Unlike Telltale's series, Activision's take on The Walking Dead hasn't gotten off to a particularly good start. When the first gameplay footage appeared online over the Christmas period, things turned ugly - in every sense of the word. Fans and critics picked apart the product for looking "ugly and dated", "a wee bit rough around the edges", and "like an indie budget game as opposed to an Activision-backed licensed product". Harsh criticism perhaps, but valid concerns nonetheless.
Then there was the controversy surrounding the way the footage itself was presented, after Activision attempted to distance itself from a fan-produced video claiming to be a trailer for the game. The footage contained within the video was legitimate, of course - it was simply footage taken from an IGN video interview with Terminal Reality's Glenn Gamble spliced into something representative of a trailer. Nothing wrong with that you might think, but Activision's response suggested that the publisher was not best pleased.
Earlier this week, VideoGamer.com caught up with Gamble to get his side of the story, and discover whether Survival Instinct is another zombie apocalypse worth sinking your teeth into, or one better left six feet under...
Glenn Gamble, Terminal Reality: It's old [footage] and it was made by a fan, and there you go.
VideoGamer.com: What do you mean it was made by a fan? The footage must have come from the studio itself.
GG: They actually took it off an IGN interview I did. So it was a copy of a copy off of another website. It looks better [now]. And that was really kind of the bad part about it is, it looked bad. You can see that the game looks a tonne better than that video presented.
GG: So it's just a little damage control.
Were you disappointed by the reaction to the footage and the fact that that video was put out there like that?
GG: Honestly, yeah. But as I said... [Turns to Activision rep] I don't know how far into this I can go.
Activision rep: Keep it top-line. Keep it just in general.
The argument [from Activision] seemed to be that it was a fan-made trailer, and therefore should not be considered as...
GG: It's not final. It's not even close to final. It's early footage. You saw what we presented today and it looks... There was no spec in the trailer.
But if [gameplay footage] is released to the public, which it was through IGN, then surely it's fair to critique that footage? It seems to be the fact that [the footage] was later cut into a straight gameplay video which made the difference.
GG: Right. With any game, it's early footage. Since that video we've done a tonne of lighting, we've added new assets and everything else, so it's good. Hopefully you can see the difference.
To be perfectly honest with you, what I saw today was not what I had been expecting to see.
GG: Was it better?
GG: Okay, then we've succeeded.
It struck me as being quite similar to ZombiU. It isn't an action-shooter like, say, Left 4 Dead. It is more of a survival-FPS. Obviously, this has been in development for a while, but is there any part of you that looks at ZombiU and thinks, 'Damn, they beat us to it'?
GG: Great minds think alike. Back when I was on Ghostbusters, we put all the HUD on the Proton Pack and the first thing everybody called out was, 'Oh my God, they're stealing Dead Space'. We were running concurrently, it's just that great minds think alike. The nice thing is, when you're in the industry... In my opinion, a good designer plays every game they can get their hands on: bad ones, good ones, anything they can get their hands on. They play the game and they look at it for reference. So [ZombiU is] just another game that we can drop into our reference pool. The thing is, there's not a game like ZombiU on the Xbox or PS3, so even though we're going to be on the Wii U, hopefully the people who enjoyed ZombiU will enjoy our game too. It's similar but they're very different at the same time because they've got more of a linear story, and even though you're playing multiple characters and you progress, we've got more of an open branching story. We're encouraging the player to actually do multiple playthroughs because you can play our game twice, three times and not actually have the same levels when you play.
You've announced the game for Wii U today. How does that version differ to the others and what has the GamePad allowed you to do?
GG: It's pretty much the same game. Something we never touched on [in the presentation] was the resource management and your inventory screen which is a pretty extensive little screen where you can swap out weapons. That's all super-streamlined on the Wii U pad. Literally as you're playing you can be tapping items, dropping them, throwing them, equipping them, stuff like that. So the controls are just a lot more streamlined, but overall all three games are pretty much the same. That's the only real difference.
Did you face any problems when porting the Infernal Engine to Wii U?
