Developer Telltale Games, maker of the popular episodic narrative games The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, is still dealing with the aftermath of an effective studio closure last Friday that saw around 250 employees, or 90 percent of its workforce, laid off without severance. Now, the studio says it’s shopping around the final season of The Walking Dead to third-party partners in hopes of appeasing fans eager for a conclusion to the saga that began in 2012 as an original spinoff of the graphic novel and TV show.
The second episode of the fourth and final season is due out this week, but Telltale has neither the finances nor developer team, it seems, to finish the season’s remaining two episodes without outside help. Other projects left in the wind are Netflix’s Stranger Things and Minecraft: Story Mode adaptations, with the latter apparently still set to be completed by Telltale’s skeleton crew of 25 employees and the Stranger Things project up in the air.
But the somber and supportive reaction among Telltale employees, fans, and game industry workers has quickly shifted toward frustration as it appears the studio is prioritizing the demands of fans over the needs of its employees, many of whom are no longer able to afford healthcare, rent, or other basic necessities.
With its main office in San Rafael in Marin County, CA, many of Telltale’s employees were based in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has the highest cost of living among metropolitan areas in the US. According to former employees, healthcare coverage through Telltale is set to expire this week.
Among the prominent voices condemning Telltale’s handling of the situation is God of War director Cory Barlog, who spent five years helping craft the massively successful reboot of the series and is among one of the most vocal supporters of healthy working conditions in the game industry:
I would hope this means that you will first pay your entire team their severance, and then proceed to finish the final episodes. I would be fine waiting however long it took to ensure we first treated those who worked so hard with the humanity and respect they deserve.❤️— Cory Barlog ️ Should be writing! (@corybarlog) September 25, 2018
Others, including former Telltale employee Job Stauffer, expressed sympathy for the connections fans may have developed with The Walking Dead series and its protagonist Clementine, but made clear that there is a real human cost to creating large, story-driven video games. And it appears Telltale has largely ignored that cost, to the eventual closure of the studio and the situation its former employees find themselves in today:
Clementine will always be like a daughter to the teams of 100’s of people that ‘raised’ her since 2012. But those people have REAL kids. Real mouths to feed, and they need to be fed FIRST before the fans. #Telltale250 https://t.co/ANcvqZEehJ— Job J Stauffer (@jobjstauffer) September 25, 2018
Seriously. That team is more important than Clementine. Sorry fans, it’s true. The health & well-being of 250 of the BEST people I’ve EVER worked with is more important than the end of Clem’s story. Maybe RK can finish her story on the show or the comic. People need severance! https://t.co/4D4c3LpkhZ— Job J Stauffer (@jobjstauffer) September 25, 2018
Former employee Emily Buck has been among the most vocal, using her Twitter account to extensively give a signal boost to work opportunities, fan condolences, and commentary about the situation at Telltale and the broader game industry this past weekend. Upon hearing about Telltale’s decision to find a third-party partner for the final season of TWD, Buck said it was yet another message sent to game developers that their work and livelihood are not valued:
We aren’t replaceable. None of the former Telltale employees are or have ever been replaceable. They’re quality. And they all deserve so much better.— Emily Grace Buck plz hire TTG devs! (@emilybuckshot) September 25, 2018
Part of the anger here is a result of Telltale’s widespread management issues and its notorious crunch culture, or the act of working dozens of hours of overtime per week to meet strict deadlines and ship dates. As The Verge reported earlier this year, Telltale has long been plagued by toxic workplace conditions that saw numerous new projects taken on — for Game of Thrones, Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy, and numerous other franchises — with little regard for the mental and physical toll it was taking on its developers and artists.
Many employees have burned out of the industry due to a career at Telltale, and now it appears those who stayed on and remained dedicated to the company’s projects were nonetheless let go without any kind of financial safety net. Prior layoffs at Telltale back in November 2017 were treated differently, with employees paid out for the remainder of the year and helped with future employment through a job fair.
It remains unclear why the situation at Telltale grew so grave so quickly in the ensuing nine months, and why the company felt it had to treat its current employees this way. But the studio has since become a prime example of poor game industry working conditions and a focal point in the growing movement to unionize developers.
As one of the affected employees, Brandon Cebenka, put it on Friday in a now-viral tweet, “None of my sleepless nights or long hours on weekends trying to ship a game on time got me severance today.”
Re: I got laid off at Telltale— Brandon Cebenka (@Binkysaur) September 21, 2018
None of my sleepless nights or long hours on weekends trying to ship a game on time got me severance today. Don’t work overtime unless you’re paid for it, y’all. Protect your health. Companies don’t care about you.