Telltale Employees Left Stunned By Company Closure, No Severance

Screenshot: Telltale, The Walking Dead: The Final Season

Telltale Games employees were surprised when CEO Pete Hawley announced the closure of the company at a staff-wide meeting. One employee, a source told Kotaku, had been working until 3:00AM the night before with no inkling that the studio was about to let them and over 200 other employees go, leaving behind a skeleton crew of 25 to finish off work on a final project (Minecraft: Story Mode according to Variety).

The suddenness of the meeting at the company’s San Rafael, California headquarters was described to Kotaku by a former employee who was there but wanted to remain anonymous as they search for work elsewhere in the video game industry.

The timing was just one of the meeting’s unwelcome surprises. The head of human resources dropped another bombshell, to the audible shock of Telltale employees: There would be no severance.

Those laid off were encouraged to begin applying for unemployment as soon as possible and were told their health benefits would run out at the end of the month, just nine days later, according to a source and to social media postings by ex-developers. They had 30 minutes to leave the building.

The lack of severance, a detail that began circulating on Twitter shortly after the shutdown, was one of the bitterest details in a game studio collapse that has sparked outrage and sympathy among those who play and make games.

Telltale had been around for more than a decade and was in the midst of rolling out a new episode of its signature series about The Walking Dead, episode two of a supposed four, planned for release today.

The rationale for failing to pay out severance provided by Hawley, according to Kotaku’s source, was that this was a business closure rather than partial layoffs, like the 25 per cent downsizing that hit the studio last November. (A California law, the Cal-WARN Act, requires employees provide 60 day notice for mass layoffs but allows some exceptions that could have applied to Telltale.)

That wasn’t much consolation, however, to the people who had been working long days leading up to Friday.

While the source knew the company’s future was in question, they never suspected the end was so close at hand. By the time they got back to their desks, their work Google accounts had already been disabled.

“None of my sleepless nights or long hours on weekends trying to ship a game on time got me severance today,” tweeted now-former Telltale character artist Brandon Cebenka in the hours following the meeting. “Don’t work overtime unless you’re paid for it, y’all. Protect your health. Companies don’t care about you.”

Another ex-employee said that they’d wished they taken more holiday time while they still had a job. “All I want right now is to REST for a couple of days,” they tweeted. “But since we got no severance and our insurance expires at the end of the month, I don’t have that luxury.” Neither employee provided further comment.

Emily Grace Buck, a lead designer on several Telltale games, including its most recent one, The Walking Dead: The Final Season, spoke publicly about how long hours were customary at Telltale. “It’s true we usually worked 50 plus hour weeks. Sometimes 70-80. Weekends were often expected,” she wrote.

“We were constantly ‘understaffed.’ Deadlines were ludicrously tight. Our schedules were so close we went from one crunch directly into another.”

Screenshot: Telltale, Minecraft: Story Mode, the studio's final project according to Variety

Episode two of The Final Season was originally slated to release this week on September 25, and Kotaku has already received a preview code for it. Telltale has not confirmed that the game will still come out on the same schedule, but it seems likely according to the sources reached by Kotaku.

Melissa Hutchison, voice actor for Walking Dead heroine Clementine, wrote in a statement: “To my knowledge, they will release Episode 2 and then that will be it.” She also gave her condolences to everyone at Telltale, writing, “I have met and made some of the very best friends I will have in this life, and that is priceless.”

“I’m in a weird place as lead episode designer,” Buck wrote, “because I want you to play it!” At the same time, she pointed out that companies don’t make games, the people who work at them do, and now the team who made episode two won’t be around to benefit from any success it might find.

“The team did awesome work, pushed boundaries, and I want you to see it! Send us off on a high note! But I’m not gonna tell you to buy it.”

This disconnect between the commitment of Telltale employees to the studio’s gruelling project deadlines and the sudden way in which the studio severed that relationship has inspired a renewed debate within the video game industry and gaming community about crunch, workers’ rights and unionisation.

