Free for All: One Walking Dead MMO, please

The Walking Dead screenshot

One of the best gaming experiences I've had in recent memory has got to be the time I've spent in The Walking Dead series by Telltale games. OK, OK, so you might not agree that the titles are a series of "games;" they're more like a choose-your-own-adventure that is peppered with the occasional quick-time event, so let me clear the record in order to move on: I don't care what we call them. They are simply a fun experience. I can't believe that there are people who want to argue this point, but then again I had to witness people actually fight about games being art or not.

So however you feel about the The Walking Dead, uhm, experiences, you cannot deny their popularity. The series took the market by storm and showed just what a powerful medium gaming can be. Not only that, but Telltale received deserving praise not only for the gameplay and story but for the fact that it produced something that could run on almost any device or setup. (Well, except Android.)

How would The Walking Dead translate to an MMO, though? Could it be done? Don't worry; I am going to do my best to avoid any spoilers. So are my readers. Right, readers?

The Walking Dead screenshot

If you haven't played through The Walking Dead series yet, go grab every part on your console, PC, or iOS device. You won't regret it. You can play at a snail's pace, finishing one "episode" over several play sessions, or you can burn through most of them in an evening or two. I just finished the last episode of series one and have not yet plowed into 400 Days, the newest bit of content. By the way, you don't have to enjoy the television series to enjoy the game. I happen to dislike the TV series immensely, but the games are so much better.

Anyway, in the first series -- or season -- you play as Lee, a guy on his way to jail who is suddenly thrust into a world of zombies, babysitting, and human psychology. This is a series that features some extremely violent scenes, but it doesn't feel glorified. The mayhem that you find in The Walking Dead is meant to shock the player occasionally, and it does, despite the almost cartoony, stylized graphics. As I've grown older, I have grown more intolerant of extremely violent content. It's not like I think video game violence creates violent people, but gore and guts just make me uncomfortable more often than not. I don't care if that makes me lose geek points. For a long time geek culture has used violence as a shortcut around good story or content. I say we can do better.

The Walking Dead screenshot

I also feel as though the zombie or post-apocalyptic genre has become something of a joke. Like all good genres, it started off with a bang but has become more of a haven for designers and writers who couldn't write an original character or story if the cure for the virus that turns us all into mindless flesh-eaters depended on it. The good news is that the genre has reached that stage that sci-fi, Westerns, and other common genres reached long ago, that point of saturation that primes everything for a renewal of great content. The Walking Dead is part of that new, great content.

I can imagine an MMO that plays like the Telltale series because I would love to see a living world that was based on teamwork and patience. There are several titles that already work around similar principles, games like Wurm Online, Die2Nite, Puzzle Pirates, and A Tale in the Desert. If I could take bits of gameplay from all of those titles and combine them with the look of The Walking Dead, I would have perfection.

The Walking Dead screenshot

Graphics are often talked about only when they push our mega-machines to the point of melting down, but I have always preferred cartoony, stylized, or simple graphics. The Walking Dead looks like an animated comic book, simply put. In fact the artwork is not terribly detailed or amazing, but it works so well because it's solid and functional.

Sure, there are enough browns to make me wonder if zombie-genre designers have any idea that more colors will actually exist even in a post-apocalyptic world, but overall I adore how The Walking Dead looks. I can imagine a character creation screen that lets players pick out different outfits, customizable but realistic. I would probably want to have a good, solid hoodie and some sneakers. And if possible, a standard pair of glasses that almost every game must have before I am completely satisfied.

Gameplay could feature strong, story-based content, like Star Wars: The Old Republic minus the mind-numbing combat. I understand how expensive voice-acting and interactive, multi-choice quests can be, especially for a small studio, but imagine a game that allows you to make a character that has stats like "storytelling" that acts as a buff or "food improvisation" that allows for random recipe invention. Take out the standard MMO stats and replace them with ones that help form a character that is a part of a community, and add in quests or activities that are optional. To build a character, players would need to form bonds with NPCs and other players, gaining "fame" or "trustworthiness." Negative behavior would lead to the same results as it would in a "real" post-apocalyptic world, meaning that someone who steals from the group might find herself thrown out.

In Die2Nite, for example, players can literally vote on negative behavior. After so many votes are received, a player can be punished in a number of ways ranging from losing access to a public storage (the bank) to being hanged in player-made gallows.

One of the key designs that The Walking Dead uses effectively is good pacing. There are very slow moments in the game, moments when a player is literally forced to slow down or sneak instead of resorting to violence. MMO combat has become a go-to activity and has replaced much of what makes a virtual "world" or "society" truly rewarding. I play MMOs to work with other people, not to spend all of my time killing monsters. I believe that much of the success of the zombie genre is due to the fact that many people feel let down by this modern society that features immediate information and reliance on moving parts and electricity. People "hang out" on Facebook instead of at a local venue. Granted, there are many, many benefits to this always-on living, but it's obvious why people enjoy the thought of being forced to survive while also trying to get along with other people. Humans crave social connections; it's how we got to where we are now.

As the back of the The Walking Dead Volume 1 book says, "In a world ruled by the dead, we are forced to finally start living." That sounds like a great way to market an MMO.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!