On September 21st, 2018, gamers were shocked to find out that the reigning champion of the adventure genre, Telltale Games, was cancelling all of its projects and laying off the vast majority of its staff. While the closure of a famous firm and the fact hundreds of people are now unemployed is without a doubt terrible news, but I’m not going to pretend to act surprised by it. That’s not to say that I was hoping for Telltale to close down. In fact, I even wrote an article last year with a few franchises they should tackle next. However, I was expecting for Telltale to suffer some dire complications due to some factors caused by the company over the past few years.
First of all, we should point out the obvious: Telltale’s engine is a laughing stock of the industry. Anyone who has ever played a Telltale game is well aware of how glitchy its games usually are, especially at launch. Between horrendous bugs, lengthy loading screen times, lack of audio synchronization, and an overall lack of visual polish, you knew what you would get when buying a new Telltale season pass. The fact the company has never attempted to make a new engine or come up with massive and noticeable improvements to the old one, not only turned Telltale into a small meme amongst gamers, but also made people less and less excited for its newer titles. Especially since games like Guardians of the Galaxy would still run, look, and feel like a rushed PS2 title at best.
Another main issue: saturation. Think about a company like Lucasarts. Besides Star Wars and Indiana Jones games, they were widely known for their fantastic adventure titles. But back in their prime years, they weren’t releasing many games a year. The critically acclaimed Monkey Island series got 4 games in a decade. The sequel to Maniac Mansion, the magnificent Day of the Tentacle, was released six years after the original.
Meanwhile, let’s take a look at how many different games Telltale has released since 2010: one Back to the Future game, a whopping five Walking Dead games, two Minecraft spinoffs, two Batman games, one Jurassic Park game, one Game of Thrones game, one Borderlands spinoff, one Guardians of the Galaxy game, and The Wolf Among Us. Telltale was also working on yet another Wolf Among Us season, another Game of Thrones season and a brand new Stranger Things title prior to its demise. Fifteen titles (plus three cancelled ones) released over an eight-year span. Not even Activision would be that crazy to release that many games during its Guitar Hero days.
Finally, there’s also the fact that the company has always resorted in creating games based off really famous IPs. Anyone with half a brain is aware that licensing rights aren’t cheap, especially if you’re trying to come up with a Batman, Walking Dead, Guardians of the Galaxy, Game of Thrones, or Back to the Future game. I have always wondered how Telltale was able to afford securing the rights to so many franchises at once, all while selling their season passes for much less than your average AAA outing. Add in the previously mentioned market saturation and you can clearly imagine the past few Telltale games have probably failed to reach a breakeven point. Not owning any actual franchise of its own may have also been a factor that made Telltale less interesting as a purchasable asset for investors or bigger companies, as all they would get with the transaction would be a ton of staff and the aforementioned dated engine.
Telltale’s demise ended up becoming a typical case of a small firm that tried to bite off more than it could chew, like a modern day iteration of the tale of Icarus. It’s terrible news for the industry, but hardly surprising. With this, all I wish is for the former Telltale staff to get new jobs in other companies and keep on doing what they best: write good stories, help out other franchises with improved plots, and storytelling progression. The point and click genre lives on with companies like Tim Schafer’s Double Fine and indie titles like 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, so let’s try not to panic as of now.