"As opposed to adapt, the word expand is better": Skybound's Dan Murray talks video game franchises

Speaking at PGC San Francisco, the Walking Dead boss discusses the challenges and opportunities of making games based on big brand IP

"As opposed to adapt, the word expand is better": Skybound's Dan Murray talks video game franchises

"It was always frustrating to me to see the game teams being very disconnected with the people who are actually behind the IP. That was the traditional way that licensed games had been made. There was a team of producers that were acting as the go-between." So said Dan Murray, President at Skybound Interactive in LA, at Pocket Gamer Connects San Francisco last month.

In June 2017 we welcomed many fantastic speakers to our US conference. PG Connects took place in San Francisco in late June, had nearly 850 registered delegates, and included 85 sessions (that's over 42 hours) of talks and panels.

Appearing on stage twice, Dan Murray represents a multiple-media company most famous for publishing Robert Kirkman's celebrated comic The Walking Dead. Murray was there to talk about intellectual property, the power of the creator and about turning much-loved franchises into mobile games.

Immediately after he shared his insight and experience with the audience, we grabbed him for a detailed chat about Skybound's ambitions and the current state of the industry when it comes to high-profile IP. Does he have any advice for companies working with – or pitching to work with – big entertainment brands? How did you get started in the games industry and what’s your experience before Skybound?

Dan Murray: I started in the gaming business with a guy named Jon Goldman, who created a company called Foundation 9. Foundation 9 was loosely formed in 2005, and Jon was able to raise some capital to put together a consortium of game developers.

I worked directly with Jon from the beginning of that phase. So I sort of had a front row seat, I like to say I got my "MBA in games" by meeting all the best game developers around the world, and being able to not only understand what they did, but how they did it. So really looking into how they ran their business: that was a great deep dive into the game industry.

Before that, I had worked in Hollywood – working on the film and TV side, working in theatre in New York. So I’d had experience, always, around content. I had a background in finance, so I sort of understood the business side of things as well. But even before I got into the game business I was very dedicated towards narrative and content.

I like to say I got my 'MBA in games' by meeting all the best game developers around the world.
Dan Murray

So with Foundation 9, I was able to participate in the acquisition phase, where we bought a bunch of different companies, put them all together and helped establish what I thought was a very special and unique culture in the game industry.

We went from 200 people to 1,200 people in about 18 months during the height of the console period.

At that point, we’d also made a small investment in a management production company called Circle Of Confusion that was run by David Alpert. He went on to start Skybound with Robert Kirkman.

For me, coming to Skybound was, no pun intended, “full circle”. And the industry had changed so much. I moved into working with a guy named Chris Charla, who’s now at Microsoft. He sort of mentored me in the ways of meeting independent studios that were out there and meeting the publishers.

I went and took over his role and ran worldwide business development for all the studios. So my job was essentially to feed the beast, and to go out and sign over 60 games deals. Because we had anywhere from 20 to 30 teams, always, looking for the next gig. And so, the point of that is I spent a lot of time working with IP publishers.

What lessons did you learn about working with them?

It was always frustrating to me to see the game teams themselves making the product being very disconnected with the people who are actually behind the IP from the get-go. That was the traditional way that licensed games had been made.

There’s always a publisher who had best intentions. Great people. But a lot of times there was a team of producers that were acting as the go-between.

But look at Skybound and see what they’re doing with Telltale. It was a natural coincidence where they got together, and Telltale was looking at comic books. The Walking Dead TV show had not come out yet. But they actually did the deal based on the comic-book franchise (they’d already done a different deal with Universal, and they wanted to kind of shift gears a little bit).

It just so happened that the stars aligned in such a way that Telltale had a game that was ready to go when the show hit the mark.

But the cool thing about what they did is that Robert [Kirkman] and David [Alpert], because of the experience with Foundation 9, understood the business; they understood the value of working directly with development teams. I think he was aware enough to recognise where he could add value, which is with a lot of the writing staff who we introduced.

