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This week at GamesBeat Summit 2023, I had a chance to play fanboy. Backstage at the event, I asked Robert Kirkman, the creator of The Walking Dead, to sign an autograph on a couple of copies of the original comic books that debuted 20 years ago in 2003. Rather than just sign them, Kirkman scribbled for a long time. When I later looked at the autograph, he signed his name and drew a picture of a zombie.
That made me smile, and I considered it an honor to have Kirkman, chief creative officer and cofounder of Skybound Entertainment, as a speaker at our event. He did an hour-long fireside chat with Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham, vice president of community development at Fortis Games and a former longtime leader at Twitch. For our tiny little GamesBeat event in its 15th year, this was a big moment.
Before the talk, I introduced Jon Goldman, Formaggio Grande at Skybound and the founder of virtual reality VC fund Tower 26. And Goldman, who is the connective tissue between games and entertainment, introduced the session, which was sponsored by Facebook Gaming. Goldman and I began conspiring years ago to get Kirkman to speak at one of our conferences and talk about how games and movies have become a single ecosystem.
Their talk was a high point for our subtheme at the event about games and Hollywood. Hollywood and games went through so many failed marriages when games were viewed as nerdy and Hollywood directors didn’t play games. Now we have successes like The Last of Us TV show on HBO. The Super Mario Bros. movie has crossed $1 billion in revenue, as has Hogwarts Legacy, Warner’s latest hit game.
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The talk was entitled “Breaking the Hollywood mode: How creators drive the narrative.” Kirkman has been crossing media borders for decades. His first comment about what’s different now compared to when he was starting out was to point out a contrast. Now there’s more respect for the original video game creation in Hollywood.
“The two Mario movies are the best example of that, when you compare the first one and the new Super Mario movie,” Kirkman said.
“There’s an insane amount of potential in crossmedia,” he said. “The surface hasn’t been scratched yet.”
Before we get too much into what they talked about, I’d like to note Kirkman’s success.
The empire of The Walking Dead
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.
Kirkman’s franchise started as a comic book and then it took off everywhere. The Walking Dead saw the highest viewership series finale in scripted TV history at over 17 million viewers. Season 3 had a run of 75 consecutive episodes with more than 10 million same-day viewers, an unheard-of streak for a cable-scripted series. It was the highest-rated cable television show ever, and it was the sixth most-watched show of 2022.
That’s what we used to call transmedia until people decided it was a dirty word because all transmedia efforts failed. Sharon Tal Yguado, another veteran of big media properties, prefers the term “crossmedia” for a variety of reasons. Somehow, despite all the failures, 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?
Today, Skybound aims to highlight the work of other creators too and it publishes more than 150 different intellectual properties, Goldman said. Kirkman’s empire in games and entertainment paved the way for the successes we have today.
Graham and Kirkman talked like old friends. They bantered about their past sessions and Kirkman noted that he hadn’t spoken publicly at such a conference since the pandemic started. Graham said it was like riding a bike, and Kirkman responded, “Everybody says it’s like riding a bike. But riding a bike is difficult and dangerous.”
Kirkman said they had never succeeded in finding another moderator, and Graham noted that no one wanted to put up with Kirkman’s sense of humor. Graham noted how fans have become more intense and dedicated over time and they love seeing their favorite characters in comics, TV, movies and video games. Narratives can flow across these media and fans love even harder, Graham said.
Graham asked Kirkman if he believed Invincible, which came before The Walking Dead, would last more than six issues, let alone go on to the big screen and TV or be a video game.
“No, definitely not,” Kirkman said. “I didn’t know it would make it the first year, let alone 20 years. I definitely didn’t expect it to have this level of success 20 years later. But I was incredibly passionate” about the material and he thought he had years of storytelling that he was dying to get to.
Now that we have so many ways of telling stories, Graham wondered if it was a natural progression given Super Mario Bros. Movie and The Last of Us on HBO did so well.
“It’s like the frog in the boiling pot,” Kirkman said. “Pinpointing one moment is very difficult because everything is an incremental step.”
He noted that with both The Walking Dead and Invincible, once the shows debuted and introduced the comics to a larger audience, the audience grows to a critical mass and you can bring in video games, then it is a “snowball rolling down a hill,” Kirkman said.
“One thing that is really important to me is that there is an authenticity to what we do at Skybound,” he said. “There’s an authenticity to The Walking Dead and Invincible and I’m at the center of it and I’m really engaged and excited about it. I’m not doing it because I want it to be this big multimedia property. I’m doing it because I love it. I want to continue telling these stories. I feel like I have something to say with these stories.”
Graham asked if others pressure Kirkman to just come up with yet another story that they can put on TV and more. There have been a lot of times when others ask Kirkman for more ideas. He can accommodate that to some extent, but he still has to have passion for the worlds and stories he’s creating.
“I’m trying not to sell out, which is what I’m trying to say,” Kirkman said.
I think he’s done a good job of that, and that he has usurped some of the power that the money people in Hollywood used to have. Kirkman led some of the revolt that put more control in the hands of the actual creators in Hollywood. His success has meant that he only has to focus on the stuff that he’s excited about, and not on ideas that are aimed at making a quick buck.
Graham asked how often Kirkman thinks about the different media that a story or world could work best for when it debuts. If he were to sit down and consider multiple media, it’s possible as long as he’s excited about it, Kirkman said. He noted a scene might not work in a comic because there is no motion or sound. Or he might think about an actor who could play a role in a TV version of a property.
