Telltale was born from LucasArts’ change of direction and a series of severe layoffs.
Way back in 2004, LucasArts decided to change direction and set out to plan their next moves. In those days, LucasArts’ titles comprised of a mix of games, both internally developed and outsourced.
During the ’90s the company had made their name with point-and-click masterpieces, such as The Secret of Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis.
The company was also outsourcing some Star Wars titles. Due to the revival of the Star Wars brand, LucasArts started relying upon it more and more. The new Full Throttle, titled Hell on Wheels, stopped production in August 2003. In 2004, the same fate befell the sequel of Sam & Max, called Sam & Max Freelance Police.
“After careful evaluation of current market place realities and underlying economic considerations, we’ve decided that this was not the appropriate time to launch a graphic adventure on the PC” – declared LucasArts’ Acting General Manager Mike Nelson in a short press release.
One month after the cancellation of Sam & Max Freelance Police, Lucasfilm’s marketing department vice-president Jim Ward became president of LucasArts. As a first move, he gave a burst of life to the company’s finances. He cut 260 employees and cancelled other titles under development.
In conclusion, LucasArts had taken a decision: they weren’t in the adventure games business anymore.
Why did a leading company in graphic adventures that had created such successful brands as The Secret of Monkey Island, Indiana Jones, Maniac Mansion, Sam & Max, Full Throttle, and Zak McKracken suddenly decide to throw everything away and renounce its dominant position?
Perhaps the niche had become too small for them? Perhaps no one in LucasArts was able to understand how to revive the genre, adapting it to the cultural and technological changes that had occurred during those years?
It doesn’t matter. The main point is that LucasArts changed direction and created an opening for another company to take their crown.
Telltale Games: Off to a good start
Telltale Games was founded in October 2004 by former LucasArts developers. They decided to start the company to continue development of graphic adventure games.
The bases for a bright future were all set:
- A Focus in one niche market (graphic adventure games)
- The team had a lot of experience in developing this style of games
- Money wasn’t an issue. In 2007 Telltale closed its first funding round, raising $7 million.
So what went wrong?
I have already written in a previous article that a game developer must be “a marketing expert who knows the process of developing a video game”. Therefore:
- It is not necessary to know a programming language.
- You don’t need to be a game designer.
- Drawing and animation skills are not necessary.
But don’t get me wrong. Programming, game design, drawing and animation skills are fundamental when developing a video game, but these tasks have one fundamental characteristic:
- They can be delegated to your employees or outsourced.
Therefore, the most important skill you need to run a company is related to marketing. Because games need to be sold and you have to be damn good.
For instance, I have seen a lot of great games that on paper appeared formidable but didn’t sell more than 200 copies. In other words, these products boasted very high quality…however, ultimately, no one gave a shit about them.
Above all, a video game company is a business. And like with any business, an entrepreneur needs to be able to read a financial statement and be a marketing expert in order to acquire players.
A sort of aura on the lines of “Follow your own passion” has always surrounded the video game industry. But, in the end, we can’t live on passion alone. In other words, we can’t feed ourselves and our family with passion alone. For instance, you can’t go shopping and pretend to pay your food with 1 kilo of passion and 2,000 likes on Facebook.
Too often I have witnessed colleagues and friends quitting their job to create the video game company of their dreams without a proper marketing strategy or without the skills to read a financial statement.
In the best-case scenario, you are the only one who loses a job. In the worst case, you are forced to send home something like 200 people, putting in trouble as many as 200 families.
Who are the three founders of Telltale Games? Two software engineers and a producer. Therefore, they are not expert in marketing or finance.
Let’s see now which are the main errors that caused the tragic end of Telltale. Understanding them will allow your company to avoid the same fate.
Error No.1: Lack of Focus
Telltale defined itself in the “About Us” section of their website as such:
“Telltale is an award-winning independent developer and publisher of digital entertainment. Named 2014’s ‘Most innovative company in gaming’ by Fast Company, Telltale was recognized by Metacritic as the No. 1 overall publisher for quality content in 2014. Since our beginning in 2004, we’ve pioneered the creation and delivery of episodic gaming content.”
The 11th of February 2005 Telltale published its first video game, Telltale Texas Hold’em, a poker game.
