In the wake of Telltale’s massive layoffs, which left about 90 percent of the 274 person company jobless, fans are clinging to any hope they can wrap their fingers around. Telltale issued a statement earlier this week, saying partners had stepped forward to offer help in delivering the final two “The Walking Dead: The Final Season” episodes.
But what is Telltale games without the people who actually made the games? As some former employees remind, games don’t get made without creatives at the helm. A number of fans have espoused the belief that Telltale (the business entity) would somehow finish “The Walking Dead: The Final Season.”
“With who?” asks narrative designer Emily Grace Buck, who was laid off on September 21. “‘The company’ doesn’t make games. The people who worked for Telltale made games. Devs aren’t interchangeable cogs- the game reflects the people who make it. The Walking Dead: TFS Team is gone. We alllll got terminated yesterday.”
Buck also posted about how Telltale views its brand and its products in the competitive video game marketplace. She cites a severe disconnect between the company’s brand personality and the people within the company executing on that vision.
“At company meetings, even a few years ago, Telltale used the slogan ‘Quality is in our DNA!’” Buck recalls. “I think it was supposed to be inspiring, but what they meant was Telltale makes good games no matter what, no matter who works here, it’s Telltale people want, you’re replaceable. That’s certainly how many of us heard it. Company actions reinforced that- if your content went over poorly at a review, even if you made *exactly* what was asked for… you’d be pulled off the project, replaced, maybe even fired. You weren’t quality. Quality was in their DNA. Now, when we’ve all lost our jobs, and Telltale is thinking of finishing projects without us, after not giving us severance… I realize they made fans believe it too. That Telltale was what was quality, not the devs actually making the games. 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.”
The issue of brand is an important one right now for Telltale, but not for the reasons leadership might believe. A brand is defined as “what a person thinks when they see, hear, or experience your product or service.”
A brand isn’t the content a company produces. It isn’t a logo. It isn’t your name.
Figuring out what your brand is starts with identifying an audience, in the case of Telltale this is people who love stories. The next step is identifying a few words that get at the heart of what makes you different.
One of Telltale’s self-professed brand values was “quality,” according to Buck. Other brand values might have been “dramatic,” “emotional,” “immersive,” or “personal.” Telltale games create the illusion of control. Choices you make impact some dialog, but the story ends up in the same place with little diversion.
That hasn’t changed. The outpouring of love for Telltale’s products has been enormous, as fans share their favorite moments from the studio’s library.
Despite the way in which Telltale suddenly announced layoffs, failed to provide severance, and left at least one foreign employee without means to stay in the United States, players still subscribe to Telltale’s brand position. Buck is astute when she points out how many fans continue to care more about Telltale’s game and finding out what happens at the end of “The Walking Dead: The Final Season” by any means necessary, no matter who is at the helm.
Unfortunately, Telltale’s statement yesterday, which focuses exclusively on the game (and not the plight of 250 developers suddenly out of work), refutes Buck’s assertion that developers aren’t replaceable. The evidence is enormous that brands often outlive the people who helped build them.
BioWare survived the departure of its founders. Bungie and Epic successfully handed off the Halo and Gears of War franchises to other studios. Call of Duty is a franchise with a consistent brand shared by three different studios.
Telltale is no exception. The studio produced (almost) four complete seasons of The Walking Dead plus spin-offs. Some believed that a second season would be nearly impossible without creative leads Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin at the helm (the duo left after the first season). The other franchises Telltale produced have the same DNA and uphold similar brand values.
Too many fans see developers as meat for the grinder. Part of this is simply the psychology of how players interact with studios. The relationships are transactional, and players are first and foremost customers looking for value in their purchase.
Through that lens, it’s not hard to see why some consumers are single-minded. They want their game, exactly as it would have been if layoffs hadn’t happened, no matter who makes it. The cognitive dissonance for those who understand that games are made by people and creative vision is a product of specific creative minds is astounding. But when you strip away the human element—when you only see developers as meat machines churning out product—it’s easy to rationalize a product-over-people mentality.
Telltale’s layoffs haven’t destroyed the brand value, at least not yet. And even if the company as we know it ends up folding, some company might pay a fair value for the Telltale name and logo. Just look at Atari and THQ Nordic, which have springboarded themselves in part due to the power of the brand names and logos they purchased.
Buck isn’t wrong, though. Right now, there is no one on-hand to shepherd Telltale’s brand. Without quality developers, there is no quality in Telltale’s brand. Without constant tending, brands wither and die. Telltale’s brand is in jeopardy until and unless it gets its messaging under control. So far, it doesn’t seem like the 250 employees laid off without severance will factor into that.
“In-Game Economy” is a monthly column exploring business happenings and demystifying how the video game industry works by Michael Futter, freelance journalist and author of “The GameDev Business Handbook.”