With the sudden death of Telltale Games, many good and talented people are out of a job and I hope that they all find new work as fast as possible. We need people like this in our industry, and as someone who has enjoyed many of their adventure games over the years, I can only hope that this isn’t the end of an era and these individuals found or are picked up to continue the ethos of narrative-based storytelling and adventure gaming.
I say that because the death of Telltale didn’t shock me.
I’ve long been of the viewpoint that Telltale Games’ whole business model was a stiff breeze away from crumbling into dust. However well-written these games are, however faithful to the source material and however brilliant the moments we get from them are, there were so many things so evidently and obviously wrong that it somewhat shocks me that the company held on as long as it did, particularly after the abysmal Tales of the Borderlands. Good luck, Gearbox, if you really intend to revive this franchise. You’ll need all the luck you can get.
So let’s examine the chain of poor decisions that got us here.
The first is obvious; the licenses. Telltale Games worked on licensed fare – The Walking Dead, Borderlands, Batman, Back to the Future, The Wolf Among Us (or Fable, for those into graphic novels and comic books), Jurassic Park, Game of Thrones, Minecraft of all things… and with the death of the studio, the Stranger Things game is kind of dead now. Oh, and Homestar Runner. Can’t forget about my main man Strong Bad, can I?
No, there’s nothing wrong with working from licenses – Sony is clearly making a lot of money from Spiderman. But equally this year, Sony also made a lot of money from God of War. And I suspect through simple logical deduction that in terms of revenue, God of War will prove to be the more profitable game long-term. Because Sony own all the rights to that series; all the money made goes to Sony… okay, that’s a simplification but the lions share will go to Sony, because it’s their franchise and their property. Spiderman isn’t a wholly-owned license by Sony. They just maintain control of the rights – and Disney has made it clear since their acquisition of Marvel that this is not a situation they’re particularly happy with, so Marvel – and by token, Disney – will probably get a good chunk of the profits from the new Spiderman game.
And yes, Spiderman is a success sales-wise (game-wise, I’m in the solid 7/10 crowd) and it will generate a lot of additional revenue for Sony as it shifts more hardware units, particularly limited edition consoles and controllers because people gobble this nonsense up. But that’s a situation that works for Sony. Sony may make minimal profit on Spiderman, but that’s okay because they can make additional revenue from getting in lapsing gamers and new fans. What they don’t get from a license they make up elsewhere, at least in theory. It’s a tried-and-tested method of business in the gaming landscape, and it’s why EA had those terrible financial issues in the mid-2000’s, when pretty much every other game EA was releasing was a tie-in for some movie (okay, I’m probably exaggerating but they pumped out a lot of crap).
Telltale didn’t have anything of its own to use to prop up the smaller profit margins. When everything is licensed and everything has to be divided up amongst more parties, the share of the profits – if any – gets significantly smaller. This is grade-school mathematics for heavens sake. It’s so obvious you’d probably be laughed out of business school for asking this to be clarified. Studios NEED their own franchises because those profits offset the smaller shares made on licenses.
Got that? Good.
This leads into the next problem; Telltale never really fixed their engine. Having a proprietary engine is a wonderful thing and it’s certainly a good way to cut some of the costs, particularly if you’re reusing that engine over and over again so your talent knows how to use it and turnover is faster (we’ll get to that misleading nugget in a bit). But after eight years, the Telltale Engine has been noticeably struggling to keep up with the times. In the last 18 months, we’ve seen Nintendo showcase multiple new game engines (Breath of the Wild, the new Pokémon engine, Splatoon 2‘s engine that’s meant it gets a ton of content even now and so on), Sony has shown what it can do in God of War, Spiderman, The Last of Us: Part II and hell, even Detroit: Become Human, which is a terrible game in many ways but that engine is seriously good work.
Telltale games just don’t really look that impressive any more – we know what to expect. The engine still has bugs, the games still have issues, and the whole thing smacks of cutting corners. Probably because they genuinely didn’t have enough money to actually spend on people to improve this engine, or build a new-generational one. Thus creating a feedback loop of terrifying implications; can’t fix the engine because lack of money, can’t make the games perfect enough because you’re getting shafted somewhat by all the license holders. Rinse and repeat that for eight years. And then consider why anyone is shocked at this having happened.
