Telltale, the adventure-game juggernaut known for games like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, shuttered late last year in a shocking and abrupt fashion. Speculation erupted through the games industry, with many wondering what circumstances led to the closure.
We recently published an in-depth investigative piece about the factors leading to Telltale’s end. Former Telltale CEO and co-founder Kevin Bruner plays a big part in that story. Because Bruner left the company in 2017, he wasn’t there during its closure, but he was present during some of Telltale’s most trying times that ultimately led it to shut down.
We chatted with Bruner earlier this year. He gives a candid and detailed look at what was going on behind the scenes at Telltale. You can read the whole interview below.
Tell me the early days at Telltale. What was it like starting your own company with Dan Connors and Troy Molander?
I got to LucasArts in ’97. I was a big fan. That’s kind of like the very tail-end of the golden era of LucasArts. So, just a little bit of magic left there. My first Lucas project was Grim Fandango. I went to Lucas because I loved adventure games, like Monkey Island and Full Throttle. I remember when I interviewed with them, I didn’t know what I was interviewing for. And I saw Grim Fandango, and I said, “I don’t care what I do, but I need to work on that.”
I have a programming background, so I came as a systems engineer on Grim Fandango. There was a system for creating adventure games at LucasArts called Scumm, which everything prior to Grim had been made in. There was a very vibrant discussion around, “What would its the successor be?” and Grim Fandango was the first adventure game that wasn’t made with Scumm. But it was a really interesting time because we were working with the team who had built Scumm, and Scumm had made all these great games, and we got to talk to them about it and kind of stand on their shoulders, and say, “What lessons have you learned? What was great about Scumm? What was difficult about Scumm?” Scumm could make all these different kinds of games, but they were all adventure games. They all had very similar aspects to them. There’s a lot of parallels to what we did at Telltale to Scumm.
A lot of Telltale games had a similar look and feel to them. So that was a really special time, particularly with loving adventure games for most of my life, to be able to talk and work with all these people who’ve made all that great content and then help define what the next generation might be like. It was really magical. Then we started working on Sam & Max: Freelance Police. We did some Star Wars work too, because when you work at LucasArts, you’re going to work on Star Wars sooner or later. Although I think Tim Schafer managed to never work on a Star Wars game [laughs]. Sam & Max: Freelance Police was very exciting. We did a lot of modernizing, going into 3D adventure games … and at that time that’s when Lucas decided to go all in on Star Wars, and they shut down everything that wasn’t Star Wars.
And that’s kind of what facilitated the beginning of Telltale. We had all this ambition about what next-generation adventure games could look like and then we lost the context of how we could pursue that, and just decided to start on our own. So we started Telltale with a lot of different ideas of where adventure games could go and all that, but I named the company Telltale because we wanted to tell tales. It was the storytelling, scripts, and the characterization that I loved about all the LucasArts stuff. Not so much the puzzles and the getting stuck part of it – that was more frustrating for me, so we definitely set out to pursue the kind of storytelling and the role-playing aspects more than the puzzle side of it. Both aspects of the genre are really interesting, but we just like the storytelling part.
Were you ever worried about the whole sentiment of “adventure games are dead,” especially around that time?
Oh yeah. “Grim killed adventure games.” It’s funny because Troy and I worked together on Grim, and then Dan and I worked together on Sam & Max Freelance Police. I think the “adventure games are dead” aspect of it – it was really important at LucasArts, at the time, LucasArts was run by a guy named Simon Jeffery, and he was like, “We want to be back in the adventure-game business but we have to do it in a realistic way. We can’t spend huge amounts of money on adventure games.”
With Freelance Police, we were able to have the opportunity to make a game, but we couldn’t get out of control. We had to stay on time, we had to stay on budget, and be disciplined about the game we were making otherwise we would lose the opportunity. I think a lot of that affected our production strategy, our technology strategy, development strategy, so that we wouldn’t lose the chance to make the games that we loved to make. And that very much got instilled at Telltale as well. When you’re a brand-new startup, you have very limited resources. Understanding what you can do and what the most interesting things you can build with a very limited set of resources are, was what got the company off the ground.
Particularly later, when we were working on licensed properties and things like that, there was a similar kind of value there. When we were working on Wallace & Gromit, there’s an appropriate amount of money you can spend on a Wallace & Gromit production. You could easily go out of control, but there’s a very limited market opportunity, or a very specific market opportunity for that game. So the skillset of really understanding, “Okay, how much can you do with a little?” was really how Telltale leveled up over the years. People would say, “How did you make a game on a property like Bone and Homestar Runner and the Wallace & Gromit license?” Each one of those was a little bit of a bigger opportunity than the last, but they all were really small to start with.
