This Dumb Industry: Telltale Autopsy

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Sep 25, 2018

Filed under: Column 97 comments

So Telltale Games is out of business. Like most of the rest of the industry – including the employees of Telltale – I had no idea this was coming. I looked at the popularity of their breakout hit The Walking Dead and the overall quality of some of their earlier adventure game offerings and just assumed this was a well-run company.

They stuck to a given style of gameplay and didn’t stupidly chase trends like online shooters, Battle Royale games, loot boxes, or any of the other fads that have pulled teams off course with the false promise of easy money. They weren’t wasting money on graphics for the sake of prestige. They weren’t chopping their games up into fragments of DLCI mean aside from selling the games an episode at a time, which is kinda built into the design from the outset. If anything, the episodic thing is better for the consumer in this case. You only need to buy the first chapter for $10 to see if you like it rather than paying full price for the whole thing.. They weren’t making any obvious mistakes, so I assumed everything was fine.

But as it turns out, the rot was there all along. This article on The Verge paints a pretty grim picture. (For the purposes of this article, I’m going to take everything The Verge says at face value.) The article calls the company culture “toxic”. I’m always wary of the word “toxic”. As I understand it, this word is used to describe a group where problems are directly attributable to the personalities of one or more people in leadership positions. It shouldn’t be used for more general sorts of problems stemming from poor decision-making. A company where the president picks dumb products, wastes money, and hires unqualified losers is dysfunctional. A company where the president builds a cult of personality, fires people who criticize him, and hires unqualified friends / relatives is toxic.

After reading The Verge article, it sounds like Telltale suffered from both problems. They were dysfunctional in the traditional sense of making lousy business decisions, but they were also dysfunctional in the more specific sense of being run by one or more jerks.

I guess part of the reason I was blindsided by this is that I just wasn’t paying attention. I loved the first season of The Walking Dead, but I never got around to playing season two. Likewise, I never tried any of their other games. Episodic content doesn’t really fit with my binge-playing style. Maybe if I’d played their more recent games I would have noticed something was off, but probably not. Given how this caught the employees themselves off-guard, I imagine this was a well- kept secret.

I don’t think there’s any reason for me to criticize the toxic behavior. A lot of people are pointing fingers at one guyOne of the company co-founders. with a lot of power and a fragile ego as the source of major problems. There’s no point in criticizing him. Most normal people don’t need to be told not to act like a jackass, and a jackass won’t listen. So let’s ignore the toxic stuff and focus on the bad management. I think it can be useful to criticize the more general mistakes made in the area of running a business. These are lessons that people can learn, and hopefully avoid making them in the future.

Lessons To Learn

1. Stability is more important than growth. The rot began at the very beginning. In 2007, Telltale raised more than $6 million in venture capital funding, but those investments came with strings. They were committed to some level of steady growth. The Verge doesn’t specify how much, but this is a destructive kind of deal. It gives you the unwanted obligations of being a publicly traded company and needing to maintain constant growth rather than reliable profits, but it also puts you under the thumb of a small group of investors. I realize that beggars can’t be choosers and the people putting up the money get to dictate the terms of the deal, but I really wish investors would get it through their thick heads that growth is a dangerous thing in a creative company. If you demand your already-profitable company double in size over X number of years, then you’re very likely going to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. This is because…

2. Rapid growth harms the culture of creative endeavors. It’s one thing if you make lawn chairs or frozen pizzas. If you’re just churning out identical consumer goods then growth is as easy as opening another factory and hiring people to run the machinery. But if you make movies, television shows, comic books, or videogames, then your “product” is not a physical good. People don’t buy movies because they want a plastic disc. People don’t buy comic books because they need some cheap paper and a couple of staples. Your product is the creative output of your employees. You need to grow slowly so the sensibilities and techniques of your initial successful team can be absorbed by newcomers. If you double or triple the size of your team in the space of a couple of years, then you’re getting bigger at the expense of diluting your talent. This is particularly true in the case of writers because…

3. Writers are not interchangeable. Like I said at the end of my Mass Effect series, writers aren’t interchangeable. The two people who made The Walking Dead Season 1 both left the company when that project was over. They went on to tell other award-winning stories while the next season of The Walking Dead went on to disappoint fans. According to The Verge:

In addition to [lead Writers of The Walking Dead Season 1] Vanaman and Rodkin, who are often cited as two of the biggest creative losses for the studio, the resources at the company were diminished by other high-profile departures, including Adam Hines, Chuck Jordan, Dave Grossman, and Mike Stemmle. Earlier in 2017, veteran employees Dennis Lenart, Pierre Shorette, Nick Herman, and Adam Sarasohn left the studio simultaneously and moved to Ubisoft.

If you’re a company like BioWare, Naughty Dog, or Telltale and you’ve made stories a major pillar of your products, then your writing team is your company. This goes double for places like TellTale where the “gameplay” consists mostly of lightweight quicktime events.

And if you want to retain those talented people and protect the quality of their output, then the first thing you need to remember is that…

4. Perma-Crunch is destructive. I already wrote an entire article about this back in 2016. Yes, it’s true that crunch can be useful as a temporary measure to meet a deadline as a project gets close to the finish line, but if you’re in a permanent state of crunch then you’re driving off your most talented people and killing the morale and enthusiasm of everyone else. Yes, even if it’s “optional” crunch. If people start working 10 hours days and you’re not up against a deadline, go in and encourage people to go home. Productivity drops off sharply past the 40-50 hour mark, while morale problems and interpersonal conflict goes up. You’re greatly increasing wear and tear on your team for very little benefit. This effect is even stronger in creative fields, so knock it off.

Also, if you’re trying to achieve steady growth then you need to build a company on a reputation of quality. If you want to maintain quality then you need to retain better-than-average people. If you want good people, then you need to…

5. Pay your people well. You can make excuses all you want, but sooner or later mathematics will have its way with you. If your employees can easily find other jobs with higher pay then they will stop being your employees. People get into arguments about what a “fair” wage is or what you “should” pay people, but it all depends on the local economy, the amount of education and experience you demand for a position, and how challenging the work is. If you’re having trouble figuring out what the right value is, you can always check aggregate sites that show the typical income for a given location + position. If you pay less than the typical wage, then you’ll get lots of kids fresh out of game college, and those kids will leave the moment they’ve clocked enough experience to land a job somewhere better. Essentially, you’re paying to break in all the newbies so they can run off and work for your competitors once they’re competent. That’s fine if you want to crank out shovelware and shitty free-to-play mobile games. But if you’re banking on the prestige of being an auteur studio built on storytelling, then underpaying your talent is basically suicide.

Oh, and it’s a lot harder to pay your people a decent (to them) salary if you decide to put your office in the ultra-overpriced Bay Area market. This is because…

6. Fancy offices in prestigious locations are for rich companies, not startups pretending to be rich companies. Are you Walt Disney? Blizzard Entertainment? Valve Software? No? Then get off that expensive property. You literally can’t afford it. The office is expensive, the taxes are expensive, the salaries are expensive, utilities are expensive, local services are expensive, and supplies are expensive.

