原文作者： Megan Farokhmanesh 译者：Megan Shieh
2012年，《星际迷航》女演员Zoe Saldana在一个灯光昏暗的舞台上宣布《行尸走肉》荣获“Spike视频游戏评选年度大奖”。这场胜利对于Telltale Games这个规模较小的开发商而言是一次巨大的成功，它用这款以情绪化、故事叙述为核心的僵尸系列游戏击败了许多大型热门游戏，比如《Dishonored（耻辱）》和《Mass Effect 3 （质量效应3）》。
包括联合创始人Kevin Bruner、Dan Connors以及《行尸走肉》作者Robert Kirkman在内的三位Telltale成员一起登上了领奖台。Kirkman从女演员手中接过了这座巨大的奖杯，并将它交到了两位联合创始人手中。然后工作室创始人之一Bruner示意了台上的另外两个人（Sean Vanaman和Jake Rodkin，他们分别是《行尸走肉》第一季的项目主管和联合创造者），感谢他们创造出了游戏中的几个英雄。在台上，没有人感谢这俩人创造出了该工作室有史以来最大、最成功的项目。接着，Vanaman突然毫无预警地从Bruner手中抽走了奖杯，并说道：“我们工作室的成员都是地球上最棒的！”
接着，该公司开始已惊人的速度招聘员工，公司规模在短短几年内增加了两倍。没过多久，它们吸引到了一些好莱坞超级热门IP的注意，接着推出了《蝙蝠侠：The Telltale Series》、《权力的游戏》、《银河护卫队：The Telltale Series》等衍生游戏，这些游戏往往更注重叙事和情感投资，而不是动作或夸张的场景。
冒险游戏曾经是PC游戏的同义词，而Telltale则是从冒险游戏的灰烬中诞生的。在《King’s Quest（国王密使）》、《The Secret of Monkey Island（猴岛的秘密）》和《Myst（神秘岛）》等游戏中，创造力、想象力和解谜技巧是最重要的。在20世纪80年代末和90年代初，冒险游戏开发商Sierra和LucasArts是该领域的佼佼者；但到了90年代末，他们的受欢迎程度出现下降，因为玩家的喜好转向了射击类或3D游戏。
Telltale Games的创始人Bruner Connors和Troy Molander都曾是LucasArts工作室的员工，他们在2014年创建了Telltale并重做了曾经大受欢迎的LucasArts游戏，比如《Sam & Max （山姆和麦克斯）》和《 Monkey Island（猴岛）》，然而当时人们普遍认为“冒险游戏时代已经不复存在了”。为了让这种游戏再次成为主流（而且有利可图），该工作室的几位联合创始人决定改善互动故事的叙述，并深化随之而来的角色扮演。
2011年推出的《Jurassic Park: The Game（侏罗纪公园）》被评论家形容为“低劣”和“令人失望”的一款游戏，而《行尸走肉》则被评为是该工作室目前为止最令人兴奋的项目。《行尸走肉》不是一款典型的冒险游戏——玩家在游戏中四处游荡、解答谜题，它更专注于主人公Lee和年轻女孩Clementine之间的“父女”关系，Lee拯救了这个女孩并在后来的日子里一直保护着她。这种场景给了玩家一种看电影的感觉，使它有别于其他Telltale游戏，该作带有引人入胜的剧本、强大的声音表演，并可以吸引玩家投入大量情感。它迫使玩家作出艰难的道德选择，而不是简单的“对或错”选择：你的团队中有两名成员濒临死亡，但你只能救一个。谁会被你救活，而谁又会被你抛弃？你的选择会改变故事展开的方式。
Telltale内部的多个消息来源指出，核心开发者Jake Rodkin 和Sean Vanaman是推动该作取得成功的主要因素。Vanaman撰写了游戏中的多个剧情章节，Vanaman和Rodkin导演了第一个章节并共同执导了第一季《行尸走肉》的开发。其实Telltale当时面临的财务困境对《行尸走肉》产生了一个积极的影响——《侏罗纪公园》的受欢迎程度很低，这就意味着该工作室几乎没有时间放慢或停止研发，游戏必须尽早推出，这就给了《行尸走肉》的创意团队一个优势：他们可以忽略或绕过管理层给出的一些他们不认同的反馈。一位熟悉该项目的消息人士称，Rodkin和Vanaman的性格都比较强势，强势到可以反对工作室创始人所提出的创造性决策并一次又一次地按照自己想要的方式创造游戏。“因为这款游戏是按照他们自己觉得理想的方式开发的，所以《行尸走肉》才能取得这么大的成功。”
除了Vanaman和Rodkin之外，该公司的资源还因其他高调离职而减少，包括Adam Hines, Chuck Jordan, Dave Grossman和Mike Stemmle。2017年早些时候，资深员工Dennis Lenart, Pierre Shorette, Nick Herman和Adam Sarasohn四人同时离开Telltale加入了育碧。他们都曾参与过工作室的主力游戏项目，而他们的离开也使Telltale的创造性部分出现了空白。一位消息人士表示：“这些人都曾是公司的创意头头，在创造性方面为公司指明道路，他们离开了以后有时我会想，不该走的人都走了，我们还剩下谁？”
有人说Bruner的行为导致Rodkin和Vanaman在《行尸走肉》第一季大获成功后选择离开。一位了解内幕的消息人士说：“他们厌倦了与Bruner的战斗。”离开公司后，他们开创了自己的独立工作室，而这家工作室正是开发了著名游戏《看火人（Firewatch）》的Campo Santo。此外，Telltale前资深员工Adam Hines离开后也开创了自己的Night School工作室，该工作室开发了饱受赞誉的惊悚青少年冒险游戏《狼奔豕突（Oxenfree）》。
In 2012, on a light-drenched stage amid screams and cheers, Star Trekactress Zoe Saldana announced Spike Video Game Awards’ game of the year: The Walking Dead. The win was a huge coup for its relatively small developer, Telltale Games. Its emotional, storytelling-focused take on the popular zombie franchise beat out hugely popular games like Dishonoredand Mass Effect 3 that required hundreds of developers and cost tens of millions of dollars to make.