So you had to figure out how to make an interesting game with the opportunity that was in front of you. And that was always something Telltale did really well. For the most part it was, “Make the best game we could make under the constraints that we had to deal with.” Frustrating. It’s super frustrating. It’s frustrating on one hand to do that, but on the other hand, we were making games that nobody else would make. Like we would have loved to make a bigger, fancier game, but that would require more money and more time that we didn’t have.
Certainly, early on at Telltale we tried to get regular publishers involved, but traditional publishers weren’t interested in the kind of content that we wanted to make. So we had to do it ourselves and make the most of what we had. Everyone was really thrilled that the content kind of blew up and became kind of this new genre. But for the bulk of the time at the company, we were super scrappy. There was really just no other way to make the kind of games that we wanted to make. You had to self-publish them, which means you had to make do with how well you could publish them. So that’s what we did.
What do you think was Telltale’s biggest strength?
I don’t think everyone might agree with what I think the strengths are, but I see a lineage from adventure games in general and text adventures that I loved growing up: Sierra and LucasArts, Myst and Cyan’s era of games, Quantic Dream, to Telltale. One of the things that I loved about Scumm games and text-adventure games and Cyan games was they always had a certain look and feel to them. When you say, “Oh look, there’s a new game coming out from Cyan,” you know what it’s going to look like. I know what it’s going to play like. Each of those companies had a strong identity and brand of what it felt like to play those games, and I think at Telltale, we really did a good job of that.
Like I said, some people might think it’s a strength and some people might not, but I definitely thought it was a strength. It was a very unique experience and that experience kind of crossed [over through all our games], whether it was Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, or any of the other things we worked on – I liked the similarity between them.
Telltale definitely had a signature to its games, with its aesthetic and branching narrative.
I thought that was definitely a value it had. The amount of signature was controversial. Too much or too little. I don’t know if there’s an easy answer to that question, but I think it’s super cool that there is a signature. Like all the great studios have a signature, whether it’s adventure games or not. I think a signature is a sign of a great studio.
Was trying to find that signature touch what led Telltale to explore QTEs and choice/consequence in its games?
It was kind of two-fold. Being a small, scrappy studio, we didn’t think it was smart to compete with people who were bringing a lot more expertise and resources. We didn’t want to put a traditional action sequence in a lot of our games because then we would be competing with very large studios that were very, very good at making very high quality action sequences. We didn’t want to compete against Naughty Dog.
So on one hand, we were like, we just need to keep some distance from that, otherwise we’ll get clobbered, and then I think the more interesting aspect was “OK, if we’re not going to do that, then what are we going to do to entertain people?” How do you do cinematic action sequences in a way that hasn’t been fleshed out? I don’t mean to imply that we invented quick-time events at all, but we explored them in a lot more different ways than had been done before. And certainly the role-playing with the choice and the character relationships was something we leaned into very heavily. We explored how to do that and how to entertain people much more deeply than other studios did.
Again, it was that self-discipline of “Let’s just be who we are.” There were times when we were like, “We need to put in first-person mode or fighting mechanics or shooting mechanics or driving mechanics” and every time my gut reaction to that was, “Man, there are people that do those games really, really well and that’s really hard to do well.” You develop an expertise and you build a whole studio to do that stuff. We’re not going to throw together something in three or four weeks that comes anywhere near that. So, why don’t we claim our own ground that can truly be ours? I think over the years holding that line is what gave Telltale that unique gameplay experience.
But it didn’t always work out great. When we’re basically trying to not be like the other folks and be our own thing, there’s definitely swings in the middle – when you’re writing experiments like that, definitely not everything works.
Were there ever talks of overhauling Telltale’s uniform gameplay structure completely for something new?
There were definitely talks about overhauling or evolving the format going forward, and which direction we wanted to evolve. There were definitely people who had ideas which were like, “Let’s put in more traditional game mechanics” which again, it’s hard to build a studio that does really great writing, really great role-playing, and really great action, particularly when you’re doing it on the budgets that we needed to do it on. So I always encouraged people to, you know – I would try to phrase it as, “Let’s explore the unexplored. Let’s find new ways to do things. Let’s throw our energy into it instead of doing what everybody else already does. Let’s do something people haven’t really seen before.” I think that’s where the role-playing, the very dialogue-driven type stuff [came from].
