When Telltale Games employees arrived at the office on the morning of September 21, 2018, nothing of ill omen was apparent. In fact, things looked promising with high-profile projects on the horizon. The work on an adaptation of Minecraft: Story Mode for Netflix was in full swing, the studio had just sealed a deal on a game based on the streaming giant’s Stranger Things, and confirmed the long-awaited sequel to The Wolf Among Us. At the same time, the second episode of The Walking Dead: The Final Season would hit online stores in the following week, with the development of the remaining two episodes ongoing.
Nevertheless, just a couple of hours later, Telltale would ask 90% of its staff to leave the building with no job, no severance package, and only nine more days of health insurance in the exorbitant Bay Area.
The company’s shutdown reverberated throughout the game industry, leaving me and millions of the studio’s fans across the globe aghast and heartbroken. Innovative and willing to take risks since day one, Telltale granted the doomed-to-death adventure game genre a second wind and revolutionized the industry with its narrative-first outlook and episodic approach to storytelling. Grief-stricken, I could not wrap my mind around how my favorite gaming company could go from the top of its game (literally) to hell in a handbasket. Surprisingly, researching and reflecting on this collapse provided revelations not only on a few skeletons in the studio’s closet, but on a conceptual pitfall all of us succumb to.
Ultimately, Telltale’s biggest issue was never admitting a global mistake where a localized one could be used as a scapegoat. “Hm, too bad changing the CEO did not work… Eureka! Let’s try laying off 25% of our workforce”, as opposed to “We have to eradicate the unhealthy crunch culture in the company, it makes our best developers leave”. “Projects! More projects! Mwahaha!”, instead of “Our toxic management, poor planning, and refusal to diversify gameplay create a detrimental environment for creative effort, which affects the quality of our games and, consequently, our profits”. Losing investors day by day, the executives still refused to desist from unreasonable optimism and ego. The studio that started its journey as a protest against convention saw its end in a state of creative doldrums. The curtain falls.
It would be simple to dub Telltale’s administration a bunch of morons and draw a line under the whole affair, if it was not so human to fall into the inimical mindset that only allows the acceptance of failure in small digestible crumbs, exposing us to the same mistakes in the future. We do our best to minimize the embarrassment or to defy it completely; time and effort invested compromising with common sense, common sense compromising with pride. We reluctantly forfeit every single millimeter of ground, refusing to see the bigger picture or confess that we have been idiots the whole time while there is still a chance to turn the ship around. We fumble for buckets, hire crewman, and devise intricate mechanisms to save our sinking rafts, all while running around it frantically in shoes with nails on the bottom.
This is why the colossal oops moment, the I-messed-up realization, is crucial. It will be painful, but the alternative is stagnation and shooting shadows. The alternative is Telltale.
So let yourself say “oops” and lose already. It is better to swallow the poignant, but curative pill in one revolting gulp.