The Demise of Telltale Games - Great Failures In Gaming

VOICE OVER: Adrian Sousa WRITTEN BY: Jarett Burke
Why did TellTale Games shut down? Are they actually dead and what will happen to their current and upcoming series like The Walking Dead? Join MojoPlays as we explore the rise and fall of TellTale.
Why TellTale Games Shut Down - Great Failures in Gaming

Yes, it still hurts; and, yes, we’re still in a bit of shock about Telltale Games closing its doors. At this point, though, the only thing we can do to help settle this epic case of Gamer Grief we’re feeling is to look back at what led to the studio’s closure and, thus, try to come to some sort of closure ourselves. Yes, we’re employing grieving strategies over losing Telltale! We loved it that much! Come join us in the healing process…

Starting back in 2004 when former Lucas Arts employees came together to form a new studio whose games would focus on storytelling in an episodic manner, Telltale struggled to find mainstream success until the release of “The Walking Dead” in 2012.

With such early titles as “Telltale Texas Hold’em” and “CSI: 3 Dimensions of Murder,” we’ll forgive you for not even knowing Telltale existed before adapting the smash-hit, zombie TV show to video games, but one thing’s for sure: once that game was released, there was no way to avoid hearing about Telltale, their innovation, their grandiose storytelling and their unique vision in the gaming world.

Seriously, they were like rock stars! Just over six years later, however, and it’s all been for naught. It’s such a shame their story had to end like this. It’s a multifaceted tale composed of varying elements: a dash of too much too soon; increased expectations and increased crunch time; questionable management techniques; and, most importantly, a complete lack of innovation that – ironically – held down the very studio once praised from the hilltops of the gaming world for their vision and innovation only six years prior.

As mentioned, when “The Walking Dead” was first released success came fast to Telltale. And, like most companies, they tried to capitalize on this rapid success by acquiring many copyrights in order to produce many more games in their own, unique style of play. The market was practically begging for more and, so, Telltale sought to deliver. Who could blame them?

With the acquisition of more IPs and plans for more games, however, the company began to expand at an alarming rate, going from a small team of close to 100 employees to a mid-level studio of over 300 in no time. They acquired major partnerships with the likes of HBO and Gearbox Software and suddenly, dealing with multi-million dollar properties, the pressure was on to deliver like never before.

Also, as more and more money came to be involved in their projects, upper management began to rear its head into the development side of the equation in a manner that hampered creativity and emphasized deadlines and release dates. In fact, there are reports from employees within Telltale who worked on the original “Walking Dead” game that the company became almost unrecognizable after it found success and we can’t help but think that that’s a major reason for their eventual downfall. There’s a lesson to be learned here regarding the dangers of getting too big and growing too fast, too soon. Success can be a double-edged sword and nowhere is this more prominent than with Telltale.

With more money, came more responsibility. With increased production, came more deadlines. With more deadlines, came more “Crunch Time” – that dreaded word in video game development that’s literally left employees’ health in shambles for the sake of progress. But, there could be no other outcome than increased “Crunch Time” for Telltale employees with the rapid nature of their success and the studio’s drive to capitalize on it, as employees were forced to work an ungodly amount of hours per week just to meet the increasing demand.

Developers themselves were hit the hardest as they were rotated in and out of multiple projects on a six-day-per-week schedule that was all-but impossible to uphold over the long-term, leading to many of the studio’s top talent seeking work elsewhere. Furthermore, seeing as the games were episodic in nature, this meant that there was ALWAYS a “Crunch Time” or deadline to meet.

There was no two-years between games here … we’re talking months. To battle fatigue, management kept adding more and more developers to the mix in hopes of fixing the problem, getting work done quicker, and getting episodes released sooner; but, somewhere along the way, all this emphasis on merely finishing projects left the quality of the games lagging and lacking – not to mention the employees badly burnt out.

A lot of this can be laid at the feet of Telltale’s management, which had long been a source of criticism in the gaming development world, for creating a toxic work environment under former CEO Kevin Burner that only began when he took over in 2015 and never quite recovered even after he left two years later. There were reports of employees being underpaid considering the cost of living near the San Francisco Bay Area, and being given food and booze as incentives for overtime instead of, you know, more money.

That can’t be a good business model! When the high profile departures began, their positions were often not filled with equal talent, which left a creative vacuum within the company that was often filled by the loudest and most demanding employees instead of the most gifted.

And it all started from the top, with reports that Burner needed to include himself in on all aspects of development, and harshly criticized anything that stayed too far from what he envisioned a Telltale game, which led to a work environment fueled by fear and anxiety where creativity lagged behind. When new CEO Pete Hawley took over, restructuring of the studio and layoffs were inevitable.

But, the most important issue in Telltale ultimately closing its doors is an utter lack of creative progression since 2012 – a staggering thing to consider looking back on how highly the studio was praised in the wake of “The Walking Dead.” Management believed that the formula behind the Telltale series was what was most important and fuelled its success, not the actual stories or gameplay itself. Thus, there was an incredible reluctance to change, well, much of anything.

Seeing reviews for the first two episodes of “The Walking Dead: Season 3” reminds us just how similar it is to the first season that took place over six years ago. Also, the Telltale Tool engine that the games ran on just couldn’t keep up with the demands of games in 2018, leading to increasingly buggy (and out-dated) games. There are even reports that management knew the engine was holding the games back, but dealing with an episodic release schedule left them little-to no time to retool or create a new engine.

In the wake of the studio announcing its closure, things have only gotten worse for Telltale, as they’ve taken incredible heat for the manner in which they laid off 90% of their employees without severance, and for prioritizing the remainder of Season 3 of “The Walking Dead” over helping these struggling workers find new homes. Also, former employees claiming that Telltale violated labor laws by laying off 90% of its workforce have launched a class-action lawsuit this past week. It’s a story that’s far from over, and one that only gets messier by the day.
Honestly, this is quite sad. Considering the fact that I have been a fan of Telltale Games since 2015, I have been following them everywhere on social media, such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.