Robert introduced the idea of making the game more of a television model, versus what most game companies do, which is to have one or two writers do everything.

Robert Kirkman introduced the idea of making the game more of a TV model, versus what most game companies do, which is to have one or two writers do everything.
Dan Murray

They had a writers’ room and really fleshed out a narrative. Robert was very keen to expand the universe, not just copy what had been done in the books, and to use the characters. So there was a sort of natural alignment. And it took off.

Eventually, Foundation 9 wound down. There was an exit there because that company was built for console. Then 2008 came, and that really shifted the company’s strategy. We went through a phase with Facebook and the rise of mobile. The companies weren’t really positioned to do that.

But there were other companies that wanted that expertise. So we sold Griptonite Games to Glu. We sold Pipeworks Software to 505. We sold Double Helix to Amazon, which is now Amazon Games Studios – and that was really the final one for me. Skybound just had its success and wanted to be more, so I came in to help them build up a business.

Foundation 9 worked on some big IPs, and Skybound too obviously. What are the challenges of adapting an IP from one medium to another?

As opposed to “adapt”, maybe the verb “expand” is a better way to consider it. Especially from a game development standpoint.

There’s so much content that has to go into games, with games focused primarily on the extended universe. There's also live operations, games-as-a-service. How do you co-exist alongside the customers, so you’re really thinking about the customers first? Which is such a different way of thinking about the boxed product version of the past.

To adapt something is hard to do, because what you’re going to run into is a lot of walls, because you’re going to run out of content. So expanding is always the way to consider it. So it’s finding the right creators or IP holders.

Robert is a pretty unique individual in that case, because he trusted immediately the opportunity for teams that approached him, to take on his IP.

Oftentimes, games in the past were driven by schedule and budget. So you might see a team and what they’d done before, and you’d look at an engine and say: “okay, this is the IP. Here’s the rule-set for the IP".

The teams get these very strict guidelines, and occasionally you’ll get some writers on staff. People always have the best intentions to make something good, but there’s a lot of limitations.

We had everybody under the sun approach me for a Walking Dead VR game. Everybody. All the platform holders, all the teams around the world.
Dan Murray

And that’s, I think, the key to why Skybound has made it so unique in this space. By having the creator so intimately involved and directly involved, you have that ability to go right to the source. Because if there’s ground in the middle, and they're very concerned with protecting the IP, the message often gets lost - especially when you want to take a risk with something.

It’s obviously important you find the right group to work with. At Skybound, how do you find and select people to work with your IP?

Patience, is one.

When you spend enough time in the industry, it becomes a smaller community. A lot of times it's built around the people you trust. It ultimately comes down to that, because there’s never a guarantee with anything in the creative fields, whatever it is – games or whatever type of creative endeavour you’re pursuing. It comes down to the person on the other side of the table who you trust to do something with.

So you definitely look at the people at the front of the leadership side. You also look at the team itself, and what they’ve done before. But I don’t think it’s necessarily built on what they can already do, because you want to innovate. Games are all about iterating forward and trying to do something that feels unique. So there’s always a level of risk.

We spend a lot of time just talking to developers. I don’t spend a lot of time going to traditional licensing shows. My whole message since I joined Skybound was to take this approach, because I’d been in game development for so long that it was a great opportunity for me to go work with all the teams that I admire - or the people that I used to compete against for work.

So it does come down to just that community. But then there are also new teams coming every day. It always starts with the creative first, for us, and then it’s: how are you going to run this as a business? But the creative is always where we start the conversation. Can you have the creative foresight to actually deliver?

So that combination of business and creative, that’s the balance that we look for.

And Skybound wanted to take a big bet with VR. We had everybody under the sun approach me for a Walking Dead VR game. Everybody. All the platform holders, all the teams around the world. Every part of the world asked if they could do something with it.

We did some stuff with Starbreeze. We took an early bet there, because we do want to support our partners, especially when they have ambitions to break new ground. But we’re not making the big VR game with Starbreeze. We’re making a PC console game. So we took an early bet then, but it was pretty clear I needed to step back and wait.