Maybe you look and see that 10,000 square feet of office space will cost you $17,400 a month in Atlanta but that same square footage will set you back $54,300 in San Francisco. “No problem,” you stupidly think, “we can afford the extra $36,900 a month.”

I guess you skipped a couple of semesters of business school, because you shouldn’t think of this office as “$36K more”. You should instead think of it as THREE TIMES AS EXPENSIVE. More importantly, you need to realize that the cost of everything else will be similarly inflated.

Frankly, if I was an investor I’d refuse to give my money to any ninny who wanted to set up shop in any of the overcrowded, overpriced tech hubs. I’d use that as my first-pass question for weeding out idiots. “Where do you plan to establish your offices? Silicon valley? Get out of my office.”

You can find lots of talented people in Dallas, Atlanta, and Durham for a fraction of the cost. You have better places to spend your money. Unless the land itself is going to magically improve the quality of your software, then there’s no reason to put yourself in one of the most expensive locations in the western world.

Not to mention that these expensive places tend to have horrific commute times, which burdens your employees and drains away their morale before they even reach the office. Seriously, this is stupid. You should have learned this lesson in the dot-com crash 17 years ago.

Wrapping Up

Just to drive the point home, check out this chart I swiped from Imgur:

Huh. Looking at this chart, it's kinda shocking nobody predicted this.
Huh. Looking at this chart, it's kinda shocking nobody predicted this.

It’s almost as if quality matters. Telltale started off with a brilliant team and then after those people left the company, management just kept hiring people (for below-industry standard wages) and growing the company despite the complete lack of interest in their products. Telltale didn’t “die”. They committed suicide.

Patient: Telltale Games

Time of Death: September 2018

Cause of Death: Destructive business practices. (Self-inflicted.)

What a stupid waste.

 

Footnotes:

[1] I mean aside from selling the games an episode at a time, which is kinda built into the design from the outset. If anything, the episodic thing is better for the consumer in this case. You only need to buy the first chapter for $10 to see if you like it rather than paying full price for the whole thing.

[2] One of the company co-founders.



From The Archives:
 

97 thoughts on “This Dumb Industry: Telltale Autopsy

  1. Daimbert says:

    It kinda looks like you forgot to close a bold tag after the intro, but it could be just me …

  2. Daimbert says:

    If people start working 10 hours days and you’re not up against a deadline, go in and encourage people to go home.

    I kinda disagree with this, because it removes the freedom of employees to make their work schedules work for their own work style. I personally have a tendency to work extra hours earlier on a project, but that’s because doing so generally REDUCES my stress levels, as it lets me spread the work out longer — I tend to work weekend mornings — and gives me some leeway when things go sideways so that I don’t have to do massive, desperate crunch at the end to overcome that. Perma-crunch is always bad, because even single people need some time to do other things, but telling someone to go home should be something that their direct manager watches and adjusts according to their own personal work style (and the manager has to watch out for obligations and implied obligations as well; sometimes the game isn’t on a deadline but part of it really is).

    The best that you can do company wide is institute some kind of break compensation after the release of a product. If everyone crunched, everyone gets a week off to do other things. Technically, vacation would cover this but lots of people won’t take vacations at that point and want to take them while the project is on-going, and if they’re working lots and lots of hours you probably should do something to recognize that.

    If you pay less than the typical wage, then you’ll get lots of kids fresh out of game college, and those kids will leave the moment they’ve clocked enough experience to land a job somewhere better.

    You can pay less than your competitors if you have something else that can compensate for the lower wages. So if your work is just so cool that everyone wants to work on it, or the environment is just so much fun that everyone wants to work there. Telltale likely had those at the start — from what the article is saying — but as it grew it lost that but the salaries didn’t go up to compensate. The management thought that people still really liked working there long past the point where the environment had made it so that people were treating it like a paycheck, and they were hiring people who were just looking for a paycheck. This isn’t to say that people looking for a paycheck are bad or are even less loyal — lots of people who are primarily in a job for the paycheck are deliberately diligent when it comes to it — but the people who liked the environment will start looking for places where they can still get it and people who want the money will start looking for places where they get paid more. The former are your creative types, which hurts and the latter are the majority of the people you grew with, which badly increases turnover. And turnover, as you’ve said, is bad when everyone has to learn the systems before they can be productive.

    1. Tizzy says:

      To me, the key to low wages are company culture and leadership. If both are good, you can save some on salaries, because having an inclusive culture, nice benefits, and good direct bosses builds loyalty in employees and a sense of belonging. It’s also a different way to allocate resources, because good culture and leadership cost money too. And anyone who values the quality of their work life will think twice about jumping ship, so long as they already make a decent living.

    2. Vinsomer says:

      Hmm. The thing with long hours is that at some point, productivity per hour goes down. It doesn’t matter if you think it does (it never feels like it does) but we are human beings, this is an observable and well-proven effect of long hours. But employees won’t always do what’s healthy for them or the project. Sometimes they’ll work late because they don’t keep track of time. Sometimes, it’s easier than going home. Sometimes they need the overtime cos their refrigerator broke or something. There are a lot of workplace regulations that don’t just exist to prevent employees being exploited but to prevent them from harming themselves. Just like how if it wasn’t legally mandated, some (even if it’s just a few) construction workers wouldn’t wear a helmet, and when they get in an accident and die it’s not the employer but their own negligence which is responsible.
      And obviously working like 25 hour weeks is ridiculous. But there’s a middle ground between 50, 60 hours a week (IMO, and according to most studies too much) and part-time.
      So, really the question is: ‘Is working longer hours at reduced productivity better than working fewer hours at peak productivity?’ Well, you finish slightly earlier but take a hit to morale and motivation, so you might end up with a worse project. And, for Telltale, the worsening quality of their products is a big part of what killed them. You want to know another game made under permacrunch? Mass Effect Andromeda. That’s the risk – not just a mediocre game but a laughingstock which destroys the credibility of your brand.
      If the answer to that question is ‘We need the extra hours even at reduced productivity to be on schedule’, then you have the wrong schedule. You’ve underestimated how long it takes to make your product.

      1. Echo Tango says:

        I’m actually surprised they needed so much time to make the sequels to their games. They should have had a lot of re-usable things, from the game engine, to things like background characters (zombie #12, or human-on-the-street #5), plus the benefits of everyone using the same tools they’re already used to / trained with.

        1. Vinsomer says:

          I suppose taking on 5 projects at once had something to do with it.

    3. Shamus says:

      It’s not so much that I’d kick people out of the building. If you need to work late, or if you’re just in a groove and don’t want to quit while you’re getting things done, then I can totally understand that.

      I just want to discourage the culture of self-martyring where everyone wants to prove their loyalty by seeing who works the most hours. Toxic companies often have this thing where nobody literally forces you to work late, they simply imply that working late is a virtue and they like virtue and you don’t want to be one of the losers, do you?

      My goal would be to just let people know, “Seriously. It’s okay to go home now. It’s cool.”

