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Why the company behind The Walking Dead is getting into indie games

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It’s still early in 2016, but Oxenfree is already one of the most striking games of the year. While it looks like a traditional point-and-click adventure game, with its 2D world and painterly visuals, it’s actually an inventive twist on interactive storytelling that puts dialog at the forefront. As you explore the story, a twisted-yet-charming tale of teens trapped on a haunted island, you’re able to engage in deep conversations with other characters, and the action never stops while you chat. It’s an integral part of the experience, and it gives the game a distinct feel.

Oxenfree is the first game from new studio Night School, formed by veterans of Disney and Telltale Games, and it could one day become a movie or television show — with a little help from the creator of The Walking Dead.

When you think of Skybound, you probably think of comic books. The entertainment company was founded in 2010 by Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman as a way to help creators bring their comics to a larger audience. It has since expanded in multiple directions, dabbling in television and film, and even helping PewDiePie launch a new show on YouTube. The company has a knack for taking a property — most notably The Walking Dead — and successfully translating it to multiple mediums. Now, it’s turning its attention to video games by partnering with small studios like Night School. "We’re looking for something that feels very authentic, and also very new and fresh and innovative in a very specific way," says Dan Murray, president of Skybound’s interactive division.

Murray joined the company in early 2014 with the goal of expanding further into games. By that point Skybound had already seen quite a bit of success with Telltale Games’ adaptation of The Walking Dead, one of the rare video games adapted from another medium to be both a critical and commercial success. The series is still ongoing — a spin-off game starring series fan-favorite Michonne just launched — and it helped turn Telltale into one of the preeminent names in interactive storytelling.

But for Skybound, the company also wanted to do in video games what it had already done in comics: help other creators bring their visions to life. "One of the things that most people notice about Skybound is that it’s a company built around creators," Murray says. "One of the big things we’ve been focused on the last couple of years is finding some new voices from the gaming space and bringing those into the fold."

The fruits of that work have only recently started to show. This year Skybound has partnered with two different game studios, taking an almost publisher-like role in the process. Those games include both Oxenfree and Labyrinth, a collectible card game / RPG hybrid that just hit Steam this week as an "early access" title.

"We weren’t in a spot where we needed a traditional publisher."

Though the partnership between Skybound and Oxenfree developer Night School Studio was only formally announced in January, it’s been in the works for some time. Murray and Night School co-founder Sean Krankel had known each other dating back several years, and were looking into ways to work together. "We just had a similar outlook on how games could be transferred into various other media," says Krankel. When the first trailer for Oxenfree was released last year at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, it piqued the interest of none other than Robert Kirkman, who reached out to Murray about potentially working with the game’s developers.

"The game was fully funded, we weren’t in a spot where we needed a traditional publisher," says Krankel. But Skybound was able to offer something else: a chance to expand Oxenfree beyond just gaming. "They have shown that they know how to take an [intellectual property] and put it into various other media and do it in a way that isn’t overly opportunistic, but a way that’s really true to the original vision," explains Krankel. "We’re in the very early process of developing Oxenfree as something that can make its way into film or TV, and we work so closely with the TV and film guys [at Skybound] who have no interest in taking it and co-opting it and chopping it up. They’re very vested in making an actual extension of what makes the game special."

Skybound also helps with promotion, using its clout to show off the game at events like Comic-Con and placing print ads in The Walking Dead magazine. But for Krankel, it’s the potential expansion of the franchise that’s really attractive, and it’s something no one else really offers. "To be honest, if the Skybound thing hadn’t come around, none of this other stuff would be happening, because the other potential film partnerships just didn’t feel all that right and we, being so tiny, don’t have the bandwidth to focus heavily on that," he says.

For other game studios, the partnership is a bit different. In the case of Labyrinth developer Free Range Games, Skybound is serving more of an advisory role. "It’s not a traditional publisher / developer relationship," says Free Range president Chris Scholz. "There are a lot of things that Skybound can do. Honestly, one of the most useful things has just been advice and mentoring. All of those guys have such huge experience creating original IP, that just having weekly meetings with them has been very insightful." Skybound is helping refine the branding around the game, while also handling community-focused promotions on services like Twitch.

"They’ve got the muscle of a big company."

Many game developers — including both Krankel and Scholz — go the independent route in an attempt to get away from the often stifling world of big studios. So the idea of working with a large publisher isn’t particularly appealing. That’s the reason why small, boutique publishers like Devolver Digital have popped up, operating more like a punk rock music label than a traditional game publisher. They’re able to give game developers more of a personal connection, and Skybound has a similar appeal — but with the added bonus of its experience and connections in various worlds of media. "They’ve got the muscle of a big company, but none of the layers of management that make actually getting anything done difficult," says Scholz.

The gaming initiative is still a very new thing, and both projects so far happened relatively organically, with Murray reaching out to developers he already knew. Whether or not that’s something that can scale as Skybound expands its work in gaming is unclear, and will likely depend on the success of these early partnerships. But even at this formative stage, the company is already setting itself apart from the stereotypical monolithic image many have of a game publisher. "They just get it," says Krankel.