GG: We had to build our engine to adapt to Wii U, but that's kind of what our engine does. Terminal Reality created the Infernal Engine, and the beauty of our engine is that you can literally plug it in... We could actually build this game for the PSP. Granted a lot of it wouldn't work because we're using... We have different nodes which are designed for different engines, so it would drop it. But if we pulled all the stuff out which would not work with PSP, which would be most of the game, you could technically build for that. That's the beauty of our engine. So when they said, 'Hey, do you want to do a Wii U version?', we were like, 'Yeah, sure!', so we can build those nodes to actually get it into our engine. That's all code stuff which I'm not involved with. I know it has its own hurdles and the different things that they have to do to get it to work there, but near as I can tell, it looks like it's running fine. I've been helping with the touch UI, setting up the actual UI interface and everything, so I've gotten to mess with that and as near as I can tell they're identical across the board.
In your presentation, you spoke about the variations on the Walkers and the idea that no two zombies will look the same. Isn't that a huge technical hurdle given memory limitations?
GG: Oh yeah. That little presentation I showed you, it's just how we cheated the system because it's like, as far as we see it it's just one animation rig and we just build everybody out of parts. So we have fat parts, thin parts, tall parts, business suits, overalls: it's just all a bunch of parts. So the more time we get, the more parts we get, and the more parts we get the more variations we get. And then we have randomised colour. I'm making it sound very trivial, but it's actually a very big... It's a lot more complex than that.
Terminal Reality has a history with developing licensed games, what with Kinect Star Wars, Ghostbusters etc. Have you learned anything from the way you handled previous licenses that you've taken into consideration for The Walking Dead?
GG: The more games you work on, the more your view of how to make games changes, and the group we've got now... We've actually been through several licensed games now and each one you have to handle differently. Ghostbusters, I would say there was medium hands-on from the owner side of things, with Star Wars there was heavy hands-on. From Walking Dead, AMC's been just... I mean, I'm sure if we weren't taking the game in a direction they liked they would have been more hands-on, but they're just... Like, that little weird thing about the show bible. One of the things we learned is, if you notice all the Walkers in the show have all their teeth. We actually had Walkers with missing teeth and AMC came back and said, 'No, no. We actually have bunches of teeth in the Walkers' mouths, they're more bitey and look more menacing.' And that's something you never think about, but that's the kind of stuff where AMC is like, 'Here, this is something about the show which is unique to us,' that we adapt into the game. If there was more of that kind of stuff I figure they'd be more hands-on, but they're very, very happy with what we're doing with the game and keeping it very true to the show.
It's the little touches that make a licensed game what it is.
We touched on ZombiU earlier, but the one thing I felt Ubisoft Montpellier did particularly well was creating an incredibly intense atmosphere. There were some critics, though, who criticised the game for being a little slow. When it comes to The Walking Dead, how do you strike the balance between establishing that fear and intensity versus the necessity for action?
GG: How many hours do you have?
GG: Seriously, you're asking for like, ten years worth of design experience compiled into two minutes right there. Usually it's just that feeling of ebb and flow. If we had the same intensity levels throughout the entire game it would feel... Like, if it was a bunch of Walkers everywhere it would feel like a shooter. But if we start ebbing and flowing and then making parts where you need to run, parts you need to sneak, parts you need to distract and parts you need to salvage, you kind of break it up. Every designer, when they were working on their levels, they talked. It's like, 'Hey, I want a stealth level,' and then another one's like, 'Well, I want a little more action-friendly', and suddenly those two levels balance each other out. So it's a lot of communication. Seriously, if it boiled down to one word: communication. It's just everybody being on the same page and everybody trying to work together, and making levels that compliment each other.
Talking of working together, Telltale's Walking Dead series is doing tremendously well for itself. Obviously they have a different type of license to yourselves, but has there been any dialogue between Terminal Reality and Telltale to discuss the way they approached the IP?
GG: Well, their game's the comic book and ours is the TV show, and it's just two different complementary games that happen to be set in a similar world. As far as a fan goes, I'm just happy there are two of them. Seriously, what more could you ask for than two Walking Dead games at the same time? And both of them are separate, equal - and you'll have to take my word on it - both of them are really, really good. We've played the Telltale ones and totally enjoy them, they're awesome games. But they're running their... We didn't even know there was another one until they actually, there was that two-week period where they were like, 'Hey, we're making [The Walking Dead]', and we're like, 'Whaaaat?'. And of course, everyone's trying to figure out what's going on. I don't know if no-one bothered to tell us or what but it caught us off guard as well. But it's a great game.
This interview was conducted at an Activision press event held in London on Tuesday January 8, 2013.
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct launches on March 29, 2013 on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U and PC Digital.