“I was not doing that 20 years ago,” Kirkman said. “That’s now.”
He noted that the different ways of telling stories have different effects on audiences. The goal is to affect the audience in a meaningful way.
Graham asked about the differences when it comes to making video games. Kirkman said he loves gaming because you “live the story” in contrast to watching a story in film and TV.
“It is really exciting because it has different kinds of storytelling techniques and it has a different effect on an audience. It can endear an audience to a story in a much more meaningful way, which I think is very unique to video games,” Kirkman said.
When Skybound formed a decade ago, the idea was to do these adaptations of the comic books in-house so that the company could control them more because “I’m a control freak” and he wanted the results to be good, he said.
Potential partners would come and ask if they could do T-shirts or action figures, and Skybound considered how it could do these things itself without partners, Kirkman said. Did these things come back and make it easier to write comics?
That’s a hard question to answer, Kirkman said. He noted how the choices players had to make in The Walking Dead video games made the games much more interesting to players, and the team wanted to create tough and emotional situations for players and “make them cry.”
Early in his career, Kirkman just tried to entertain himself. But now he has to think about how different people with different personalities can react to stories in different media.
Graham noted how the emergence of “super fans” is important to Skybound, as they will devour the worlds and stories they love in any medium. But Kirkman said there is a line in that he doesn’t want products like The Walking Dead cereal or underwear to exist because that would make fans think that all he cares about is the money. And he joked he was wearing Transformers underwear.
“I think if I love Invincible as a fan, what would I want,” Kirkman said.
You have to remember that the fan is invested in a narrative and not look at it cynically. You can put something in a show that you know only the die-hard fans would notice. Kirkman said he likes putting Easter Eggs into shows that are hard for fans to figure out.
Were there things that Kirkman would like to forget? Yes, he said, like the MTV motion comic of Invincible that came out in 2006. Then there are memorable scenes like a character’s head spinning around and vomiting down their back. Kirkman wrote that scene as a comic artist and then was able to write it again as a screenplay for a show with more nuances like more violence and more startling content.
The big moment for video games
What is the advice that Kirkman gives to video game creators when it comes to crafting a story that might one day be a film or TV show? Kirkman said The Walking Dead world has its own cast of characters in different media so that the stories can stand on their own and not be dependent on another medium.
“You want to create a world that is well rounded so each individual thing is giving people a full experience,” Kirkman said.
The time for video games as good movies is overdue, Kirkman said.
“It’s definitely about time,” he said. “There is a really good correlation for when comics started popping as movies and television. The same thing happened in both instances, which is people started taking them seriously.”
And that means that the creators in Hollywood took games seriously as works of art in their own right, rather than as kiddie stories that needed to be fixed.
“I’m going to fix it and make it cool,” the Hollywood people used to say, Kirkman said. “Now, Mario is going to look like Mario. Sonic is going to look like Sonic. We’re going to get Neil Druckmann to actually work on The Last of Us show.”
Graham asked if the improvement in technology has made these things work better. That was part of it, but the respect for the gaming property is what matters, he said. Comic-Con was a big part of the improvement, he said, as the Hollywood people could see the fans there and notice what they cared about.
“When the first trailer of Sonic the Hedgehog came out and the internet went crazy,” Kirkman said.
That is, the fans rejected the way Sonic looked and then the filmmakers responded to that, pivoted, and it made for a much better movie, he said.
“It’s tiny lessons like that,” he said. “Hollywood often learns the wrong lessons, but I think that is one where they got it right.”
Kirkman agreed with Graham that you can’t make every fan happy. He said that he believes it’s definitely easier to adapt a comic book into an animated show rather than a live-action show.
Kirkman still has some milestones to hit. He hasn’t yet tried to write the story for a video game himself, as he enlists a writer’s room to help with such tasks.
“Actually sitting down to write a game is terrifying to me, as the scripts are 10 times longer than a movie script,” he said. “It’s something that is very difficult for me to wrap my head around. It does fascinate me. It’s maybe something I would like to try to do someday.”
Kirkman joked he was “pro-AI” when Graham brought up the hot trend of artificial intelligence. But Kirkman said he hasn’t investigated it too much, and he believes it is early technology. If it generates new ideas, it could be helpful for a writer but it could put “us out of business” if it gets too good, he noted.
“It’s such a touchy subject,” he said.
Kirkman noted that the writer’s room approach hasn’t been used as much as it should be, as it makes research and finding different perspectives easier because more brains are better than one.
As for his favorite games, he highlighted Apex Legends, Mario Kart, and Rainbow Six: Siege. He likes how games like Minecraft have so much longevity. He regularly meets fans who didn’t realize The Walking Dead was a comic book, and he also meets fans of the games who didn’t watch the TV show.
Kirkman also answered a lot of questions from fans. He noted that George Romero was a huge influence on his own creation of The Walking Dead. The reason he did his comic book was that there was never any expansion of the world that Romero created. He thinks blockchain games have potential if it means that you can get a skin in one game and use it in another game.
To hear more of those answers, check out the embedded video of the session. I hope you enjoy the entertaining session. It’s exactly the kind of session that I thought about us doing years ago, and I’m happy to finally see it happen. His intellect and his humor came through, as did his rapport with Graham.