Telltale Games laid off 250 employees today and all of their upcoming projects are canceled except for a second episode of the new Walking Dead (although the season will remain unfinished) and a Minecraft game. It’s sad. Those games were one of the few I still bought and played.
I hate to say it, but this was probably a long time coming. They got too greedy after the huge success of the first season of the Walking Dead and started to churn out a lot of licenced games, with middling success. They also stuck with the same engine for all this time, giving their games the reputation of being riddled with performance issues and bugs.
I also think, and I hate to say this, that let’s plays probably cost them a huge amount of money. The games didn’t have that much gameplay to begin with and the story choices were, in the end, pretty shallow that most potential customers were probably content to just watch the story on Twitch or YouTube.
Dang it! I was really looking forward to the new season of WD.
I wonder if they’ll sell their licenses of to other companies?
Lots of story-heavy games LP on YouTube, including visual novels which have even less gameplay–and Telltale games were often cheaper than those. I don’t think LPing had a significant impact. It was just buying up all those licenses.
I’d be sadder if they hadn’t already stopped making the game style I most liked from them: the classic adventure game. Interactive movies in a crappy engine weren’t my thing.
Also trying to recapture the magic of TWD1 and failing, and the writing’s quality steadily dropping.
Also also, and perhaps most importantly : ultra-toxic management and budgeting. If you’re interested, the stories are out there, but basically the CEO was a huge turd, the company was in perma-crunch time mode (driving away most of the talent that could find jobs elsewhere), the team leads acted like divas… all in all it sounds like it really was a bad place to work. Apparently it’s not even a good place to get fired from, as the employees were all laid off overnight without warning or severance.
The game industry is well-known for poor planning by management forcing bad choices during development. The writing quality of telltale games never matched TWD s1, but they had other problems too; the telltale engine was slow/out-dated, gameplay was basic, the illusion of choice was oft broken (and over-hyped).
The best thing about telltale is that the success of TWD s1 kicked off a new generation of Adventure Games (Life is Strange, Night in the woods, Firewatch, A Way Out, etc) without the old “moon logic.” I did enjoy the Wolf Among Us thou.
Me too. That and Walking Dead. Everything else I played by them was “meh”. So I’m not sure how sad I am; I loved the concept of the games and I really loved two of the ones they made but everything else seemed to phone it in and looked like they were banking on the appeal of the name (Borderlands, Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy). I guess that since they made the genre popular it’s probably time for them to get out of the way and let better developers make those kinds of games.
Well, most visual novels aren’t trying to pay off their license (since they have none) so Let’s Play videos affect them less. Obviously the main issue was going to be the license costs but anything that allows people to experience 95% of the game without paying for it is going to make the issue worse.
Telltale games had a reputation as bundle fodder on the PC. There was no reason to buy them at retail because you knew they’d wind up in a cheap bundle fairly soon. Again, not what you want when you’re trying to pay off licensing fees.
I’m of the opinion that their weird commitment to episodes was the biggest issue. Sure, it worked for TWD, but was it really necessary? ABout the only advantage was that each releases would get a little publicity and jump to the head of the Steam release news, but after the first couple of times this probably didn’t help much. It also meant that people were annoyed and impatient for the full release. Several times I passed up buying any until the full game came out, at which point I no longer had the time or attention to spare. Plus, it seems to have been absurdly, hilariously inefficient even by game-copmpany standards. Not even EA requires the kind of killing workload that Telltale reportedly had.
It has also not gone unnoticed that multiple groups that left the company went on to create profitable and critically-acclaimed works, whiel the company itself, not bad games, but certainly games with mixed reviews.
How come poor planning is a worse problem for games than it is for other software-related projects?
I liked The Wolf Among Us too. What was different about TWD1 and TWAU?
Reading this, I also bought both WD as bundles and TWAU at a Sale. I always looked at the other titles they did and was wondering how the hell they paid for these massive licences. I mean, both Batman and Guardians must have been hellishly expensive AND, in the case of Guardians, a completely strange direction for their storytelling technique.