Game Workers Unite, an activist organisation that seeks to unionise the video game industry, put out a scathing letter over the weekend in response to the circumstances by which Telltale’s employees were let go.

“The executives at Telltale are incompetent. They are exploitative. They knew that this was coming and failed to warn anybody,” the letter alleged. “Unionisation can’t fix Telltale after the fact, but it could have prevented so much of the damage to countless workers’ lives by ensuring benefits like severance pay and healthcare that lasts from job to job.”

According to Buck, at least one employee had joined Telltale only one week before the closure and had relocated across the country to do so. Another was a foreign national in the country on a work visa who must now leave “within a few days”. While none of those laid off are being given severance, contract workers who weren’t full time won’t even be able to collect unemployment.

Telltale Games did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Screenshot: Telltale, The Wolf Among Us

During the Friday meeting at which the company’s closure was announced, Hawley blamed the studio’s fate in part on recent seasons of The Walking Dead not meeting sales expectations, according to the anonymous source present who spoke to Kotaku. Hawley echoed this sentiment in his public remarks later in the day, in which he said that though the studio had released some of its best games in 2018, that had not translated into adequate revenue.

Following the financial and critical success of The Walking Dead: Season One in 2012, Telltale had grown and begun working on an increasing number of licensed games, including The Wolf Among Us based on the Fables comics, a Game of Thrones adaptation, and Batman: The Telltale Series.

This increased workload, under the leadership of studio co-founder Kevin Bruner, led to increasingly difficult working conditions, which The Verge reported on at length earlier this year.

According to The Verge, teams would work overtime to meet development milestones, something Buck also corroborated in her tweets, only for their work to be derided in review meetings with Bruner, who would go on to require heavy re-works without adequately revising the development schedule to provide more time.

Hawley, formerly at Zynga, replaced Bruner in September of 2017. One of his first major acts was a restructuring period that month which resulted in 90 employees being let go that November.

At the same time, morale among the development teams apparently improved. A source told Kotaku that following Bruner’s departure, projects stayed on track more frequently and shipped in a form that more closely resembled what had been decided and agreed upon during the initial planning stages.

In a statement released last Friday, Bruner said he was saddened by the loss of people’s jobs and the studio he helped create. He also touted his own leadership. “Prior to my leaving, we were able to avoid sweeping layoffs and (somehow) managed to ensure that we always had work for everyone,” he wrote. “We worked hard and sometimes it seemed like we had more than we could handle but we stuck together and forged ahead.”

Bruner is currently suing Telltale for what he claims was its interference in the sale of his holdings in the company after being forced out.

Screenshot: Telltale, Batman: The Enemy Within

In addition to the feelings of frustration, regret, and in some cases, stories of exploitation that employees have posted online or shared in conversations with Kotaku, there has also been a tremendous outpouring of support on social media for the people affected.

Two hashtags have circulated on on social media following the news: #TelltaleJobs and #TelltaleMemories. The first is filled with colleagues promoting one another’s work and sharing postings for new jobs in the games industry, and the other has given former Telltale employees and the fans of the games they created a chance to celebrate their past work.

Some former employees have relayed interesting anecdotes about how certain parts of Telltale games came to be.

“When we requested the animation for Rhys turning off Hyperion monitors in Tales from the Borderlands Episode 5, the requested animation was worded as ‘Rhys flips off the monitors as he runs by,’” wrote narrative designer Molly Maloney. What the team got back was literally Rhys flipping the monitors the bird as he runs by, one of the series’ funniest moments.

Other Telltale employees have shared unofficial in-game animations they made just for fun, such as this one of Walking Dead protagonist Lee Everett throwing a hilarious tantrum about an empty cupboard, or this video of Lee collecting bananas.

