Telltale’s Epitaph

Real Talk By: Brian DK

Nearly a month ago the game developer Telltale Games announced that it would be closing its doors. Roughly 90% of its staff was let go immediately after the announcement, with the majority of its remaining skeleton crew laid off early this month. With these departures came the inevitable news that all upcoming projects were canceled. This included anticipated sequels such as The Wolf Among Us: Season Two, Game of Thrones: Season Two, and an untitled Stranger Things project. All that remains of this once beloved company is lawsuits and disappointment. What happened?

Telltale’s story actually begins with a different series of game cancellations. In 2004 LucasArts went through a priority transition and cancelled several “risky” games in development. This meant laying off associated employees and effectively killing off adventure franchises such as Full Throttle. In the wake of these events, three employees, Kevin Bruner, Dan Conners, and Troy Molander, founded Telltale Games.

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The company had a solid plan and a solid start. It would go on to develop and publish both original and licensed titles while also developing an in-house engine called the Telltale Tool. This tool allowed the company to quickly, and economically, develop future titles. The tool also created a signature style for the company that can be seen in nearly every game published since 2010. Over the years Telltale would create dozens of adventure games, including installments in the Sam & Max and Monkey Island series. Though the company found true success in its dramatic titles.

In late 2010 Telltale’s golden age began. Thanks to their signature Telltale Tool and unique episodic release structure, the company was able to develop and release several projects at once. Back to the Future: The Game and Jurassic Park: The Game released less than a year apart. Despite middling reviews, both games were financial successes that proved there was a market for adventure games.

In mid 2012 Telltale released The Walking Dead to stellar reviews. Many praised the storytelling, characters, and departure from typical adventure game mechanics. This success would continue in the coming years with the release of The Wolf Among Us in 2013 and Tale From the Borderlands in 2014, both also releasing to positive reviews. These three titles are still held as some of the best adventure games ever made. Unfortunately, this seemed to be a turning point in the company’s history.

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In late 2014 Telltale released Game of Thrones to mixed reviews. Fans of Telltale’s previous titles started to see patterns in their major games. Every game featured an illusion of choice, punishing quick-time events, and extremely similar graphical styles. These patterns began to weigh on consumers. Future titles, such as Minecraft: Story Mode, Batman: The Telltale Series, and Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series did little to nothing to shake up the now-tired formula and were reviewed as such. Despite being stretched thin by expensive licensing deals and a breakneck development cycle, Telltale continued to publish games regularly.

In mid 2017 the company started going through major changes to combat its recent downturn. CEO Kevin Bruner would step down and the company downsized its staff, letting go nearly a quarter of its employees. Public statements called this a restructuring move. Telltale also slowed its development cycle and attempted to publish fewer games with a higher quality that they were once known for. Batman: The Enemy Within released during this time and was praised as a return to form. However, this brief upturn could not save the company.

In September this year, Telltale announced a studio closure. 90% of its employees were immediately let go with no severance or unemployment benefits. Reports mention that employees were given little notice and were forced to leave the property within 30 minutes of the announcement. With this announcement came the news that Telltale’s games would not be completed. Games such as Game of Thrones: Season Two, and the long awaited The Wolf Among Us: Season Two were effectively cancelled. The Walking Dead: The Final Season was also cancelled during its episodic release schedule, effectively preventing consumers from receiving the full product they paid for in August.

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Since its studio’s closure, Telltale has entered into negotiations with several companies in an attempt to save the company, or at least finish The Walking Dead: The Final Season. Among the contenders were Smilegate, a South Korean mobile game company, and AMC, the company that currently produces the The Walking Dead television show. Ultimately, Telltale negotiated a deal with Skybound Games, a subsidiary of Skybound, (which publishes the Walking Dead comics) to continue work on the game. Hopefully fans of the series will see a conclusion to the story.

Telltale’s former employees aren’t fairing as well as The Walking Dead, unfortunately. Speaking at the Sweden Game Conference this month, Telltale’s former narrative director Emily Grace Buck painted a grim picture of the closure’s aftermath. Since the studio’s closing, only 20% of its former employees have found work. The closure has also led to a 275-member class action lawsuit being filed against Telltale. Buck also spoke at length about the state of game development as a profession and the possible need to unionize.

Telltale Games is the classic story of Icarus. They made their wings from solid character-driven narratives and classic adventure gameplay, flying off towards the sun. Early success and customer faith allowed them to fly higher and higher. But as the wax started to melt under the pressures of licensing agreements and deadlines, the company pushed higher. Telltale’s ultimate failure is a cautionary tale about over-expansion, but the company still gave us some of the best stories in video game history and has once again opened a serious discussion about how employees are treated in the profession.

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