The Telltale Games team, including co-founders Kevin Bruner and Dan Connors, and The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, made their way onstage to accept the award. Kirkman accepted the large, black statue from Saldana with both hands and handed it off to Connors and Bruner. Bruner, in turn, gestured two others onstage: Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin, the project leads and co-creators of the game, thanking them for creating the game’s heroes. Neither of them was named onstage for their work in creating the studio’s biggest creative success. Shortly before two women in sparkly outfits ushered everyone offstage, Vanaman abruptly pulled the statue from Bruner’s hand in a moment that appeared unplanned and said, “We work with the most talented people on the planet.”
At the time, Telltale was a studio of under 100 people, small by mainstream studio standards where headcounts can range from hundreds to thousands. And in an industry where storytelling often takes a back seat to “fun” gameplay, the win established Telltale as a successful developer that valued storytelling and character development above all else. Over the next several months, awards for The Walking Deadcontinued to pile up — a pivotal and defining moment for a studio that had been in a challenging financial situation just a year before. The company began hiring at a breakneck speed, tripling its headcount over just a few years. Soon, it would capture the attention of some of Hollywood’s most well-loved franchises, delivering spinoff games
likeBatman, Game of Thrones, and Guardians of the Galaxy that focused on narrative and emotional investment instead of action or bombastic set pieces.
But the studio’s meteoric rise would not last. In November 2017, the company announced that it was laying off 90 developers, roughly a quarter of its staff. For some at Telltale, the news was a shock. For others, the inevitable outcome of what sources familiar with the company describe as years of a culture that promoted constant overwork, toxic management, and creative stagnation. (The Verge spoke to more than a dozen current and former developers at Telltale for this story, many of whom requested anonymity for fear of retribution from current and prospective employers.) Although some of the problems were specific to Telltale and its management, many of the developer’s troubles were emblematic of the unsustainable and erratic development practices that plague the video game industry at large.
