Telltale Games, the pioneering developer behind the revival of narrative-focused adventure games, is (or will be soon) no more. It announced the news Friday, laying off over 200 people (about 90 percent of its staff) and keeping a skeleton crew around to apparently finish up its commitments with Netflix for its STRANGER THINGS (2016-present) game. It’s not quite known what will become of THE WALKING DEAD: THE FINAL SEASON (2018), the conclusion to the amazing saga that gave the studio its cachet in 2012. But it’s clear that all other projects are cancelled, and the studio’s prolific output with beloved properties has now come to an end.
And one has to wonder if it was too much. Working with “expensive” properties like Batman, GAME OF THRONES (2011-present), and Guardians of the Galaxy, Telltale must have had some difficulties keeping profits up with its still relatively niche status. Apparently, only the first THE WALKING DEAD (2012) game and MINECRAFT: STORY MODE (2015) were financially successful for the studio. Telltale laid off 90 people in November 2017, and I noticed its output had slowed within just the past year or two after its incredible ubiquitous presence in the years following its success with THE WALKING DEAD.
I’m not sure there’s a video game precedent for a studio that rose so high and fell so fast, all in the span of just about six years. In the end, though, the studio told incredible stories, flaws and all, and I’d like to acknowledge the journey I took with my girlfriend through all three seasons of THE WALKING DEAD, where we made decisions together and theorized and freaked out together. But as former Telltale employees take to Twitter and social media to talk about not only their final moments with the studio, but also the whole experience at Telltale, I think an equal takeaway, if not more important one, is to look at the nature of video game development in 2018.
But then there have been signs for years. “Crunch” is a notorious industry practice that puts tremendous pressure on groups of hardworking individuals for 12 hour-plus days in order to churn out products growing even more complex. And I think in a way, consumers (and I’m one of them) turn a blind eye to this, if they are even invested enough to consider it at all. But Emily Grace Buck’s illuminating tweets over the weekend illustrate the human cost of video game companies’ business decisions.
Telltale employees will receive no severance, and many of its contract workers won’t qualify for unemployment. Telltale employees were told to leave the office within half an hour after the announcement of their firing and were allowed back today within a three hour window to collect their things. Telltale employees are now the subject of bizarre accusations of (I guess?) laziness for not just finishing the projects they were working on. Telltale employees put in hours and hours of work far beyond realistic human expectations. Unionization needs to come to the video game industry.
Look, I am no expert on the subject. I can’t explain logistics or really refute the economic arguments people make against unionization, except that humans are always more important than the money. This pair of tweets, a comment from Waypoint’s Austin Walker in response to a reply from Kotaku’s Jason Schreier (two people who have greatly helped me understand the issue of unionization for the video game industry), may shed some light.
But in a week that Telltale, a popular studio and brand in its own right, and Capcom Vancouver, a branch of a massive corporation that developed the well-known DEAD RISING series, closed, it’s even more relevant to consider the broken nature of video game development. And if you need it in the context of consumer value, video game unionization will only result in better games…if publishers and studios embrace it rather than fight it or use it as a tool to foist cost onto consumers. But maybe that’s what it will take. I’ll gladly pay more for a game if it means I’m supporting hardworking individuals who are creating awesome works of art in a increasingly magical medium. And I have a suspicion there are other ways to keep cost down than to treat your employees poorly. Keep up with #TelltaleJobs and #TelltaleMemories on Twitter.