One of the biggest moral dilemmas that humanity has ever had to grapple with is if good things that come from bad people are really good things. And this is important in discussing Telltale and its closure, because Telltale undeniably made good things, while also undeniably being a bad studio. And not just “bad because it forced it’s workers to pull 80-hour weeks, plus weekends, to publish things on time”, that’s a very industry-standard level of bad. We’re talking “Laid off hundreds of employees with no warning or severance, presumably so the higher-ups could escape unscathed” kinds of bad, the kind of thing that could ruin lives and careers.
But they made good things. Really good things. Not just “good, high quality games” kind of good things, that’s a very industry-standard level of good. They were the sole bastion of a genre thought long dead, they championed narrative storytelling, and were able to take familiar properties and ideas and use them to explore exciting new ideas, concepts, and stories. They made one of the first compelling Joker origin stories ever. They brought long-overdue attention to the Fable comic series. They were able to make something worthwhile in the Borderland’s universe, that had more to say than just bad memes and overused jokes. And of course, they made The Walking Dead games, which brought countless joys and tears to fans around the globe in a time when zombies were seen as overdone and cliché… and crafted one of the most impactful deaths in all of video games.
So let’s talk, briefly, about Telltale games. Where it started. Where it went. What went wrong. And what we can learn.
It will be unsurprising for gaming historians to learn that Telltale can trace its roots back to the old master of the point-and-click genre, Lucasarts, with three former developers, Kevin Bruner, Dan Connors and Troy Molander (who had worked earlier on the Sam & Max games, bless) coming together and creating the studio on July 12, 2004, although they would wait a few months to go public. While their first game was something of an outlier (Telltale Texas Hold’em), they vey quickly established themselves as a studio that worked with other IP’s, their first “proper” game being based off the famous graphic novel series, Bone, with “Bone: Out of Bonesville”.
Which was met with average reviews.
“Average” would describe most of Telltale’s early work. They would continue to make games for the Bone series, as well as new Sam & Max games, and some games based off the hit series CSI. But they were certainly unafraid to experiment: they also made a Wallace & Gromit game, a Tales of Monkey Island game, a Homestar Runner game (called Strong Band’s Cool Game for Attractive People, which is great), a Law & Order game, a Jurassic Park Game, and in what was perhaps their most famous game before things went crazy, a Back to the Future game, which was so successful they attributed the 10 million they earned that year to it.
The only non-episodic game they released at this time that got any attention was Poker Night at the Inventory, which famously included characters from series they’ve worked on (such as Sam and Max), Valve’s Team Fortress 2 mercenaries, and the folks from Penny Arcade.
During this time, things were fairly busy on the business side as well. By 2007 their team had doubled from three to six people, which was really all they needed to operate in these early days of PC gaming development. Attempts to purchase the full rights to the Sam & Max games proved unsuccessful, but they were able to get attention across the industry due to their tight monthly release schedule, which was unprecedented at the time. They also got a reputation for being fast, hard workers with a good sense of humor which was likely the biggest reason they were able to score a NBC deal that allowed them to work on Back to the Future and Jurassic Park, which were easily the biggest IP’s they had gotten to work with until now.
And as they got more money, they needed more people. By 2011, they had expanded to 140 employees. But that year would bring more than just new faces around the office: that would also be the year when everything changed. That would be the year when they partnered with Warner Brothers and released the first episode of The Walking Dead.
They had known it would be successful from the beginning, estimating it would be a 20 to 30 million dollar franchise. Little did they know, they were lowballing: by the first 20 days, they had sold one million copies, and by the end of 2013 they had sold 8.5 million episodes, earning them 40 million in revenue. So what was supposed to be a one-time story of Lee and Clementine turned into a four-part epic that would follow Clementine’s story through the zombie-infected wasteland.
This unprecedented success may have actually spelled the beginning of the end for Telltale. Whereas before they had to negotiate carefully to get IP’s to work with, now people were throwing IP at their feet and begging for the Telltale treatment. Suddenly, they were working with Borderlands, Game of Thrones, Minecraft, Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy, and more. The success of The Walking Dead also stagnated innovation, and their earlier point-and-click style was retired to focus on the gameplay used in The Walking Dead, where puzzles were short and simple, and a much greater focus was put on dialogue choices and quick-thinking quick-time events.
And in 2014, under the weight of new expectations and dozens of new projects, the perpetual crunch began.
In 2015, their CEO Dan Conners resigned, and was replaced with co-founder Kevin Bruner. Kevin, for lack of a better word, was ambitious, and he had a hard time saying “no” to a project. Under his leadership, Telltale greenlit a partnership with “Lionsgate” to produce “super shows”, which were TV shows that integrated some interactive elements found in video games (guess how well those went). He hired more people to work on these multiple projects at the same time, peaking in 2017 with around 400 employees, which did little to ease the crunch as more and more projects were heaped onto the studio.
These problems were made worse because every new IP they worked with meant they had to collaborate with other studios, who would have to review everything to make sure it was consistent and brand-appropriate, which slowed things down considerably. To combat this, Telltale tried to restructure itself, and hired a new CEO: Pete Hawley, former VP of games at Zynga, who committed himself to “fixing” the company (and did so by letting go of 90 employees). Meanwhile, the old, ousted CEO, Kevin Bruner filed a lawsuit against his old company (and would prove less than gracious in the years to follow).
But for all the problems the studio was having internally, externally, they were producing their best-ever content. Their games were getting consistently high reviews, praise from fans and critics, and good sales… but not good enough sales. The studio had been banking on every new series raking in the kind of numbers that The Walking Dead did, and they simply didn’t, likely due to a fatigue with the general formula and Telltale ironically producing so much content that they flooded their own niche market. Not even later series in the Walking Dead franchise brought in the kind of numbers they needed, and the studio was quietly bleeding money for years, despite the deals they were making: for example, to make a Stranger Things Netflix game-thing.
And it came to a head in September 21st, 2018. After releasing the second episode of the third season of The Walking Dead, Pete Hawley made the sudden announcement that Telltale has effectively collapsed under the weight of its own ambition, now that their last major investor had pulled out of the studio, sensing blood in the water. It had grown too big, too fast, and like every other bubble, it burst. And in doing so, it left around 250-some people without jobs, without severance, and without their dues.
The lesson we can learn from Telltale is obvious: don’t outgrow your britches. Their old model wasn’t bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars, but focusing on one or two games at a time made it easier to juggle and keep things under control. When The Walking Dead became big (and it deserve to be), they allowed their ambition to blind them to reality. They ramped up fast. They didn’t restrain themselves when they were overwhelmed. And their solution to their problems was to throw more people and hours at them.
I am not happy to see Telltale vanish. I am not happy to discover that they’re the scummy kind of company who would hire people one week before closing simply to trick people into thinking everything is okay. I’m not happy that The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and other projects will likely remain unfinished. But when I, and the rest of the gaming world, saw the studio strap on their wax wings and brag about how cool it is to fly close to the sun, we probably should have realized sooner that this was inevitable.
Rest in peace, you ugly, greedy studio.
Thanks for the memories.