Telltale Games: The Demise and State of Episodic Games

It was a major blow to the gaming community when independent video game company, Telltale Games, announced their imminent closure. This collapse left fans of their franchise both angry and disappointed, exacerbated by the loss of the long-anticipated continuations of so many beloved series.

Telltale Games, an independent video game developing and publishing company, was founded on October 4, 2004 in Marin County, California. While their first release was a generic Texas Hold’em computer game, eventually the company blossomed into their iconic, episodic point-and-click adventure style. As per their model, the company released games incomplete; consumers purchased a season pass that typically offered five “episodes” released over a period of about six months until the season was complete. In 2012, Telltale released the first season of their acclaimed The Walking Dead series, catapulting the company into instant fame among both fans of the comic book and television franchises and previously unfamiliar gamers. Their success allowed them to branch further into other popular series, such as The Wolf Among Us (2013) and Tales From the Borderlands (2014).

However, just one day before the company’s closure, AMC, Smilegate, and Lionsgate, three vital investors, backed out of a deal that could have potentially saved the company. This lead to Telltale’s sudden mass layoff of 250 employees the following day, a majority without severance pay. Consequently, Telltale has been served in a class-action lawsuit for violating the WARN Act, which requires corporations employing more than 100 employees to supply notification of a plant closure or mass layoff at least sixty days in advance. As of now, a skeleton crew of about 25 developers remains. They are tasked with completing the remaining episodes of the final season of The Walking Dead and bringing their other franchise, Minecraft: Story Mode, to Netflix.

So where did Telltale go wrong? The “telltale” signs of the company’s imminent downfall date back to their original business model from fourteen years ago. Specifically, I refer to their reluctance to produce their own intellectual property. For the past decade, Telltale’s marketability has relied on branching towards popular external franchises, like Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Minecraft. This was a gamble for the company, since it fostered unpredictability in overall consumer reception and sales. The risk was amplified by Telltale’s continuous investment in multiple external intellectual properties within a short span of time. Though the company made an effort to produce more seasons for their popular The Walking Dead and Minecraft franchises, these series did not save the company from further diminishing sales.

Furthermore, Telltale failed to improve on their game engine and product models throughout the years. This meant that their games carried severe glitches, awkward animations, and unpolished lip syncing, thus lowering the visual quality of their games. Essentially, the appeal of their games relied heavily on captivating narrative rather than physical quality. Telltale also prided themselves on how their stories tailor themselves to the player’s choices. However, consumers and critics quickly saw past the illusion and realized how inconsequential their decisions actually are in affecting the game’s ultimate story. Granted, the company made plans to improve the visual quality and performance of their games by upgrading to the Unity game engine after they completed the final season of The Walking Dead. However, this improvement came too late.

Telltale Games was ultimately ruined by its ineffective business model and rapid growth. However, it is undeniable that Telltale Games made a positive impact on the gaming community, notably by promoting the popularity of “Let’s Players”, such as Pewdiepie and Cryaotic. The success of their first season of The Walking Dead inspired other developers to pursue a similar format, most notably Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange series. Despite its fatal flaws, Telltale Games made its legacy in the gaming industry by weaving incredible narratives in a style unique to the video game medium.

It is a bitter end to a once-beloved company, but Telltale Games offered emotional and inspiring adventures that reached millions within the gaming community over the last decade. As for the final season of The Walking Dead, a resurrection may be on the horizon. Skybound Games, a game publishing and developing division under Skybound Entertainment, announced recently that they have paired with Telltale Games to finish the franchise, thus leaving hope to give the company a proper send-off.

Albert Le is a third year English and Film & Media Studies double major. He can be reached at leat3@uci.edu.