While it’s always a sad day when a game studio closes and people lose their jobs, the industry was rocked yesterday by the shocking news that interactive fiction giant Telltale was suddenly shutting down, laying off 250 employees while a skeleton crew remained to tie up a few lose ends.
It’s a devastating story, one that everyone will by trying to puzzle out for a long while now, as most employees, including Telltale’s own PR rep doesn’t seem to have any clue as to what actually happened here. The surprise shut down has resulted in these 250 employees getting laid off without any severance, health care that runs out in a week, and no idea how they’re able to stay in the Bay Area, some of whom recently relocated with their families to get there.
Fans and industry players have rallied around the workers, and studio after studio has been sending out notices for available jobs at places like Sony Santa Monica, Naughty Dog, Gearbox and more, so hopefully the talented Telltale staff will end up better places when all is said and done. But the interim is bound to be terrifying.
This has been such a sudden development that it’s thrown the state of essentially every ongoing Telltale project into disarray. Some things are obvious, like Telltale’s Game of Thrones and The Wolf Among Us not getting new seasons. The upcoming Stranger Things game has been cancelled. But now there’s word that The Walking Dead Season 4, the conclusion of Clementine’s story, may not even see its final two chapters released because of how fully and totally Telltale has been gutted. This is infuriating fans, many of whom not only paid for the full set of chapters, but also clearly want to see how Clementine’s tale ends after beginning the journey in 2012, six years ago.
Reportedly, the only project that a tiny crew of 25 or so will remain working on is the Minecraft: Story Mode game they were making for Netflix, which appears to be a contractual obligation they have to fulfil or risk the wrath of the streaming giant.
What exactly happened to Telltale? That’s a question that’s going to be asked for weeks and months to come. The obvious answer is that the games just were not selling well. Supposedly very few Telltale games have actually ended up profitable. For me personally, while I loved the idea of Telltale games and early entries like The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead Season 1, waiting eons for new episodes was exhausting to the point where I just waited for full seasons to be out before buying, if I bought them at all. And eventually, it became somewhat clear that these games weren’t really evolving in meaningful ways, either from a storytelling or gameplay perspective, as your choices, no matter what they were, always seemed to lead you down the same path no matter what, for the most part.
But besides the flagging popularity of the model, back in March, The Verge published a scorching piece about how Telltale’s “toxic management” cost the studio its best developers. Here’s an excerpt:
“Some managers would try to alleviate the pain of crunch by supplying overtime workers with food or alcohol, “token gestures” sources say were an effort to make the process as comfortable as possible. “They were putting a Band-Aid on a wound that had been there for years,” the source says. “They were just trying to get their job done right now, but nobody was looking long-term and being like, ‘This is unsustainable.’”
As it turns out, it was indeed unsustainable.
It always felt like Telltale was taking on just way too many projects. The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Game of Thrones, Guardians of the Galaxy, Borderlands, Minecraft, Batman, Stranger Things. All since 2012. The appeal of landing these IPs was attractive, no doubt, but it was just too much.
This is a very, very sad situation for Telltale’s talented staff, who deserved better. And fans will be disappointed they won’t finish their favorite series with this abrupt ending. What a total mess.
Follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Read my new sci-fi novel HEROKILLER, which combines my love of fighting games and action movies. I also wrote The Earthborn Trilogy.
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