We’ve always been a very dialogue-heavy company, but I remember when we were talking about The Walking Dead, we had all kinds of prototypes of what different The Walking Dead experiences could be. But we were like, “Okay, we’re going to go all in on just talking and choices.” After we looked at all the prototypes, that was the lane we decided was the best lane for us to be in. And it was super scary at the time for us to say, “There’s going to be talking and choices and we hope it’ll work.” But I think being really focused on doing that one thing well is what got us across the hump as opposed to trying to be too many things at the same time.
But it’s hard. You feel lost. You play all these other games and think, “Well, we should just be doing what they’re doing in that game.” But that’s like comfort food because you can fire up your editor and your art package and you can start building something that’s like that thing you want to emulate, but I definitely think it’s harder and more interesting to do the thing [where] you don’t know what you’re doing as much. You’re finding your way.
In your opinion, do you think Telltale was too risk-averse?
Well, we were much more experimental early on. Like, pre-The Walking Dead, where we had things like Poker Night at the Inventory, Homestar Runner, that game had no text in it – all the choices were icon-based choices and it had a lot more puzzles in them. It was a lot more of a traditional point-and-click game. We had a lot more diversity early on.
I think one of the other big influences at Telltale, was, Telltale had investors. Originally we had venture-capital investors, and then Lionsgate, a big public company, invested in it. Then we had this big hit with The Walking Dead. And then everybody wanted more of that because it had a lot of notoriety and it sold a lot. When we would go out to license holders to get bigger and better licenses, it made sense to be more conservative there. You weren’t going to talk to [HBO] and say, “We’re going to run a big new experiment on Game of Thrones.” [Instead, we would say,] “We’re going to do what we did with The Walking Dead for you as well.”
So there was a lot of pressure from the leadership of the company to pursue bigger and more interesting opportunities and to de-risk those opportunities so the company could continue to grow and become more valuable. Is de-risking the way to become more valuable? It’s certainly subjective. I have had many arguments about what the best path for Telltale forward would or wouldn’t be. But those are the dynamics that were in play. We wanted bigger and more interesting licenses so we had bigger and more interesting market opportunities. And we wanted to make sure that we didn’t – really the most important thing was that we didn’t go backwards. We didn’t want The Walking Dead to be a fluke; or to be a one-hit wonder. That’s why The Wolf Among Us was one of the most important games we ever did, because we were terrified that if it wasn’t good, that would be perceived as a one-hit wonder.
Can you speak about any licensing deals that didn’t pan out?
There are lots [of licenses that didn’t work out]. I don’t think there’s any that I should be talking about. Like I always wanted to make a great Star Wars adventure game. There certainly was never a Telltale-style Star Wars game, but when you have the opportunity to talk to people about like, “Hey, it would be great to make an adventure game out of your book, movie or TV show.” On the heels of The Walking Dead … you only get those opportunities so often. They’re rare. We can make an adventure game out of Game of Thrones, we can make an adventure game out of Batman. We had conversations with everybody and thought, “This is the one time in our lives that they would ever entertain talking to us.” And they didn’t all pan out, but again, it was rare [to have these opportunities].
Particularly coming from a guy who loved adventure games but adventure games were dying, to be able to have a shot – to have people talk about making an adventure game out of things that they might more traditionally make a fighting game out of or an action/adventure out of or something like that. So we talked to everybody at that point. Certainly like things like GoT and Batman came out of those conversations. There were a lot of things like Star Wars, we would have loved to do Star Wars. We had conversations about Star Wars, but it just wasn’t in the cards. And that’s totally fair. I hope we would have done a great Star Wars game, but we’ll never know.
Were there ever any further plans of collaborating with Netflix?
Yes. Yeah. Well, Minecraft: Story Mode was super interesting, and one of the things that we always championed was keeping the interface simple so that it could played on a TV remote. I think Netflix is an amazing platform. Interactive TV is a thing I’m very interested in going forward. It was a lot of work to get the technology right so that it would run on the platform, and then it was the management team after myself that got it across the finish line.
