Telltale Games was an immensely popular studio and now, like some before it, it is gone.
I don’t think anyone saw this coming.
As of September 21st, Telltale Games shut down, laying off some 225 employees in the process without severance pay while the studio holds a skeleton crew to finish its productions. The Walking Dead: The Final Season, The Wolf Among Us Season 2 and Telltale’s untitled Stranger Things projects are all canceled. Instead, the skeleton crew is working on Minecraft: Story Mode for Netflix.
While the full details haven’t come out yet, there are some clues in the company’s history that show what may have led to Telltale Games’ sudden death.
After creating critically and financially successful games, such as Back to the Future: The Game, The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us and Tales from the Borderlands, Telltale Games was at the height of its success, but in need of expansion and investment as it struggled to maintain its output. The company would promote co-founder Kevin Bruner to CEO on January 2015 to help re-direct the company. On February 2015, Lionsgate (the media company that probably created your favorite guilty pleasure) became a major investor in Telltale Games, with Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer gaining a seat on Telltale Game’s growing board of directors. These two events saw Telltale Games suddenly change course.
Lionsgate likely saw Telltale Games as its personal video game studio, as its own video game company, Lionsgate Interactive, failed to launch in 2014, a year before its investment in Telltale Games. It was quickly announced that Lionsgate and Telltale Games would produce a number of “Super Shows”, which are shows that combined video games and television to tell a single story. Or something. The details are incredibly vague, but it seems, in theory, similar to Microsoft’s TV/video game hybrid series, Quantum Break. However, Lionsgate’s plans for a “Super Show” struggled to even get out of the planning phases and Telltale Games soon spiraled out of control.
In 2015, Telltale Games saw a sharp decline in sales. While the company has never released its sales records publicly, sites like SteamSpy show a sales drop beginning in 2014, starting with Game of Thrones and Minecraft: Story Mode. This decline is due to one thing: a drop in quality. On top of sales, SteamSpy also charts a game’s Metacritic score, a general aggregate of player and critical reception. Both Game of Thrones and Minecraft: Story Mode scored poor reviews, likely leading to their weak sales.
According to Variety, the success of the company’s The Walking Dead made Telltale’s management hyper-focused on The Walking Dead’s format and content. The company largely abandoned what made it unique, its well-written narrative and strong emphasis on player choice, in favor of flooding the market with games aping its greatest success, The Walking Dead. Creative ideas were shot down by management heads, such as a bizarre instance of Bruner refusing to produce a Stranger Things game in 2016. Combined with strict and unmovable deadlines, the studio’s games suffered and began to score middling reviews and little market interest.
This wasn’t helped by Telltale Game’s in-studio engine.
Kevin Bruner, Dan Connors and Troy Molander created Telltale Games in the aftermath of all three being fired from LucasArts during its infamous 2004 restructuring. The three founders built the studio on the back of their own game engine, the Telltale Tool. The Telltale Tool would be used in every Telltale Game. By 2015, the Telltale Tool was outdated, buggy and slow, lacking a dynamic lighting engine or a physics engine, forcing programmers and artist to work in a constant overtime to work around the Telltale Tool. The crew couldn’t keep up. The ancient Telltale Tool struggled to produce functional games, leading to a variety of performance issues and bugs in the studio’s games. While the Telltale Tool was updated in 2016, every game began to suffer from enough major bugs and fans lost faith in the studio’s quality, on top of their general fatigue from the studio’s overwhelming and formulaic output.
In 2017, Telltale Games would fire Kevin Bruner from the position of CEO and replace him with Peter Hawley, the former VP for Games at Zynga (you know, the creator of Farmville), in attempt to salvage Telltale Games. Hawley attempted to save the company by cutting a quarter of the company’s staff and shifting the in-house engine from the Telltale Tool to the Unity Engine. But the mass exodus of employees wasn’t enough. Weak sales from Batman: The Enemy Within, Minecraft: Story Mode – Season 2, The Walking Dead: The Final Season and Marvel’ Guardians of the Galaxy crippled Telltale Games. The likely killing blow, however, was Kevin Bruner. In June 2018, Bruner filed a lawsuit against Telltale Games for financial damages, as the company removed him from its board of directors, thus cutting him off from getting information to sell his shares in Telltale. Bruner’s lawsuit likely wiped out what little savings Telltale Games had left. Interestingly, the initial lawsuit happened at the same time as Lionsgate managed to work out a deal with Netflix to produce a Stranger Things video game and a Minecraft: Story Mode show on Netflix. This Netflix deal is the reason the last 25 employees of Telltale Games are working on Minecraft: Story Mode instead of completing The Walking Dead: Season 3.
More information about what happened behind-the-scenes will likely begin to trickle out over time, as former employees step up to trash their previous bosses. What little information that has been made public is still fascinating. Telltale Games was once the gaming industry’s darling, the creator of the critically loved games like The Walking Dead, a game that managed to match the legendary show and comics that spawned it.