Charting the missteps of Telltale Games’ final years
“We tried to create an environment where you really had to do that to survive at Telltale, because we didn’t have these three-year-long production cycles.”
– Former Telltale CEO talks about fostering a culture that made it difficult for devs to “walk away from the content and just say[…]‘I’m going home.’”
Game Informer has published its in-depth story on Telltale Games, speaking to a number of developers (both named and anonymous) to track the studio’s practices, triumphs, and unfortunate decline.
The full story published on Game Informer is an important read, and one that charts the life and eventual missteps of the prolific studio through the voices of the developers that created its games.
Early on in the story, Kevin Bruner, co-founder and former CEO of Telltale, says that the early success of The Walking Dead set a high bar for the company’s future work.
“We wanted bigger and more interesting licenses, so we had bigger and more interesting market opportunities,” Bruner tells Game Informer. “And we wanted to make sure that we didn’t go backward. We didn’t want The Walking Dead to be a fluke, or to be a one-hit wonder.”
That led to a mix of issues, namely in that Telltale leadership wanted to recreate the success of The Walking Dead in every game the studio produced, but were reluctant to deviate from the formula and take the risks that would get those results.
Former Telltale narrative designer Emily Grace Buck explains that misunderstandings and miscommunication between the executive and developer levels hindered the process as well. She tells Game Informer of a “fundamental misunderstanding” of Telltale’s audience that led leadership to, for instance, push for dark themes over comedy in Guardians of the Galaxy and during some parts of the development of Minecraft: Story Mode.
“Some of that came from publishing,” says Buck. “It seems like some of that came from the board’s requests as well. There were misunderstandings and misinformation at multiple levels that caused things to go that direction.”
She notes that there were specific moments of creative conflict with Bruner during his time at the studio as well where he would ask for “extremely large changes very close to ship date that would mandate crunch for a huge percentage of the studio.”
Many Telltale developers, both in Game Informer’s story and publicly following last year’s layoffs, recall a toxic company culture and unrelenting pressure to crunch. Speaking to Game Informer, Bruner says that at an executive level there was a push for that fast-paced culture, seemingly despite the human costs.
“For me, at an executive level, all the way down to the animator – if you see an opportunity to make the game better, and you know it’s going to ship in a week and you care about the content, it’s really hard to walk away from the content and just say, ‘You know what? This is as good as it’s going to get. I’m going home,’” Bruner tells Game Informer. “We tried to create an environment where you really had to do that to survive at Telltale, because we didn’t have these three-year-long production cycles.”
The full story on Game Informer is a lengthy read, but one that explores crunch, rapid scaling, and other factors necessary to understand what led to Telltale’s sudden near-closure at the end of last year.