Telltale Games’ Closing: What Does This Mean for Episodic Adventure Games?Telltale Games, the studio behind properties like the Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and Minecraft: Story Mode, laid off around 90% of their 250 person studio on September 21st, 2018. Telltale was in the midst of wrapping up the final season of The Walking Dead, and had the Wolf Among Us season 2 (RIP) along with a Stranger Things series coming up next year. As of now, the remainder of the studio plans on fulfilling their contract with Netflix, but there is still doubt regarding the conclusion of The Walking Dead: The Final Season. The details of this layoff are messy with former developers saying the studio was poorly managed and that the employees were overworked.
Since the company’s founding in 2004, Telltale stuck to primarily creating 3D point-and-click adventure games. Telltale’s big break came when Season 1 of The Walking Dead came out in 2012. It was well received by most players and was Telltale’s best-selling game. Because of The Walking Dead’s success, Telltale was able to expand and take on other big-name projects over the years with IP’s such as Minecraft, Borderlands, Batman, Game of Thrones, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Telltale’s business model for these games is interesting to consider. For their early titles, players could play the first episode for free, then buy each episode after or buy the whole season as a bundle for around $20-$25. The episodic business model makes sense at first; pay for the episodes as they come out or go all in and buy the whole season and save a few bucks. There are some problems with this business model when multiple projects are being worked on at once. Since Telltale tackled multiple large projects at the same time, there was not a solidified timeline for episode releases. For example, I bought the season pass for The Wolf Among Us after playing the first episode for free, but then had to wait almost 4 months for the second episode to come out. Another factor to consider is that since their projects were based on existing IP, many fans only bought the games for the series they liked. I am not a fan of the Walking Dead TV show or comics, so those games did not appeal to me when they released. Telltale did pay attention to cultural trends and fads in entertainment to capitalize on bringing in new fans. The episodic business model depends on a high sale of initial episodes to continue the funding for the rest of the season. With a lot of Telltale’s later titles underperforming, the pressure to deliver the later episodes grew and their runway to deliver episodes narrowed as well.
According to Steamspy, which tracks the number of steam users who own a certain title, I was able to find rough sales estimates for Telltale’ titles. Take these numbers with a grain of salt though, because owners could have gotten the games through Humble Bundle, free weekends, or steam sales.
According to this chart, the average number of owners for Telltale’s games is highest among most of their older titles, like the first season of The Walking Dead, the Wolf Among Us, Tales from the Borderlands, Game of Thrones, and Back to the Future.
Telltale’s later titles did not perform nearly as well as the games that got them a big reputation. The Batman and Guardians of the Galaxy games did not meet fans expectations and the owner numbers reflect that with the games only having a few hundred thousand owners. It is important to note that Telltale’s games are available on console and mobile. One exception to the numbers shown, was Minecraft: Story Mode which was very popular on mobile and has thousands of good reviews and many more downloads.
Telltale was not the first company to implement their games episodically. Older strategy games and first-person shooters would release new levels and content periodically to their games. Valve also released additional content for Half-Life 2 in an episodic format back in 2006. Recent games with a similar business model to Telltale’s are mainly Life is Strange and Hitman (2016). Both games did very well critically and commercially, with Life is Strange selling over 3 million copies and Hitman having 13 million unique players. Life is Strange is an indie point-and-click adventure game like most of Telltale’s titles while Hitman is a third person stealth action game with sandbox style missions. While Telltale games and Life is Strange lean heavily on story and less on gameplay, Hitman does the opposite and delivers strongly in its stealth gameplay.
With the growing demand for open world single player games I wonder if the point-and-click genre can ever have AAA production value. Telltale was a small company for a long time but decided to expand to take on many projects rapidly, which resulted in lower quality games and the mistreatment of their workers. These styles of games offer around 10 hours of gameplay, but because of the different choices players make throughout there is replay value. A benefit of point-and-click adventure games staying primarily independent is that the developers will pay more attention to story and gameplay innovation as opposed to high production value. For me, episodic point-and-click adventure games are a nice break away from AAA role playing games and shooters. I think many people will continue to appreciate a concentrated story that does not drag on for 50-100 hours, but companies that follow the episodic format need to be transparent about episode release dates and goals.
Were you a fan of Telltale games and sad to see the company go under? Or do you not care at all? Comment down below or create a thread to discuss!
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