      1. GoStu says:

        For my $0.02 – you need to keep on your middle management about that “working late is a virtue” thing. I used to work in an office where the Superintendent would crack jokes right to your face if you got in any later than 0730 (“Good afternoon, nice to see you up!) or left any sooner than 1730 (“Got somewhere important to be?”) … in a position that paid for 8 hours/day of your time.

        That kind of person needs to go. It’s like managerial shotput – the faster you can eject them, the better your company will do. I quit that company as soon as I could find somewhere else to be, and I happen to know that they’re in a trainwreck situation on their current project to the tune of double-digit millions of dollars lost already and they’re not finished yet.

        1. Rick C says:

          My current job–where I’ve been for over ten years–made a point of saying at the interview that it was a 40 hour a week job. They said overtime was possible but that they didn’t like doing it, and I’ve almost never needed to, because our business model and product doesn’t (for the most part) revolve around deadlines.

          1. Karma The Alligator says:

            My current job is also 40 hours a week (with inevitable overtime because of deadlines), but they said they don’t care *when* I do the hours as long as I do them. I can come in late or leave early as long as I do what I need to do. I’m really glad for that, it lets me be flexible if I need to do something else during working hours.

        2. I have a friend who was booted from management for being just that kind of boss. He’s a natural morning person and thought he was being a “good boss” when he hassled people about being on time. HIS boss eventually took him aside and explained that he was abusing his team for no good reason.

          Getting up early is not a virtue. (Neither is staying late, for that matter.) PRODUCTIVITY is a virtue. Your management model should always be based around maximizing productivity, and for different lines of business that requires different models.

          I’ve worked jobs that really WERE time-sensitive, where you needed X amount of coverage and people couldn’t leave until their relief showed up. Being 100% prompt and on time was absolutely vital for EVERYONE–but so was leaving on time (so you didn’t wind up with unscheduled overtime).

          I’ve worked jobs that were time sensitive in that each shift had a block of work to complete and you HAD to get YOUR work done before the next shift was scheduled to go on, because the work HAD to be done and they couldn’t start until you finished. Being 100% prompt and on time to start was vital because you had to get started efficiently in order to complete before shift change. But if you were any kind of good at your job, you’d probably have time at the end of the day where you’d just be sitting on your butt doing nothing because you finished early. (Each “block” of work would take about 3.5 hours to complete, so if you had 45 minutes left, you couldn’t start something new, you just had to wait until it was time to clock out.) If you finished early, it just meant you were more productive, and they didn’t care about you sitting around.

          I’ve worked jobs that weren’t time-sensitive at all, and it was actually BETTER to have a night owl or two who came in late and left late, because that meant if the contractors who liked to work at 2am had problems, there’d be someone AROUND to deal with it instead of having to wake an early bird up and make them drive an hour to the office in the middle of the night.

          There are probably any number of different situations I’ve never seen, too. If your manager doesn’t know what type of work you do, that manager needs to GO.

      2. wumpus says:

        My favorite example of how not to do it: When I started working as a contractor at a certain enormous pseudo-monopoly located in Redmond, WA, my boss told me that, “[I] couldn’t bill for more than 40 hours a week.” I replied that that wouldn’t be a problem, as I had to drop off and pick up my kids at daycare on a fairly tight schedule…because I thought he’d said I couldn’t _work_ more than 40 hours a week. But that’s not what he said, or expected…

        1. Guest says:

          Yeah, and that’s so bullshit. You shouldn’t be working hours that aren’t being paid, and it’s so bullshit that people can get away with doing that.

          1. Erik says:

            As a contractor, actually requesting that hours be worked but not reported is asking the contractor to commit fraud. Yes, it’s fraud in the customer favor, but it is technically not something they’re allowed to ask under the standard contract.

            Not that there’s anyone left to enforce labor law these days…

      3. Steve C says:

        All that matters is the glory of the numbered limited company. A Japanese salaryman just jumped in front of a train to prove this statement.
        Which then made a different Japanese salaryman late to an important meeting. His shame will be erased by tomorrow’s train. It is healthy.

  3. EwgB says:

    I think there is one (not very good) reason to settle in the Bay Area, and that is the available talent pool. You will certainly have more people available there, but they will also be available to your competitors, especially if you underpay them. Companies in other areas will have a harder time finding or attracting people, but have an easier time keeping them. So as I said, not a good reason.
    I face the same issue right now where I live, in Germany. I’m a software developer (non-gaming), and for personal (my whole family) and financial reasons (i.e. I don’t want to pay half a million for a house) live in a more rural part of the country, and I commute to the border of a more developed part for work. If I was actually living in the middle of the developed region, I would probably have a different job with more pay by now, though I would also spend more.

    1. SiriKeet says:

      Another issue with that reason – while the Bay Area is certainly a hub of talent, it’s mainly tech talent. Coders, hardware folks and so on. Telltale’s successes aren’t really based on tech – in fact, the tech is just about the worst part of their games. They’re based on creative aspects like writing, voice acting etc.

      1. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

        The talent is there, much of the talent wants to move there, and -for our purposes, more important –the money is there. Venture capitalist firms invest in the Bay Area. If you want the money, you have to be there. Would that our host were a venture capitalist, because I’m a firm believer that the excessive investment in SF and Boston is a bubble waiting to burst on those cities. But for right now, that’s where the money is. So I’m pretty sure that even if TellTale wanted to locate in Durham or Atlanta, they wouldn’t be able to get the money for it.

        1. Joshua says:

          How often is the company needing to meet with their investors that airfare won’t work? My company has a group of Equity Investors, and it doesn’t seem to be more often than once a month.

          1. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

            Not sure it is a matter of meeting. It’s just where they want to invest. The investers could be in Dallas for all I know. They still put the money in SF.

            1. Basing your investments on location in an industry where location is irrelevant is a really stupid way to invest. And taking money from stupid investors is a double-edged sword that will likely come around to bite you in the butt.

              Honestly, if you want *game* talent, you want to hire in the area between Indianapolis and Columbus. (You know, the cities where GenCon and Origins are?). The place is some kind of nuclear hotbed of game writers and creators. And it’s CHEAP.

              This area of the country has a lot of potential (although I’m aware that it’s not as business-friendly as some parts of the country, sadly). Due to the geography, the cities are more spread-out, with LARGE areas of inexpensive but nice suburbs. You get all the amenities of living in quite a large city (because the overall population is big enough to support them), but almost none of the problems (because that population is more evenly spread out).

              1. Guest says:

                Yeah, but that’s kind of the way investment works. It’s not a smart way of allocating funds, it’s inherently based on convincing people who aren’t experts to give you money.

                Not a suprise that a part of that is image based.

              2. Lars says:

                There are other reasons for choosing such a location: Tax Subventions.
                Montreal is one of the largest and expensive cities in Canada. But the tax for game development in this city is reduced by a massive amount. Result: UbiSoft, Eidos, BioWare and other big Studios resident there. With over 10000 jobs just for the game industry in Montreal. The Bay Area and Silicon Valley likely do have such deals too.

