How Game Companies Fail

The Foundation of any Good Project

If left without a plan or a guide to aid the process of development, the project or idea which is supposed to be being made will likely fail — either due to a flood of ideas with no guide to keep things on track or to a lack of organisation or clarity as to what is being done.

While less necessary for smaller projects, spanning only two-or-so people, a plan is required when the project involves more people, as to keep the development focused and steered. It must take into account what needs doing, when it needs to be done by and who needs to do it. It should also be optimized to avoid ‘dead time’ during development as well as a reduction to unnecessary costs.

There have been any number of different Software Methodologies and project management techniques, each made to try and make the workers work efficiently and the project development effective; each with their own advantages and disadvantages, and each with varying levels of success.

For a large project, such as a game, to be made and made well, it requires not only for there to be a dedicated and passionate Project Manager keeping everything running smoothly, but it also requires the Heads of Department to keep the workers working, and requires the workers to work on their work until their work has finished being worked on by the work deadline.

Another role the Project Manger might have to fulfill (or, hopefully, as it will be within the purview of the Development Methodology) is to make sure everyone is working off the same idea and are all pulling together in the same direction; that they are communicating effectively. Some plans involve set meetings to ensure the flow of communication between workers and the Heads of Department, and to keep everyone up to date on where they are.

Evaluation of a Games Company: Telltale Games

Telltale Incorporated is an American video game developing company, founded on October  4th, 2004. Starting off with just a handful of people, their story is a rising progression and increase in sales, the size of the company and the quality of their games, followed by an eventual decline, ending with the company returning, again, to dust; going from around 250 employees to 25, following a “majority studio closure”.

The mainstay of almost all Telltale games has been the ability for players to connect with the story on an emotional level, with a more narrative-directed approach that diverged from the standard point-and-click style of adventure games. The genre is generally ‘adventure games’, though some have called it a ‘Difficult Decision Simulator’ or, owing to the fact it was Telltale who first brought this style of game into the industry, simply a ‘Telltale-style adventure game’.

The Walking Dead gave the player direct control over the long-term plot and the ability, to some extent, to decide how the future events in the game or its sequels would play out.

How they started

In March 2004, LucasArts stated that “current marketplace realities and underlying economic considerations” meant it was no longer ‘safe’ to release adventure games into the market, so they cancelled the creation of two sequels of previous adventure games — one of which was Sam & Max: Freelance Police; also laying off many of those developers.

Half a year later, on October 4th, Telltale Games’ opening was announced, co-founded by Kevin Bruner, Dan Connors and Troy Molander — all of whom were former LucasArts employees — with the initial goal of developing a new Sam & Max game in episodic format.

They used the small-but-dedicated fan base of Sam & Max to assure themselves they could release a title, which would reach this fan base and, with some small success, without requiring a bigger license with more development costs. LucasArts refused to negotiate a deal to license or give licencing rights to Telltale, so the release was delayed until mid-2005, developing a few other games to bring in revenue in the meantime, and releasing their first game on February 11th, 2005.

They began work on Sam & Max, releasing the first of their ‘episodes’ through their partner, GameTap, with a plan to release new episodes on a tight, monthly basis. The first episode was a success for the company and set the basis for the episodic release of practically all of their following video games. Their success lead to additional funding from two rounds of ‘angel investment’ and attained the interest of outside parties.

Telltale games released more Sam & Max episodes and found several more niche ‘intellectual property’ areas, including Wallace & Gromit and Homestar Runner, both of which built on their episodic, adventure game format.

In 2008, the CEO of LucasArts became Darrel Rodriguez, who had different ideas about the nature of the old adventure games, and wanted to see a return of that genre in the industry. He attained a deal with Telltale, who released Tales of Monkey Island, which ran in the Monkey Island series owned by LucasArts. They were also able to expand their release platforms beyond personal computers, moving onto various consoles.

They later started releasing one-off games to explore other gameplay and storytelling approaches, including puzzle game, Puzzle Agent and a poker game: Poker Night at the Inventory. In 2013, Telltale continued the series with Poker Night 2 and explored a new genre of game which was known, internally, as the “zombie prototype”.

Accelerating growth

Later to be known as The Walking Dead, Telltale wanted to establish themselves in the ‘dramatic franchise’, to counterbalance their popularity in the ‘comedy franchise’. They released two episodic series for NBC Universal, Back to the Future and Jurassic Park. The studio grew, employing over one hundred employees and attaining further licences for games and releasing The Walking Dead in 2012.