We were doing all the legwork beforehand, but there’s also a lot of complexities. Minecraft is one of the biggest IPs in the world. It’s Mojang, and Microsoft, and Netflix – it’s a very complicated space. So it took a lot of time for all of that to come together. But I think it really shows how interesting the platform is for interactive TV, and that there’s interesting things coming in the future for interactive TV as well. Like I think the content, when you play Story Mode on Netflix, it plays really well. It’s a really nice – it’s not really a port – but a nice adaptation to the platform. And it’s really good. I love everything about it. I’d love to see more content like that on Netflix. Bandersnatch got a lot of interest and got a lot of hype.
One ex-Telltale employee told me that they believe Telltale had a fundamental misunderstanding of its audience. Did you ever feel that there was a disconnect there too?
I think there’s some noise out there around [the closure]. It was a frustrating time for everybody that was involved. I actually think understanding its audience was something that Telltale did really well. When you’re in the licensing business, I always try to tell people that we’re like invited guests into people’s worlds. You really have to deliver the best kind of experience that you can. You can’t come in and say like, “Well it’s Game of Thrones and we make fighting games so we’re just going to do fighting with Game of Thrones.” We always did a lot of market research to say like, “Okay, great, we’re going to do a Minecraft game. What should it be?” There isn’t a narrative and there isn’t a story mode in [the original] Minecraft. We did market research on it, we worked very closely with Mojang on developing the concept, so yeah. Minecraft was in fact the bestselling game that Telltale ever did, so I don’t think that Telltale was out of touch with its audience.
I think one of the interesting things that I look at that makes me think we were okay, is the number of people that love Telltale Game A and hated Telltale Game B. When they were so mechanically similar, it’s like, “I played The Walking Dead and it was the best game ever. And then I played Game of Thrones and I hated it.” I can find people who say, “Game of Thrones was awesome, I really really dug it, I don’t understand why all these people hate it. I tried The Walking Dead and it was depressing.” Because it’s not about whether you’re a Telltale [fan] or not. [It’s more] about whether you’re a Game of Thrones fan then you like the Game of Thrones game. If you’re a Walking Dead fan, then you’ll like that game. [And so on.] If it wasn’t an IP that resonated with [a fan], then they didn’t enjoy the game.
To me, that means we were delivering very on-brand experiences. We weren’t trying to make Batman feel like the The Walking Dead, or Game of Thrones like The Walking Dead. In that regard, I think we knew the audience we were trying to address really well, but that definitely left people on the outside looking in. If you knew everything about what made a Telltale game tick, but you weren’t a Batman fan, then you’re probably not going to like Telltale’s Batman game.
Yeah, and I think Telltale was very good at exploring different tones, like Tales from the Borderlands being a comedy adventure game.
Yeah. Or even like Minecraft. Minecraft was targeted for children. So many people were like, “What the hell, why are you doing Minecraft instead of Wolf Among Us 2?” And I think it’s, at its heart, that like yeah, if you wanted Wolf Among Us 2 then you don’t want Minecraft. There’s very few people who want both of those. I like both of them, personally, but it makes sense why you would rage against one and not the other. We developed a rabid fanbase. And when you have a rabid fanbase, one of the things that comes along with it is strong or positive [opinions].
Can you talk to me about the circumstances that led to your departure from the company and the lawsuit that is surrounding that?
Well, the lawsuit is still pending, so I can’t really talk about that. But definitely as Telltale got bigger and more focused on mega-hit type things, basically, The Walking Dead was a double-edged sword. You can’t duplicate Game of the Year over and over again. We made a really great game, but there’s a lot of external factors that influence what is going to be Game of the Year in any particular year, like what other games are out there, and the environment that the game is going into. So there was a lot of pressure to duplicate The Walking Dead. Success-wise again, from a business requirements point of view. We tried to temper those expectations as best we could, but it was still like, “This is what we need the company to do.” We needed to go out and find bigger games, just get bigger and bigger and bigger and that kind of squeezed out opportunities for Poker Night at the Inventory and Borderlands and weird stuff like that.
The second kicker was Minecraft, where we [were extremely successful] again. It’s almost like you lose credibility when saying, “Look, we shouldn’t expect to do this again.” And then it happens again. After Dan left, and I was running the company by myself. There were very different perspectives on what the purpose of the company was, what the goals were, and what the right next moves for the company were. The company was 12 years old at that point. It was led by the founders, but it wasn’t controlled by the founders anymore and there was a lot of confrontation, and not fun times between myself and the other interested parties, [i.e., the investors and the board of directors] at Telltale, which ultimately led to us to go our separate ways.
