Why The Walking Dead makes triple-A video games look like zombies

In the new world of game, story counts more than size

Why The Walking Dead makes triple A titles look like zombies

With the release of The Walking Dead Season 2 Episode 2 this week, studio Telltale is continuing to do things differently.

Instead of focusing on one full-length retail title, Telltale launches its games in episodes, with one 2-3 hour instalment of a series being released every couple of months.

It's a great approach to development and marketing, and it works. The result is a fresh, reactive game with a fanbase who are constantly hungry for more.

Frankly, more studios should be sitting up and taking notice. Shorter games could be the future of gaming.

For starters, the days of lengthy, multi-year development cycles are over. Once upon a time, this was simply the standard for how game studios operated.

They'd lock themselves away for years at a time, liaise between publishers and platforms, and at the end of that they'd serve up a product that (they hoped) people would buy. And on and on it went.

Fans speak up

There's more transparency to development nowadays. Fans want to know what their favourite development studios are up to and how the game is coming along.

Larger studios like Square Enix have recently admitted that they need to adapt to embrace this - projects such as Final Fantasy are in development for years at a time, and consequently their creators lose touch with what fans are asking for or interested in.

As a result of this new status quo, as well as advancements in technology, game development is a much more collaborative process between studio and fans these days, for better and for worse. A developer only needs to visit NeoGAF or Reddit or their game's official forums to have access to more feedback than they'll ever need. The drawback is that a studio's decision-making processes and working practices are under far more intense scrutiny.

In the case of Telltale's other current ongoing series The Wolf Among Us, the most recent episode was delayed for several months, leading to people who had already purchased a season pass for the content to demand their money back.

Small, perfectly formed

Shorter games also mean smaller, more efficient teams. Ubisoft's UbiArt Frameworks engine (the same one used to create Rayman: Origins, Rayman: Legends and the upcoming turn-based RPG Child of Light) allows entire levels to be crafted from a few pieces of concept art. This means an entire game's art design can be created by just one person - as is the case with Ubisoft's other current UbiArt project Valiant Hearts: The Great War.

TWD

The Walking Dead series is based on Robert Kirkman's excellent comic book series, but features its own original characters, including Season Two's protagonist, an 11-year-old girl named Clementine. You'll really need to play through Season One first though, as its story leads directly into the current season. Xbox Live regularly offers up S1's first episode free to Xbox Live Gold Subscribers, so keep an eye out if you want to try before you buy.

This kind of streamlined production process is allowing publishers like Ubisoft to take chances on more experimental titles like Valiant Hearts by minimising costs and thus minimising the risk of huge financial losses should the project fall flat.

And at the risk of stating the obvious, risk-taking is a good thing for everyone in this instance, from developers to consumers.

Shorter games have the ability to be more reactive and topical with regards to their content too, with developers working in in-jokes and references that the audience will appreciate.

The most recent episode of The Walking Dead, for example, featured a Christmas Duck decoration that many players assume is a reference to the recent indie PC title Gone Home.

These little touches, as well as The Walking Dead's structure of multiple choices and branching narratives makes each episode's release an event in itself, engendering the same kind of water cooler moments as big TV shows, where people who've played through the latest instalment gather around and discuss their experiences.

Why The Walking Dead makes triple A titles look like zombies
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is short and better for it

It's all about value

Some may moan about short running times for this sort of game, but the fact is, not everyone has time for an epic 200+ hour RPG

Some may complain about shorter running times in these kinds of games, but the fact is, not everyone has time for an epic 200+ hour RPG like Skyrim.

South Park: The Stick of Truth's relatively short length of 10-15 hours was actually welcomed in several of its online reviews earlier this week, and while Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes has been criticised for being too short, most complaints were aimed more at the fact that it was being marketed as (and sold for the same price as) a full-length retail game.

So long as a game's length is fairly reflected in its price, why shouldn't we embrace games that are easily devoured in one sitting?

Last year's excellent Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons was three hours long at most, and yet it made every second of that run time count.

The game's creative director, Swedish filmmaker Josef Fares, previously stated that he didn't want a single one of the game's puzzle-solving or action-oriented mechanics to be used twice, as too many games nowadays resorted to repetitive filler to hit that imagined eight hour minimum run time to which so many games hyperextend themselves to reach.

We could do more with this kind of size doesn't matter attitude, I think. Oh, and if you haven't already, go play the latest episode of The Walking Dead. It's a good 'un.