These conditions almost always hit one group the hardest: developers, or the people who actually make the games. Layoffs are a pervasive fact of life, even at successful studios where developers are often hired en masse to help hit tight deadlines and then fired to cut costs after the game ships or is canceled. With the next deadline, the cycle begins anew. Overwork, job insecurity, and profound burnout are omnipresent concerns; more than three-quarters of developers report working under “crunch” conditions, which can mean working up to 20 hours a dayand more than 100 hours a week. These practices can have a significant and debilitating cost to employees, one that often feels baked into video game development culture.
The story of Telltale — its rise, decline, and potential reformation — is not just the story of the missteps of one studio. It’s a shocking window into the $36 billion video game industry (which is now so large and lucrative that it rivals the film industry), and how its worst practices can grind down and burn out even the most devoted and valuable employees.
Telltale emerged from the ashes of the adventure game genre, which was once synonymous with PC gaming. In popular titles like King’s Quest, The Secret of Monkey Island, and Myst, creativity, imagination, and puzzle-solving skills were the most important toolset to have. Adventure game developers Sierra and LucasArts were kings in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but by the late ‘90s, their popularity declined in favor of shooters and 3D games. Telltale Games’ founders — Bruner, Connors, and Troy Molander — were all former LucasArts employees, and by the time they created Telltale in 2004 and resurrected once-popular LucasArts properties like Sam & Max and Monkey Island, adventure games were widely considered “dead and buried.”
To make this style of gaming mainstream (and profitable) again, the co-founders decided to focus on improving interactive storytelling and deepen the role-playing that came along with it. In 2007, Telltale raised more than $6 million in venture capital funding, investments that inevitably came with strings — namely a burden to prove growth and success to a board of members outside of the direct studio.
Just like in film, licensed properties offer a safer alternative to pursuing the costly business of building out original IPs. So rather than putting its resources into creating original worlds, Telltale turned to established worlds and the fanbases that love them — franchises like Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, and of course, The Walking Dead.
Coming off the heels of 2011’s Jurassic Park: The Game, which was described by critics as “subpar” and “a disappointment,” The Walking Dead was the studio’s most exciting project yet: a perfect storm of in-house creative talent, mainstream name recognition, and storytelling that took advantage of Telltale’s narrative strengths. Instead of a typical adventure game where players wander around and solve puzzles, The Walking Dead focused on the paternal relationship between the hero, Lee, and a young girl named Clementine, whom he rescues and protects. It had a cinematic feel that set it apart from other Telltale games, with riveting writing, powerful voice acting performances, and high emotional stakes. It pushed players to make tough moral choices with no easy answers: two members of your small band of survivors are on the edge of death. You can only save one. Who gets to live, and who will you abandon? Your choices transform the way the story unfolds.
Internally, multiple sources pointed to a specific locus for the success ofThe Walking Dead: lead developers Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman. Vanaman wrote several of the game’s episodic chapters, and Vanaman and Rodkin directed the first chapter and guided the overall first season together. If Telltale’s financial woes had one positive creative impact onThe Walking Dead, it’s that the poor reception for Jurassic Park meant the studio had little time to slow or halt development. The game had to come out, which gave the Walking Dead creative team leverage to ignore or skirt around feedback from upper management that they vehemently disagreed with. Rodkin and Vanaman developed a reputation as personalities strong enough to challenge the founders on creative decisions, and pushed over and over again to create the game the way that they wanted, says a source familiar with the project. “They won, and it ended up being this huge success.”
When Telltale released the first episode of The Walking Dead in April 2012, even some of the people who worked on the game were surprised by how positive the audience reaction was. By January 2013, the game had sold more than 8.5 million copies — or episodes — raking in more than $40 million in sales. In October 2013, the company claimed to have sold more than 21 million different episodes individually across all of its platforms. Telltale started to expand, signing partnerships with Gearbox Software, HBO, and Mojang and transitioning from a small studio to a midlevel company with multiple licensed properties.
The culture of the company changed dramatically as a result. Former employees describe Telltale in its early days as a small, tight-knit group with a strong sense of camaraderie. New hires trickled in slowly. Upper management had been much less involved in the day-to-day, and developers were given more freedom to do their jobs as they saw best. But the success of The Walking Dead spurred the company to expand rapidly: in order to suit both its growing ambitions and keep investors happy, it became a company that many long-standing employees no longer recognized. “We went from a small and scrappy team to kind of a giant studio full of 300-plus people,” says former Telltale programmer and designer Andrew Langley, who worked at the studio from 2008 to 2015. “You walk around the office, and you don’t really recognize anybody anymore.”
