Five lessons we can take away from Telltale's tragic implosion

Five lessons we can take away from Telltale's tragic implosion

At the end of September, California-based narrative game specialists Telltale laid off 90 per cent of its staff and there are reports now that the company has closed entirely.

There are numerous reasons that the company folded and no doubt we'll be hearing more of what was going on behind the scenes in the coming weeks and months.

But for the time being, we feel it's a good idea to look at the company and what lessons can be taken away from its demise - based on what we know right now.

This isn't intended as some writer saying they know best and how easily certain mistakes could be made. Rather, the aim here is to take away some lessons so that so many people don't lose their jobs in one fell swoop again.

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  • 1 Don't exclusively work on other people's IP

    Though not the studio's first game by any stretch of the imagination, The Walking Dead is undeniably the release that put Telltale on the map. From that point onwards, the California-based narrative game developer became the go-to- place for interesting takes on existing IP.

    After that point, Telltale released games based on the Fables IP - what became The Wolf Among Us - Minecraft, Batman, Game of Thrones, Guardians of the Galaxy, Borderlands with projects based other Marvel titles set to launch in the future.

    Within years, Telltale was working on some of the biggest IP in popular culture right now - it was being trusted to put its stamp on the likes of TV's biggest show in Game of Thrones and some of Marvel's stable of IP.

    And while this looks like a success story, in retrospect the cracks in Telltale's corporate strategy start to appear. Though it was bringing its take on some of the world's biggest entertainment franchise's to the video games space, that was all it had. While the company did have its own IP, such as Puzzle Agent, this wasn't an area invested in much once The Walking Dead kicks off the studio's meteoric growth.

    Had Telltale had a more balanced portfolio between other companies' IP and its own, it would have been a more enticing proposition when on the hunt for ash to keep it afloat. But as it stands, Telltale had nothing in the way of value when it came to intellectual property which - sadly - when on the hunt for investment is more or less the name of the game.

  • 2 Be careful to manage your commitments - and your expansion

    As said earlier, The Walking Dead was the game that took Telltale to the big leagues, with the firm taking on a massive number of projects in the years that follow.

    When The Walking Dead launched, Telltale employed in the region of 125 staff. When we spoke to the company at Gamescom 2017, its headcount stood at around 400.

    That might sound like a huge expansion, but when you look at the sheer number of games Telltale was working on, it's actually a tiny figure. And though there was little evolution in the gameplay, this was limited with consumers complaining that there wasn't enough iteration between titles. Simply put - the perception was that Telltale was stretched and sticking to what worked when it came to new IP.

    This resulted in what appears to be a toxic working culture, characterised by "constant overwork, toxic management and creative stagnation".

    Staff at the firm were stretched beyond imagination with Telltale failing to manage its expansion. Employees at the time described a gang mentality at the development outfit, with different teams not sharing knowledge. The company appears to have done an exceptionally poor job of growing its corporate culture as it expanded its staff base.

  • 3 Think about what you are saying

    This is a short an obvious point - but when you're putting out messaging, there's a certain way to say things. For example, when your company goes bust and you're trying to communicate what's going on, saying that staff have all been laid off, but you are going to be fulfilling obligations to shareholders and investors is - pardon my French - a really shit look.

    The reality is this situation is true of many game companies. Investors and shareholders have put their money in the trust of Telltale and the studio has certain obligations as a result. But saying all this very publicly while also not giving your staff redundancy packages is - again, pardon my French - fucking terrible. 

    Emotions are understandably running incredibly high when people are losing their jobs - both from the employees themselves and the wider industry who were hugely invested in the company succeeding. 

    TL;DR - Just think about what you are saying and how it is going to be perceived. 

  • 4 It's important to constantly invest in your underlying tech

    One issue that appears to have held back Telltale's commercial success was its technology.

    Since 2004, the studio has more or less been using the same engine, the Telltale Tool. This has been updated - getting a massive overhaul in 2016 - but by that point, the firm had released 27 games with the tech over the course of 12 years. Consumers complained about the lack of innovation and a number of graphical quirks that showed that the engine wasn't fit for the task required.

    Not only that, but in an era where engines such as Unity and Unreal are widely used by smaller companies across the industry, having properiety tech at a company that is rapidly growing and trying to put out content across multiple platforms seems like a strange investment.

    There were reports earlier this year that the company had decided to adopt Unity, with the leaked Stranger Things project being the first to use this tech.

    Not only would investing in its tech been a smart idea from a working culture and commercial standpoint - making it easier to make games that kept up with the wants and needs of a demanding audience - it could have also provided value for the company. Same with IP, investors are also interested in tech and patents. If Telltale had an amazing and up-to-date engine that could have also been a point of value. Hell, the firm could have even licensed out its tech for other companies.

  • 5 Developers need some for of collective bargaining

    Perhaps the biggest lesson to come out of Telltale's implosion is the need for people making games to have some form of collective bargaining, even if that isn't a union.

    For too long developers have been seen as a disposable workforce, dropped from projects the moment they are not needed and having worked with little to no job security. Whether we like to admit it or not, our industry is run by the money men. The interests of shareholders and investors time and time again are put ahead of the those of the staff making the game.

    How many games have launched in February or March lacking polish, but forced out of the gate to ensure a company hits their fiscal Q4 targets? How many developers have worked ridiculous hours, sleeping under their desk and neglecting other aspects of their lives so a game makes it out of the gate? How many developers have been rewarded for their hard work by being laid off once a project is done?

    To see the beneficial effects of a union, look no further than the voice actors strike last year. Talent wasn't making the money nor was it getting the insight to make their work the best they could be. Thanks to the SAG-AFTRA union, they were able to negotiate better terms. Unions have been successfully demonised around the world, but they absolutely can be a force for good - and they can improve the working conditions of overworked employees.

PCGamesInsider Contributing Editor

Alex Calvin is a freelance journalist who writes about the business of games. He started out at UK trade paper MCV in 2013 and left as deputy editor over three years later. In June 2017, he joined Steel Media as the editor for new site In October 2019 he left this full-time position at the company but still contributes to the site on a daily basis. He has also written for, VGC, Games London, The Observer/Guardian and Esquire UK.