Walking Dead: A Telltale Games post-mortem

Feature article

It’s true what they say: Hindsight is 20/20. I, for one, was shocked when I heard the news that Telltale Games was closing up shop. But knowing what we know now, we can attempt to connect the dots. So let’s do a bit of a dive into Telltale’s closure.

Off to a good start

Telltale Games found its start in 2004. Following an abrupt cancellation of Sam & Max: Freelance Police, Lucas Arts Employees Kevin Bruner, Dan Connors, and Troy Molander set about starting their own company. They started small, projects like various poker games, developed to help test their proprietary game engine: The Telltale Tool. They partnered with Ubisoft and put out a bunch of CSI Games. However, it wasn’t until Telltale moved into episodic games that they started getting some real traction.

It should be mentioned that episodic games weren’t new at this point. In truth, such games had been around for decades. Having said that, episodic games were few and far between. Episodic games are great for a few reasons: they’re less financially risky, for instance, because you can fund development of future episodes with the sales of the original. The drawback, of course, is that selling multiple physical releases over the course of a few months is definitely not easy.

Although with Steam and other online distribution stores, the ease and cost for episodic releases was highly reduced. By allowing games to be distributed without the costs of physical copies, episodic games were given the right conditions to flourish. So it’s fair to say that whilst Telltale didn’t invent the genre, they knew what they were doing. And so Telltale pounced onto the scene with quite a few franchises to really show off the episodic model to the world.

With Telltale’s practice in the field of episodic games and the development of their engine, the company was poised for success. What really boosted the company, however, was using established franchises. Consider Back to the Future, one of the first franchised episodic games. In 2010, Telltale certainly had their following, but Back to the Future really helped publicly establish how they would make games going forward. Get a deal with a franchise, helping both with story ideas and brand recognition. Create a solid story full of twists and betrayals. Get those sales.

But this blueprint was lacking. In 2012, they found their missing piece. Their next major title was their landmark title: The Walking Dead. To say this game was a success would be a serious understatement. It was in this landmark title that Telltale found the final ingredient of their secret sauce. This was when Telltale started integrating moral choices that would have impacts to the story in the following episodes. You’d be hooked into this narrative, waiting for subsequent episodes to see how you altered the story. It was super engaging, and Telltale was on top of the world, selling copies in the millions.

They had some additional advantages. At a time where gaming videos were on the rise, Let’s Players jumped all over their games. The style was perfect for broadcasting over the likes of YouTube & Twitch. Soon the company was having quite the impact, with people the world over eagerly anticipating new titles. The Walking Dead and subsequent games like the Wolf Among Us continue to be revered for the effect they’ve had on narrative-based games. It’s fair to say that The Walking Dead really set Telltale’s course, for better and worse.

A bad reputation

Unfortunately for Telltale, they didn’t maintain a perfect record in the buying public. Many gamers weren’t really diehard fans of the company. Some people just didn’t really get hooked. Obviously, even to this day, the narrative focused genre is very much a matter of taste. As interesting as narrative may be, some people go to games for the gameplay. But even those in search of a good story were often less than excited.

It’s a pretty impressive thing to consider, but Telltale managed to oversaturate its own market. New games, or rather new licensed IPs, were constantly getting announced. In order to reach the widest audience, Telltale started to diversify. Dark titles like the Wolf Among Us would later give way to titles like Minecraft: Story Mode. Ask most gamers and the story is the same: “I loved The Walking Dead Season 1, and the Wolf Among Us, but the new stuff doesn’t interest me”. But even if they wanted to be a dedicated fan of the company, it was a bit of an uphill battle.

With more attention comes more scrutiny. And unfortunately Telltale’s games developed a bit of a reputation for glitches and bugs with the Telltale Tool often not up to the task.

The Walking Dead had an episode that wouldn’t download and black screen glitches. The Wolf Among Us crashed and perhaps more embarrassingly had dialogue choices reading “this choice is blank”. Tales from the Borderlands seemed to have widespread login failures. These problems were generally not addressed.

“In due time, their engine, created with such pride and hope, became a symbol of the company’s inability to adapt.”

Behind the scenes, the bugs could be a result of the way the staff were overworked. Whilst one advantage of the episodic structure is potentially more time to get the product out, this isn’t the case if you’re running as many projects as Telltale was. Various staff members, anonymous or otherwise, approached the media, speaking out on Telltales use of “crunch”, pushing employees to reach deadlines. Between all the crunch, the Telltale Tool and its reputation was starting to fall into disrepute. In due time, their engine, created with such pride and hope, became a symbol of the company’s inability to adapt. It fell into infamy.