[As for the] leadership at Telltale and the talent at Telltale, I still think it was unmatched. We made an organization dedicated to the craft of interactive storytelling and producing content efficiently. It was second to none. The fact that the studio doesn’t exist anymore just kills me. Even I wasn’t directly involved day-to-day, it was the kind of place [where] I wanted to work. And if you wanted to explore interactive storytelling or cinematics or all these kinds of things that nobody else was doing, there was a place in the world where you could come and do that. We did it for more than a decade. I really lament that a place like that doesn’t exist right now.
Were you surprised about the closure?
I learned about the closure about eight hours before it actually happened. I was completely taken by surprise at the closure. It was unthinkable to me that the studio would shut down, and I certainly knew that there [weren’t any] circumstances that get us anywhere near that. It was very dramatic, very sudden, and I can’t really speak more [about it]. I’ve since learned about the circumstances that caused the shutdown, and I can’t really speak to them. But they had nothing to do with the studio, with the products that were being built.
You read Steam articles or articles about people saying, “Telltale’s sales were diminishing every year.” Compared against a Game of the Year like The Walking Dead, that’s true, but normalized out that’s not the case and certainly that wasn’t what impacted Telltale at all. It had nothing to do with the studio and the products that the studio was building at the time. I wish I could elaborate more.
But those investments fell through right around that time too. Was that a factor that led to the closure?
Yeah. I definitely think [the investments falling through] was one of the factors. They were out raising money, right? Which we had done before in the history of the company. When we started the company we raised money with venture capital, and then Lionsgate invested. It wasn’t a big part of what Telltale did, like we weren’t out raising money all the time and the business ran off of its profits, so I think that had to do with some of the ambitions with the new management strategy, the direction they were going towards. To do the things they aspired to do required fundraising. As a founder you’re generally not really… fundraising is… you would rather that the business would run off of its products. That was also a point of conflict. Investors always want to raise more money, and founders always want to build a business.
How would you describe your relationships with coworkers and everyone you worked with at Telltale?
Telltale was a very big organization by the time I left. But for the bulk of my time there, it was less than 100 people and I knew everyone really well and they knew me. All of my best friends worked there, many of them came to help start Telltale with us when we left [LucasArts] and they were there for a very long time.
It was a special place where if you were interested in interactive storytelling, you could come there, and that attracted a lot of people who had an enormous amount of respect for its talent and the ways they could contribute. They could come and really thrive there which was awesome. We started with this core group of people who had been together for a long time and we still know each other today, and we started to attract people who shared our passions and it got bigger and that was super awesome.
It got weird by the time I left, because the company was so big. There were people who worked there who I never spoke to personally. My world ended up getting smaller as the company got bigger, because I ended up just dealing with the managers and it was one of the things that – if the company is going to get bigger, you need more management, but then you get further away from the actual work, which is what I loved. I think everybody at Telltale was super talented and worked really, really hard to make really special content. And I think that’s reflected in how quickly people were able to find new jobs afterwards. Studios wanted to gobble up Telltale people because they wanted some of that Telltale magic.
Since the layoffs and the closure, some former employees have brought up dealing with crunch. Did you feel that there was a lot of crunch that was mandated at Telltale?
Telltale was a really different studio because of its episodic nature. I always – it’s like Saturday Night Live, right? If you’re a writer or performer on a show like that, or any serialized show, you have to write a show a week. The show curtain goes up regardless of how ready you are. On other serialized shows, like if you were working on Mad Men or something like that, you have a fixed amount of time to deliver so much content. That’s really hard to do.
For other studios, it happens all the time in games where, “Our release date is this fall” and then the studio will announce that fall, “Oh you know what, the game wasn’t ready, we pushed it out until next spring.” And that really wasn’t something that Telltale could do. We didn’t have the budgets to delay production that long; we didn’t have the cushion. We were serialized – we sold season passes to people – so we needed to get them their content.
You mentioned Tales from the Borderlands, which had one of the worst release schedules we ever did. We got beat up pretty hard. It was great content, but it didn’t come out on time. It always was like, “What can we do with the time we have?” And then it wasn’t a lot of time, so then you’re trying to pack in as much as you can.