                Of course these tax subventions profit the company, not the employees.

    2. Hal says:

      This problem presents itself to specialized fields. If you’re a teacher*, you can work anywhere because there are schools everywhere. If you’re a widget master, you can really only work in cities with widget factories.

      I worked in vaccine development out in Baltimore after grad school. It’s hard to find that sort of work outside very specific regions in the US; mainly the Bay Area (natch), Boston, and sections of the mid-Atlantic. We moved to St. Louis to be near family, but there’s no vaccine development work out here. My skills are transferable to other areas, but it’s not ideal.

      * – Non-university level teacher.

      1. John says:

        Would that it were so simple. I’m not a teacher myself, but I have several relatives who are and I hear about this stuff a lot. Teaching skills are transferable but teaching credentials, depending on various factors, may not be. I.e., credentials from one state may not be recognized in another. To make matters worse, your salary as a public school teacher often depends on the number of years you’ve spent teaching in a particular district rather than the number of years you’ve spent teaching. An experienced teacher who switches districts may be looking at a big pay cut. College and university professors face their own challenges, but they have fewer legal and financial barriers to switching jobs.

        1. Hal says:

          Oh, I know. My wife was a teacher for several years, as were/are several family members. It was just to make the point that some skills are employable everywhere and others have logistical restrictions.

          Unrelated to the point of the discussion, but that salary/pension issue with years worked is the sort of thing that arises due to entrenched interests. It might border a bit closely to politics, but the general idea is that the people who make that call are the people who benefit most from it. New teachers, or teachers who transfer jobs, don’t exactly carry a lot of clout.

  4. Arkady English says:

    What happens if I close the bold tag in my comment? Will the rest of the comments section look normal?

    EDIT: Apparently not.

  5. Gargamel Le Noir says:

    I’m not really sure that the episodic nature was a good thing. The way I see it, when the first episode comes out and everyone’s like “hey, new Telltale game!” a lot of people just want to hold off to buy it until the game is actually finished, and when it is nobody’s talking about it anymore.
    I also think streaming damaged them. On one hand it makes their games known, but on the other since they refuse to let players’ choices impact the ending, the viewer had no reason to buy the game to try their own choices. It’s not the streaming’s fault, other games thrive using it, but they offer more.

    1. krellen says:

      I don’t know that streaming was the real problem. I didn’t buy any Telltale games after TWDS1, but it wasn’t because I was watching the games be streamed instead. It’s because the discovery of the lie of choice made me completely disinterested in their games altogether.

    2. Mephane says:

      I’ve read on Twitter by someone claiming to have worked there, that they assessed this question and found that streaming is not the culprit.

      But your point about the episodic format is certainly true for some people, myself included. I am just not a fan of playing one fifth of a game and then waiting a few months for the next fifth. And when I am holding out for the whole thing to be released in its entirety anyway, I might just as well wait for a sale to boot.

    3. Echo Tango says:

      Ditto on the episodic stuff hurting them; I always hold off on buying games like that, since I can’t remember the story I was playing a month and a half ago. Then, if I miss the release date of the (final) episode, everybody else has moved on, so I have few (if any) people to share this experience with. Thinking about it more, though, I think a lot of games are like this – small, quickly consumed, then forgotten by everybody in the next couple months or upcoming year. This happens even with games like The Walking Dead, that had less emphasis on graphics, and more on artistic aesthetic and a good story.

      ?_(?)_/?

      EDIT:
      Dang! I can’t use my shrug macro without access to characters outside of ASCII! Worst website evar! :P

      1. Mephane says:

        Dang! I can’t use my shrug macro without access to characters outside of ASCII! Worst website evar! :P

        Weird. Let me try. ¯_(?)_/¯

        Edit:
        Okay, almost. I copy-pasted from here: https://emojipedia.org/shrug/

        Also, when editing the post, the ? character is shown in the editor now as an actual ? character, so it seems WordPress replaces that at some step of processing a comment.

        Dear WordPress, this is the year 2018. Get your Unicode sorted out. Seriously.

        Edit2:
        Okay, after the above edit, the backslash forming the left (from the reader’s point of view) forearm disappeared entirely. In the first edit, it was still present. When I try to edit again and copy the original emoji into the comment, it always gets reduced to this form again.

  6. Zaxares says:

    Wow, this came as news to me too. Granted, I’m not a Walking Dead fan and I’ve never touched a Telltale game, but like you, I thought they’d made enough of a name for themselves that they’d not plummet headfirst into bankruptcy like this. My sympathies for the employees laid off from their jobs, but at least the good talent survives elsewhere. (In that more games of TWD S1’s caliber will crop up again sometime down the line.)

    1. Oli Y says:

      They did, Firewatch for one.

  7. Fizban says:

    I wonder of the stairsteps in the curve of that graph are caused by burnout (which was Jim Sterling’s greater take on it). It seems to go almost yearly.

  8. Mephane says:

    As I understand it, this word is used to describe a group where problems are directly attributable to the personalities of one or more people in leadership positions. It shouldn’t be used for more general sorts of problems stemming from poor decision-making.

    I disagree with that definition. What matters in my view is how the work environment, company culture etc is like – regardless whether this is the result of genuinely “toxic personalities” or merely incompetent leadership, since it is not always easy for the employees to distinguish which one is actually the case.

    You could have an incompetent manager who genuinely believes perma-crunch would help overall productivity and has no idea that it creates, among many other problems, burn-out. Or you could have a greedy manager who is fully aware of the problems and does it anyway because they don’t care about the well-being of the employees at all.

    For the people suffering under this system, both situations are practically identical, even though the former is merely the result of stupidity, not malice.

    1. Echo Tango says:

      I think the main difference, is that while both situations would have some of the same symptoms (long hours, poor communication between different teams, low salaries, etc) a company with a toxic leadership, rather than just incompetent leadership, will have additional symptoms. Firing people for personal / ego reasons; Giving promotions and raises to family / friends, rather than people who work hard; Laying blame on most people, while giving praise to friends / family – those types of things.

    2. wumpus says:

      The simplest definition of toxic culture is company culture that encourages jerks and jerky behavior at the expense of non-jerks. This can be due to incompetence, or malevolence, or indifference.

      1. Mephane says:

        This is a good definition, however still not encompassing it entirely. Further above was given the example of how a manager might encourage unintentionally people to come early and stay late by what they would consider lighthearted, friendly and harmless joke comments. The manager’s behaviour wasn’t encouraged by their superiors in that example, and the resulting behaviour of the employees couldn’t really be called “jerky”, either.

        Edit: I just realized your nickname. Jeff Atwood, is that you?

        1. wumpus says:

          Nope, I’m not Jeff, just another coding horror that lurks in a labyrinth…

    3. Guest says:

      Yeah, by “toxic” as a description of not one person, I think people largely means systematic-which still often is just a few individuals at the top, but the culture was both inimicable to the employees, and the company over time. Even if it’s just incompetence at the top, then the company environment itself turns toxic. I’ve worked with a few nice, but incompetent people, and the story is the same as when I’ve worked with flat out toxic people, their incompetence makes the workplace toxic, it creates systematic problems which hurt everyone.