So we were patient over the last few years, letting VR and the market come to us a little bit: mature a little bit, see how the install base happened. But last autumn, especially with PlayStation, there’s enough momentum from a consumer standpoint to look forward and think, “How can we be out in front of it in a big way, and plant a flag in the ground?”.

Creators first. It starts there, always. The company was built by Robert Kirkman and David Alpert to service that intent from the get-go.
Dan Murray

We needed somebody to step forward with the right ambitions, and not just create a small experience as a way to leverage the IP. Because the IP – just to be honest – doesn’t need exposure, right? All it needs is something great, and that’s what we’re trying to do.

What would you say are the core values of Skybound? Can you define them?

Yeah. Creators first. It starts there, always. The company was built by Robert and David to service that intent from the get-go. Because it’s a reflection of what Image Comics did for Robert.

So when I say “creators first”, it means just that. Everything revolves around the individual creator and their IP. So we have lots of IPs now in our company. Obviously Robert has done a pretty good job of filling out some of that portfolio, because he’s very prolific with the amount of content he’s able to create.

When Robert left Marvel, he went online and created this thing called the Kirkman Manifesto, which is basically just him in front of a camera, ranting about why creators should maintain control of their IP. He was really young at that point, and it was before YouTube videos even knew what the word “viral” was, but it did go out to the community. And it kind of became an anthem for him, as a person. And he’s backing it up.

Because we’ve never taken a dime of any professional's money. It’s all been generated by Robert and by the profit we’ve been able to generate for ourselves to put back into the company.

And really, the company is built so that all these businesses at Skybound that we’ve been able to create – whether that’s merchandising, TV and film, videogames, digital media, online publishing, comics – they’ve all been built, obviously because The Walking Dead has enabled us to go out and establish these things, but with that intent being: now we can bring other creators and their IP into the middle of that.

And we can have people now in place with real businesses who are out there executing that and delivering to the consumer. And then the creator has creative control on everything that we do that.

So Superfight was a really good example of a successful execution of that that was not The Walking Dead. It was a card game that was Kickstarter-ed by a guy named Darin Ross. He raised $50k, and he had the opportunity to sell that IP to a big company – and he said no.

But when he came to us, we said: “Look, we want to partner with you, and help you build this into a brand". We did a YouTube series with him. We produced a video game with 505 and Pipeworks. We’ve done all kinds of merchandising for him, and bringing it to shows. We have a warehouse in Culver City that’s like Raiders of the Lost Ark for swag. I think it’s Shangri-La for Comic-Con fans.

At Skybound, if you look at the portfolio of our IPs, I think there’s a fair level of consistency that is genre-related, with a twist.
Dan Murray

But the point is, there’s a team of individuals in that warehouse, putting stuff in the back of vans and taking in about 40 shows a year. So we’re delivering directly to the fans, and selling trades and merchandise, and I think that’s the point: we take the creator, make them the priority, and they essentially become the CEO of that IP.

But they’re also free to go do anything else they want, right? We don’t own the creators. We just co-own the IPs alongside them.

And you are the guy that goes “this would really work on mobile”?

The good thing about our content is that most of it makes for great games. At Skybound, if you look at the portfolio of our IPs, I think there’s a fair level of consistency that is genre-related, with a twist.

When I say “a twist”, like, when you think of The Walking Dead, it’s: “okay, everybody’s seen zombie stories before. But Robert had the brilliant idea of making it about the beginning of a civilisation, not the end; it's about the people, not the zombies".

That was the twist. And he’s done a similar thing with Invincible, with the superhero canon. And I think that’s the thing. When you look at our IPs, they’re built around big worlds – obviously, because a lot of the IPs have sort of been feeding our portfolio, are on the comic-book side. So comic books: they’re episodic, in the sense that they come out every month. So they service a lot of game ideas.

So we have a lot of ideas. Obviously, at the front of my mind, Invincible is the top of our list, because we’ve just announced a movie with Universal. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are writing a script, but we have all the ability on our side to control gravely what those games are going to be. So that’s really exciting to me.