But when you look at the game, and something is working well or isn’t working well, and you think you have a path to fix it in that time, it’s really hard to say no to that. That was rampant across [the studio]. For me, at an executive level, all the way down to the animator – if you see an opportunity to make the game better, and you know it’s going to ship in a week and you care about the content, it’s really hard to walk away from the content and just say, “You know what? This is as good as it’s gonna get. I’m going home.” We tried to create an environment where you really had to do that to survive at Telltale, because we didn’t have these three-year long production cycles. You would have to say, “You know, I need to go home and not work on the game that I care so deeply about and that I want to be the best game ever, because this is the chance I get to work on Batman or this is the chance I get to work on that or the other thing. I know they’re going to record my script in two days and I want it to be as good as it can be.”
Managing that was really, really hard because everyone cared really deeply. The simple answer is: “Just take more time.” A big studio costs a lot of money every day in order to open the doors. We didn’t have the option of taking more time even though that would have been the perfect thing to give to everybody. Everyone worked really hard because they were really passionate. We wanted to make the best content possible, which I think is what everybody does in the industry. I think the difference with Telltale was how relentless and ceaseless the content was.
As soon as you finished passionately working on an episode and you’re just like “I’m just going to put in a couple extra things to make sure it’s as good as possible,” you turn around and there’s another scene that you’re like, “I want that to be good too.” It really was ceaseless. We needed people to go home, and we encouraged people to go home, but it’s hard when you care. And then you’ve swung halfway across the English channel, so you can’t turn around and go home at that point. You’ve got to finish. It gets really, really hard when you’re trying to do a little bit extra. It can spin out of control really quickly.
What do you think is a common misconception about Telltale or about yourself?
I think one of the misconceptions is that Telltale was auteur-led, and what I mean is that [the games are envisioned by] myself or by particular individuals. One of the things that I take the most pride in is that for many people at Telltale, it was their first job. And we would give people a lot of responsibility really quickly for better and/or worse. But then team that made The Walking Dead was a different team than the team that made The Wolf Among Us, Borderlands, or Minecraft. The fact that people could come in and really do stellar work, particularly early in their career – I take a lot of pride in that.
It may have not been an easy environment, but it was an environment where you could succeed really quickly. A lot of people launched their careers, in the most positive sense, they cut the line from exploiting their opportunities at Telltale. And I say that in the most positive way. We kept coming out with great content, and they came from different people. I think the studio as a whole was able to get people to that place, and that I take a lot of pride in.
One of the misconceptions is that the studio was holding people back. And I think the studio was actually pushing people forward, maybe too hard, but those people really did make great content. They had what they needed to break through. But it was hard. I’m not saying it was easy, but the fact that so many people made really compelling, really great, highly regarded content to me makes it seem like Telltale was a nurturing place. It’s a place where people could come in and become great designers, great directors, great writers, and great artists. And they did it under duress. It was trial by fire, but there were definitely opportunities to succeed there and many, many people did. I take a lot of pride in that but it cuts both ways. Succeeding there was hard.
But I think the notion that the company was holding talented people back is something that I see a lot and it really does – it makes me – I think it’s like the glass half-full or the glass half-empty. These are people who did really, really well under the circumstances that they were given, and maybe under different circumstances could have done differently or done better, but they were genuinely talented and they were able to make their talents work and bring great, great games out of a studio that empowered that. That’s one of the things that I take a lot of pride in.
Nobody wanted to make adventure games when we started. Some would say that the studio is “holding the Batman team back.” Yeah, but we got the Batman team to exist in the first place. But we’re not perfect by any means. We’re far from perfect. But we get to make Batman adventure games which is a hell of an accomplishment in the first place in my humble opinion. And the fact that we do it in a flawed way is just part of the process.
If [Telltale] were still alive, we would still be trying to fix that. I take a lot of pride that so many different leadership teams, with different backgrounds and different levels of experience, were able to come and really lead teams and do great things and that they’re continuing to go and do great things at other studios. For myself as well, nobody walks away from Telltale without having grown in many ways. I would say I’m a totally different person than when I started Telltale. I think that’s everyone’s experience, and it’s a hard experience, but I wouldn’t trade it.
I know you said you can’t talk about specifics about what led to the closure, but can you offer some insight? You said you were surprised and didn’t see this coming. Did you get the sense that having to close the studio was a surprise for Telltale’s executives too?
Yeah, I think in the pursuit of growth and that continued exponential growth that people wanted, I think people just go for the brass ring. I think doing it incrementally one step at a time is hard and it takes time and [they instead] want to go for broke and do things more quickly and aggressively. I think that’s kind of the circumstances that led to [the closure]. “Where are we going to get the next big giant growth spurt from? We have to be all in on that.”
