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Exclusive: How a Culture of Crunch Brought Telltale From Critical Darling to Layoffs

Telltale's restructuring is just one part of a complicated history.

Feature by Matt Kim, .

Telltale Games laid off 90 employees last week, a cutback that saw the studio lose about 25 percent of their staff. That's not a small number for a developer that prior to the layoffs employed close to 400 people. Since then multiple sources spoke with USgamer on the condition of anonymity, with stories of how the layoffs stemmed from multiple management missteps—which Telltale seems to be actively combatting following its restructure.

Over the course of speaking to numerous people close to Telltale, a picture emerged of how the studio followed one of its most critically acclaimed releases, The Walking Dead: Season One, with years of frustrating practices that, at least to some extent, affected employee morale at the company. Some employees talked about this period as incredibly difficult for them. Others have also suggested that the layoffs, while painful, are part of a larger course correction for the company.

Telltale's Crunch

At the heart of the matter is the repeated claim that for a period of time, Telltale suffered from harmful management practices. It was to a degree where it even became hostile for some employees. As one former Telltale employee told me, "The mentality was work harder, faster, and for as long as you can to hit your milestones. Churn and burn."

The workload, and particularly how the company managed its ambitious launch schedules, were a common source of criticism from those we spoke to about this story.

This culture can be traced back to 2012, the year of The Walking Dead's breakout success when it was a critical and commercial hit that earned the studio around $40 million. Telltale has since been chasing similar success, bulking up their portfolio with some of the biggest IPs in pop culture, including Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Minecraft.

These were high profile IPs, and to make sure these titles took full advantage of the cultural zeitgeist, multiple titles were worked on simultaneously. Content was pushed out the door as Telltale's headcount ballooned to 400 employees.

The period from 2014 to 2017 saw a near constant rush of releases. The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead: Season 2 released in late 2013 and continued through the summer of 2014. Tales from the Borderlands and Game of Thrones started in the winter of 2014, and so on. This pace has continued pretty much through the present day.

One source told USGamer that, "At one point, there was a quote (printed on paper) on one of the creative director's doors that read something to the tune of, 'It's not about how much time you need to make a good game, it's about how good of a game you can make with the time you have.'" Several other sources confirmed they had also seen this sign.

Working on these franchises wasn't easy on employees either. One anonymous source said that having to work on games tied to existing IPs was sometimes seen "as a hindrance" due to the nature of working with an established IP. In addition, according to several sources, Telltale handed down "heavy rewrites" that could account for as much as "80 percent" of a game. And these rewrites would sometimes come very last minute.

"[Sometimes] team leadership would push through [with rewrites] anyway for one of many reasons—time, prestige, actual belief in subpar ideas," one source said. "And it would always come back on them in the end. We'd always eventually fix the product. But late fixes were deeply disruptive. [...] [These problems] could have been avoided by better decisions earlier in the process."

Inconsistent feedback was also cited as a problem. Another source said, "So much effort was spent reacting to reactions, and the notes would be wildly different every time. So a lot of time it resulted in schizophrenic [game] episodes cobbled together via contrary notes."

Like a lot of video game companies, there were times of crunch. No matter how "minimal," crunch is widely understood as harmful in the video game industry. While the amount of crunch varied from department to department and from year to year, for some the damage was already done. Telltale's formerly strong reputation was put to the question as fans complained about a multitude of glitches and bugs, while critics grumbled about the increasingly outdated engine.

Earlier this year, Waypoint's Patrick Klepek skewered Telltale's reliance on their "ancient tech". "Telltale's history of hobbled tech goes back a ways, too," Klepek wrote. "A source told me that even as the company was riding the success of The Walking Dead, their engine didn't have a physics system. (Telltale has their own proprietary technology, it doesn't use Unity, Unreal, or something else off the shelf.) If a designer came up with a scene requiring a ball to roll across the floor, or a book to fall off a shelf, it had to [be] done by hand, an enormous time and resource commitment."

That "ancient tech" is called Telltale Tool, an internally developed engine used for all of Telltale's titles since 2005. One source told us of the tool's inherent hurdles. "The team was always trying to improve the game in a multitude of ways, from engine stability and performance to story and gameplay design," they said. "This combined with a tight schedule [had] a high potential to introduce new bugs."

Over the course of speaking to sources at Telltale, the prevailing narrative is that these problems stemmed from multiple parties in positions of management. These positions, we've learned, have been affected by the recent layoffs.

What's Next?

The hiring of former Zynga general manager Pete Hawley as CEO, along with the recent restructuring, are viewed by some close to the company as a much-needed course correction for Telltale. When we reached out to Telltale Games for comment regarding our findings, a Telltale representative reissued the statement the company gave after the layoffs.

From the outside, it's easy to play armchair doctor with Telltale Games. The company appears to work at an insane pace—particularly given the type of games Telltale works on. And sales appear to have have dropped since The Walking Dead: Season One's considerable 8.5 million episodes. For instance, by contrast, SteamSpy lists ownership of Batman: The Telltale Series only in the hundreds of thousands.

Fans and critics are also seemingly less kind to the bugs and glitches found in some of the newer Telltale releases. So while games like Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Tales From the Borderlands have received praise for their storytelling, a consensus among critics say the tech is just too outdated.

