A little over a week ago, Telltale Games announced publicly that the majority of the studio was being shut down, with only a skeleton crew remaining in order to fulfill obligations to the company's board. This was definitely saddening news, but the true tragedy came shortly after: every single developer who worked at Telltale was laid off with zero severance pay. Put simply, they were shown the door without any financial help at all.
Yet, despite this, Telltale posted another update three days later that revealed it was "actively looking for a solution" to finish its current game, The Walking Dead: The Final Season, due to offers from potential business partners. Here's why figuring out how to finish the game should be the last thing on Telltale's mind.
It's morally wrong not to
The main reason why Telltale should be prioritizing assisting former employees financially instead of trying to finish its game is it's the right thing to do. Finding work after a lay off is not an easy thing to do for many people, and that's precisely why the concept of severance pay exists: to ensure that employees have some financial breathing room while they attempt to find a new career.
It's possible, though, that Telltale is unable to pay severance, as the company said that the issue that caused the collapse was a financial one. Yet if this was the case, how is it planning to get an outside business partner to finish The Walking Dead: The Final Season? It doesn't add up. My best guess is that one of those partners is buying Telltale's rights to make The Walking Dead games directly. If that's the case than Telltale needs to use that money to support its former employees.
Returning the favor
Based on several Tweets from ex-Telltale narrative designer Emily Grace Buck, Telltale's employees were some of the hardest workers in the industry. "It's true we usually worked 50+ hour weeks," she wrote on Twitter. "Sometimes 70-80. Weekends were often expected."
Dear everyone asking,
Yes, it's true we usually worked 50+ hr weeks. Sometimes 70-80. Weekends were often expected. We were constantly "understaffed". Deadlines were ludicrously tight. Our schedules were so close we went from one crunch directly into another.Dear everyone asking,
Yes, it's true we usually worked 50+ hr weeks. Sometimes 70-80. Weekends were often expected. We were constantly "understaffed". Deadlines were ludicrously tight. Our schedules were so close we went from one crunch directly into another.— Emily Grace Buck plz hire TTG devs! (@emilybuckshot) September 23, 2018September 23, 2018
In the aftermath of Telltale's first steps towards closure, former developers like Buck have taken to Twitter to explain just how dire some of their situations are. Due to how expensive it is to live in San Francisco where Telltale was based, many of them were (and are) living hand-to-mouth. Without a severance pay, their only option has been to desperately look for new work fast or try and get donations from sympathizers.
Considering that Telltale was working its employees like dogs based on Buck's alarming accounts of how things went down at the company, I think a severance paycheck is the least that it can do for people who were this committed to creating the games that put Telltale on the map in the first place.
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They likely cant pay their employees because theyre almost bankrupt. Hopefully the finished games profits can be used to take care of their employees. In any case, the game has to be finished because people already paid for it. There will be lawsuits out the wazoo if they dont.
They have no money left, so how can they pay those employees severance? Also, since The Walking Dead: The Final Season was sold as a season pass, releasing the last two episodes will not bring them any extra money from existing buyers (only if they manage to convince more people to buy the season pass). So really at this point I only see two options for Telltale:
A) Release the remaining two episodes and don't pay the laid off employees.
B) Do not release the remaining two episodes and still don't pay the laid off employees.
I don't know about you but I choose option A, and I believe most people would. There's no doubt that I feel sorry for the employees and would like to see them paid what they are owed, but their problem is unrelated to whether the game gets finished or not.
There aren't even episodes to release. The prior developers have made that clear. And I doubt they're going to just give TWD away for free, which means that if they do sell those rights the money should be used to pay the employees. Frankly I don't even understand how they have NO money. The company should have prepared for something like this, obviously they didn't just wake up and say "Oh, we're bankrupt!" No. If they knew things were going downhill in a way that couldn't be helped then they should have set aside money for severance instead of continue to use it buying more IP rights and developing something they knew they couldn't finish. I don't believe for a second that would have been impossible for them.
Okay, let's say that they manage to sell the rights for TWD to another developer and get money for it. I agree that the first thing they should do with that money is pay the laid off employees. I have no problem with that. But the first part of the article, starting with its headline, states that Telltale should pay the employees before even considering selling those rights to another developer. That's the part I have a problem with. I just don't believe it's possible given the company's financial troubles.
According to reports, Telltale laid off those employees after financing deals with AMC, Smilegate, and Lionsgate fell through, leaving the company without any funding. I don't think that was something Telltale could have predicted. If they knew they couldn't finish TWD: The Final Season, they would have cancelled it before making its season pass available for purchase, to avoid having to issue refunds.
As for buying more IP rights, aside from the deal with Netflix to port Minecraft: Story Mode and work on a Stranger Things game in 2019, Telltale hasn't bought any IP rights since Kevin Bruner left the company. That happened in March 2017. Pete Hawley was appointed new CEO in October 2017 and the first thing he did was lay off a quarter of Telltale's workforce as he argued that the company can't handle releasing 4 games a year, which it tried to do under Bruner in 2015, 2016, and 2017. And really, aside from episodes 4 and 5 of Batman: The Enemy Within which the company was contractually obliged to finish, the only game they released in 2018 was TWD: The Final Season.
Are you so certain that there are not episodes to release? Prior developers made that clear? You may want to read some of Michael Kirkbride's (the season lead designer) statements. He stated Episode 3 was just in need of "polish" and Episode 4's script had been finished. The project is primed for another developer to step in. You are also completely ignoring in why TTG would sell the rights to get the season finished and might have tried to push forward in the hopes that there was a chance to come out ahead. The development process started quite some time ago. TTG's financial situation hasn't been fully disclosed, so management may not have seen the full magnitude of the problem and the investment was likely too large to bail on in the hopes that they could use the game to weather the storm. This is likely why TTG required that customers purchase the entire season and gave no option to purchase individual episodes, as they have done in the past. As for selling the rights to get the season finished, that leads to a whole new set of problems. TTG never sold the game directly. They used distributors such as MS, Sony and Steam. The purchase agreement for the finished season is not between the customer and TTG, but the customer and the distributor that advertised and sold the product. If TTG fails to finish the season the distributors are going to have to issue refunds or begin dealing with customers doing chargebacks. Yes it was awful in the way the releases at TTG happened, but not finishing the game will only cause a backlash with the distributors that will trickle down to their employees and customers. I mean you don't think that MS, Sony and Steam aren't going to cut their losses without getting it back someplace, do you? Do those employees and people who paid for a product mean so much less than former employees who have legal remedies? And what exactly is your source for TTG having "NO money?" How are they paying the skeleton crew? With Peanuts? You are making a lot of assertions that people who are still on the inside or were not surprised by the layoffs are making statements contrary to yours.
It is certainly the moral thing to pay severance, but the question is feasibility. If there is no money and new investment is required to finish the game then no investor will take on the burden of bailing-out the game AND paying severance. If the average wage is $60k three months severance for 250 people is three million dollars ON TOP of development costs. EDIT: additional. I'd like to make clear in the UK the employees would be legally entitled to severance and if not paid they could sue the company for it. That it hasn't declared bankruptcy is abhorrent. That doesn't change the "feasibility" argument (no investor is going to pay $3m "over the odds") but that means the company should declare bankruptcy and the employees should get a share of whatever the liquidators can squeeze out of the assets.
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