What happened to Telltale Games

I quite liked Tales from the Borderlands, but it became pretty obvious early on that the amount my decisions would actually affect the story was fairly minimal, and the QTEs were standing in the way of the good bits more than anything else.

That being said, I still thought it was a really fun story. It probably shouldn’t have been a video game, but I was willing to tolerate it being in a weird format for the sake of a good story and characters.

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Many of the problems here are endemic to the game industry. The company’s collapse is also following a familiar trajectory.

Especially when they were paying big licensing fees. Most of their recent games lost significant amounts of money as a result, reportedly.

What I’ve read is that, recently, only their Walking Dead series actually had enough sales to make a profit after development and licensing costs. I think they may have doubled down on licensing bigger (and more expensive) properties as a result, which resulted in bigger disasters.

I suspect they didn’t even know how to approach original IPs, as they’d been working with licensed IPs so much. They published only two series that weren’t licensed - only one of which they developed themselves, the low-budget “Puzzle Agent” series, which had two games. They were pretty modest games sold at modest prices. I suspect, though critically well-received, they weren’t big financial successes. Which would be expected, given the small scale of the endeavor, but that probably just caused management to double down on the losing strategy of licensing.

Seriously though - yeah. In those and many other ways.

Ugly crunch is expected in the game industry. It often doesn’t lead to high turnover, but instead, people are working so many hours they become less productive. Not just less productive per hour worked, but in general. I hear so many stories from various game companies - they’re behind (because people are already working abusive hours), so they crunch. They get even more behind, so they crunch more. Now they’re crazy behind, so they’re working 7 days a week for 12+ hours a day, with no days off, for months and months on end. Weirdly, management don’t make the connection between the working conditions and exhaustion to all the bugs that mysteriously keep popping up and which are putting them more and more behind schedule.


A significant portion of the profits for media these days are in ancillary and merch too.

You don’t own the IP then some one else is making bank on T-Shirts, comics, toys, themed beers, mouse pads, serialized novels and the like.

We hear a lot about how AAA game budgets are huge and games often cut it close on profitability. But you can get a pickup truck decal with Masterchief on it.

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Telltale Games collapsed? Huh.

A lot less true for games, I think. My own experience has been that the merch was even considered more of a marketing expense than revenue stream. (And that was for a game with high-end figurines, a book series, etc. I’m not sure any of those broke even, much less made a profit. If they did, it was a rounding error at best.) It’s obviously different for a small number of the biggest games (which are already so massively profitable they don’t need the revenue), but I suspect that’s mostly the case.

I’m sad that I can only click “like” once. So sad.


For fans of TWD game that bought the season pass for The Final Season (like me) (not like there was a choice - it was all or nothing) this seems like the best possible outcome.

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Well that’s kind of the thing across the board. Star Wars makes a billion off the movie, and 3 billion off merch/ancillary. But smaller movies? Probably not. From what I understand it’s still an important profit sector. Such that a movie that looks a bit like a wash at the box office. But with a nice fan following. Can become quite profitable over time from that sort of thing. Sort of an expanded “it made money on DVD”.

Amid all the arguments about Indy Game profits and steam impacts I’ve seen a lot of “we make more money from t-shirts than on Steam, grumble grumble”. So its there but it does seem to have developed in gaming a bit later than elsewhere. Books get fashion collections at Hot Topic these days. But for the bigger publishers we’re seeing like $300 fashion jackets inspired by Deus Ex, and Target has an entire section of Fallout bar ware.

Part of the issue there might be that even with original IP. Its often owned by the publisher not the Dev. So given how the games business is pretty bad at those sorts of things. The kickback to the dev from Merch might not be great even if the publisher is raking it in.

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Yeah, it is - but here games have a disadvantage, as some of best-selling games of all time (in the top-10) have sales numbers that would match opening weekend ticket sales for a contemporary blockbuster. (Never mind that the movie gets seen by the lion’s share of its audience via home video and broadcast, whereas games get sold… and that’s it, except for some games that subsequently sell additional bits to that initial buyer base, and a decreasing number of games that get away with subscription services.) So yeah, it’s not an apples-and-oranges comparison for movies and games so much as apples-and-much-smaller-apples.
The one caveat here being spin-off media. Books and comics can make money being licensed for movies. Movies can make good money being licensed for games, but the reverse is incredibly rare (rare that a game gets adapted as a movie and even more rare that they make good money.) The licensing money travels in one direction with movies and games, really. I wouldn’t be surprised if the total amount of money generated by all movies that are game adaptations equals the money made by licensing a single successful movie IP to game companies. You mentioned Halo before, and they’ve been hugely successful with adaptations and merchandising, but they’re almost unique (and yet still haven’t managed to get a big budget movie adaptation made).

But remember - those are 18 and 21 year-old franchises, with 4 and 6 games each, respectively. Yet there’s probably more Forrest Gump or Pulp Fiction merchandise still out there, even just based on one 20+ year-old movie. Though some games are just more suited to merchandising - I bet Overwatch, for instance, sells a whole lot more than the entire GTA franchise.

I suspect more than a bit of hyperbole, but also that it says more about the “race to the bottom” in indie game pricing (and the pressure to do giveaways), than merchandising being especially profitable (to the point where the per-unit revenue from a t-shirt is probably higher than that of an indie game on sale). Though some indie games, with their cult followings, are probably best positioned to do relatively well with basic merchandising.

That might play a role - certainly if merchandising is being done through the publisher, little-to-nothing in revenue is going back to the developer. But that still gives the publisher an incentive to do it, and there’s clearly a lack of interest in licensing the IP for merchandising, and/or by game developers/publishers to do merchandising to begin with. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the property being owned by the studio, either (e.g. GTA series has pretty minimal merchandising).
My own experience was with a studio-owned property - there were big plans with regard to merchandising and adaptations, and they didn’t amount to anything. (Like I said, I’m pretty sure it was a loss overall. The merchandising was all paid for by the studio, rather than licensed out; none of it sold well.) I think studios have internalized that skepticism, right or wrong. A friend is part of a small team right now with a game that’s become substantially popular. I just realized they don’t have even the most basic merchandising - not even t-shirts - despite players asking for them. I’ll have to ask my friend about it, but I suspect they don’t see the minimal effort of putting out even a t-shirt as economically worth the effort. (It’s even possible, looking around, that they used to have t-shirts and then stopped.)
I recollect a few years back, there were a spate of new studios doing “cross-platform media development.” A friend worked for one of them. What it amounted to were game studios that were also thinking of how their properties could be turned into movies/tv shows/books/comics/action figures/whatever. They all failed. For a variety of reasons, but in part, I think, because that’s just not the direction the money flows.

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