Because the gaming industry can boast a nearly infinite pool of passionate hopefuls who’ll accept to work in horrible conditions as long as they get to work in the field (at least, until they horribly burn out) ; and unionizing is almost unheard of. That goes for artists as much as it does for game designers and code crunchers.
Perma-crunch for chump change or team leaders rotating on a monthly basis does not happen much in “serious” software dev. And while toxic managers are not exactly unheard of, they rarely fuck up the development of a photo editing app because they have a “vision” of what the app should be regardless of what their own people tell them is feasible, or smart, or works at all. It’s also rare for non-game software to be rushed out the gate with half of its features “to be patched in later” because that’s the deadline and profit margins are slim as shit and people will buy it anyways - or have already bought it (gamers themselves do bear some blame for that)
The Game Development industry has long had a serious management problem, made worse because of a number of sometimes-helpful, sometimes-harmful influences. The temptation to simply hire more warm bodies is always there, but that’s more of an enabler than a cause.
The causes of the mismanagement tend ot be what I call Hollywood Syndrome - basically, somebody trying to force a bad idea due to ego. A lot of the movers and shakers in the game development world want to do things because they want to do them, and frequently don’t concern themselves overmuch with the question of whether or not it’s actually good. And there are a lot of people who can make, or have been deeply involved with, very good games, but who aren’t really going to be quality managers.
The flip-side of this is the Corporate Syndrome. There are way too many people in the game industry who don’t think of games as media so much as a product. There’s nothing wrong with having some thoughtful, unemotional analysis going on, but like most creative endeavors, you can’t reduce games to a pure financial transaction. Companies like EA think of employees only as a resource to be used and discarded, while viewing their customers as nothing more than a wallet to be emptied as fast as possible, preferably for as little in exchange as possible. The result is that they ignore prime opportunities to build long-term brands. (EA, just as an example, has destroyed virtually every franchise its purchased, and survives almost entirely by its sports licenses.)
There’s a bit of a grey area in the middle due to the odd bit of Startup SYndrome. As with Telltale Games, we sometimes see good companies try to expand much too fast on investor money, then collapse because they simply can’t handle the workload. It takes time to build up a team successfully.
That’s exactly the same reasons why in other software fields there is a huge difference between famous companies and not (hi, I work in SAP consulting). Companies that everybody has heard of have huge pools of applicants, so they can ask that they be handsome, good dancers, so hungry for advancement they don’t just accept working 80h weeks but practically beg for it, well-connected socially and the top of their class (programmers can skip the “handsome” part, they’re kept in a cave anyway); not all big companies are like that, but way too many are. Smaller companies come in two flavors: those which want to be the big one they split from, and those who want to be as close to its opposite as humanly possible and still make enough to eat.
It sounds like much of the problem stems from size; 1) Wanting to be big whether or not it makes sense in your case 2) Being so big that you need to squeeze every last cent or get investment from people who don’t care whether they’re investing in games or commodities, it’s all about the ROI for them 3) Being too big to manage.
How useful are those 80 hour weeks to the success of the company?
Could you tell me more about the last category of companies?
For the first, it depends. If the client loves face time it makes the client happy (some love it as a matter of principle, some feel like they’re getting more of their money’s worth when people who bill by the day work illegal amounts of time). If there is an actual crunch it may mean the crunch is traversed in less days than if people had worked decent hours, but often the same result would have been obtained with an in-between amount of hours and without sending anybody to the hospital (heart attacks, gastrenteritis…). If you’re using some young buck(ette) to cover two jobs for the price of one, hey, the accountants are going to be really happy; this works best (is least likely to end up with a hospitalized employee) when one of the jobs is truly full-time and the other one is the kind of support thing where hours of waiting are followed by mad dashes of detailing what to do in a screenshot-filled email.