Others talked about how much they loved the teams they got to be a part of at the studio and small memories of their time there. “Did anyone post about the time the trophy case at Telltale shattered from the weight of all of the Walking Dead awards?” wrote one former employee. “I think only a small late-night cinematic team was there for it, closing up an episode of Wolf - we decided it was an omen and went home soon after.”

Meanwhile, some players have used the #TelltaleMemories hashtag to talk about what the games meant to them. “I found Telltale Games during a low point in my life,” wrote one person. “S1 of The Walking Dead actually helped me through the death of someone close to me. It taught me so much about acceptance and compassion. I’ve been a fan of every TWD season and Batman since.”


Comments

    Every time I read an article like this - which is far too often - it amazes me that we get any video games at all. I can't imagine what possesses people to work want to work in a business filled with companies like this. This industry is rotten to the core.

    Dear games industry workers,

    Fucking unionise.

    Sincerely,

    Pokedad

      The problem with unionising at this points that the gaming industry has a huge pool of eager young adults who are willing to do work to next to nothing just to get their foot in the door.

      You would have to hit the graduates at the universities first, get them into the union to ensure that those in the industry already don't feel threatened by being easily replaced.

        It certainly isn't a quick or easy fix, but it's the only one I see working.

        The implication that thousands of experienced game developers can easily be replaced by university graduates suggests to me that you've not had a lot of experience supervising university graduates.

          Oh they would most definitely take the job. The performance AFTERWARDS is what would tank the industry. I've experience this first hand in a VR startup that hired exclusively graduates, leading to serious issues of experience gaps and the common sense you get from basic life experience beyond university.

      Not gonna happen. In a lot of states its essentially perfectly legal for companies to fire employees for attempting to unionize. America is a very worker unfriendly place. It's land of the free for companies and the rich only.

        That heavily depends on the state, but yeah. They call them "Right to Work" states. Because America loves naming bills after the exact opposite of their function. Destroy workers' rights? Call it right to work! Curtail personal freedoms? Call it the Liberty Act!

          I remember one state voted to increase the minimum wage by 10 cents and the crying from Republicans and business lobbies was astounding. They proclaimed that such a raise in minimum wage would ruin businesses and cause them to close down. A mere 10 cents apparently would achieve that.

          America is what happens when you let capitalism go unchecked.

          You get bankers and CEO's causing worldwide recessions but going unpunished
          You get a for-profit healthcare system where people are forced between choosing to live or going bankrupt
          You get a country where mothers give birth and a forced to go to work the next day because America thinks not having legislated maternity leave is a good idea.

          America is not free. Unchecked capitalism has removed its freedom.

            We usually butt heads but I cannot agree with you any more on this.

          Right to Work just means that you can't be forced to join a union, something we've had across the board in Australia for 20 years. In US states that are not "right to work" it is legal for unions to charge non-member employees a bargaining fee for negotiating wages and other conditions.

            Right to work legislation contains a whole host of tag along laws that severely limit worker rights. To the point where unfair dismissal just doesn't exist in some places. Anyone can be sacked at any time for literally no reason.

              Which may or may not be the case, but either way, any additional provisions exceed the common meaning of the phrase you have used, which is exactly as I have described. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right-to-work_law

                I honestly don't see how ignoring the greater context in which legislation is passed and employed does anything other than proving that being technically correct is the best kind of correct. So good job, I guess. You technically got me if those laws exist in a vacuum.
                The reason for and the effect of the Right to Work laws is to limit worker rights and lower remuneration.

                  I didn't ignore the greater context, I just pointed out that you were using terminology with which you were clearly not familiar, and using it incorrectly. I thought you might appreciate the issue being clarified so you wouldn't continue to make the same mistake.

                  You are the one misunderstanding the context. You claim, for example, that there is some kind of alleged relationship between right to work laws and prohibitions against unfair dismissal. In fact, in 49 out of 50 states there is no such thing as wrongful termination under law except in very narrow cases (being fired for being a union member is, as it happens, one of those prohibited reasons across all 50 states under federal law). Right to work has nothing to do with prohibitions against wrongful termination.