Sources say the culture of the studio never properly adapted from its indie mentality to one more appropriate for its larger size. Tribal knowledge persisted over clearly documented processes, and a lack of communication among employees bred confusion. “Very rarely people were writing things down on a wiki or a confluence page or any sort of documentation,” says a former employee. “People were shifting so often that you would hear a version of a story that was actually weeks old, and the person telling you has no idea because that’s the last thing they heard.”
Then, of course, there were the personnel shifts. Despite shepherding the studio’s most successful project to date, Vanaman and Rodkin didn’t stay to continue work on season 2. Their high-profile departure, particularly in the wake of their success, foreshadowed problems that would come to the fore again and again as Telltale moved forward — ones that would lead some of their best voices to leave the studio, time and time again.
As Telltale became more prolific, it took on more and more simultaneous projects. In 2013, it released episodes of The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead: Season 2. In late 2014, it launched episodes from its newly procured licenses with Game of Thrones and Borderlands that would stretch into 2015, along with a Minecraft game. As 2016 rolled into 2017, it also took on Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy, and more seasons of The Walking Dead and Minecraft. One employee described a T-shirt that the studio distributed with its episode release dates as so packed that it looked it was promoting a concert tour.
To keep up with the workload, the company started rotating developers in and out of different games during the development process, sometimes in ways that employees say made little sense. As the developer’s schedule grew more aggressive, management sought to remedy tighter turnarounds by adding more people to the department — a “solution” that did little to help the problem. As one former Telltale developer put it: nine women can’t make a baby in one month. “Focus on quality really started to shift to ‘let’s just get as many episodes out as we can,’” the source says.
Time management was a major issue. Release dates would often slip after games underwent multiple, extensive reviews that came with a great deal of feedback, but failed to budget enough time to make the changes. “The pace at which the studio operated was both an amazing feat and its biggest problem,” says a former employee. “Executives would often ask teams to rewrite, redesign, recast, and reanimate up until the very last minute without properly adjusting the schedule. The demands on production only became more intense with each successful release, and at some point, you just don’t have anything left to give.”
“Crunch culture” is well-documented and endemic in the gameindustry, and Telltale was no exception. Some former employees reported working 14- to 18-hour days or coming in every day of the week for weeks on end. But where most developers go into “crunch mode” in the final months of a game leading up to its launch, they described it as constant. Because of the episodic nature of Telltale’s games, the studio’s development cycle was a constantly turning wheel. As soon as one episode wrapped, it was on to the next one, over and over with no end in sight. “Everything [was] always on fire,” one source with direct knowledge of the company says. “You never [got] a break.” This sentiment was echoed over and over to The Verge by four different people across several parts of Telltale.
“EVERYTHING WAS ALWAYS ON FIRE.”
Although many employees were sympathetic to the pressure to hit financial goals and meet the strict requirements and late requests of major IP holders, the rapid pace of development caused many employees to feel significant burnout. Eventually, the emails from higher-ups encouraging the staff to push through a particularly rough patch began to feel redundant. “This just feels like last month. And the month before that,” said the same source, describing the reaction to the emails. “And the month before that… It was exhausting.”
Telltale offers unlimited paid time off, but as is often the case, that places the burden on individuals directly to establish their limit and makes some people less likely to take vacations. At Telltale, sources say taking time off meant a willingness to push that work on to other members of their team and that while the crunch was never billed as a “mandatory” time to be in the office, it often felt that way.
Developers who were given a six-day-a-week schedule that lasted months typically felt they had two choices: quit or suck it up. “What happens is the people who give a fuck the most are the people who pay the price,” says a former employee. “[People who] take a lot of pride in this product are the people who are going to kill themselves. And those are the people you really don’t want killing themselves because they have the most value in the company.”
More than half a dozen sources across the company also talked about a perceived culture of underpayment, citing salaries below industry standards that also required living in the notoriously expensive Bay Area. Issues of crunch and underpayment were particularly pervasive for the cinematics team, which was staffed by many junior members who had come straight from college.
