The end of Telltale Games has been nothing short of tragic to many of us. It feels like an end to a specific type of genre and style in gaming, found only among certain indie developers. But none could ever quite reach the type of heights Telltale has achieved in the years since they began.
In a time where game developers favoured action than story, Telltale Games stood tall in their ability to prove that how a game is told can still be just as engaging, maybe even more so, than action-oriented games. Telltale Games’ founders — Bruner, Connors, and Troy Molander — had only that goal in mind being former LucasArts employees: to make story adventure games mainstream (and profitable) again.
Ever since then they have released a number of games such as by resurrecting Sam & Max, Monkey Island, original games such as The Wolf Among Us and Bone, and most importantly creating games based on popular franchises such as Game of Thrones, Back to the Future and most importantly The Walking Dead.
So it comes as a surprise when Telltale announced their closure after news circulated that they had laid off almost all their staff except for 25 people. It doesn't make any sense, considering that they have even won awards for their games and many of us continue to wait excitedly for their upcoming games. So what truly led to their demise?
Some may think that low sales and a poor gaming engine were the main crutch that ended Telltale, but a look back into the gaming company's history will show you that they had major management problems that have seen them laying off plenty of staff before.
Former employees have said that management would constantly swap and change developers for projects that made little sense to them, and sometimes no one would be on the same page for the project.
The company also developed a "crunch culture", a practice that is sadly common and pervasive in many gaming industries. Crunch culture meant workers would work 14 to 18 hours every day of the week for months especially as a game reaches its launch. However, for those who worked for Telltale games, it didn't matter. This is what they had to go through, day in and day out, and it was bound to take a toll on them. Many would then resign, creating the swaps, and more would be laid off. All in the name of profit.
Salaries were low, pays were cut, and even those who were laid off in the recent debacle received no form of compensation. Many are shrugging these as something to be expected of the working culture in America, but personally it's not something that should be happening for the people who worked hard to create our beloved games.
Even if Telltale Games delivered quality games using this strategy, there was no doubt that the treatment of their staff would definitely lead to their end. Still, it's hard to say that Telltale produced quality games anyways, as many fans have pointed out that Telltale Games have produced bust games like Game of Thrones.
This meant that on top of working and pushing their staff to the limit, they may not even make up for all their work as sales has been low anyways. It's so bad that even The Walking Dead series, their award winning golden egg, could not save them.
From what we know, the confirmed cancelled games are: The Wolf Among Us Season 2, Game of Thrones Season 2 and an untitled Stranger Things game. Even the fate of The Walking Dead series is being questioned, where the final season may even end at episode 2. There has been promises that the game will be seen through the end, especially since 25 staff has been left to wrap things up within the company.
Still, that's little solace as the other titles will never see the light of day. Even the voice actress of Clementine from The Walking Dead series games, Melissa Hutchinson, has shared in the lament. “It hurts to know that all of the extremely talented actors who lent their voices to this final season, won’t get to experience the final ending of one of the best damn game titles in the history of games,” said Hutchison. “and it hurts to know that long-awaited titles like a second season of The Wolf Among Us won’t be made.”
Seeing the end of Telltale Games may give many the feeling that episodic and story-based games may not be the way to go for any game developing companies, as they may face the same fate. Yet that may not be the case; the mistake Telltale made was not just bad management alone.
Instead the mistake Telltale made, based on everything we have seen so far, is that they were producing triple A games but were functioning like an indie game developer. They had a lot on their plate, a lot of expectations to reach, but functioned beyond the capacity they were prepared for.
Perhaps, on the bright side, we can see this as a major lesson especially for indie game developers on the rise. Sure, you can climb up the ranks in popularity even with your small beginnings, but if you're doing that then management needs to change accordingly.
Most importantly, let's hope the end of Telltale Games does not mark the end of great storytelling in games. We still have Dontnod, a French studio behind the Life is Strange episodic game series. A former Telltale lead writer has also co-founded a new studio called Night School and released a game called Oxenfree, where dialogue is the focal point of the game's experience.
In the end, the management of game developing companies needs to change in order to grow and maintain its strength. We can only hope the end of Telltale Games and what led them to their closure would bring awareness of better treatment to developers in the industry.