Upscaling for tablets: how Telltale planned for the iOS release of The Walking Dead from the jump
The Walking Dead Episode 1
The iOS version of The Walking Dead adventure game launched last week and I’ve spent a few hours playing the game again on my iPad 3. The game plays well on a tablet, especially when wearing headphones to get lost in the audio as well as the visuals of each scene. The move to touch controls works well for adventure games, although it can take a few minutes to adapt if you’ve played the first two episodes on consoles or the PC. I also noticed a few hitches here and there in play but nothing serious, although this may depend on your device. All in all, The Walking Dead is the rare game where the console and iOS versions are nearly indistinguishable. That’s no accident. I spoke with Steve Allison, the SVP of Publishing at Telltale, about the company’s strategies for bringing their adventure games to iOS platforms. “We’ve always believed that mobile devices would rival home consoles and PCs in terms of computing power sooner rather than later, and as such have always had a different strategy in regards to our content on iOS than the majority of publishers, which is to create great ubiquitous content and publish it on as many viable platforms as possible,” he said. iOS devices weren't an afterthought for The Walking Dead, they were just as important during production as the other platforms.
It was always part of the plan
“The Telltale Tool engine is fully multiplatform, built specifically to make our type of narrative games and work across every platform that we publish content for,” Allison explained. “On the iOS platforms there are some rendering features that the consoles and PC use that are not enabled so that we can support the broadest range of devices possible, but once a game is built it more or less works on all our target platforms.” The idea of a multiplatform product is built into the game’s engine, making the porting process as straightforward as possible. While many companies begin to think of an iOS version of a game after launch, or are forced to worry about how it would work on iOS devices after its design, Telltale seems to give iOS devices the same priority as the PC or consoles during the early phases of development.Still, there are some user interface and functionality adjustments that are handled by a small group of specialists on the team. While the broad strokes are the same on each platform, there are one or two details that need to be given individual care for each version of the game; the differences between controller, mice, and touch interfaces are subtle, but real. The graphics themselves may also need to be given care from one platform to the next. To give you a sense of how much the world of portable game development has changed in the past few years, the newest iPad runs at a resolution 2048 by 1536, which is higher than consoles and most computer monitors. “With The Walking Dead and the new iPad, we found ourselves needing to scale up a number of art assets, particularly 2D UI elements such as menus, dialog options, etc,” Allison explained. “The proprietary development tools we use make implementing unique platform designs relatively easily. We have had to make a few alterations to cameras or UI placement in order to have the game work across PC, consoles, and iOS devices, but this wasn’t a particularly difficult challenge for the team.” Having the first episode already out on iOS platforms may give the team a head start for subsequent episodes, but each episode will still require work to be done by hand. “For example, while we have some great group character moments in the first episode, the second episode features a scene with every member of the cast on screen at once! That’s more 3D geometry being rendered, more audio, more animations, and more textures being loaded into memory,” Allison said. This isn’t a new strategy; most games these days are built with an eye for performance on multiple platforms, but Telltale is unique in the fact that iOS versions are included in that process. “The efficiency we gain in having a multiplatform engine that addresses PC, console and our mobile versions means that there is not a tremendous cost in porting to each platform and it allows us to put our investment focus into the content,” Allison said, and the results show the strength of that approach: The Walking Dead is enjoyable no matter on which platform you play. I e-mailed after the interview to ask about an Android port, and have yet to hear back as of the time of this writing. Update: “We definitely want to get our future titles and past catalog of games live on Android devices. We've done some of the initial work on the engine to get there but there are many issues for us. The disparate hardware specs, piracy concerns and state of the Android equivalent of the App Store make it very hard to bring our games over to the Android OS. To counteract these issues with the Android platform, and ignoring for a minute the huge issue of widely varied specs of Android devices, our games would need to be built and/or sold distinctly different than we do today on all other platforms. Will Walking Dead: The Game come to Android? We hope so, but nothing to announce today. “