“You’d get a lot of people coming right out of school, going, ‘Oh I really want to prove myself, and I really want to make sure that they see that I’m contributing,’” says a source familiar with the company. “The thing that broke my heart the most was seeing new team members that were just so gung-ho and optimistic and excited to be at Telltale get overused and abused because they did not feel comfortable drawing the line in the sand to say, ‘This is my limit.’ They either worked themselves out and would get sick or would become bitter.”
The cinematics department was also where the burden of visually building Telltale’s fictional worlds fell most heavily, especially when production schedules did not account for the time they needed to address narrative changes. A scene could be rewritten in a few hours or days, for example, but translating that into visuals is a much more time-consuming process. One person with direct knowledge of Telltale’s inner workings described it as building train tracks while the train is already speeding along them.
Some managers would try to alleviate the pain of crunch by supplying overtime workers with food or alcohol, “token gestures” sources say were an effort to make the process as comfortable as possible. “They were putting a Band-Aid on a wound that had been there for years,” the source says. “They were just trying to get their job done right now, but nobody was looking long-term and being like, ‘This is unsustainable.’”
In addition to Vanaman and Rodkin, who are often cited as two of the biggest creative losses for the studio, the resources at the company were diminished by other high-profile departures, including Adam Hines, Chuck Jordan, Dave Grossman, and Mike Stemmle. Earlier in 2017, veteran employees Dennis Lenart, Pierre Shorette, Nick Herman, and Adam Sarasohn left the studio simultaneously and moved to Ubisoft. Between the four of them, they’d worked on some of the studio’s most successful games. Their absences left a vacuum of creative leadership. “These people who have been the stewards of the creative torch at Telltale, when they leave, it’s like, who the fuck do we have left?” one source says.
Many more also quietly exited the studio. “They were really kind, hardworking people that didn’t make waves, but they were really good at their job and kept their heads down and worked,” says a source with direct knowledge of the company. “Every time one of them left, my heart [broke] a little bit. It was sad for me to see that the really talented, aggressive, abrasive people were very successful at Telltale, whereas a lot of the quieter, collaborative creative people were leaving.”
Multiple sources say the some of the studio’s most troubling dynamics originated from one person: co-founder Kevin Bruner.
Bruner worked primarily as a programmer prior to Telltale, including during his stint at LucasArts. But he wore many hats during his time at Telltale: first as the company’s CTO and later as a director and CEO. According to numerous current and former employees, Bruner’s behavior became significantly more abrasive and inflexible after the success ofThe Walking Dead. Thanks to his background in programming, he had been a strong force in creating game development tools for Telltale. As the studio’s popularity exploded, some employees felt he wanted to step into the role of a design auteur, which sources say made him resistant to give the spotlight to other employees at the company.
“That’s when things got really bad,” says a former employee. “I think a lot of the insecurity came from The Walking Dead.” The game’s success had significantly raised the profiles of Rodkin and Vanaman and earned them widespread praise. “I think that that really irked [Bruner] a lot,” says the source. “He felt that… he deserved that. It was his project, or it was his company. He should have gotten all that love.”
Some say Bruner’s behavior led Rodkin and Vanaman to ultimately leave after the wildly successful first season of The Walking Dead. “They were tired of fighting with [Bruner],” says a source with direct knowledge. They jumped into indie development and founded their own studio called Campo Santo, where they released the award-winning game Firewatch. One source points to Campo Santo’s success, along with Night School Studios and its supernatural thriller Oxenfree — co-created by former Telltale veteran Adam Hines — as a catalyst for Bruner’s tightening grip.
“He was hesitant to give anyone much credit for having significant creative vision,” one source says. “He thought they would leave and become a competitor because he had a couple of strong examples of people doing exactly that.” If Bruner’s behavior was aimed at quashing future competitors, however, it only wound up driving more people out the door. Those who stayed as project leads often felt that they were no longer trusted to do their jobs, and were shuffled to the side in favor of giving Bruner the limelight. “There was a dark period of time where if you were in charge of a project, you are not getting any interviews,” one source says. “He’s going to be the one on the panel. He’s going to be the one doing the interviews. He’s going to be the one in the magazine.”