      Things like perma crunch, poor hiring practices (We’ve seen they didn’t even freeze hiring for going out of business), rapid expansion that they couldn’t pay for, those are problems that are systemic to the company, and rarely are the result of one person’s malfeasance. That’s a problem with the way we talk about games and game dev, it’s as a response to toxic people, instead of systems that make entire workplaces toxic. And I think it won’t change until developers manage some sort of collective bargaining, ’cause it can’t be acceptable to be in permacrunch, demanding overtime which won’t be paid for, for a company to go under and deny any severance at that sort of notice.

  9. Thomas says:

    People still liked their later games. Tales of the Borderlands which is well into their decline is many people’s favourites. Even the latet ones have a lot of fans from the people who played it. Guardians of the Galaxy has a 9/10 on Steam.

    I don’t think you can say the problem was poor writing or quality decline.

    I think people got tired of the same thing and maybe burnt out. Doing the stable steady thing _is_ probably what killed them.

    Even if it’s not graphics, they needed to shake up the gameplay in a big way (although better graphics would have made a nice splash for them too)

    1. Nick says:

      I think it’s more accurate to say that poor writing really hurt them in the second season of The Walking Dead games, and that killed off enough interest in the sequels that they never really recovered. I’ve played most of the post-TWD telltale games and the Batman games in particular were really good.

    2. Echo Tango says:

      I was going to say that I didn’t get burnt out on their games, but then I looked on Steam, and there’s apparently one more spinoff, and two direct sequels to The Walking Dead, which I not only didnn’t play, but didn’t even know about. Speaking of graphics – the later games seem to have upped the graphical fidelity, which actually works against the somewhat cel-shaded / comic-book look they originally had. Now the characters / environments look a bit more like shiny plastic, and it’s pretty off-putting to me. :S

  10. Asdasd says:

    So at the time of bankruptcy they had at least 275 employees. Last year they let go of 90, and if we assume that was their peak that’s 365 people on what I can assume were competitive salaries well above the national average. This was not a mega successful, publisher backed AAA studio. Their games were high profile but pretty niche – adventure games for crying out loud, the genre (much as I love it) that was declared dead by the industry pretty much solely on the perception of weak sales. It really does seem they grew themselves to death.

    1. Echo Tango says:

      I’m surprised the layoffs didn’t come sooner, if the sales were so consistently poor, for so many years.

      1. Thomas says:

        That must be the venture capitalist deal. I knew Telltales sales had fallen off a cliff, but I assumed they couldn’t be shutting down because they were still working on like 4 projects at once. If money was tight they’d have cut back years ago right?

        It makes more sense when you hear people demanded the studio grow – well past what the market or studio could sustain.

  11. onodera says:

    Interactive movies that Telltale made have lost their novelty. Unlike something like Ubisoft’s map-clearing games they use few positive reinforcement cycles and have to rely only on novelty and the narrative.

    What’s worse, new games must be both novel and gripping.

    Gone Home was something new, Tacoma wasn’t and has received a colder welcome.

    Firewatch added invisible characters that react to your presence. Novelty.

    In The Valley of Gods will add a visible character. Novelty again.

    What has Telltale done? All their games since The Walking Dead are a combination of

    – walk around the room interacting with hotspots scenes
    – dialogue cutscenes
    – QTE cutscenes

    If your gameplay formula is stale, you need *exceptional* writers going from strength to strength just to stay afloat.

    1. Sleeping Dragon says:

      (As is often the case I’m very late for the party but still)

      I think I’m the minority that doesn’t agree with this, or at least not wholeheartedly. Many of the games I play I consider primarily storytelling devices, interactive stories, yes, but stories nonetheless. Sure, better graphics make the story reception more pleasing, good mechanics can make going through the story more engaging (and can be a joy in themselves, there are also many games I play largely for the mechanics but that is a separate topic), but at the end of the day I primarily want a good story. In a similar way that I don’t necessarily expect that a book will “innovate” I do not necessarily require a game that I mostly play for the tale to do so. To be clear, I by no means say that Telltale games were perfect, and I think interactive storytelling overall has a lot of room to improve and spaces to explore, but in what I played I was engaged in the narrative enough to actually suspend my knowledge that the choices were largely false and follow the narrative.

  12. Dissenter says:

    I live and work in one of those tech hubs (Boston) and I’m not sure I agree with your point about them.

    When I worked outside the city, where rents are cheaper and commutes are longer (thanks, mass transit!) we had real trouble hiring good talent, and that was for a well known consumer electronics brand.

    Now, working at a start-up with a view of MIT just across the river, it’s still a challenge finding good talent.

    I’m just not sure that the pool of tech workers in Decatur is big and diverse enough to nourish a growing start-up. Real estate cost is a thing but companies have to be where people want to live.

    1. Quietus says:

      Boston is still a far cry in prices compared to the Bay Area or Seattle.

  13. Redrock says:

    I don’t think it’s as simple as that, because as others have mentioned, it’s not like the decline in quality was linear. And I especially don’t think we should overstate the long-term effect of the loss of Vanaman and Rodkin. There’s a case to be made that Tales from the Borderlands is as good as TWD Season 1 and in some ways it could be considered superior because it doesn’t rely on cheap emotional manipulation that the whole franchise relies on (I’m not bashing Telltale’s TWD, I love it, but you have to acknowledge that it suffers from its roots in Kirkman’s work). The Wolf Among Us is similarly very, very good for what it is – a pulpy noir-ish fantasy thing that by default couldn’t be as meaningful and weighty as TWD. I still haven’t played Enemy WIthin, but the first season of Telltale’s Batman, despite some hiccups, also proved to be a very interesting take on Batman and, more specifically, Bruce Wayne.

    So I think that the quality of the writing is one of the less important factors here. It’s also worth remembering that in this industry the bar for writing is so low that Telltale could decline very far and still be way above the average level. I think the technical issues, the haphazard release schedules and pure oversaturation are the main causes of Telltale’s fall. They shouldn’t have done Minecraft, Michonne or even, I think, Game of Thrones, despite how much of a winner it seemed.

  14. Darren says:

    I would be curious to know sales numbers. I checked out of Telltale Games a long time ago, as I fundamentally didn’t find their “no real gameplay, all cutscene” model to be very engaging. Their early games, up through Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People, were good efforts at keeping the point-and-click adventure genre alive, and they were getting better at it. But then The Walking Dead proved a huge hit. Not only did that end their efforts at making games rather than movies where you have to push a button to proceed, it also saw them abandon the classic franchises they had built their company on. RIP Sam & Max and Monkey Island. And I wonder if, in the long term, people just grew tired of the new style of “play?” In particular, it seemed that people started having issues with it as soon as they realized that their choices fundamentally did not matter. Say what you will about Detroit: Become Human, but it combined the Telltale approach with choices that could have incredible impacts on the story, and that seemed to generate a lot more buzz than the smoke-and-mirror approach.