That can obviously introduce some risk – I don’t think anybody intended to put the entire company at risk. Nobody expected to do that. They were trying to move the company in a new direction and left an old direction behind. I knew where they were trying to take the company and what they were trying to do with it, but I didn’t know the specifics or details of how they wanted to get that done. But obviously, the plan that they were trying to execute did not pan out the way that they planned it, or the way that they intended it to. There’s no winners in that situation.
It’s sad that the studio doesn’t exist and it’s super sad that the employees got … I will say that the way the studio was shut down was horrifying to me. People just showing up on a Friday and being told to go home because the company doesn’t exist anymore is not something I would have ever endorsed, and is absolutely not something I would have done. When I ran the company, we really didn’t have any layoffs, and whenever we needed to let people go, we treated them with a lot of respect and helped them transition. Those [final mass layoffs] were very uncharacteristic. It didn’t reflect the Telltale values that we had taken the previous decade establishing.
Why do you think it was handled so poorly?
That? I don’t know. In the early part of Telltale, there were definitely times where we were like “We don’t know if we’re going to survive.” I remember we would many a Christmas break be planning for the worst. Like, “What would we do if this next deal doesn’t come through or if something doesn’t work out?” Those were miserable meetings, but then we got a little bit more success under our belt and it was no longer the case that we needed to do that.
But the notion that you would go full-speed and then stop was just unfathomable to me. It’s certainly not how I run a business. I don’t know the details of the weeks that led up to that decision and how that decision was made, but I don’t know how you don’t at least give people two weeks. And be a little kinder. Like, it sucks. If you have to shut the business down, you gotta shut the business down. And it sucks. There is no way that there’s a right way to do that or a way that isn’t just absolutely horrible, but if you can give people two weeks, you should give people two weeks. At that point it’s over, right? So you should be as respectful and as kind as you possibly can. I don’t understand exactly what happened in the final moments there to know why they executed the shutdown the way they did. It kills me, though. It really kills me. Telltale was such a big part of who I am. That definitely killed me.
Have you heard about the class lawsuit from ex-Telltale employee Vernie Roberts? Can you comment on that?
You have one of the founders suing the company and now you have all the ex-employees suing the company. When I filed my suit, people were like “What the hell” – they didn’t understand the dynamics of what we were dealing with. I think now it paints a much clearer picture of what kind of circumstances we are all dealing with now. I wasn’t let go and I wasn’t an employee when that went down, so I’m certainly not a member of that lawsuit. And I don’t know the details of what’s going on there other than … the WARN act is there for circumstances like this. California law and federal law are a little bit different. If I were an employee there, I would feel wronged, definitely. We’ll see what becomes of that. It’s tough now because there’s not much of a Telltale left to right the wrongs.
If you could do it all over again with Telltale, knowing what you do now, what would you do differently?
There’s a couple of things that I would do differently. I might grow a little slower. It’s tough after a GOTY, where you have this exponential growth, the need to continue that magic. So I would push back harder on saying that we can repeat The Walking Dead experience again. I’m a technologist, but one of the things I would do is get on to a different game engine; keeping the special stuff that Telltale made, the writing tools, and some of the things that were very unique to Telltale, but internally we talked a lot about transitioning to Unreal and it was very disruptive to the business.
We couldn’t shut the business down and not ship a game for months and months or a year to transition the technology. And we couldn’t afford to hire a separate team to develop it. Unreal is this awesome thing and I’m a big fan of the Unreal technology as well. We kept saying, “Maybe we can do it next time.” I probably would have tried to figure out a way that we could have survived a technology transition like that. And tried to stay smaller, I think. The big studio is a beast that needs to be fed.
As the studio kept getting bigger and bigger, it reduced the amount of risk we could tolerate and the expectations kept getting higher and higher for what we could achieve. In hindsight, I would slow all of that down. In foresight, I do think that what I’m doing now with the narrative engine that I’m creating, is like just focus on the super important stuff to make the experience which to me is the writing. And don’t reinvent technologies or processes that other people do better. So use a good game engine, use a good back-end service. Basically anything that isn’t part of what makes you really really unique and special, try to get the best-in-class version of that from someone else. And just really focus on what makes you super unique and special.
You created the Telltale Tool, correct?