Bruner disputes this characterization. In an email to The Verge, he says he wanted to ensure that no series had the appearance of being the brainchild of a single contributor or small set of contributors, because of each project was so collaborative. “All Telltale productions were truly team efforts and I thought it was important that they be presented that way,” he says.
“Developing any game is an enormously complicated endeavor with many people working together to make it happen. This is particularly true when you make a five-episode series, with five sets of leads (writing, design, art, chore, etc.).”
Former employees and sources with direct knowledge of Telltale’s inner workings consistently describe Bruner as a creative bottleneck who micromanaged every part of the development process, from pitch to final product — even going so far as to personally rewrite tutorial text. “He wanted to be consulted on everything from the color of the walls to who they’ve hired to write specific dialogue,” a former employee says
“HOW MANY MORE TIMES CAN YOU SHOOT A KID AGAIN AND MAKE IT FEEL LIKE A REALLY INTENSE, CRAZY GAME MOMENT?”
Bruner took over as CEO of Telltale in 2015 from Connors, who former employees described as a far less imposing figure. Numerous employees describe Bruner as cultivating a culture of fear, and a running joke at the company compared Bruner’s attention to the Eye of Sauron, the fiery gaze of the villain in The Lord of the Rings. “Inevitably, the Eye of Sauron looks at you, and that beam of light just blows everything up and makes it a hellscape where you don’t believe in a thing you’re building anymore,” says a former employee. “A lot of times at Telltale, you don’t feel like you’re wanted there.”
Executive review meetings with higher-ups like Bruner became infamous within the company as brutal, hours-long arguments where Bruner would belittle and question the choices of those involved with the studio’s projects, according to half a dozen sources. “When [Bruner] saw something he decided he didn’t like — which very often was exactly what he had asked for — [that] was really undeserved, and often really difficult for teams to deal with,” the source says.
Tulley Rafferty, a former Telltale programmer who worked at the company from 2008 until the November layoffs, agrees that the critiques were often devastating. “There was no warning. You go into the executive review, and they take a giant turd on you. That was your feedback: ‘We hate this thing that you made.’”
“I remember hearing one of my bosses say, ‘I love that we can just shout at each other and curse at each other in a meeting. It’s totally great,’” says one former employee. “I [didn’t] feel that way at all. It sucks. I don’t want to work every day where I have to yell at people and scream to have my voice heard… I think a lot of people burned out that way.”
Bruner defended the executive reviews as a necessary part of the studio’s process and disputed the way former employees characterize them. “I don’t think anyone was intentionally bullied or belittled. The episodic nature of the games meant decisions had to get made quickly so we could produce the best possible content.”
But multiple sources told The Verge that they often felt like they weren’t making the best games possible, but rather the ones that Bruner personally preferred. “It often felt like we were building games specifically for him,” says one source with direct knowledge of the process. “We were tailoring the type of content we were building — not just gameplay mechanics, but tone, the types of characters we chose to use — to his taste. This was one of the biggest issues with him as a CEO: he was pretty convinced that his taste was everyone’s taste.”
Bruner pushes back against the idea that Telltale’s games only reflected his whims. “Taste is a tricky thing, and I’m confident the games reflected a lot of different tastes at the studio,” he says. “Our style of gameplay was really powerful but also constraining, and not everyone was comfortable working within those constraints.” Bruner said the studio’s decision to develop an easily identifiable tone was intentional, a way for them to become “world-class” in interactive storytelling. Adhering to the model pioneered by The Walking Dead meant there was “a certain type of game and gameplay that people could expect when they saw ‘The Telltale Series’ moniker,” Bruner says. “I’m very proud of that.”
For all his faults, former employees say Bruner did have some positive impacts on the studio and often described him as an intelligent guy with a great understanding of programming. In addition to building Telltale’s primary game development tool, he had a knack for spotting moments in game projects where players lost a sense of agency. One of the most recognizable mechanics in Telltale games, where players are told that a character “will remember that,” was his idea.
