasons I’ve suggested. Or it could turn out awfully for completely different reasons. Or maybe, it’ll be a wonderful surprise. Next will turn out to be the Messiah of mobile gaming, they’ll convince Valve to start working on Half Life 3 and I’ll ride around Cardiff tomorrow on the back of a unicorn firing rainbows from my eyes. Stranger things may have happened. All glibness aside, however, I can’t bring myself to be excited about this release- and it’s mostly because of the platform. When mobile games are good, they have the capacity to be truly great. But the sheer force of schlock on the platform can overwhelm those good titles, and I really don’t think the Walking Dead can stay afloat of that. Not when it’s weighed down by all the money in its pockets.