It was then the company’s growth started to accelerate, perhaps too much. Later that year, The Walking Dead was awarded the Spike Video Game Awards’ Game of the Year. It was a huge win, with this small company beating massive games like Dishonored and Mass Effect 3, and signified what became a “meteoric rise”, as awards for The Walking Dead began to pile up, and the headcount of workers tripled to over three hundred people. They obtained deals with Hollywood’s well-loved franchises, working on games for Batman, Game of Thrones and Guardians of the Galaxy — all of which focused on emotional investment rather than set-adventure gameplay.

When The Walking Dead was released — with its focus on a more personal and decision-making approach (with choices such as ‘which of two characters do you save?’) — the format proved to be a great success. The game sold a million copies in 20 days; it exceeded 8.5 million episodes purchased by 2013 and an estimated $40 million in revenue. The success led to two additional 5-episode seasons plus a 3-episode mini-season to date. The Walking Dead is considered to have revitalized the waning adventure game genre, due to this more emotionally driven focus.

But then the company became notorious for buggy and unfinished games. The quality of gameplay and narrative declined, and the staff became overworked and fatigued.

“Perpetual crunch time.”

In 2019, Kevin Bruner stated that Telltale had established an environment which was able to simultaneously work on four major projects, alongside a number of smaller, side projects. The resultant pressure of this — of the almost constantly approaching ‘deadlines’ — restricted developers’ and creators’ space for improvement and creative ‘flow’, causing stress and heightened tension, and subsequent problems and shortcomings in the design and execution of their games. The result was described as “constant overwork, toxic management and creative stagnation.”

The Verge, USgamer and Variety magazine spoke to a few dozen current and former developers in 2017, and many stated that a majority of the top-level executives, including Bruner, had become fixated on the format of The Walking Dead, making decisions that prevented developers from looking at alternatives, “stifling creativity” and inciting staff departures.

Some described it as “trying to lay train tracks while the train was already zooming across them.”  Some managers tried to alleviate some of the stress by a “token gesture” such as food or alcohol, or by sending encouraging e-mails to the staff.

The former felt like “putting a Band-Aid on a wound that had been there for years”, while the latter felt redundant, even patronizing, with one employee saying the managers “were just trying to get their job done right now, but nobody was looking long-term”, and not considering the un-sustainability.

The Problems in the company

The reason for Telltale’s success was because of the new and innovative way in which they had approached the idea of making games: they’d found an area of the market no one had exploited to that level before. The original success came from their ability to work on an already-known product, Sam & Max, which allowed them to immediately attain a following.

Their story-driven games, once their personal headway had made its way in the industry, were able to continue this following and grow it. The idea of their management plan at this stage was to continue from the previous successes and make more episodic-based games, furthering The Walking Dead, their primary success, as well as all the extra brands, such as Batman, Game of Thrones and Minecraft: Story Mode.

The aim of this was to sustain and grow the almost ‘cult’ following — to continue attracting the followers they already had. However, they were unable to effectively manage the rapid growth of the company and made few long-term plans.

However, the primary let-down of the company was a part of the reason for its success: its story-orientated games. When Twitch (the live streaming video platform and subsidiary of Amazon) first became popular, the success of Telltale immediately declined. When a game is being played and broadcasted for mass viewing online (and when the entertainment of that game comes with its story line), then what’s the purpose of buying the game yourself if you can just watch someone else play it — have the same experience — and do it for free?

The company’s sales suddenly went into decline as Twitch’s following increased. The expected revenue from the games they were making were far less than they had previously predicted, and the company was unable to make new steps (unable to develop a new ‘formula’ for their games). These factors, coupled with what many sources have described as “toxic management”, reduced Telltale to what it is now.

To dust…

After laying off the major proportion of their staff, Telltale announced they would try to finish (with help from an outside company) the final episodes of The Walking Dead. They have been criticized by many people and companies for putting this priority above that of paying their former staff.

Even in defeat, bad management decisions exist: the staff received no more than half an hour’s formal notice and were provided with healthcare cover only until the end of that month (which was nine days away). One employee had even uprooted and moved his entire family to that part of the country, only to find there was no job for him once he got there.

Conclusions drawn

When no long-term, sustainable business plans are put in place, the success of any company can only be temporary. As the advantage their type of game had on the market was waylaid by the rise of Twitch, Telltale made no efforts to find a new approach to their games.

There were any number of “bad management decisions”, many of which, reported by an anonymous former worker who spoke to ‘The Verge‘, we will never hear about. There was also no exit strategy: it seems as though the company ran at full pelt for as long as it could, and then collapsed under its own stress and financial disintegration.