On this, Telltale's statement regarding the layoffs appears to indicate that big changes are coming to the company, including potentially moving to a new game engine.

From what we've gathered internally, the layoffs swept up key instigators from the previous management, and there's now a reportedly refreshed corporate culture in place. With the whispers of a new game engine and key games like The Wolf Among Us 2 in development, perhaps this is the start of a changed era for Telltale.

However in the end, a staggering 90 employees were still let go. Nearly everyone we spoke to expressed their devastation about the news. But there was also a feeling of inevitability about the layoffs. A testament to a time of turbulence at Telltale.

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Comments 15

  • Avatar for Roto13 #1 Roto13 A month ago
    " In addition, according to several sources, Telltale handed down "heavy rewrites" that could account for as much as "80 percent" of a game. And these rewrites would sometimes come very last minute."

    Hi, The Wolf Among Us Episode 2, which took like 6 months to come out and had absolutely nothing in common with the Episode 2 teaser at the end of Episode 1.
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  • Avatar for Damman #2 Damman A month ago
    It's good to see some hopeful attitudes about the sea change. That style of plugging in new licenses to a set formula seemed destined for diminishing returns, even with their consistently strong writing. A new engine that allows for some gameplay variety (and maybe a toned back release schedule) would go a long way in drawing back some of that lapsed interest.

    As always, hope those laid off find good opportunities and those still there see less crunching.
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  • Avatar for sketchlayerjosh #3 sketchlayerjosh A month ago
    With all the talk of Telltale's downward slide after the first season of Walking Dead, it's odd to not see mention of the change in writers. A big reason that Walking Dead was so good, despite coming from a company just known at the time for fairly decent revivals of adventure game franchises, is because it had a cracking writing team. But, after Walking Dead, they left. Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin went over to Campo Santo, and Gary Whitta left to write a Star War. For a company whose games are so narrative-focused, I think the fact that most of the writers left is a huge part of why the subsequent games never quite reached the same height.Edited last month by sketchlayerjosh
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #4 NiceGuyNeon A month ago
    Maybe that's why Tales from the Borderlands didn't suck. They were just a skeleton crew working on it to complete it since Telltale planned on abandoning the project due to low sales (a real bummer for whoever bought the season pass huh?) but I guess without management breathing down their necks they were able to make their single greatest game.

    The oral history of Tales from the Borderlands is well worth reading after going through this piece.

    https://quarterly.camposanto.com/tales-from-the-borderlands-the-oral-history-d33bb5f146e6
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  • Avatar for StrwbrryJams #5 StrwbrryJams A month ago
    Great writing and well worth the read. So sad to hear about crunch. That's such an awful thing you force employees into.
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  • Avatar for WiIIyTheAntelope #6 WiIIyTheAntelope A month ago
    It's not really surprising that their sales have dropped since S1 of Walking Dead. I like the Telltale games, but let's be honest here...every game they release is a skin swap of the one that came before it, just with a different story and IP attached.

    I wonder how many of the layoffs were executives and other management, and not the people actually making the games. My guess would be 0.
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  • Avatar for not_themilkybarkid #7 not_themilkybarkid A month ago
    One big problem is that other people started doing the same thing as Telltale, but doing it far better. In terms of writing, gameplay, graphics and soundtrack, Life Is Strange was miles ahead of anything Telltale put out.
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  • Avatar for SIGGYZtar #8 SIGGYZtar A month ago
    @not_themilkybarkid Life Is Strange was like the one game that company made. Telltale makes like 20 games a year.
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #9 Roto13 A month ago
    @not_themilkybarkid Life is Strange had terrible writing, though. One of the first lines was "Go fuck yourselfie" and it didn't get any better from there.
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  • Avatar for not_themilkybarkid #10 not_themilkybarkid A month ago
    @SIGGYZtar And who built a better reputation out of that? Who probably got a better return on their development costs? Burning out your staff so you can churn out dozens of middling titles isn't necessarily a winning strategy.
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  • Avatar for Drachmalius #11 Drachmalius A month ago
    I love Telltale games for the most part, but the quality has slipped and it was becoming clear they were spreading themselves across way too many projects. For every Tales from the Borderlands there's a Guardians of the Galaxy, which I found to be boring and uninspired. This was a great article that was obviously well researched. Obviously it sucks that so many people lost their jobs, but hopefully ttg can fix their tech and focus on quality over quantity from now on.
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #12 NiceGuyNeon A month ago
    @WiIIyTheAntelope To be honest, I wouldn't even call it a skin swap. They're like pale imitators. Aside from TWD1, Wolf, and Borderlands, I don't think they've made anything else that's good. The writing has just become progressively worse and there are no choices that make a real impact on you as the player.

    Like, Game of Thrones is the classic example. That game is so outlandishly bad it's ridiculous. Arguably their biggest license, and they just straight up face-planted with it. It feels like fan fiction playing alongside the show. It's a pointless and worthless game rather than a companion piece, or even straight up alternative, like their three good games.
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #13 Roto13 29 days ago
  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #14 NiceGuyNeon 29 days ago
    @Roto13 I played it and enjoyed it. But it was kind of missing that same spark for me from the other three I really dig. It's definitely entertaining though, and I'll probably pick up the second season if it's at least a similar quality.
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  • Avatar for garion333 #15 garion333 26 days ago
    Cool article. Good stuff. Wish it were longer!!
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