With one of the least expected and most devastating game studio closures in recent memory, last week saw the end of the legacy created by Telltale Games who grew from humble point and click adventure beginnings with games like Sam and Max to what some dub ‘interactive movies’ like Telltale’s The Walking Dead. In a world where corporate greed gets the best of many design teams, Telltale Games was guilty of chasing a formula for printing money. Nearly 300 people have lost their jobs (estimates ranging from 225 – 280) after being given 30 minutes notice, no severance pay, and only enough health care to last them and their families until the end of the month (which is just a few days away at the time of this writing).
While many employees from the creative team had already jumped ship, and a round of layoffs previous had promised to fix the course of the company, it is safe to say that few realized just how dire the situation was. Even though a handful of demographics considered their products ‘not real games’, most appreciated Telltale’s story-driven titles as a break from other gameplay intensive projects in their library. Telltale’s well written plots and characters made it so that even though their decision making wasn’t crucially impactful, their games were still very much enjoyable experiences. And even with way too many licenses on their hands at once, the company seemed to be getting decent sales and staying afloat.
However, deep under the surface there were tensions brewing between the developers and the executive branch of the company. Somehow, money was also beginning to run dry. New ways to monetize and spread Telltale’s ‘interactive experiences’ to a larger audience were being explored. New partnerships were being sought out for funding. All the while, gamers were waiting longer and longer for every episode and began to notice that the game engine behind these titles never improved in any substantial way. Then finally, Telltale ran out of time to fix their problems boiling under the surface, and everything seems to have overflown at once.
THE NETFLIX DEAL
Earlier this summer gamers may recall major news outlets reporting that Minecraft: Story Mode and Stranger Things would be delivered to Netflix as interactive fiction projects looking to create a hybrid between video games and film. Making choices during certain scenes in order to experience a sort of ‘choose your own adventure’ style format has been around in books since I was a kid. There was even a test showing once that my whole family attended to in which you could press a button while at the theater and everyone’s votes would be put together to decide the next scenes. Although this was more of a chance to gather marketing information, the concept remains an evident link in the chain towards what Telltale Games was about to achieve.
Imagine logging on to Netflix with your significant other, or ‘Netflix and Chill’ partner to partake in an animated story that not only was gripping, had characters you both cared about, and an interesting plot line, but also chances for the remote control to dictate the main character’s next move! This was the concept in mind wherein a five episode launch for Minecraft: Story Mode was green-lit by Netflix and to be developed by Telltale Games. It’s a shame that we might have to wait a while before seeing such an idea surface again. The fact that this was even contracted at all perhaps shows Telltale’s executives interest more directed at cashing in on the simple formula developed in the company’s games rather than evolving it.
Telltale Games made millions from their video games, but a lot of that money went to license owners such as HBO (Game of Thrones) and AMC (The Walking Dead). Likewise, paying a large executive branch, massive development team, research and development on projects like the Netflix deal, and keeping their rent, light bill, etc. in order took another healthy chunk of that revenue. Investors have been a big part of the company’s recent history with venture capitalists like Granite Ventures and IDG Ventures putting in over $40 Million in 2015 alone. Lionsgate took out a large stake in the company that same year.
During 2017 and 2018 leading up to the crash of Telltale Games AMC and Smilegate were to make large investment deals that actually were announced 24 hours ahead of time to employees. Employees were told that more funding was on the way. The next day, they were given 30 minutes notice that their jobs were over and the studio would perform a full shutdown. AMC and Smilegate backed out of their deals. Employees were given a couple of hours the next day to gather all of their belongings. Major mishandling of money must have led to this sudden need for millions upon millions of dollars to simply re-use the same development formula over and over again with massive licenses, or perhaps embezzlement was somehow involved. Only an incredibly talented auditor could figure.
CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT
Unpaid overtime, unhealthy work / life balance, and no pre-emptive notice of termination for such a large number of employees coupled with the fact that folks who worked at Telltale Games would not be getting any severance package has led to a class action lawsuit against the firm. It’s amazing that executives from companies like Telltale can take home millions of dollars a year in salary (each) but feel that it’s okay to ask people not to see their families and instead slave away at 80 hour workweeks for a 40 hour check.
You probably know by now that the game industry is famous for what it calls ‘crunch’, originally meant to describe a short time period in which teams perform unpaid overtime to get a project done before launch – but has devolved into a permanent grind killing many creative talent’s ambitions along the way. The situation that has occurred at Telltale Games comes after much talk of unions and game developer rights, with crunch becoming a bad word in recent times. This could become a catalyst to change the industry so desperately needs.
In any event, laws have allegedly been broken by the executives at Telltale who may have known well in advance that this situation was coming, and have failed to secure any sort of safety net for the hundreds of people their actions have affected. Perhaps even more aghast, the people left at Telltale’s executive offices are more focused on getting a contract formed between their licensees and third party studios to finish The Walking Dead series of games than actually helping the employees whose lives they have just disrupted.
REMOVAL OF TELLTALE’S GAMES
Recently The Walking Dead: The Final Season has been removed from digital storefronts such as Steam, PlayStation Store, and the Xbox Games Store. This was done as Telltale now has no idea if they’ll be able to release any more episodes in that season. While many gamers are worried about getting refunds or a conclusion to the cliffhangers in the series, this is only the beginning of the removal of Telltale’s games from the history books.
As many may recall, the PlayStation 3 / Xbox 360 title Ultimate Marvel VS Capcom 3 was removed from digital stores due to Capcom’s license with Marvel ending. Capcom has since renewed the license and even has released the game on PS4, PC, and Xbox One – but with Telltale Games no longer existing in the near future, such a renewal may prove hard to accomplish. Depending on who purchases the company and its assets during bankruptcy auctions set to begin by next year the latest, games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Tales from the Borderlands, Minecraft: Story Mode, Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series, Batman: The Telltale Series, and others are likely to disappear entirely.
On top of this, the servers which informed players what percentage of gamers online had made the same decisions as them will no longer be available soon. Orders made directly through Telltale’s digital store will also have no further way of being downloaded if players lose their installation of the games they own, since those servers will both be shut down soon.
There are ways that these problems can be solved through lots of business hoops being jumped through by the various companies which become involved, but if you really care about gaming history and particularly the Telltale Games titles, it would be best to create offline redundant backups of everything now.
THE WORST PART OF IT ALL
Of course, our hearts go out to all of the people who have worked at Telltale Games throughout this ordeal. If anyone is out there angry at the company for not getting the ending to The Walking Dead please stop and think about the hundreds of people in the game industry who likely moved to a new city just to develop these games. Many of these people have been working in very unhealthy, stressful conditions with unpaid overtime, management issues, and now they have found out that everything is over.
At RealGamerNewZ, we are fans of their games. We sincerely hope that these talented people find homes in other game studios which appreciate them, and we also hope that this tragic event brings upon us renewed discussion about the conditions of game development, the income disparity between executives who do none of the work we gamers truly care about, and developers who pour their hearts and souls into making these excellent, entertaining works of art.
P.S. The Wolf Among Us …..