I was the only programmer working on the game engine for the first couple years. In many senses, it was my baby. But it was old. The cool things about it had nothing to do with framerate and rendering and the things that by the end really really needed to be changed and upgraded. The design tools were what were what I took most pride in. Making design tools for interactive writers was one of the things that I truly truly loved. I did not like writing in shaders and in renderers and sound engines and all those things. But when we started in 2004, Unreal was super expensive and Unity didn’t exist, so you kind of had to do that. And certainly towards the end we were kind of stuck with it. We tried to upgrade it, we tried to keep it competitive, but it was really hard.
Unreal has a giant building filled with hundreds of people making the world’s best game engine, and we had an engineering department of 20 people trying to compete with that. You’re never going to win that. I think focusing on the writing tools and the things that Unreal doesn’t do fantastically and letting Unreal do its thing would be – it’s certainly my philosophy now.
Learning that lesson earlier at Telltale and then – I think we did learn that lesson at Telltale earlier, but how do you get from the circumstances that we created for ourselves to the circumstances we wanted to be in? How do you bridge that? That was the really challenging part, and honestly I didn’t come up with a solution for that. It’s one of the things that they were doing at the end, switching to Unity, but that’s a huge impact to change game engines. And you still have to pay everybody to show up every day. You really can’t stop making games or stop making money.
People were like “I wish we just had more time to make games.” And I was like, “I do, too.” But that means I wish we had bigger budgets for the games, and we were making the budgets as big as we could. The struggle of being an indie games studio … We struggled and succeeded with the hand we were dealt.
To end on a bit of a lighter note, can you tell me your favorite memories from working at Telltale?
There’s a couple of them from a couple of different eras. Very early on, we hired our first artist who was there when Telltale shut down, a guy named Brian Gillies – he answered an ad for the company. He was the first person who took a job at Telltale not knowing anything about who we were or who LucasArts was. He was just a guy who wanted a job. He moved from Arizona to here for the job and I was terrified. This guy is expecting a real job at a real company and he’s moving across the country to be here and we were probably like 20 people at the time. It was terrifying for somebody to trust in us. And then Brian was there for the whole run. He’s a great artist as well. But that was one of the most exhilarating times for me was when Brian showed up, and he was like one of our first real employees.
[Another favorite memory was] the success of The Walking Dead obviously, making people cry, making ourselves cry, working with Robert and the guys at Skybound. We felt that we made an adventure game that was going to go down as one of the really special adventure games. In my book, it’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Myst, Grim Fandango, The Walking [Dead], and Monkey Island. Those games will all be grouped together. We actually – me – I actually figured out of a way to bring one of those into the world. And as a guy who loves adventure games, making one of the classic adventure games or making a company that made one of the classic adventure games, felt miraculous to me. And the fact that I worked on Grim too – I worked on two of these seminal milestone adventure games. But certainly on Grim, I was a grunt on Grim. I was just a programmer. But at Telltale, we made a company that made one of these. When I realized that The Walking Dead was an important game, that was just amazing. We went way out on a limb when we made that and the fact that it worked and became an important game was super special.
[Other memories are] company-building moments. Brian showing up was the first time we felt like we were a real company, and then The Walking Dead was the first time we felt like an important company. And then we got to make great adventure games.
Adventure games are a thing again, and we played some role in that. Maybe they would have become a thing again on their own without Telltale, but certainly when Grim Fandango came out I had to tell all my friends, “You have to play this game because it’s absolutely amazing,” most of my friends were like “I don’t get it, it’s obtuse.” To go from that to where so many people were playing adventure games and really getting into them – going from “adventure games are dead” to now a narrative adventure is a genre that people are interested in and lots of people play, that’s – with all of the bad things that happened at Telltale, that’s one of the things that is so amazing.
And then Life Is Strange, A Way Out, Detroit: Become Human, Florence, all these games, these beautiful games that I feel [mirrored] our passions at Telltale, by sheer force of will, we were like “No, this type of content matters.” It mattered at Telltale, and now it matters to the industry at large, and the fact that we played some sort of role in that is one of the ultimate positives that I can take away from my Telltale experience.
There’s a lot of bad things that have happened particularly at the end of Telltale, but I hope it will be remembered in the pantheon of Infocom, Sierra, LucasArts, Cyan, Quantic Dream. 10 years from now, I hope that the things that Telltale did the best are what it’s remembered for, and the things that we certainly did not do the best at are – I don’t want to say forgotten about because we don’t want to forget about them – but that those are not its sole legacy.
Click here to read our full story on Telltale’s closure, where we spoke to several ex-employees and executives to get an inside look at what happened.
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