“A lot of times, his gut instinct for some things was correct,” says a former employee. “But the way that he expressed that to his employees was extremely toxic.” Another pointed out that despite the difficulty in working with him, some excellent projects have made it out of Telltale’s gates. “He didn’t shut those down. He challenged those teams, and I think you can look back at some of the output of the studio and you can say, well, he made that happen.”
Internally, however, frustration and resentment brewed among employees who felt the company had stagnated creatively. “How many more times can you shoot a kid again and make it feel like a really intense, crazy game moment that’s heartbreaking and harrowing?” says a source with direct knowledge of Telltale’s process. Many believed The Walking Deadwas a hit because it broke the model at the time and did something new; creatives within the studio wanted to do that again. But they say the company’s leaders were not just risk-averse, but adamantly opposed to experimentation.
Although developers tried to introduce new, more adventurous mechanics into games, including reinventing how quick-time events would work, their work never came to light. Despite the inherently unfinished nature of the sort of prototype they presented, developers felt that they still needed to present something “shippable” in order to get their ideas approved. “If it at all looked janky or not fixed or not done, [Bruner] would say no to it,” says one source with direct knowledge of the process. “He just lacked that insight, to see beyond what was there and go ok, I see where this was going.”
When asked why employees might feel they weren’t trusted to do their jobs, he says it was because he asked them “to entertain ideas that were generated from outside their discipline or from someone more junior to them. I think it’s important to be open to new ideas and that great ideas come from everywhere.”
According to about half a dozen sources familiar with Telltale, however, the problem for most employees wasn’t new ideas, but the lack of them.The Walking Dead had broken new ground for Telltale, both artistically and financially. Unfortunately, it also chained those running the company to an immovable idea: that the template of The Walking Dead was the only one worth pursuing.
As the company continued to expand, former employees say, its growth came at the expense of the creativity and originality that inspired their success in the first place. “They just wanted to put butts in seats,” one former employee says. “The folks at the very top never really understood what made Walking Dead work. They were given a recipe book, and they just followed the recipe because they don’t really understand why the recipe tastes good.”
After The Walking Dead, to describe one Telltale game was to describe all of them: an episodic adventure game that unfolded across sequentially released episodes, where players make difficult choices with emotional consequences. This became the creative mold at Telltale, where former employees say every new game was — to some degree — trying to recapture the spark of The Walking Dead. “Every game was held up to that standard, regardless of how realistic that was,” one source says.
Every source The Verge spoke to hailed Telltale as a studio full of some of the most talented, creative developers they’ve had the chance to work for. Many left — or say others left — because of their frustration or boredom with the company’s unwillingness to innovate, exhaustion at the constant crunch cycle, and Bruner’s tendency to cut people down, change objectives on a whim, proclivity to hog credit, or make them feel as though the company had no faith in them. But change has been coming to Telltale, however slowly and, in some cases, painfully.
Bruner’s time at Telltale came to a close in March 2017, when employees spotted him leaving the Telltale offices with his backpack. He’d left most of his things in his office; shortly after, the company got an email from him announcing that he had stepped down as CEO, and Connors would once again resume the position. Though rumors of Bruner’s departure had circulated widely, many were shocked when it came to pass. Others were more surprised by the quiet way Bruner had chosen to leave.
”My guess is that he saw writing on the wall,” says a source with direct knowledge of the company. “We needed to break out of the Telltale formula, do something different, surprise and delight people, multiple years ago. It’s reflected in [online] comments in articles about us. It’s reflected in our review scores. It’s reflected in our sales. It’s reflected in our game scores. Everyone [could] see that, not just people who work for Telltale.”
Asked about his departure, Bruner says that the time had come to explore other endeavors. “Telltale’s board of directors has been pursuing a path that I know will be better served by someone else,” Bruner says. “Of course, I personally spoke with the senior staff, producers, directors, and some longtime employees before I announced my departure more broadly to the entire staff.”
With Bruner gone, some of the stifling pressure improved. Last-minute changes became rarer, crunch began to ease up. People within the studio began to feel as though they had more creative freedom, as well as ownership and power over the projects they worked on.
