Growth, toxicity, crunch: Devs talk about what went wrong at Telltale
"It was sad for me to see that the really talented, aggressive, abrasive people were very successful at Telltale, whereas a lot of the quieter, collaborative creative people were leaving."
- A source speaking to The Verge about what Telltale Games lost over the last few years.
In 2012 longtime adventure game dev Telltale Games released The Walking Dead, which went on to win a slew of awards and elevate the company's profile in the industry.
Telltale went on to staff up and take on a host of new projects in the Walking Dead mold, growing at a remarkable pace -- until late last year, the company abruptly laid off a quarter of its workforce.
It wasn't as big of a surprise as it should have been. In the years between, a great deal of talent departed the studio, and in a new feature published by The Verge a number of sources familiar with Telltale's inner workings blame the studio's slow decline on a few big factors: rapid expansion, a toxic work environment, and an unrelenting schedule.
"The pace at which the studio operated was both an amazing feat and its biggest problem,” a former employee told The Verge. "Executives would often ask teams to rewrite, redesign, recast, and reanimate up until the very last minute without properly adjusting the schedule. The demands on production only became more intense with each successful release, and at some point, you just don’t have anything left to give."
The full article is well worth reading because it tells (another) cautionary tale of how a successful, productive studio can be laid low if studio leaders aren't respectful of their workers' time, feelings, and career ambitions.
"The thing that broke my heart the most was seeing new team members that were just so gung-ho and optimistic and excited to be at Telltale get overused and abused because they did not feel comfortable drawing the line in the sand to say, ‘This is my limit,'" another source said. "They either worked themselves out and would get sick or would become bitter."
A number of sources trusted by The Verge attributed a big part of the problem directly to former Telltale chief Kevin Bruner, who stepped down last year after two years in the CEO seat.
"He was hesitant to give anyone much credit for having significant creative vision. He thought they would leave and become a competitor because he had a couple of strong examples of people doing exactly that," one source told The Verge. “There was a dark period of time where if you were in charge of a project, you are not getting any interviews,” another source said .“He’s going to be the one on the panel. He’s going to be the one doing the interviews. He’s going to be the one in the magazine.”
It's worth pointing out that Bruner is also quoted as disagreeing with this and several other points in the article, which you can (and should) read in full over on The Verge. Despite the recent round of layoffs, sources still at the company say they're optimistic about what comes next.
"We’re certainly at a place where we have more freedom to experiment than we ever had in the past,” one source said. “Between last year and now the difference in the company is like night and day."