Commentary

Laying Off Most Employees, Telltale Games Is Among The Walking Dead

In an abrupt end to what had been a compelling story, Telltale Games laid off all but about 25 of its remaining 250 employees Friday, leaving the creator of “The Walking Dead” and other narrative video games and its fans in shock.

“Telltale produced adventure video games derived from licensed properties from film, comics, television and other video games. It made a name for itself when it licensed the comic book series 'The Walking Dead’ in 2011,” writes Richard Halstead for the Mercury News. 

“Telltale’s game based on ‘The Walking Dead’ sought to replicate a cinematic experience while providing players with choices that would ultimately alter the course of the story. Other popular Telltale games have included ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘The Wolf Among Us’ and ‘Batman,’" Halstead continues.

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“The studio’s best games were like prestige television crossed with a video game, creating dark and emotional stories that made you feel like you were a part of them,” mourns Andrew Webster for The Verge.

“Now, that’s all over. Following last week’s devastating news that the majority of Telltale’s talented staff had been laid off, which also followed reports that the studio had been plagued by mismanagement and a toxic, workaholic culture, the studio is close to shutting its doors. But it’s worth remembering just how important Telltale was in its prime,” continues Webster before doing just that.

The news was announced in a tweet by CEO Pete Hawley that read, in part:  “It’s been an incredibly difficult year for Telltale as we worked to set the company on a new course. Unfortunately, we ran out of time trying to get there. We released some of our best content this year and received a tremendous amount of positive feedback, but ultimately, that did not translate to sales.”

And lagging sales, of course, often do not translate into funding. 

Variety’s Brian Crecente spoke to a “shell-shocked” co-founder, Dan Connors, on the phone yesterday, then followed up with some emails. Connors said Telltale had been “working diligently to close a round of financing. Unfortunately, when the last potential financial backer abruptly pulled out, we were left in a position where we had no choice but to stop production. Sadly, everyone was so focused on doing what was required to keep the company going that when the last potential partner backed out, there were no other options.”

Crecente writes that Connors declined to say who backed out, but several sources suggested it was Lionsgate.

“Lionsgate last week notified the board that it had decided to stop funding Telltale so it could refocus on its core business,” Crecente reports. It has “invested a reported $40 million in Telltale back in February 2015 with the idea of working on a live-action and interactive project with the company called a ‘super show.’ But the idea never took hold.”

Evan Skolnick, who teaches video-game writing at Cogswell College in San Jose, Calif., tells the New York Times’ Jason M. Bailey that creating characters who resonated with players was a “heart-wrenching, gut-wrenching, Sophie’s Choice-every-10-minutes type of experience. People were emotionally hooked, and they wanted to see what was going to happen next. They were very much involved in the story and the characters.”

Skolnick himself wrote for some of Telltale’s later games for about nine months.  

Bailey writes: “Players may have grown fatigued with games by Telltale, however, as they became familiar with what was once an innovative formula, Mr. Skolnick said. Although the games suggested that players could influence the unfolding story, like a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book in digital form, the various pathways ultimately converged.”

“Video game adaptations of television and film -- excepting ‘Batman,’ ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Lord of the Rings’ (and ‘Lego’) -- have a history as inconsistent as TV and film adaptations of video games. … The great tragedy of Telltale Games is that it made [its] franchises work as both games and a story -- even taking Game of the Year honors -- and it meant nothing for the studio’s long-term fate," writes Owen S. Good for Polygon.

“Rights-holders license their works to video games for a number of reasons, and sure, the money a studio’s willing to pay to stomp around in a canon with a ready-made audience is a big one. But video games are also valuable in turning on new audiences to the shows and films. Telltale did more for ‘Game of Thrones’ than ‘Game of Thrones’ did for it, and ‘The Walking Dead,’ too.”

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