    1. Echo Tango says:

      The orange-and-blue chart that Shamus shows sales numbers; Blue is owners, orange is players.

    2. Liessa says:

      I always wondered how they managed to sell so much while constantly remaking the same barely-interactive movie with fake choices (say what you like about CYOA novels, at least those had actual choices!) Guess we now know the answer. Honestly, the alarm bells should have started ringing right after TWAU sold less than half as well as the first TWD, and by the time the TWD S2 sales were in, it should have been abundantly clear that lighting was not going to strike twice. It’s disgusting the way they treated their employees, hiring right up until the last minute and then dumping them in it with no notice and no severance pay.

  15. Hal says:

    $36k per month is also the cost of several employees. If you’re understaffed (or the staff is underpaid), you’d need to justify the fancy office over having a full/happy crew.

  16. Jeremiah says:

    I think another problem is how much they were chasing existing franchises. They were almost certainly paying a good chunk of change for the privilege of telling stories in those world which just built pressure to make more and more money.

    With the talent they seemingly had at their disposal I’m sure they could have come up with their own stories to tell.

    1. Sleeping Dragon says:

      This is actually what kept me off some of their games. I was actually rather excited for the 2nd Wolf but I did not care about The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones simply because I was not into those worlds.

      1. AncientSpark says:

        Worse yet, sometimes the association with licenses actively restricted their writing. GoT ended up being relatively bad because they HAD to capitalize off of the TV show, which restricted a lot of what they could write and what would be profitable to write about.

  17. Spencer Reid says:

    Also, it sucks that they now get applauded because they’re finishing The Walking Dead with an external scab developer, while still having fired their own employees without severance.

  18. DGM says:

    >> “Productivity drops off sharply past the 40-50 hour mark, while morale and interpersonal conflict goes up.”

    You mean morale PROBLEMS go up, right?

    1. Echo Tango says:

      “We’re overworked, and there still seems to be so much work to do on the game, but it sure is fun punching each other in the face!”

      1. DGM says:

        “The flogging will continue while morale improves.” :P

  19. Matt says:

    1. Stability is more important than growth. […] I really wish investors would get it through their thick heads that growth is a dangerous thing in a creative company. If you demand your already-profitable company double in size over X number of years, then you’re very likely going to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

    I wonder if this isn’t so much the investors not “getting it” so much as not caring. If you want stable profitability, there are plenty of large, established companies that can provide this. EA, for example, has seen pretty steady growth in its stock price for the last 5 years (whatever the quality of their products). People invest in start-ups and small companies like Telltale because they are hoping their small-ish investment will have big returns. More than that, they are hoping it has big returns quickly, because otherwise they are losing money compared to an alternative where they invested in something stable or in another start-up.

    My understanding of the psychology of these venture capitalist types is not that they are investing in companies with products that they particularly believe in or want to succeed in the long term. Rather, they are looking for specific financial opportunities that are relatively high risk-high reward. If your plan is to get in early and cash out when the stock price reaches a certain threshold (say 2-3x what you paid), then you don’t care about the sustainability of the company or its practices.

    If you have a goose that lays golden eggs, you are probably better off selling the goose to someone for a sufficiently large lump sum than you are trying to feed, shelter, and protect the goose for its lifetime. After all, if you sell the goose for a million dollars and it dies a week later, you’ve made out like a bandit.

    1. Zak McKracken says:

      This.
      I think the investors don’t know about golden eggs, or at least don’t think that any goose can be expected to keep laying them, and so they decide to fatten it a bit, then eat it.

      In other words: They put some money in, in return for a lot of money back out. And because the company won’t be able to meet the conditions of the investment indefinitely, they’ll effectively get everything the company’s worth. Then it’s on to the next one.

  20. Vinsomer says:

    To me, the episodic nature definitely hurt them. I’ve never bought a Telltale game before it was finished, simply because I don’t want to have to wait months on end between episodes. At that point, I no longer remember or care about the story, which is pretty bad for a product marketed on its story.

    So not only do the low prices of sales encourage people to wait, but the actual episodic nature itself encourages people to wait for those same reductions. Even for their most popular game, TWD, how many paid $40 (or whatever the price was at release) for it?

    If you’re going to make a game with a new content delivery method, you have to observe the way people play games already – and you have every metric available to do so. People don’t play a couple hours then leave for months, then another few hours then another absence of months.

    1. Yeah, the episodic structure thing was weird. It was a wart, a legacy of Telltale having been founded right at the mid-2000s moment when everybody thought episodic gaming was going to be the Next Big Thing — Valve’s aborted attempt to turn Half-Life 2 into an episodic franchise came at around the same time. But while everybody else figured out pretty quickly that episodic structure wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, Telltale doggedly held onto it for another decade-plus, right up to the end.

      (If it’s true that their aging engine goes back to their beginnings, it’s possible that their writers would have loved to abandon episodic structure but it was baked too deeply into the engine for anyone to work around.)

      1. Vinsomer says:

        A part of me still thinks episodic gaming can work. The idea isn’t bad, just the execution. Episodes that are too short with too far between them is a common feature among more or less every one.
        But then a part of me looks at pretty much every episodic game and thinks it would have been better as a single experience. And with the prevalence of Netflix, where entire seasons get uploaded at once.
        The only games I think should have been episodic and weren’t are Dragon Age 2 and Metal Gear Solid 5, because the former needed time to expand its world (‘expand’ in every sense of the word) and the latter needed to focus its world around the narrative chapters more than open world repetition.

  21. I read that Steamspy chart slightly differently than you do.

    This is a company that had one basic type of game they made over and over again. What I see in the chart is that there is a pretty small core audience for that type of game, but they managed to turn out one huge hit (Walking Dead S1) that brought them a whole bunch of new customers from outside that core audience. Those new customers then kept coming back, looking for another dose of what they’d loved in the game that introduced them to Telltale. But the people who’d made that big hit special all left after it shipped, so to the non-core audience, the magic was gone. So what you see in the chart is those non-core customers gradually giving up on Telltale and sloughing away. Some held on longer than others, but by the time Minecraft: Story Mode came out they were all gone, and sales had reverted back to the tiny core audience.

    It’s astonishing how shortsighted Telltale were being by letting the people who made their one big hit get away.

  22. Another Matt says:

    The article seems to conclude that the problem was declining quality of games, but is there any actual evidence that was the case?

    I mean, I do fundamentally agree with a lot of the core principles you are sharing here (perma-crunch is bad, make sure to retain good writers, etc), but… it seems like you’ve simply invented something new to the narrative (“These games declined in quality”) in order to justify the points you wanted to make, without anything to indicate that was actually an issue.

    Isn’t it possible the problem is that that style of episodic storytelling game just isn’t a popular one? That the first successes were hits in part because of the novelty of it, but that even those who liked that product weren’t invested enough to keep up with the later episodes (much less future games)? And that the cost-cutting measures the company kept implementing were attempts to remain profitable while hoping for another big hit like their early success?

