Telltale’s demise is a cautionary tale for the video game industry
On September 21st, Telltale Games confirmed that it was shutting down operations, laying off the majority of its 250-strong staff. Now, only a skeleton crew remains to “fulfill the company’s obligation to its board and partners”.
“It’s been an incredibly difficult year for Telltale as we worked to set the company on a new course,” said Pete Hawley, CEO of Telltale Games, in an official statement. “Unfortunately, we ran out of time trying to get there. We released some of our best content this year and received a tremendous amount of positive feedback, but ultimately, that did not translate to sales. With a heavy heart, we watch our friends leave today to spread our brand of storytelling across the games industry.”
Too Much of a Good Thing?
Founded in 2004, the company garnered mainstream success in 2012 with the release of the Walking Dead, which earned both mainstream and critical success. Despite creating licensed, episodic adventure games for properties such as Game of Thrones, Batman and Guardians of the Galaxy, the company has struggled to stay afloat in recent years. Although it bagged many “Game of the Year” awards and other accolades, most of its games failed to make any money, other than the Walking Dead season one and Minecraft. Batman, in particular, was a big flop.
Following Walking Dead, Telltale continued its signature brand of episodic and interactive storytelling with other IPs such as the Wolf Among Us and Tales from the Borderlands. It also inspired others such as Dontnod to follow in its steps with Life is Strange. Telltale’s current production, the final season of the Walking Dead, has been canceled. Minecraft Story Mode, however, will be finished, according to Netflix.
Telltale’s demise, though abrupt, was not completely unexpected. In November 2017, the studio laid off 90 employees, which constituted roughly one-fourth of its staff. The studio has, purportedly, promoted a toxic culture of overwork, stagnation and corrupt management. Kevin Brunner, former CEO and co-founder, sued Telltale earlier this year, seeking recovery of financial damages.
Cult of Personality
According to numerous current and former employees, Bruner’s behavior became decidedly more histrionic after the studio first tasted mainstream success. “That’s when things got really bad,” says a former employee. “I think a lot of the insecurity came from The Walking Dead. He felt that… he deserved that. It was his project, or it was his company. He should have gotten all that love.”
Rodkin and Vanaman, the key driving factors for the success of the first season of The Walking Dead, ultimately left Telltale to found Campo Santo. They went onto release the award-winning Firewatch.
Bruner has contested the claims that he micromanaged and killed others’ creative influences inside Telltale. “Taste is a tricky thing, and I’m confident the games reflected a lot of different tastes at the studio. Our style of gameplay was really powerful but also constraining, and not everyone was comfortable working within those constraints.”
Over time, Telltale’s process turned from revolutionary to stale. If you had played one Telltale game, you could trace the narrative outline for most of them. “The folks at the very top never really understood what made Walking Dead work,” said another former employee. “They were given a recipe book, and they just followed the recipe because they don’t really understand why the recipe tastes good.”
Youth is Wasted on the Young
Telltale’s fall tells a story of mismanagement in not just one small firm, but the video game industry as a whole. The industry overworks developers. Often they are working 20-hour workdays and clocking 100 hours per week. Issues of crunch time and abuse of underpaid junior employees were rampant in Telltale.
“You’d get a lot of people coming right out of school, going, ‘Oh I really want to prove myself, and I really want to make sure that they see that I’m contributing,’” says an insider to the Verge. “The thing that broke my heart the most was seeing new team members that were just so gung-ho and optimistic and excited to be at Telltale get overused and abused because they did not feel comfortable drawing the line in the sand to say, ‘This is my limit.’ They either worked themselves out and would get sick or would become bitter.”
After the announcement of Telltale’s closure, fans have rallied around the workers. Major studios such as Sony Santa Monica, Naughty Dog, and Gearbox have expressed solidarity and offered new positions for the beleaguered Telltale staff.
The 225 former employees fired on Friday were allowed back on Monday for three hours to collect their belongings. “Despite my tweets, it hasn’t really hit me yet,” tweeted narrative designer Grace Buck. “But I know tomorrow will.”
What Telltale’s Legacy Can Look Like
I personally felt numbed by this development. In a way I grew up with Telltale, . I remember protecting Clementine and watching her grow up over the next few seasons of the Walking Dead. I loved the neo-noir atmosphere of the Wolf Among Us and relished playing as Bruce Wayne in the Batman games. Even the weaker games, such as Game of Thrones and Guardians of the Galaxy, were worth one playthrough.
Melissa Hutchison, the actress who voiced Clementine for the Walking Dead games, penned a heartfelt letter for the fans. “It hurts to know that all of the extremely talented actors who lent voice to this final season, won’t get to experience the final ending of one of the best damn game titles in the history of games,” Hutchison said. “and it hurts to know that long-awaited titles like a second season of The Wolf Among Us won’t be made.”
It still hasn’t hit home that Telltale isn’t going to be producing new seasons of the Wolf Among Us, or Batman. Although their work was always flawed, there was something to be appreciated in the very human stories they told. We hope that others can take the right lessons from their rise and demise, and continue producing content that invokes the best elements of interactive storytelling.