                  For more information, see https://www.aol.com/2012/12/21/right-to-work-laws-myths-workers-rights/

      And how would unionizing, which would undoubtedly force companies to pay more, have helped this situation? Oh, they'd have severance? Great. Except they'd have closed down years ago instead. Or games would be $100 each. I've seen what unionizing does. It doesn't work.

      Last edited 26/09/18 5:44 am

    What ever the reason for the studio’s demise, reprehensible that they appear to have structured it to avoid paying entitlements to their staff. No suggestion that the money isn’t there, so someone is getting it.

    Think I’d be helping myself to a couple of monitors, a laptop, nice chair on the way out the door. The other employees won’t care.

      So, in general I agree. But everyone has to remember, business is a game where the only thing that matters is making money. They do not care about the employee (in general) and they will always act in their own interest.

      It's a complex issue but when employees work ridiculous hours (all the time) they decrease their worth they become a commodity to be used and then discarded.

      To your second paragraph, I hope you meant this in jest because actions taken in anger as you walk out the door will come back to haunt you. You can bet the corporates will find you... even if it casts them $$$$$ to recover $

      Structured to avoid entitlements? This is the US they dont have to pay entitlements. They're not going to pay something they don't have to.

        They do have to pay entitlements where this is provided for in the employment contract, which appears to be the case here, and the company shuts down in an orderly way as opposed to going bankrupt overnight.

        Instead, the company have prioritised running down the bank balance to zero and then throwing in the towell once there's nothing left to give out.

        Regardless of the legal situation, that's intentional and/or incompetent and, either way, nobody is making any profit out of it.

    The land of the free. Free to screw over employees. This is what you get from unchecked free market capitalism. The majority get screwed over to favour the minority. I'm no socialist, but capitalism only works in conjunction with a degree of government intervention and protections (strong labour laws etc). The company I work for was bought out by an American company and the first thing they wanted to do was figure out how to get rid of people without paying redundancy entitlements. They quickly realised that Australia, whilst not perfect, doesn't let you pull that kind of shit.

    Hopefully all these people land better jobs at better companies. But as long as corporations have an option to screw people over free market capitalism will see it done, every single time. It's the natural outcome.

    "Telltale employees will remember this."

    Mixed feelings about this. Part of me feels sorry for the game designers. There was some quality story telling in the Telltale library. The other part kind of saw this coming given their inability to evolve and hone what they started with the first Walking Dead game.

    I remember playing it and thinking, "Omg, in 5 years these guys will be releasing such multi layered, multi branching story games that will be epic adventures to play." Only it never happened... If anything their games got lazier and lazier with the lack of any real choices and consequence.

      Same could be said about most tv shows. Police procedurals tend to for example follow the exact same pattern and still have their fans.

      I just view it as the industry dumbing down its product in order to appeal to a broader audience.

    Constantly understaffed? They had over 300 employees! What's the average head count of non-AAA studios?

    ...their health benefits would run out at the end of the month.Also highlights that other American fucked-uppedness, that if you don't have a job you can't afford to be ill or injured.

      They can't afford health insurance outside their job?

        Considering they don't have a job anymore, and the "average" cost of Healthcare in USA for singles is $321+ monthly then no.... they can't afford it. #merica

        In the real world, not having a job and not being able to afford expensive things are typically closely related.

        Most people can't afford health insurance with a job. If the job doesn't provide it as part of their package, they literally can't get sick.

        I know 3 people who worked with me overseas for years longer than they wanted to because they had to send money home to America or their parents couldn't afford life saving medication.

    What scares me is the entire industry is based around working staff to exhaustion until they burn out completely and then just repeat that with someone new

    ...yet fanbois (and gurl) gamers continue to support companies with clearly exploitive regimes. Just think, if a company is exploiting the people who buy the games and play them, how do they treat their actual staff?

    Last edited 26/09/18 12:43 pm

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