    I don’t know for sure either way – I’ve never played their games. They always sounded like cool ideas and great properties, but a style of gameplay I wasn’t interested in. But it seems to be adding insult to injury to say, “The company failed because all the writers now suck”, just to fit a specific narrative, without any specific proof.

    The people who were working there until the end were proud of their work and believed they were making good games. They were still getting very solid reviews. There wasn’t any sort of industry discussion about a decline in quality. They just weren’t selling on the scale of the first games.

    I don’t know if the issue was trying to pursue unsustainable growth. Looking at that chart, I’d be much more inclined to say it was trying to stay at the level of those first big hits. If they saw the success of those early games, and made all their calculations about profit and costs based on that, and then the future games just never reached those levels – despite a similar investment of resources, using other popular properties and licenses, – then there probably wasn’t any way for the company to survive.

  23. Abnaxis says:

    I did definitely notice a drop in quality in Telltale games, but I always chalked up to the property owners. From my limited sample of the Game of Thrones game, both Walking Dead games, and the Borderlands game, Gearbox was the smallest name that made the best game. I still think Tales From The Borderlands is the best of the crop, even including the big first season of The Walking Dead.

    Maybe Tales From the Borderlands was just small enough that the employees were actually allowed to properly work on it?

  24. MadTinkerer says:

    It’s kind-of a shame that The Walking Dead did so well that it changed the company’s direction. I certainly like TWD season 1, but I actually like Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People even more. I know it’s kind of apples and bicycles to compare the game of this with the game of this, but that’s my opinion. (For the record, I have not seen the TV series at all but I really liked the Walking Dead comic as well as Homestarrunner.com. So I was predisposed to like both games.)

    With three Sam & Max seasons, they didn’t really need to make another one of those. As for Telltale’s Monkey Island and SBCGFAP, I wouldn’t mind more of them but what we got was good enough that I’m not starving for more. But then a SERIOUS DRAMATIC series goes and outsells all of their wacky fun series that came before and we never get another wacky fun series to contrast with the SERIOUS DRAMATIC stuff. Yes, there’s some comic relief in the SERIOUS DRAMATIC stuff, but never any wacky funtimes again after Poker Night 2. I think that’s why I stopped paying attention to Telltale.

    I actually own Tales From the Borderlands and TWD season 2 and I still haven’t played either of them.

  25. Matt Downie says:

    “I loved the first season of The Walking Dead, but I never got around to playing season two. Likewise, I never tried any of their other games.”
    Sounds like a couple of million other people did the same. Maybe this was their biggest problem – they went all-in on a concept which worked as a novelty but lacked long-term appeal

    1. C__ says:

      That’s why Netflix spend put so many effort to have Adam Sandler movies in their catalog (or if you like him, take any other kind of movie that you consider low quality) but not, let’s say, Singing in the Rain (at least not in my country catalog, but i hope that you did got my point). They know that on social networks and even for friends, everyone will say that they like Citizen Kane or Schindler’s List, but in the comfort of their couch when there is no one looking, what people really watch is Grown Ups 5 or something like this.

      The same thing seems to happen to Telltale. Walking Dead season 1? Incredible game, wonderful, great characters, great choices! Video games totally need games like that! Oh, if I’m going to buy more of this? Well, not really, another Generic Shooter Guy will come out this year and after this is Specific Sport 2k18 season… but they totally keep doing games like this!

      1. Nimrandir says:

        I’d be more inclined to point at experiences like mine. For reference, I was recommended Season 1 of the Walking Dead by a friend, thought the concept was neat, but didn’t finish the free episode due to massive zombie-apocalypse fatigue. Then I saw a Game of Thrones series and was intrigued by a different (and hopefully zombie-light) setting.

        I was pretty enthralled, and I broke out the game next time my wife was in the room. We generally approach in-game dialogue choices pretty differently, so I was excited to see what changed. The answer was . . . pretty much nothing. The same general plot unfolded, with the same character bleeding out at the end, despite our different choices.

        At that point, the spell was kinda broken. All that remained to hold my attention was the strength of the plot and writing, and while I’d contend those are better than average for video games, the fact that I still haven’t played two episodes speaks to the aftermath.

  26. Nimrandir says:

    Is it sad, telling, or both that my reaction to this news was, “You know, I never downloaded the last episode of Game of Thrones. I should probably go do that before it disappears from the storefront”?

    1. Mephane says:

      If you’ve bought it already, you will always be able to download it regardless whether Steam still sells it.

      1. Nimrandir says:

        This was on my PS3, so I’m not sure if it plays by the same rules. I remember my Xbox 360 having a ‘download history’ I had to use to retrieve a game which was no longer on sale, but since I hadn’t actually downloaded the episode yet (I bought the season pass after playing the freebie first episode), that workaround wouldn’t necessarily be available.

  27. Jason says:

    I own almost all of the Telltale games, except for some of the newer ones, but I haven’t played most of them. I’ve played The Walking Dead Season 1, and the first episodes of Sam & Max Season 1, Strong Bad, Back to the Future and Monkey Island.
    I enjoy them, but they get a little boring. Near the end of Walking Dead I was getting so sick of Kenny that I was just making whatever choice would piss him off more.
    I’m sad to see them go and I’m surprised as well. It just shows that crappy management can kill any company.

  28. Xander77 says:

    I realize you’re deeply committed to the (obviously fallacious) notion that good games will sell well, but you have to be extremely deluded to pretend this is somehow the lesson here.

    Good stories / bad stories are the least of Tellatale’s management issues, and the least of factors in how their games sold.

    1. Shamus says:

      There were actually 7 points in this article. I know it’s hard, but you really should have read them all before writing this comment.

      1. Another Matt says:

        Right, but the final conclusion (“It’s almost as if quality matters.”) is emphasizing that point as the downfall of the company. Giving that you made that the core of the conclusion, it doesn’t seem unreasonable for people to comment on it. (And yeah, I get that he called you names first. Is responding with equal disdain really the best way to respond?)

        Especially since I think there might be something to his underlying point. Has there been anything to actually indicate that the interest in these properties faded because the quality dropped off?

        Just going from your own personal experience – having interest initially, enjoying what you saw of it, but not actually being invested enough in that style of gameplay enough to continue – the real issue was an unsustainable genre (at least not on the scale they were trying to operate).

        And many of those problematic working conditions could well be due to trying to keep an unsustainable model going as long as possible. It’s like deciding the cause of a murder before conducting the autopsy, and then making sure the autopsy reveals the exact conclusions you already wanted to arrive at. Sure, it does make for a good statement that fits with points you’ve made in the past. But people trust your opinion, and will share it. Does it really serve any good to add insult to injury for the people who were suffering at Telltale, just to fit the narrative you want?

  29. Dreadjaws says:

    They stuck to a given style of gameplay and didn’t stupidly chase trends like online shooters, Battle Royale games, loot boxes, or any of the other fads that have pulled teams off course with the false promise of easy money.