Too often you end up in situations where a whole team is forced to work 12x6 because one guy is behind (poor dude inherited somebody else’s horror movie), when that guy simply can’t delegate anything yet (he needs to at least figure out who the murderer is, first) and the others are just. Staring. At. The. Walls. While thinking up ways of turning the idiot boss into the next victim.
The second ones
try to minimize the amount of programming (interfaces, yes, although as few as possible and with as few other systems as possible; document layouts, yes; “I want a special screen just for me and refuse to learn how to use this thing I paid a ton of money for”, no),
actually try to exploit the system’s existing possibilities as much as possible,
joke about not being allowed to get sick but if you go down to breakfast saying “boss I feel like sh-” you’re asked “do you need a ride to the ER?” before you can finish the line,
and have bosses who know and care about their people, who know who should be leaned on when and how.
In the bad companies, bosses don’t trust their minions at all. They are looking out for number one and in “fake it till you make it, then fake it at the next level” mode, so the idea of subordinates who are actually capable and wanting to do a good job is inconceivable. In the good companies you get bosses who do things such as tell the really-fast people “slow down, you don’t want to make the internals look bad”, who then take advantage of knowing those people are fast to occasionally give them some ‘monkey work’*, and who then reward it through things such as instructions to work from home for two weeks “and no need to stay within reach of the computer”.
- Monkey work being the kind of thing that can be done by someone who isn’t an expert in whatever it is but which needs a lot of time and attention to detail, and which would therefore often be given to someone very junior. In a good team, anybody can act as anybody-else’s junior for the occasional task. I don’t know jackshit about Finance but I’ve done things such as “set up the General Ledger structure” following an Excel the actual Finance guy had prepared and a page with one screenshot and three lines of instructions.
Point1 is going to more much more common at small companies - the big ones don’t usually have room for wanna-be auteurs.
Point1 2 is more a problem of disconnected management that controls only through short-term numbers, with no consideration for the long-term viability. The games industry seems to attract this kind of thinking for some reason. EA, Activision, and Ubisoft are all prime examples of driving strong franchises into the ground and then having to build them up the hard way - or just killing a long-term asset. It’s not so much that it’s a bad return on ROI, but a willingness to completely burn something valuable for an unecessary cash infusion. The companies that do this are rarely hurting for cash.
Point 3 is about those companies who want to grow. Growth is something that usually neeeds to be carefully planned and controlled; you rarely want to try growing as fast as possible even in an internet-driven era. It’s not so much just “Being too big” as it being too big for your management capabilities.
This was evidently a huge problem at TellTale. It may well have been possible for them to grow up to the size they did organically, but jumping from <100 employees to >350 is… well, it might not be outright insane, but it’s certainly giggling uncontrollably with bulging eyes. It meant huge quality issues, lots of people running around confused, highg stress, bad orders from above, and a whole host of related issues. And that gets you more turnover, which only makes the problem worse. It’s pretty clear that regardless of who gets the blame, the TellTale studios mangement team simply was not equipped to handle that many employees or projects.
Yeah, I didn’t quite say what I meant: it’s not that it wouldn’t have any effect. It’s just that I don’t think it had an outsized effect, more than other story-based games. And that, if they’d handled this other stuff better, it would be more than offset by getting more people on board to make up for it, like is the case for most video games.
I mean, on every LP I found, the comments were always full of people who had already played the game, just like in other games.
Nava, SmilingBandidt (and others but especially you),
How do you think gaming companies could be competitive while not having toxic practices like the ones you described? I’m not suggesting it’s impossible, I just don’t know enough about the matters involved.
Most toxic practices are actually negatives from a competitive standpoint.
If you don’t pay your staff sufficiently, they leave and you are stuck with kids right out of college, and lets face it: Your games will suffer.
There are plenty of studies that show that, actually, putting in endless crunch time reduces the amount of actual work you get out of people, in addition to destroying morale and causing people to leave and making your games suffer.
It’s been shown time and time again that a company that can continue to deliver high quality games with thrive. Telltale didn’t do that. They delivered a few high quality games, then drove off all their best people and went into a downward spiral.