Gaming editor Sam Nason recounts the mass-layoffs at Telltale Games and explores the implications for the industry going forward
Developers of such popular episodic adventure games as The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us and Tales from the Borderlands, Telltale Games have remained in the public eye for their licensing of several recognisable IPs – however the past two weeks have seen a catastrophic collapse for the company.
Most recently working on the final season of The Walking Dead, 21st September saw a mass exodus of Telltale employees, with roughly 90% of its staff (some 225 – 250 workers ) let go. Major financial issues were cited as the cause for these layoffs, following the loss of the company’s final major investor – with no money and nowhere else to look for further investment, Telltale’s only recourse was to cease production.
In a press release, Telltale stated the following:
“Today Telltale Games made the difficult decision to begin a majority studio closure following a year marked by insurmountable challenges. A majority of the company’s employees were dismissed earlier this morning, with a small group of 25 employees staying on to fulfil the company’s obligations to its board and partners.”
Those dismissed were given no warning, with a ‘last-minute company wide meeting’ scheduled for just before midday. Following the announcement employees were given half an hour to leave the office and say their goodbyes – devastating given the fact the day began like any other. Furthermore workers received no severance and would only retain healthcare benefits until the end of the month; literally 9 days later.
The final two are extremely problematic and are the main points of criticism many have taken out of the situation. Post-layoff support for the employees was almost non-existent. Being Bay Area-based, rent is certainly not cheap, and therefore employees rely heavily on the money provided by work. Reportedly many lived from pay check to pay check – a luxury taken from them with no notice.
In a similar vein, the withdrawal of health care affects not only those dismissed but also their families. There has been speculation management waited until the end of the month to begin Telltale’s closure, so they could honour their employees healthcare for the shortest time possible. It is debatable as to how soon Telltale knew these mass dismissals were a necessity – but no matter what, it’s clear to see there was next to no preparation done for it.
Such a sentiment may even see the studio taken to court. One former employee is suing the company in accordance to a violation of the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, which states employees should be given at least 60 days’ notice before mass layoffs occur. If won, this would ensure 60 days’ worth of salary and benefits, plus interest, for all those terminated.
While The Walking Dead: The Final Season was their ongoing project, Telltale had also announced a myriad of different games to come prior to their closure. The Wolf Among Us: Season Two and Game of Thrones: Season Two were both due to begin development within the near future. While no official statement has been given on the status of these titles, it looks very likely these ill-fated games follow the employees out the doors of Telltale Games.
Episode Two of The Walking Dead: The Final Season was released as scheduled on 25th September; the day before, Telltale tweeted the following:
The tweet implies Telltale’s The Walking Dead story will hopefully see some conclusion, whether in a game format or some other medium. The announcement was followed by outcries of joy, yet also scepticism and criticism. Some felt the studio should prioritise severance to its past employees over the competition of the game, with God of War’s creative director Cory Barlog tweeting in reply “I would hope this means that you will first pay your entire team their severance, and then proceed to finish the final episodes.” No further responses from Telltale have been given.
Stranger Things, the Netflix series, was another franchise Telltale had announced they were soon bringing to the adventure game format. Presumed dumped with the rest of Telltale’s prospective projects, September 24th saw Netflix announcing they were ‘in the process of evaluating other options for bringing the Stranger Things universe to life in an interactive medium.’ Whether this means the project will continue in some form is unclear, but it appears the concept of a Stranger Things game is still very much alive – with or without Telltale.
The 25 employees mentioned in the press release refer to a skeleton crew who are working through the last of Telltale’s commitments to their partners. This includes Telltale’s Minecraft: Story Mode, that was seeing its port to Netflix this fall (https://variety.com/2018/gaming/news/telltale-minecraft-story-mode-netflix-1202844528/) – time will tell whether this timeframe can still be met.
Time to Unionise?
The chaos at Telltale has led many to revitalise calls for game developers to unionise. Advocacy group Game Workers Unite released a statement following the layoffs, calling the executives at Telltale ‘incompetent’ and ‘exploitative’. They also said that while unionisation cannot fix Telltale after the fact, ‘it could have prevented so much of the damage to countless workers’ lives by ensuring benefits like severance pay and healthcare that lasts from job to job’.
Again, these controversies remain the underline of the situation. Some employees had reportedly began working at Telltale earlier that week – some may have moved cross-country to work for the studio, some from around the world. Such a sudden closure left so many financially vulnerable and lost that it seems natural for the discussion on game developer unions to reopen.
A game dev union could protect workers from squalid working conditions and put an end to exploitative and non-standardised working practises. Perhaps most importantly it could secure severance for those affected by such catastrophes as Telltale’s. While unionisation would not fix all of the issues surrounding the game industry, it would certainly fix a few – which is better than none.
Since its mass layoffs Telltale has been extremely quiet and many wait to hear again from the seemingly dormant company – whether that be about their dismissed employees or their projects. One thing remains certain however – that the fall of Telltale will go down in video game history as the one of the biggest management mishaps of all time.