It of course doesn’t help that the delays between episodes was sometimes outrageous.
Episodic Content is neither new nor inherently a bad idea; like any business proposition, there are pros and cons that need to be assessed. The thing is… the one thing episodic content needs to work is razor-sharp timing. Games have to be out on time, each episode has to be dated and those dates have to be rigidly adhered to. Which Telltale was, frankly, terrible at. You could wait months between episode one and episode two, then three comes out two weeks later and then more months until the final episodes are finished. Say what you want about Resident Evil: Revelations 2, but I will give Capcom endless props for getting that episodic conceit right. Four episodes, comprised of two parts each (Claire and Barry), one a week for a month. And they stuck to it. I have a lot of respect for that, because that… isn’t how it usually works.
And yes, I could make a joke about Half Life 2: Episode 3 here but that horse is so dead there’s no necromancy in existence that could revive it. I mean, seriously.
Delays mean less money rolling in, particularly for those buying on a per-episode basis. But the overheads – wages, utilities, taxes, rent and so on – don’t give you much room to breathe. So a delay of a month means, effectively, less money that month which eats into whatever stash or savings you have accrued. A delay of three months? Yeah, that’s three months worth of all those overheads to cover with minimal new financial aid pouring in. This just adds up over time.
Episodic Gaming of this kind relies on meeting those release deadlines. Which is probably why Telltale was the only company still wholly reliant on this method of business. There’s just no room for error here; even Resident Evil: Revelations 2 was technically complete when they broke it up (which is of course a whole ‘nother can of worms). Any delay is a bad delay; even a delay of a week means one week less of additional revenue generation. Getting a reputation for delays when being so dependent on being on time? That’s a really bad situation to be in, and even though Telltale got better – it’s a stain that they found hard to remove from their reputation.
The final issue is sadly the thing that was predictable enough that any sane company would have considered future-proofing years ago, but yeah… I think the market just inherently went off these games and this studio in question. The sales were declining despite increased praise from critics, which by the way as an aside here – you cannot live forever on praise and hype, because that doesn’t pay the bills. Pleasing the critics and commentators may make the PR job easier, but it doesn’t convert to sales figures; if consumers aren’t interested or are going elsewhere, then… that’s what will happen, and there’s nothing you can do about that.
Tastes and expectations in video games have been going through a radical change in the last two years; the Nintendo Switch redefined handheld gaming (what, you thought I’d get through a whole post without mentioning the Switch? Yeah, it’s depressing me too – Editing Kami), Sony has effectively nailed the action-adventure genre, Microsoft… has Minecraft? Eh. We’ve gone through challenges like loot boxes, so people are becoming inherently suspicious about licenses at bargain-bin prices. And we’re on the cusp of a whole new console generation too, which I genuinely believe would have required Telltale to build a new engine at this point. Hell, even Bethesda has done that for the next-gen. That alone should tell you what we’re in store for. The landscape has changed, again, and will further change in the coming years.
Telltale Games was wonderfully, and woefully, behind the times. It was being left in the dust, and it needed… well… it needed more. It had no property of its own to fall back on, nothing of any notable value of its own belonging – the engine probably wasn’t worth much anymore considering it needed such a heavy upgrade – and ultimately, some of these projects just weren’t at all successful or profitable. And they had nothing left in reserve to cushion those blows, it would seem.
And so, we must say goodbye to another studio. And I will remember them fondly. Telltale has given me much gaming pleasure over the years; Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People, for example, was a gloriously kitsch bit of Internet Nostalgia. And Poker Night At The Inventory… damn if that didn’t teach me the mechanics of poker better than anyone ever has. Helps that it was also very, VERY funny.
But no. I had wondered for months if I should audibly ask the question on how Telltale was going to survive the shift into a new console generation. The answer – as it turns out – is they couldn’t.
It’s no surprise. But there are times you really hope you’re wrong. And this was one of them…