To many, the news came as a complete and utter shock. Following a particularly challenging year, yesterday top brass at Telltale Games decided to begin a major studio shutdown. About 250 people were fired, all projects (including long-awaited titles such as The Walking Dead- The Final Season and The Wolf Among Us 2) were canceled, and the company now has a skeleton crew of 25 as it tries to fulfill its contractual obligations for Minecraft Story Mode.
Needless to say, fans worldwide were caught by surprise. Yet the signs had been there for a while and Telltale Games’ fate might not be as unique as it seems. So… how could one of the biggest indie studios in the world simply go belly up at a moments notice, exactly?
— Telltale Games (@telltalegames) September 21, 2018
An Ominous Change In Leadership
It takes only a bit of digging to discover that wasn’t the case. As early as 2014, both internal and external sources reported trouble in paradise. Developers would speak of unbearable working hours, deadlines were strict, and freelance contributors were often brought in to help; only to be fired as soon as the next game was shipped.
Yet, nothing was done. Pretty much a standard for the gaming industry, these circumstances – as bad as they might have sounded – failed to raise the necessary flags. On top of that, the board at Telltale Games also seemed to disagree on the direction their company should take.
Some among the executives were fixated on the kind of content their studio produced, often preventing designers from exploring different paths or proposing new approaches. The situation reached an all-time low in 2017 when Telltale co-founder Kevin Bruner left the company’s board of directors.
Amid rumors he was ousted in an illegal vote – rumors Bruner himself fueled when he sued his former colleagues – the group started its first restructuring. In November 2017, 90 people were laid off. This came with the promise that the studio would release fewer, more polished titles through a smaller team of developers.
Alas, we all know that wouldn’t exactly have been the case move forward.
The Market Craves Innovation…
… or at least a constant degree of quality. Instead, Telltale Games pushed their understaffed departments to create more and more titles. Multiple episodes of the same franchise would come out in rapid succession, often only a few months apart. It doesn’t take an expert team leader to realize the pressure such methods would put on the developers.
Even before the restructuring, the emphasis on quantity had impacted the quality of each release. What were once highly curated pieces of interactive narrative quickly became run-of-the-mill episodes of franchises that virtually differed in nothing else but the plot at hand.
Clearly, that didn’t go exactly well with some of Telltale Games‘ most demanding player-base. Some among them lamented the lack of meaningful interactions, for instance. Others simply couldn’t bear the similarity between titles.
In short, fans who had purchased every issue since Sam and Max suddenly felt the need for fresh air:
These games still retain the great writing of the Walking Dead and Back to the Future (which nobody seems to have played), and they all mimic the writing and feel of the content its based off perfectly.
But I can’t help but feel that Telltale has shifted the direction of their games to appeal to a much younger audience, or maybe to appeal to their mobile audience. The “games” do not feel like games at all, but rather a 3-hour long cutscene with a quick time event every now and then.
User ”” at Giant Bomb
Consequently, both the average review score and the number of copies each game would sell fell considerably. Yet, once again, those leading Telltale Studios seemed unable to adjust their course accordingly. In a last-minute effort, the company eventually ditched their 14-year-old proprietary engine this year for Unity. Still, we might never be able to see what that change was bound to bring!
– There are people who started at Telltale as recently as a week ago.
– Some of those people have children.
– At least one of them relocated cross country
– A lot of the Telltale devs have families & children. And now they don't have a paycheck. Not even a severance paycheck.
— Emily Grace Buck plz hire TTG devs! (@emilybuckshot) September 22, 2018
In the red and out of ideas, it seems like the board had little options other than shutting it all down. And while the lay-offs could have been handled differently – perhaps in a way that would have prevented hundreds of young professionals from finding themselves on the street at a moment’s notice – it is still possible that something of this company will be salvaged in the future.
Finally, to all creatives among us, the end of Telltale Games teaches a valuable lesson. Regardless of the success of your current project, you should never completely ditch diversification. A contingency plan can help your studio remain afloat, were a crisis to happen and building an alternative for your company should always be a priority!