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A Telltale Sign of Financial Insecurity

Telltale Games — there’s no denying that they had a significant impact on the popularity of narrative-driven games. Famous for their The Walking Dead series and The Wolf Among Us games, Telltale crafted a unique episodic form of storytelling that emphasized the importance of the player’s choices. The company specialized in branching storylines and provided a greater degree of agency to the player, allowing their choices to affect later plot points and character relationships. Their games had served as a source of inspiration for many — myself included — and at one point were a bright narrative light in an industry populated with first-person shooter games like CS:GO. Innovative in their storytelling and true to their comic book-like style, Telltale had revitalized the public’s love of longer-form narrative games.

Unfortunately, in a statement released on Sept. 21, Telltale announced that they were beginning “a majority studio closure following a year marked by insurmountable challenges.” The layoffs left 90 percent of the company’s employees jobless and without severance pay — that’s over 200 people suddenly left without work and with zero financial support. While the game industry is not particularly stable, these mass layoffs came as a shock to Telltale fans and employees alike.

According to CEO Pete Hawley, a big factor in the company’s demise was their increasing financial insecurity.

“It’s been a difficult year for Telltale as we worked to set the company on a new course. Unfortunately, we ran out of time trying to get there," Hawley said to IGN. "We released some of our best content this year and received a tremendous amount of positive feedback, but ultimately, that did not translate to sales.”

But financial insecurity seems more like a symptom than the real issue; perhaps a more likely cause for the decrease in sales may be the success of video game YouTubers — “Let’s Players” — and a detrimental departure from Telltale’s usual narrative style.

Telltale’s first The Walking Dead series was a massive success. Consisting of four “episodes,” each with a few hours of gameplay, the game incorporated elements of the popular TV series while it crafted an entirely new story. Rather than retell the story of the TV show, the game instead took inspiration from The Walking Dead comics, an inspiration that is visible in both the story and the art style of the game. To add an element of individuality to the game, a major device used was player agency: there are particular moments in the story where the player must make an important choice, which will significantly affect the rest of the game’s plot. Because of this mechanic, no two playthroughs were exactly the same.

As their success grew, the company grew as well, and they began to regularly churn out games. However, customers have complained that the newer games have lost touch with the beloved “choice” mechanic, where player’s choices don’t actually have any significant impact on the rest of the game. Each player would eventually end up with the same story, no matter what choice they made in their playthroughs, and fewer people would purchase the game. Instead, playthroughs on YouTube grew increasingly popular — if every story would be the same, why buy the game if they can watch it play out for free? These two factors and the increased uniformity of the games might have declined sales, placing Telltale into financial trouble.

However, on Sept. 25, four days after the mass layoff, the company made an announcement.

“Multiple potential partners have stepped forward to express interest in helping to see The Walking Dead: The Final Season through to completion," Telltale stated. "While we can’t make any promises today, we are actively working towards a solution that will allow episodes 3 and 4 to be completed and released in some form.”

This initially seems positive, but this statement just added fuel to the fire. Former employees and fans were angered that Telltale would outsource developers to finish a product, yet fail to provide financial support for workers who had developed the game for years. It’s incredibly difficult — nearly impossible — to hire on a brand-new team to finish a product where the previous development team left off. Many of Telltale’s employees have developed the series since the beginning, pouring their voices and personalities into their work. Outsourcing game developers won’t result in a game similar to the ones they’ve already produced and enforces the idea that game devs are replaceable — that their voices and creative work aren’t distinguishable from another’s. In a field that depends heavily on a cohesive and creative vision, this false hope is insulting to both the 200+ employees they laid off, and to their customer base as well.

Adding to the controversy, it was revealed that Telltale’s workers were incredibly overworked and mistreated during their employment.

Hannah Bradshaw Lozier, a former employee, stated via Twitter, “Everyone was underpaid at Telltale, but programmers who could’ve gotten six-figure jobs elsewhere took anywhere from a $30k to $60k per year PAY CUT to come work for us.”

They had repeatedly asked their employees to overperform and work past “reasonable limits,” creating a toxic stress culture without any sort of compensation. Various former employees have also spoken on the constant overload of work, with some employees working extended hours without overtime pay, sometimes devoting over 100 hours per week to push a product to the end of the development chain. While unfortunately not an uncommon practice, the reveal opened the public’s eyes to labor issues within the gaming industry.

But not all is lost for the former Telltale employees: in a big movement on Twitter, game companies big and small came to the rescue of the 200+ jobless individuals, posting job openings and reaching out to Telltale alums. Links to GoFundMes, Twitch streams, and other donation channels popped up by the tens, a testament to the strong support from the gaming community for the creators of the stories they loved and the incredible networking opportunities social media can provide.

Telltale Games was a significant figure in the game industry, but its downfall is a telltale sign that something in the game industry needs to change to avoid further mistreatment.