Wait, but what? A poker game? Wasn’t Telltale focused on graphic adventures?
According to Telltale, the purpose of Texas Hold’em was to test their video game development tool. A choice I honestly don’t understand.
I have enough experience in video game development to know that if you want to create your own development tool, it is best to test it on the types of games you intend to create.
Therefore, if the focus of Telltale was to deliver episodic gaming content, that tool should have been tested on an adventure game. In addition, if the object of Texas Hold’em was only to test an internal tool, why did they later release two more poker games, Poker Night at the Inventory and Poker Night 2?
A proprietary engine
The lack of focus continued with the effort of making their own proprietary engine. Was this really necessary? Was Telltale focused on creating episodic gaming content or developing an engine?
I understand that back in 2004 most of the current engines did not exist. However, Unreal did exist in 2004. Therefore, why did Telltale decide to waste time and money to create an engine from scratch? Wouldn’t it have been better to focus the company’s resources right from the start on the company’s mission?
In addition, an engine needs a continuous update. While Telltale was losing precious time updating their Tool to support new consoles and devices, the production pipeline suffered from a lack of new features.
In 2016 the Telltale Tool still didn’t have a physics system. If a designer came up with a scene requiring a ball to roll across the floor, or a book to fall off a shelf, it had to be done by hand, taking away time from other productive activities.
In addition, the use of elements such as dynamic illumination was impossible. Light models had to be developed using other 3D modelling software, like Maya, significantly extending the developmental time of the assets.
As a consequence, the outdated characteristics of the engine gave the impression that many games had a high rate of bugs and other technical defects. These were at quite a critical rate and could present risks for many players that they would not be able to complete their game.
A 2015 article by Kotaku pointed out that “their games, wonderful in many ways as they may be, have been accompanied by an undercurrent of fan anger” due to the widespread presence of bugs and graphic glitches. The article concluded that
“Telltale’s support forums paint a portrait of a publisher that is constantly releasing buggy and even outright broken games, and, unlike most of the other companies with which it competes, one that lacks the resources to meaningfully help or, sometimes, even acknowledge its frustrated users.”
In conclusion, they didn’t have the resources to fix the bugs or even to monitor them properly, because they were working dispersedly.
In other words, they didn’t have the resources because they had a lack of Focus.
For instance, when I worked for Behaviour Interactive, we also had our proprietary engine. Then, one beautiful day, Unity arrived.
And what did we do? We decided to use Unity for all future projects of the company. Slowly but surely, we dismantled the engine team. Some people left the company and others got more important tasks (nobody was made redundant).
Telltale Publishing: The last nail in the coffin
If there had been a minimum of focus within Telltale, they put the last nail in the coffin when they created their own publishing department for external developers: Telltale Publishing.
In November 2015 Telltale signed an agreement with Jackbox Games to publish and distribute on consoles their The Jackbox Party Pack. Steve Allison, Senior Vice President of Telltale, stated: “We are working with some of our most important partners in the entertainment industry and we are very excited about the idea of extending our line of products this Fall [Autumn] across all platforms.”
In April 2016 Telltale announced the publication of 7 Days To Die, an open-world zombie survival simulation game developed by The Fun Pimps. A spokesman for Telltale described the game as “a unique combination of first-person-shooter, survival horror, tower defence, and roleplaying game.”
In August 2016 Telltale published the alternative reality game Mr Robot:1.51exfiltrati0n, developed by Night School Studio.
Hold on a moment. Is Telltale a videogame developer or a publisher?
Beyond this, mostly all of the games were standalone and not episodic ones. And they weren’t narrative adventures either.
They managed to do an amazing double line extension jackknife twist. Firstly, when they became a publisher. Secondly, when they decided to publish games that didn’t belong to their company mission.
All of this did nothing more than dilute the Telltale brand name and cut company resources that could have been used in a better way.
The development of non-narrative games.
The resources wasted on their own engine.
The decision to open a publishing department for external developers.
These were the most significant components of the first mistake that brought Telltale to the consequences we all know: buggy games, extreme overtime hours and a toxic work environment.
In conclusion, all of them caused by the lack of Focus.
But there are many video game companies without Focus and this first mistake wouldn’t have been enough to put Telltale out of business.
A second mistake finally led Telltale on a dead-end street.
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