Telltale Games shocked the games industry this month by announcing its closure, and while the future of its unfinished projects is uncertain, what’s more important is the future of the staff that created them.
The adventure game developer was created in 2004 by former employees of LucasArts, which was known for point-and-click adventure games like “Day of the Tentacle.” Telltale employed episodic releases for its games that gave customers a season pass, as new episodes of the story would release over time. The company’s early point-and-click games have a fair following, albeit mostly being games for smaller but relatively popular intellectual properties.
Telltale’s success began with its adaptation of “The Walking Dead,” which was hailed not only for its excellent story, but its focus on player choice. Despite having less gameplay than previous Telltale games, players could make important decisions that impact the plot, even carrying over to later installments. The success of “The Walking Dead: Season One” kickstarted the studio’s reputation, leading to other major companies seeking their partnership.
Despite critical acclaim, Telltale hasn’t transferred its praise into sales in recent years, with games like “Batman: The Enemy Within” and “Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy: A Telltale Series” having moderate sales that would be excellent for other developers but seriously underperforming for games with the licensing power of Marvel and DC. Those licenses come at a hefty price, meaning Telltale’s licensing success was as harmful as it was helpful.
Considering its financial issues, it makes sense that Telltale has had reports of crunch weeks and unpaid overtime, which is unfortunately and undeservedly common among game developers. In an article by The Verge, over a dozen anonymous Telltale employees, former and current alike, were interviewed about working for the company, giving complaints such as pressure to work overtime and toxic management that avoided experimentation in favor of their repetitive ideas.
One issue employees raised was particularly telling: an overused template. While Telltale’s early games were point-and-click adventures with object puzzles, the majority of its later games played like “The Walking Dead.” Not only did the increasing lack of gameplay turn off consumers, it led to players discovering that choices provided often gave the illusion of choice ultimately leading to one outcome, which disincentivizes buying games advertised for player-impacted stories.
In a staff meeting on Sept. 21, 250 Telltale employees were spontaneously laid off as the company announced its closure, which was due to investors removing funding. Telltale layoffs are nothing new, as 90 employees laid off in November 2017 were paid through the year’s end and given time to find new work, but the recent layoffs included no severance, as well as employees’ healthcare only lasting through September.
When Telltale’s closure went public, fans at large were primarily concerned with its unfinished works rather than their creators, such as the now-cancelled second season of “The Wolf Among Us.” Telltale’s partnership with Netflix is the company’s current focus, as an interactive “Minecraft: Story Mode” experience was still in development by a now-laid-off skeleton crew, though Netflix is searching for other developers to create a previously announced “Stranger Things” adaptation.
Fans were most focused on the future of “The Walking Dead,” with its Telltale adaptation being in its final season at the time. Skybound Games was eventually announced to continue development on the final two episodes while offering former Telltale employees jobs on a contract basis, but in the weeks between the layoffs and this announcement, Telltale seeked a new company to take over after firing its employees.
Once the public became aware that Telltale’s employees were at risk in addition to the games they made, its sympathy shifted from the company to its former workers. It’s hard to think of a worse note for Telltale to end on given that it laid off most of its employees without warning or severance pay, all while it looked for a last-minute replacement to finish any projects that weren’t canceled.
Telltale employees are just as outraged as the public, with some even believing the sudden layoffs violate California labor laws. A class action complaint by former employee Vernie Roberts, Jr., states that the WARN (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification) Act requires notice of mass layoffs 60 days in advance, with those filing the lawsuit seeking 60 days of wages and benefits for all affected employees.
While its stated explanation is investor disinterest, Telltale’s downfall was due to horrible treatment of employees to the bitter end. By stifling employees’ innovation and mental health, mismanagement doomed Telltale, not helped by applying the “Walking Dead” formula to popular properties. To prevent other developers from doing the same, the games industry must learn from this situation and prioritize creators before their creations, or as Telltale’s saying goes, “remember this.”
Visit the Electric Retrospective blog at https://electricretrospective.wordpress.com/ for gaming news, reviews, and editorials.
This is Sean’s third year on the ECHO, having contributed to the site during journalism class in his sophomore year and becoming a columnist and blogger in his junior year. Sean writes Electric Retrospective, a column dedicated to gaming editorials and reviews, as well as a blog also titled Electric Retrospective that posts news stories and reviews every Tuesday.
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