    This is a bit of a double edged sword, though. Not following trends is fine, but sticking to doing only one thing is only a good idea if a) that thing is popular enough and b) you’re exceptional at it, and neither of those things were true for Telltale. Graphical adventures are still a bit of a niche genre. Even the best selling of them all cannot compare to the sales of a mediocre sports game or shooter. Meanwhile, as much as I enjoy their characters and stories, the gameplay in Telltale games is lackluster and completely devoid of innovation.

    Please take note that back when the adventure genre was actually popular, the companies that made money off them (such as LucasArts) still innovated with every entry and also delivered other products. Hell, even today, companies that deliver games with even less innovation (such as EA and, say, Madden) have other avenues of income. Not even bothering in creating experience in other genres is not the best of ideas for a game developer. Yes, Telltale has tried a couple other games (poker and puzzle), but they’ve largely ignored them in the last few years.

    Other thing to keep in mind is that (again, leaving aside those poker and puzzle games) their products are licensed, and those licenses don’t come cheap. Yet rather than waiting until they made sure their income is at least steady, they just kept acquiring more and more licenses. It’s frankly puzzling that they’ve lasted this long.

    1. RFS-81 says:

      Could you link some timeline for innovations in adventure games? I like them, but I couldn’t even read when Monkey Island came out. My first one was Discworld Noir (which was also my introduction to Terry Pratchet), so I don’t really have much of an idea of how the genre evolved.

      1. Dreadjaws says:

        Well, I don’t have any links I can think of, but I can tell you from what I’ve seen. From taking a look at just the entries from LucasArts, it’s clear that every new game they published came with at least something of an innovation.

        Maniac Mansion was the one that introduced the SCUMM control system, for instance, and had a choice of multiple characters with different abilities. Its sequel, Day of the Tentacle, played with the idea of playing with different characters in different time eras to change things along for your benefit (i.e. cut a tree in the past with one character and it’s no longer trapping another character in the future, and so on). Sam & Max introduced a minimalistic control scheme and quality cartoon-style animations. The Indiana Jones games played a lot with branching paths and different outcomes. Monkey Island got rid of character death and injected much-needed humor into the genre.

        Then there are the subtler changes. Puzzles became increasingly streamlined to make sure they were less frustrating and depending less on ridiculous leaps on logic. Controls were made tighter, character movement got faster, icons replaced words for inventory items, minigames started to get included, etc. And that’s leaving aside other advances in technology, like 3D animation, voice acting and such. The bottomline is: they weren’t just content with taking the exact same gameplay and give it a new coat of paint every time, unlike Telltale did.

        1. Matthew Downie says:

          Another important adventure innovation: the idea that there should be no unwinnable states where you miss an item early on and there’s no way to go back for it and several hours later you get stuck and you have no idea why.

  30. RFS-81 says:

    One Telltale employee is trying to bring a class-action lawsuit. Apparently, a thing called the WARN act applies which forbids layoffs without notice.

    https://www.polygon.com/2018/9/25/17901106/telltale-layoffs-lawsuit-warn-act

    1. Joshua says:

      I’ve gotten one of those before. :)

  31. Joshua says:

    One of my *favorite* working experiences was dealing with managers who were busy with meetings all day (even when you could really, really use their guidance on a task) and then liked to come around at the end of the day and do pow-wows with everyone on the team because they were suddenly glad to be free from their required meetings so they could start their own. It’s 6:00, and I’ve been here since 8:00. I really, really don’t want to do a 30-45 minute meeting at that point in the day.

    For one particular boss, we later guessed that one of the reasons he was gone earlier in the day was because he would go home (he lived 5-10 minutes away) to take a nap after lunch, and would thus work until 8 or later. Which is great for him if wants to stretch out his workday like that, but wasn’t fair for the team.

  32. Cubic says:

    It’s almost as if quality matters. Telltale started off with a brilliant team and then after those people left the company, management just kept hiring people (for below-industry standard wages) … Telltale didn’t “die”. They committed suicide.

    Tough situation. Assuming they were smart enough to try to hire new top quality guys, what were their chances? How many top guys are there in the field?

  33. Cubic says:

    “Perma-crunch” is just exploitation. Compute the overtime and all the rest and see what your hourly wage really would be in a real profession. But then, the game industry has been like that forever, hasn’t it? And to some extent relies on it.

    Invoking ‘crunchtime’ should really deduct the extra time/costs from management bonuses, because it’s a management failure. Yet somehow it doesn’t. Hmmm.

  34. C__ says:

    I wonder how much Telltale did not work with their own IPs contributed to this situation

  35. MichaelG says:

    Did you mean “the amount of education experience and education you demand” or “education and experience”?

  36. camycamera says:

    It’s almost as if quality matters. Telltale started off with a brilliant team and then after those people left the company, management just kept hiring people (for below-industry standard wages) and growing the company despite the complete lack of interest in their products.

    Hmmm, I don’t think that is entirely true. You owe it to yourself to play The Wolf Among Us and Tales from The Borderlands if you haven’t already because they are just as good as TWDs1. Despite TWDs1 writers leaving afterwards, they still managed to churn out those two games. They are the higher-selling games according to that chart because of word of mouth about how good they were, so there is some truth to “quality sells”, but TWDs1 sold as much as it did for reasons I’ll get into later.

    I think the biggest factor to TT’s demise was stretching themselves way, way too thin, which strangled the potential to churn out more high-quality products. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised that the reason the other games didn’t sell as many copies as TWDs1 was that TT was also releasing so many other games at the same time, rather than having this one game that everyone is focused on. Couple that with continuing to use the same outdated engine that probably turned many people off because the games all started to feel the same.

    Plus, it’s kinda baffling that a studio that makes these sorts of games would hire that many people. They really should’ve just scaled way the hell down and stuck to trying to make one game as high a quality as TWDs1 to follow up on or something. The reason why TWDs1 blew up so much also was that TWD show was at the height of its popularity at the time too, and doing a sort-of tie-in game in the style of TT’s games wasn’t if at all common. The game actually being really good and having a very compelling narrative also helped, but it was propped up by the show in the first place.

    TT should’ve known that they probably wouldn’t reach the same sort of success any time soon because of all this. They managed to make 2 games that were just as amazing, but then they just had to stretch themselves so much and released so many games that ranged between “good/okay” to “mediocre”. Especially since these games are heavily reliant on their narratives, you can’t really churn out this many narrative-based games and not have the writers favour working on one thing over another, which is probably why tWAU and TftBL were that good. Plus all of that other stuff about underpaid/overworked employees…. agh. Anyway. It’s too bad, RIP TT. Hope the ex-developers find jobs soon.

  37. Jeff says:

    There’s something wrong with your new site layout, which may not have been noticed until now because of sheer luck.

    It seems like the little pop-up superscripts always open to the right, and on this article on this Firefox browser it so happens that both are on the far right of the article – so clicking on them ends up with an illegible one-character wide yellow box.

    Maximizing my window allows it to be read, but it looks like the yellow box is sized so that the left edge is the number you click on and the right edge is the side of the window. Which doens’t work if the comment is on the right-most word of the article.

  38. Wiseman says:

    But Shamus, you don’t review games!

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