For many, it was a welcome adjustment. “I didn’t realize how much we had learned to hold ourselves back from thinking big,” a source says. “How much we learned to tailor even initial pitches to what we knew would fly and what we knew wouldn’t with him … We’d really been trained to think small, and realizing that and beginning to get over that was a freeing experience.” And more changes were still to come.
“I DIDN’T REALIZE HOW MUCH WE HAD LEARNED TO HOLD OURSELVES BACK FROM THINKING BIG.”
By September 2017, Telltale had named a new CEO: former SVP and GM of games at Zynga, Pete Hawley. His hiring came with its fair share of trepidation. “Zynga’s kind of the Uber of the video game world,” Rafferty says. “Immediately, our guards [were] up.” Zynga had also undergone massive layoffs during Hawley’s time there, and when he held a Q&A session for Telltale employees, one of the first questions was whether layoffs were on the table for Telltale as well. Hawley’s response, which one source describes as a “PR answer,” did little to assuage their fears.
On November 7th, little more than a month after Hawley’s start, Telltale laid off 25 percent of its staff. Around 10AM, the affected employees — roughly 90 people — received emails asking them to attend a mandatory meeting. When they showed up, they learned that they no longer had jobs, before being shuffled off to a separate meeting to discuss benefits. “To use a cliche, it was like The Walking Dead,” says Rafferty. “People shuffling around hugging. There were tears. It was a blow.” The cuts affected both new and longtime employees in every area of the company.
By all accounts, the layoffs were handled as professionally and gently as possible. Those who had lost their jobs were paid out until the end of the year, and Telltale planned a job fair for them to meet and speak with recruiters. People were not denied severance or escorted from the building by security, but given time to gather their things and say goodbye. The remaining staff was given the rest of the day off so that they could spend time with their departing co-workers; they gathered at a pub in downtown San Rafael.
Many say they don’t fault Hawley for the cuts, but see them as the result of years of questionable business decisions. “Where Telltale was [as a company] right then, absolutely inevitable,” says Rafferty. “It was certainly preventable by not scaling up as aggressively as they did … I think this new guy came in and saw that, and was like we’ve gotta do something about it. I don’t totally blame him for doing what needs to be done to make the studio work.”
At least two sources said it was an inevitable move for a company that continued to pump out the same sort of games over and over. “I kept kind of wondering if the audience was going to become a little fatigued with the amount of games we were putting out, and the kind of games we were making,” says a former employee. “I guess my surprise was that maybe it didn’t happen sooner.”
Another source says that the professional manner of the layoffs coupled with Hawley’s more hands-off approach to development were signs that the company has entered into a new and more positive era. “We want to help the company redefine itself and find what its new niche is because it’s certainly not in making games that are cookie cutter what we’ve done before,” the source says.
Telltale’s mistakes — from its reliance on one monolithic vision to its inability to retain its top talent to its brutal and unending crunch — offer a cautionary tale for the wider games industry, where long hours, job insecurity, and unprofessional behavior are too often the norm. Now, as Telltale moves forward, it does so with a new plan in place: fewer, but hopefully better, games; fewer, but hopefully well-treated employees; and more support for creative innovation. “There is no Telltale secret sauce,” says a former employee. “Talented passionate individuals are why the good Telltale games are good.”
Although people within Telltale are still saddened by the loss of so many of their colleagues, many said they now feel more optimistic about the developer’s future than they have in a long time. “We’re certainly at a place where we have more freedom to experiment than we ever had in the past,” says one source. “Between last year and now the difference in the company is like night and day. I now walk into an executive review meeting knowing I’ll get usable feedback instead of wondering who will be in charge of the project tomorrow.”
The company will continue with its previously announced projects, including new seasons of established properties like Game of Thronesand The Wolf Among Us. One source tells The Verge that those production plans were not impacted by the layoffs.
Among those projects is The Walking Dead: The Final Season, slated for summer 2018. Six years after the first episode’s release, the fourth season of the game that helped define the best and worst of the studio will mark the end of an era — and perhaps the beginning of a new one. Telltale repeatedly declined any interviews for this article, with a representative noting in an email, “We want to be able to show our fans what the future of Telltale looks like rather than simply tell them, and we’re just not ready to do that yet.” （Source: theverge.com ）