The times and death of Telltale games

One of the biggest news revolving around the games industry this year is the recent fall of Telltale games. Of what I've read of it, the whole thing comes out as a messy tale of mismanagement, which ended up the company unceremoniously kicking out most of their staff, some in the middle of the game development. The people were let out without severance and only 30  minutes to clean their desks before escorted out. (Arstechnica article about the whole ordeal)

It was messy and nasty sounding affair. It didn't only sound like the management was trying to hide the real situation of the company from their employees, but needlessly cruel as well. Only a week before Telltale had hired new people and now they and almost everyone else was unceremoniously let go.

If you were an adventure gamer back in the change of the century, you probably were aware of the slump the genre was in. Despite there was a speck of light in the genre now and then in a form of games like Syberia or the Longest Journey, the big companies were concentrating on other genres. Already back in the 90's Sierra and Lucasfilm, two of the more prominent names in the genre had noticed that while the adventure games were still selling, they were overshadowed by games like Doom.

This slump continued for a good while before Telltale entered to the market. Their first title wasn't an adventure game, but a poker game, that was using the same engine they only a bit later utilized in their first adventure game, Bone: Out from Boneville. Telltale published only two Bone games based on the comic series by Jeff Smith despite there being 9 compilation volumes worth of material to dwell into.  That might be largely because the games themselves had a somewhat lukewarm reception from those who had been accustomed to more challenging games in the genre.

The reception tied to the episodic model, which was new and weird distribution concept what comes to games, probably made Bone games sell less than what Telltale hoped, so they quickly abandoned any further development ideas. But their next title was more of a success. This was, of course, the return of a beloved Lucasfilm title, Sam & Max, a game based on Steve Purcell's comics series. 

The misadventures of a freelance detective duo of a dog and a psychotic rabbit went on to get three seasons, but in the middle of this, Telltale was also pushing out other series as well, like Wallace and Gromit as well as their own continuation to legendary Monkey Island series.

Before their biggest hit, Telltale developed games of legendary movie titles like Jurassic Park and Back to the Future. And then they hit it off the ballpark when they published a game based on the hit comic and TV-show the Walking Dead. While the Walking Dead was slim on actual puzzles, its gripping story a convict name Lee trying to protect a little girl named Clementine from the shambling hordes drew the players in.

The game itself was more like an interactive movie, but the writing, the atmosphere and the characters made even me gobble it up, despite I don't really care of the Walking Dead. On the hindsight, all the choices and the effects to the story the game presents are largely smoke and mirrors, as the end result is always the same. Still, the game is a great experience well recommended.

After the Walking Dead, it looked like Telltale was unstoppable. They released games based on Borderlands, Game of Thrones, Batman and Minecraft. During this time they did my personal favourite from them, the Wolf Among Us. Those titles and their Walking Dead games made it look like they were doing good.

And then the ball dropped.

I stumbled to this nifty little graph based on Steamspy data. It sheds some light on how much Telltale games actually sold in Steam (Do note, these are Steam sales only and do not include other platforms like the consoles or GOG, so the numbers for games are higher, it just is that Steam is the biggest digital channel for PCs. Steam also altered their system in 2017, which makes estimating sales figures harder, if not impossible, so the numbers for Minecraft Season 2 and Batman Season 2 are far from accurate)

As the figure states, their biggest success is the first season of the Walking Dead, estimating it 3,6 million sold copies. There was a considerable drop with the Wolf Among Us, that managed to sell only around 1,2 million copies, which, I think, might shed some light into why Telltale wasn't in a hurry to create another season for it right afterwards.

Even the second season for the Walking Dead sold much less than the first season did. The drop from 3,6 million copies to around 1,4 million is pretty jarring. Then there are those titles which I think should have sold far better than they did, considering their fanbase. Game of Thrones didn't manage to break 1 million and Minecraft couldn't break half a million copies.

Surely, even with their notoriously clunky engine and the criticism that caused, titles which such a high brand recognition should have sold better? Or maybe it just was, that the fans of something like Minecraft don't really care about a story driven game based on the material.

What is more evident is the fact that the gamble Telltale made in acquiring costly licenses in the hopes of hitting yet another home run like the first season of the Walking Dead didn't pan out. While they had more licenses, like a game based on Netflix hit show the Stranger Things, the model they were working under wasn't sustainable. They had grown too big, burned way too much money and made way too little.

Apparently, what did them in at the end, was a pullout of one big investor, which caused a cascade that made the whole stack of cards crumble to the ground. I guess there might be a story about mismanagement around there somewhere. Or not somewhere, more like plainly at sight.

After the majority of the people were thrown out, a skeleton crew of 25 people was left in the house to tie up the loose ends and fulfilling obligations towards partners and board with the projects that were currently at works. The titles were Netflix financed Minecraft game and the final season of the Walking Dead. Some of the last people were soon let go as well.

Whatever work Telltale might have done for the various games in production will now probably be lost for good. The Walking Dead will be finished by the Skybound games (PC Gamer article),  so at least the fans of that series won't be left hanging. But any work done for the long-awaited the Wolf Among Us 2 or the next Borderlands game is now most likely lost for good.

And thus was the times and death of Telltale. It is a company that isn't completely dead yet, at least on paper, but I doubt there will be any sort of miraculous recovery in sight. For years Telltale was thought as the modern strongman of the adventure genre but in truth, they were struggling because of the load they were under.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but had they kept their heads cool and proceeded with more cautious steps, the end result could have been quite a different. Sure, they might not have published as many games, but at least their company would have been healthier.

But the end of Telltale is what it is, there's no changing that. What good they did will hopefully remain for the people to play and the model they pushed onwards with episodic gaming will probably always be present in some form what comes to publishing games.

It is worth noting, that it only took a couple of years from the success of the Walking Dead for companies like DONTNOD and the Odd Gentleman to beat Telltale in their own field. While the reimagining of the King's Quest by the Odd Gentlemen didn't set the world on fire as far sales go, I do think it was a better game than many other titles Telltale put out towards the end and DONTNOD's Life Is Strange cleaned the table in story and gameplay and sold pretty nicely as well.

While the end of Telltale might be an end of an era in some sense, it still isn't the end as far as story-driven adventure games go. Telltale was probably driven down by its own hubris and the unwillingness to fix what was broken. Perhaps other developers have learnt from Telltale's mistakes and work more sensibly.

But then again, who knows?