What indie devs can learn from the Telltale Games shutdown
A couple of weeks ago, the gaming world was rocked by news that Telltale Games was shutting down and laying off most of its staff. A week later, the company laid off the rest of its staff it had planned to keeping on board to wrap up existing projects.
Telltale Games rose to fame thanks to its episodic story-driven games like The Walking Dead. The game reinvigorated the point-and-click adventure genre with its excellent storytelling. It was one of the few games that brought me to tears—I’ll never forget the ending of Season One when I was forced to choose to shoot or abandon my caretaker, Lee, who was infected by a zombie.
Over the past several years, Telltale was on a stratospheric rise, snapping up IPs like Batman, Game of Thrones, Minecraft, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Borderlands. The company was even in talks to create a game for the popular Netflix show Stranger Things. So, what went wrong? And more importantly, what can indie developers learn from Telltale’s closure to avoid a similar fate? Here are the major takeaways.
Adopt a people-first mentality
One of the biggest downfalls of Telltale Games was its toxic management. The company pushed its employees to work from 14 to 18 hours a day, regardless of whether or not a game was about to launch, according to sources speaking with The Verge. Long hours were the norm and employees burned out at an alarming rate.
Looking at employee reviews of Telltale Games on Glassdoor, it’s shocking how apparent its management problems were before its closure. “It’s very difficult to be heard in this company unless you are upper management,” reads an anonymous employee review.
But it wasn’t always like this. According to The Verge, “Former employees describe Telltale in its early days as a small, tight-knit group with a strong sense of camaraderie.” The turning point was the success of The Walking Dead, which forced the company to expand rapidly to a giant studio of over 300 people. The culture of camaraderie disintegrated, and employee churn made it difficult to complete projects, as new employees had to get up to speed.
Lionhead Studios, the creator of the beloved Fable games, also faced similar problems after it was acquired by Microsoft. “The studio was getting so large it felt like an entity,” said Peter Molyneux, the Creative Director of Microsoft Game Studios, Europe in 2009.
But beyond the problems of rapid expansion, Telltale never adapted to its growing size and the needs of its employees because it kept its startup/indie mentality to deal with the inevitable issues of a larger organization. The company never put into place the structure and processes that are needed to manage huge projects and large numbers of people. Instead of investing in its people and the tools they needed, Telltale kept triaging problems by piling more work on its staff.
Instead of focusing on rapid expansion, indie studios should really think about how each new hire will impact your company’s culture. Understand that you are hiring people, not soldiers for war. People have lives outside the company, and for them to produce their best work, they need to take time for themselves instead of giving everything to the job.
Managers and team leads should also have regular one-on-one meetings to check in on the problems their teams are facing and help to solve them. Is there a process that is frustrating staff? Are there communication issues with other teams? Help them find a solution, otherwise they will pile up to the point where the system can’t be fixed.
Developer East Side Games, creator of the upcoming It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia game, understands the importance of focusing on employees as people—so much so that the company has a Manager of People and Culture to maintain its unique studio culture.
Invest in the future now
For fans of Telltale’s games, it became apparent that the company’s technology wasn’t sufficient. While they produced critically-acclaimed games in the beginning, cracks began to show. The interfaces for their games were obviously created for PC gamers using a keyboard and mouse, so when the games came out on console and mobile, they felt extremely clunky and suffered from dropped frames constantly.
One reason for the performance issues was that Telltale held onto a proprietary game engine that just wasn’t up to the task. But in order for Telltale to have invested in a new, better performing game engine, it would have had to slow down its production process.
“Time would have to be taken out of the schedule to learn a new and better one…so they cling to their ancient Tool, which is both a nightmare to work in and to play a game on,” wrote an anonymous employee on Glassdoor.
In contrast, developer Dontnod used the Unity engine for its game Life is Strange. The game was gorgeous and its UI was designed to work well on console, mobile, and PC. The difference in graphics between the two studios is stark.
The proprietary engine Telltale was using should have been scrapped a long time ago, but the company couldn’t devote enough resources to such a monumental task because it took on too many jobs. The initial success of The Walking Dead put pressure on the studio to deliver games to the IPs they signed with. If Telltale had paused to think about the future and the tools its employees needed, the studio may have survived.
For indie studios growing at a rapid rate, take time to stand back and look at the bigger picture. If the tools and systems your employees are using every day are holding them back, maybe it’s time to update or replace them entirely. Yes, this will slow production down in the short term, but the investment will ensure that your studio, and more importantly, your employees, have a future.
Don’t try to capture lightning twice
The Walking Dead was Telltale’s most popular game by far, and the studio was haunted by its success. The company kept trying to iterate on the same formula of powerful storytelling mixed with gut-wrenching decisions at the same time that it was taking on more and more work and was under pressure to deliver quickly on the games. As a result, the quality of the games began slipping.
While the stories in The Walking Dead were compelling, simply putting new assets on top of a template based on one successful game wasn’t a good strategy. Telltale also never addressed its biggest criticism, which was that a player’s choices always had the same ending—not great for a studio that built its reputation on its excellent stories.
In Life is Strange, on the other hand, Dontnod added a time travel mechanic that made the game a departure from Telltale’s cookie-cutter games at the time. Players could wind back time to experiment with different decisions, and the game featured two distinct endings as a result of a player’s actions.
It’s OK for studios to make games that they know will work, but it’s also important to allow employees and leadership to experiment. If everyone is crunching all the time, there’s no opportunity to innovate and develop fresh ideas. The video game industry changes rapidly, and studios will have to adapt quickly in order to survive.
Nabbing IPs won’t guarantee a success
From the outside, the fact that Telltale managed to strike deals with so many popular IPs is extremely impressive, and an indicator of success. But what many don’t realize is that licensing an IP doesn’t actually guarantee success. Telltale’s iterative and formulaic game burned out players who wanted to see something fresh from the studio. With every game it released, player numbers dropped. The power of an IP’s brand couldn’t save Telltale from itself.
Communication is also a common problem for game studios when licensing an IP. It may be that the IP has never had a game made before and it’s the studio’s responsibility to lay down reasonable expectations. On mobile, there’s a myth that licensing an IP will help app discovery and UA costs, but neither is guaranteed. It all depends on the contract between the IP and the studio: how much marketing assistance will be provided, what the layers of approval are, etc.
Does this mean never pursue an IP? Not at all. IPs offer studios powerful brands and huge fan bases, but it’s important to understand that they alone cannot save you. A game still needs to be fun and deliver on player’s expectations, which are a lot higher with beloved IPs. Instead of taking on lots of projects with huge IPs like Telltale did, approach them cautiously and make sure you come to the best possible agreement for both you and the IP.
Telltale changed the gaming industry. Its focus on storytelling defined the importance of narrative in video games. While some players simply want to blow stuff up, there’s a large subset of players who crave good stories, and Telltale gave it to them, at least in the beginning. Other story-driven games like That Dragon, Cancer, Firewatch, Gone Home, and the rebooted King’s Quest were undoubtedly influenced by Telltale Games. But ultimately, mismanagement turned the company into a cautionary tale of chasing growth at all costs.
Focus your energy instead on having a legacy of changing the game industry for the better. While taking on lots of projects and bulking up staff exponentially certainly looks good for now, it is unsustainable if a studio does not invest time and energy in its people and the tools they need to get things done.