What happened to Telltale Games?

Telltale Games was an American video game developer founded by Kevin Bruner, Dan Connors, and Troy Molander in 2004. The company established itself as an adventure game developer with its own game engine supporting an episodic release schedule.  Perhaps the most iconic Telltale game was the 2012 title The Walking Dead, which introduced a more narrative-directed approach. In other words, players could make choices that affected future events in the game or even the way in which sequels eventuated. The company continued to prosper in the following years, releasing episodic interpretations of Guardians of the Galaxy, Batman, Game of Thrones, and Minecraft. Despite an apparently winning formula, Telltale Games declared bankruptcy in October 2018 after laying off around 90% of its total workforce a month earlier.

Mismanagement

The success of The Walking Dead was a company maker, giving Telltale Games the necessary clout to work with companies like Marvel and HBO. However, this success would prove to be a double-edged sword.

Developers went on a relentless quest to add the charm of The Walking Dead into all the company’s future games. Essentially, this was stipulated by the major license holders that struck deals with Telltale Games. But the company board of directors also put pressure on the company to replicate the success of The Walking Dead in other titles. 

A preoccupation with what had worked in the past caused the company to develop games based on tired and overused concepts. As a result, creativity and experimentation were stifled.

Outdated software

Telltale Games developed a proprietary game engine known as the Telltale Tool. Though initially successful, the engine eventually became obsolete and the company refused to upgrade or replace it.

For one, the Telltale Tool did not have a dedicated physics system. This required that the elements in an action system be created by hand, which took vast amounts of time and money away from critical operations. The lack of a dedicated physics system also caused characters to appear rigid and lifeless, with some games plagued with bugs, erased saves, and purchases that didn’t carry through.

According to co-founder Kevin Bruner, there were internal discussions around upgrading to Unreal but the transition was considered too disruptive. Belated attempts in June 2018 to replace the Telltale Tool with Unity were a case of too little, too late.

Competition and market positioning

The games industry evolved in 2013 with the release of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Both platforms offered superior graphics and titles such as God of War and The Last of Us arguably told better stories to boot.

This put Telltale Games in a predicament. It found itself competing with lesser-known studios that were producing comparable games with much lower operating costs. But it was also competing against larger players with more manpower and superior development engines. 

Stuck in the middle, so to speak, consumers grew weary of the lack of evolution in Telltale Games titles. Critics also suggested the company had a fundamental misunderstanding of the market. For example, its interpretation of Guardians of the Galaxy featured dark themes even though the comic and movie franchise has always been associated with comedy. Telltale Games also developed a more sophisticated version of Minecraft for teenagers and young adults – despite the game enjoying the most success with children.

Company culture

Some former employees also criticized the company culture of Telltale Games after Bruner took over as CEO. 

Bruner was known to micromanage employees and criticize them in public. He also discarded many of the submissions they had made, which resulted in employees having to work 100-hour weeks just to meet deadlines. 

The toxic management style of Bruner also resulted in The Walking Dead project leads Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin quitting the company. The departure of this crucial personnel exacerbated the lack of creativity and enthusiasm for subsequent releases.

Key takeaways:

  • Telltale Games was an American video game developer founded by Kevin Bruner, Dan Connors, and Troy Molander in 2004. Telltale Games declared bankruptcy in October 2018 despite releasing multiple successful games.
  • Telltale Games management was preoccupied with the success of The Walking Dead which could not be replicated in subsequent, unrelated releases. Outdated development software also caused inefficiencies and games riddled with bugs.
  • Telltale Games suffered competition from smaller and larger players, a fact made worse by the company not understanding its audience or market position.

Read Next: Free-to-play business modelEpic GamesFortnitePlay-to-earn business modelgaming industry.

Connected Visual Concepts

free-to-play
A free-to-play is a model that became particularly popular in gaming. Free-to-play is also commonly referred to as free-to-start. For instance, companies like Epic Games have launched popular games like Fortnite’s Battle Royale, which had ingrained a free-to-play model. This is a model that become extremely popular in the digital age of gaming.
epic-games-business-model
Epic Games is a gaming company, that develops, publishes, and distributes games. It comprises the Unreal Engine, making money through licensing agreements with developers and creators. Its games (like Fortnite) mostly follow a free-to-play model on PC and an in-app purchase model on the digital marketplace. And its storefront Epic Games Store, taking a 12% cut on games’ sales.
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Epic Games owns Fortnite; Tim Sweeney, co-founder, and CEO is the major shareholder, with more than 50% of the company. And Tencent with a stake of over 40% of the company. Epic Games develops, publishes, and distributes games. It comprises the Unreal Engine, making money through licensing agreements with developers and creators. While Fortnite primarily follows a free-to-play model with up-sells and digital in-app purchases.

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