The Tragic Tale of Telltale: Part I

For a while, they seemed unstoppable. The small indie company that could, formed from the ashes of LucasArts downsizing in their gaming department. Telltale Games and their familiar episodic platform were some of the most popular games on the market, relying on storytelling and big-name licenses to push them to the top. Then, on a cool September night, 90 per cent of the developing staff found themselves locked out of the studio without so much as a warning and Telltale Games announced they soon would be closing their doors for good.

So how did we get here? And what does it mean for the gaming industry as a whole?

 Ironically, the founders of telltale now rely on actual poker games for funding // All rights reserved to telltale GameS

Ironically, the founders of telltale now rely on actual poker games for funding // All rights reserved to telltale GameS

First, some backstory. As said, Telltale Games was started by a team of developers led by Kevin Bruner, Dan Connors, and Troy Molander, who found themselves without work following LucasArts’ 2004 downsizing. They quickly agreed to a licensing deal with Jeff Smith’s Bone comic book series, and used the proceeds from their first release, 2005’s Telltale Texas Hold’em, to fund Bone: Out of Boneville—developed almost entirely to test out their idea of creating episodic video games. Not long afterwards, Steve Purcell offered the company the rights to his Sam & Max characters, of which the head developers at Telltale had become familiar with during their time at LucasArts. Sam & Max: Season One was the first example of an episodic game being a success, and gave credence to the idea that a company rooted in such games could be a realization.

They garnered so much success that Ubisoft recruited Telltale to co-develop their CSI properties, which at the time was one of the most popular series on television. That series ran for 4 games which, while developed using the episodic blueprint, were released as single collective games. This was the start of what would become a trademark for Telltale: buying up as many properties as they could get their hands on, and using that pre-existing fame to piggyback to prosperity.

 Bigby and Colin are currently available for birthday parties and bar mitzvahs // all rights reserved to telltale games

Bigby and Colin are currently available for birthday parties and bar mitzvahs // all rights reserved to telltale games

Telltale soon found themselves with other major acquisitions, including Back to the Future and Jurassic Park as their 2007 acquisitions. In particular, Back to the Future: The Game was such a rousing triumph that the company was able to expand its staff from 90 to 140. With a larger roster on hand, Telltale wasted no time garnering even more franchises, from comic book series in The Walking Dead and Batman to fellow gaming titles Borderlands and Minecraft, and even coming into possession of the uber-popular Game of Thrones franchise. It was the Walking Dead titles that pushed Telltale from a small company into one of the most noteworthy developing companies; the first game, published in 2011, sold one million copies in only 20 days on its way to winning Spike’s 2012 Video Game of the Year award. The follow-up hit A Wolf Among Us (based on characters from the Fables comic book series) solidified the company’s place as a video game powerhouse.

From that point on, Telltale sat comfortably on top of the video game world…until 2016. It was then that rumours first started on the internet. Some said that the amount of capital that Telltale had to put down upfront in acquiring their licenses had handcuffed the company, and what they thought would be a sure fire hit in Batman: The Telltale Series was such a colossal flop that the developers were forced to work in “crunch time”— essentially overtime without all the perks — on all the other upcoming titles to push them out sooner and make up for the loss.

 actual photo of a telltale developer’s reaction when asked to work 100-hour weeks for no extra benefits // all rights reserved to telltale games

actual photo of a telltale developer’s reaction when asked to work 100-hour weeks for no extra benefits // all rights reserved to telltale games

In November 2017, the company laid off 90 of its 250 employees due to what they labelled as “mismanagement issues.” More reports would come out in early 2018 that some of the lead developers in the company grew tired of what they deemed a toxic work environment and announced their resignation. The effects of those walkouts—and the truth of the work environment—wouldn’t be known until September 21st, just under 14 years after the company started. It was then we learned the fate of Telltale: the last of their investors had pulled out and they are now facing a class-action lawsuit in regards to breaking labor laws, something the company founders have yet to address as they have gone on a total media blackout. All future projects, including the highly anticipated sequels to The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, have been cancelled, with a skeleton crew of 25 staff sticking around to finish a Minecraft project for Netflix before the company closes its doors for good.

Some may scoff at the claims and point to the fall of Telltale as a one-off, an isolated incident in an otherwise booming industry. But the truth is that the things that led to the debacle at Telltale, from the work environment to their business practices, are much more common than you would think.


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 Alex Lough

Once described as “The perfect amount of straight forward”, Alex is a 2nd-year student in Algonquin College’s Professional Writing program, with hopes of becoming a screenwriter in the future.