Feature

Reviewing the Telltale Situation

On September 21, 2018, Telltale Games, the team behind The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and Tales from the Borderlands was hit with “a majority studio closure,” which came from a press release from the team’s official twitter account. Game Developers and games critics everywhere expressed their shock for the sudden news about the studio being shut down. One of the giants in storytelling in the games industry had out of nowhere closed its doors.

Telltale Games had touched players, developers, and critics, due to their unique perspectives on popular franchises. Their reputation had begun to build as they told more complex tales. The studio, which became somewhat popular by revitalizing older movie IPs such as Back to the Future and Jurassic Park, exploded onto the scene when they released The Walking Dead Season 1. The release of Walking Dead throughout that year became a moment which captured the industry, and helped set a precedent for how stories were told and presented in games. The ending of TWD: Season 1 dominated the conversation in both the critical reception and the larger gaming community at the end of 2012. Telltale made an impact with that finale forcing players to confront an awful reality. The story of Lee and Clementine hit home for a lot of people, it made Telltale Games a household name.

To understand why Telltale games closed, we must examine crunch culture in the gaming industry at large. Krzysztof Nosek from Strange New Things recalled his time working for Techland, mainly on Call of Juarez: The Cartel. In his interview with Game Informer, he said that he “came across my family photos from that time period and it struck me that I’m sleeping in almost all of them: on the couch, at the table, on the floor of the kids’ room…”. This is the core problem in which management teams can get overzealous and believe they can produce something quality. However, they begin to crunch because these projects require more time to apply polish and fully flesh out their vision. It is something which is systemically ingrained into the DNA of the Games Industry.

In January 2010, the Spouses of Rockstar San Diego wrote a letter to the Gamasutra blog titled, “Wives of Rockstar San Diego employees have collected themselves.” This was a landmark moment in the games industry, exposing an ugly truth which, up until that point, had since worked itself into more and more conversations regarding the industry. The wives said:

“Till present, the working conditions persists [and continue] to deteriorate as employees are manipulated by certain hands that wield the reigns of power in Rockstar San Diego. Furthermore, the extent of degradation employees have suffered extends to their quality of life and their family members. Spending an enormous amount of time and manpower just to get something out on time.”

This type of workplace behaviour was known about, and did not receive much reporting at the time. The “Rockstar Wives Letter” opened up the floodgates, and has acted as a catalyst for the conversation around this topic. This was a landmark moment, and as projects become more and more ambitious, people must work harder and harder to get these projects done on time.

 

In November 2017, Matt Kim of USGamer.com wrote a feature detailing the crunch culture specifically at Telltale games:

“The period from 2014 to 2017 saw a near constant rush of releases. The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead: Season 2 released in late 2013 and continued through the summer of 2014. Tales from the Borderlands and Game of Thrones started in the winter of 2014, and so on. This pace has continued pretty much through the present day.”

This reporting provided an image of how Telltale was making their games, they were rushing to get these projects out and this began to affect the projects which they were making. This pace became something of a constant in their studio, weaving its way into every IP that Telltale picked up.

Telltale’s expansion lead to their downfall. Their workforce grew while their sales underperformed. Due to their growing workforce, they began to expand their portfolio instead of doubling down on the thing which brought them success. Hundreds of people lost their jobs because this studio was so focused on making games and gradually expanding because their management struggled to acknowledge their problems. Telltale had an engine which was not well regarded, in the midst of expanding, they would fall behind with technology.

This unhealthy pace made Telltale suffer while also dealing with a poor engine. While the content of their products was well received. This was something that gave the team no time to sit down and refocus on how to make their games run better. In April 2017, Waypoint’s Patrick Klepek wrote a story about how much he liked Telltale’s Guardians of the Galaxy game.

“Telltale’s history of hobbled tech goes back a ways, too. A source told me that even as the company was riding the success of The Walking Dead, their engine didn’t have a physics system. (Telltale has their own proprietary technology, it doesn’t use Unity, Unreal, or something else off the shelf.)

Telltale found success in late 2012, when their technology was somewhat optimized for the Xbox 360 and PS3 generation. So, when the next generation rolled out they would fall behind because their management seemed more focused on putting content out instead of adjusting to the times. They would slowly find themselves behind in the games industry.

After the initial announcement on September 21st, there has been a whirlwind of news coming out about the studio. The first major announcement came from The Telltale Games Twitter account which had a note that said,

“Today Telltale Games made the difficult decision to begin a majority studio closure following a year marked by insurmountable challenges. A majority of the company’s employees were dismissed earlier this morning.” The news also was accompanied with employees saying that they were not going to receive any severance. The part that hurt most of all was that the crew which used to be 10 times this size got downsized to a skeleton crew, “… a small group of 25 employees [will be] staying on to fulfill the company’s obligation to its board and partners.”

That information came from the same press release from earlier.

The story only seemed to get worse for those who used to worked at Telltale. Five days later, on September 26th, the company had requested a “temporary pause of sales of The Walking Dead – Final Season.” That came from GOG.com, and it meant the final thing that these people worked on would no longer be able to see a profit from that store. During this time, those pages were also removed from both the Microsoft Store as well as the Playstation Network.

[Hours before publishing this story Skybound Games suddenly moved all the work being done by the Still Not Bitten team to the Epic Games Store and restored the console storefront pages.  A positive if very late fix to the earlier removal.]

Sixteen days after the news came internally from the studio, something potentially hopeful emerged. Skybound, the company behind The Walking Dead comics and other properties, announced a revival of Telltale’s The Walking Dead: The Final Season. The news came from an official Skybound press release. The press release quotes Robert Kirkman announcing the partnership during New York Comic Con, “We’ve successfully negotiated with Telltale Games for our company Skybound to come in and see Season 4 of the Telltale game to completion. We can’t lose Andrew Lincoln and Clementine in the same year.”

The management at Telltale was used to having multiple projects out in one year. TWD: Season 1 brought them both critical and commercial success. This success allowed for them to over-expand and take on more projects. A bigger team would allow for them to have these more complex stories out in one year.

However, as Telltale grew, they would be behind their industry’s technological growth. Their antiquated engine would be something which crippled their success. Telltale built something on an already problematic base. By doing so, they would be not only hurting themselves but everyone who put their heart and soul into these projects. The foundation would be the thing that ultimately trigger the warning signs. Telltale Games serves as a reminder for where we are as an industry, they show us just how far the medium has come from its early days in storytelling and character design, yet they just as clearly show us how much farther we still have to go in terms of workplace conditions, combating the effects of crunch, and not allowing your ambitions to shallow you whole, all issues still plaguing the video game industry.