Rather than find new avenues to innovate, Telltale higher-ups sought to double down on the Walking Dead formula. Staff members seeking to bring new ideas to the table were turned away, leading to some employee departures in 2017. As such, Telltale gained a bad reputation. A company that sought out IPs, churning them out in formulaic games that were often full of bugs.

Trying to bridge the gap

It’s interesting to note that when you look into critical reception, Telltale’s games didn’t seemingly get worse, per se. They didn’t get worse at making games. But regardless of the quality of the games, the crowd was starting to turn away. Eventually, they would have to try and turn this boat around, but it was probably too little too late.

2017 was a year marked by restructuring Telltale. In March, Kevin Bruner, CEO, stepped down, with former Zynga VP, Pete Hawley, stepping up to the plate. Later that year, in a restructuring move, around 90 positions (about a quarter of staff) were laid off. The intent, Hawley stated, was “reorienting our organization with a focus on delivering fewer, better games with a smaller team”. Later information would suggest that many of those let go were positions in the management structure that led to Telltale’s issues. Telltale was aware of the damage but was trying to do better. In a rather frank statement, in response to a lawsuit filed by Bruner, Telltale stated that they were “now working to turn around the decline that it experienced under [Bruner]’s stewardship”.

“It felt like quite the symbolic gesture, a funeral of sorts. A long overdue one. “

In June 2018, Telltale announced partnerships with Netflix. This would lead to a Minecraft: Story Mode project coming to Netflix, and a Stranger Things game to be released by Telltale Games. It’s worth noting a Stranger Things game had been an idea for quite some time, but Bruner had rejected it. But with Hawley in charge, the deal went ahead. In the same month, Telltale would announce their intent to put the Telltale Tool to bed. In fact, the final game it would be used on was, funnily enough, the final season of The Walking Dead. It felt like quite the symbolic gesture, a funeral of sorts. A long overdue one. With their troubled past behind them, fans were overjoyed foreseeing Telltale being revitalised in this way.

Unfortunately this of course did not come to pass. As of September 21, Telltale has undergone a “majority studio closure”. Basically the only thing that doesn’t make this a complete shut down, is their Netflix contract. A skeleton crew of only 25 employees (10% of their prior staff of around 250) are working with Telltale to complete Minecraft: Story Mode for Netflix. Wolf Among Us Season 2, Game of Thrones Season 2, and an untitled game based on Stranger Things have been axed. Even the final season of the Walking Dead, which has already seen its first episode release, isn’t safe.

What we shouldn’t ignore though is the very tangible cost. Employees were pushed to breaking point. They put their heart and soul into the company. Now with Telltale going belly up, they are unable to pay out their now former workers their owed severance packages. In their bid to turn things around, higher-ups essentially gambled with money that belonged to their employees.

What can we learn

Telltale Games

There are definitely some simple home truths that are on offer here. The most basic lesson: crunch is not a good thing. It’s kind of sad that this needs repeating. Yes, the nature of game development means people may be rushed to get things done. It is after all hard to assess how long a project will take. Sure, the business people want the product out sooner, so we can make money sooner. But crunch shouldn’t be considered a tool. It can be used to make things faster, but it will do nothing positive in the long run. Burnt out employees, and substandard games are the traps lying ahead if you take this path.

Secondly, innovation is such a necessity. The likes of Life is Strange and more recently The Council has produced more interesting episodic narratives because they built on the Telltale formula. Meanwhile, Telltale put out the same game every time. I can put “Mr. X will remember that” in the top corner of a screen, and you know I’m parodying Telltale instantly. It’s pretty telling. No wonder people got so excited at the prospect of Telltale ditching their tool.

The sad thing is Telltale is an all too common story. A company, blinded by their narrow focus on profit, ignored the problems. Instead of slowing down, addressing concerns, they hunkered down and tried to ride out the storm. We see this all the time, in a myriad of controversies. EA and 2K are fighting against European governments that want to ban loot boxes. But these are much bigger players, with much more resources. Telltale is simply one of those companies that wasn’t able to survive. It’s a shame, and my hopes go out to all the employees, that they find new jobs and continue to help create amazing interactive experiences for the world.