The comic book Invincible is being adapted to the big screen following a deal between Skybound and Universal

Manifest Destiny – a survival horror book that’s written by a man named Chris Dingess. That’s a historical retelling of the Oregon Trail with Lewis and Clark, but it’s basically saying: “This is what really happened".

We have a creator named Christian Cantamessa that we work with consistently. He was one of the lead writers on Red Dead Redemption; Cinematic Director on Shadow of Mordor; he directed our first feature film called Air; he just did our first comic book with us called Kill the Minotaur, which is a brand new book.

But, I mean, that’s a game guy. So he’s a designer. I talk to him every week about new ideas and stuff we can do together, because he’s been working at it, and he’s an experienced guy.

And there’s another guy named JT Petty who we work with, who wrote the last two Outlast games, but he’s done a bunch of stuff with us.

I’d say Invincible is the top of the list, but it’s kind of an embarrassment of riches in that sense. The hardest thing, though, is finding ways to get them made, because games are an expensive endeavour, and we aren’t necessarily a traditional publisher in that sense.

What’s 2017’s biggest challenge going to be for companies like yours?

Great question. Number one is discovery. And that’s where IPs become attractive.

The biggest challenge for us is moving past The Walking Dead. It used to be that there’s limited shelf space, and now there’s limited app store space and “featuring” possibilities. There’s really a big problem in the industry in getting games in front of people – just people finding games.

There’s so much momentum in the industry, and it’s such a global industry that the amount of content is always a challenge.

Next, I have all these IPs. The biggest challenge is: how do I get them made when most people are looking for something really big to stand out? Finding partners to take on something new. We’re attempting to solve that, and primarily it’s through our own digital community.

So every game deal that we’ve done, we’ve had the integration of our own API. And it’s called Skybound Insider.

We’ve been building our own digital network, which is a fan network, which is basically a place for fans of Skybound to be rewarded. Our point in that is to not necessarily monetise that community; it’s to give them things. It’s a completely transparent sort of programme for creating loyalty and ways to reward people.

Go make something. You really don’t learn any other way. Figure out a way to get something, and do it.
Dan Murray

Really, from my perspective, it’s building that community in a way that fans will enjoy and not see as just a marketing tool. And right now, we’re servicing a lot of video and audio content. We produce all of that community content.

Think about how Talking Dead services The Walking Dead – we are doing all that for all of our IPs right now, and trying to figure out ways to deliver that content in such a way that people feel like: “Hey, this is a special place to be, and I want to be a part of this community".

What advice would you give to somebody who’s starting out in the games industry? I’m thinking of a developer with some great ideas. What’s the best lesson you learned that you'd pass on to them?

The best lesson is to dive into the community, because I think the game community is very unique. I’ve come from other creative communities that aren’t quite the same.

It’s so supportive here. In the game industry, people really get behind each other and will offer really good advice. So go to conferences. But don’t just go and hide out. It’s good to listen to tracks and things like that, but spend the time getting to know people.

That’s what I’ve done. It’s getting to know everybody I could. Because once you create that network of relationships, people will open up and give you really good specific advice.

The second one is: go make something. You really don’t learn any other way. Figure out a way to get something, and do it. If you have a passion to make something, you should follow that. That’s when people will see you as a creator, and they’ll open up.

Dan Murray was speaking at Steel Media's Pocket Gamer Connects event in San Francisco in June 2017. The next opportunity to join us for talks and panels from the mobile games industry, as well as network with the publishers and creators, is at PG Connects Helsinki on September 19th and 20th. Early Bird tickets are available now. 

COO, Steel Media Ltd

Dave is a writer, editor and manager who today is Steel Media's Chief Operations Officer. He gets involved in all areas of the business, from front-page editorial to behind-the-scenes event strategy. He began his career in games and entertainment journalism back in the 1990s when Doom came on floppy disks. You can contact him with any general queries about Pocket Gamer, Beyond Games or Steel Media's other websites, conferences and initiatives.