Glassdoor Confessions on Telltale Games Part II- Episode 162
A month after the big news hit, of Telltale games shutting down completely and laying off the staff, we bring you a further look into the real story of what happened there as told by two of Telltale’s former employees. This week we had the honor and opportunity to sit with Emily Grace Buck and Travis Goodwin, and also joining them to round out our discussion was Ema from Game Workers Unite, who helped identify what unionization in games could do to help in situations like these or worse. Emily, started working at Telltale in 2015 and remained there until September 21st, 2018. She was the Narrative Designer for 4 episodes at Telltale. Travis, worked there in 2014 through spring of 2015 and notably worked on 3 episodes as a QA Lead. They gave us their honest insight and recount of how the cards fell and why…
Has the journalism and reporting on the fall of Telltale been truthful or are we missing facts?
Emily explains, “I think a lot of the reporting has actually been pretty accurate about what went down at least the day of the layoffs. There of course has been a lot of speculation about what lead to what happened, and I think that’s going to continue to be the case for a long time, because even as someone who was there and watched everything collapse, there are things that I know and a lot of questions that I have that I would like to see answered. Like any large company collapse, it wasn’t just one thing, it was a lot of things over a very long period of time. I can speak about what I know… So many things happened over a number of years to contribute to the very sudden and traumatic closure of telltale. I know that I don't have all of the answers. I don't know if there was any single person that worked there that has all of the answers. I think a lot is going to keep coming out about what went wrong. So some of those things that look like speculation now might turn out to be accurate, some might turn out to be completely inaccurate. What I can say that definitely was correct, was on September 21 which was a Friday. They called us all in to a company meeting, we got the invite about 1.5 hours ahead of time, we came down to our meeting space, our CEO Pete Holley was there cracking jokes, trying to be funny. Then he got real serious, sat down and said this is the end of our journey and announced that there was going to be a majority studio closure and only 25 people were going to be kept on, we were not getting any severance our healthcare was going to end at the end of the month and we were asked to wait in line to get folders that contained exit papers and our last paychecks which were hand written for all of us. We were told we had 30 minutes to exit the building, I know some people stayed around longer than that, and that was pretty much it.”
But what about the 25 people that were going to be kept, were they anywhere around the company meeting?
Emily again answers for us, “So they were all in that company meeting too, most of them had been tipped off just a couple min before that they were not part of the 90% and it was mostly the Minecraft Netflix team, and then a couple people from other departments just to keep things running. As of the time we are recording this, the Minecraft Netflix team has also been let go and so have a number of other people. As far as I know there are only around 5 people still working at Telltale.”
Travis, were there signs that you felt were leading to another big layoff at Telltale?
Yeah, absolutely. So shortly after I started in late 2014, around January 2015 was when I would consider the kind of first signs of what was to be the ultimate end of Telltale, which kind of came to fruition and that was a company restructure. Up until that point we were run by Dan Connors and Kevin Bruner who were the co founders of Telltale Games, but in the company meeting they announced that Connors was stepping down. At that point Bruner was going to take over both roles and there as going to be a major restructuring for how the company was reorganized… At that point Telltale was still a little bit rough in its whole structure and pipeline and release scheduling. It had swelled with The Walking Dead Season 1 after a kind of rocky release of the Jurassic Park game, which I heard from the more Sr people that worked there that it was not the best thing for the company and at that point was on the verge of closing then. Walking Dead came out and was a major hit, season two came out and the wolf among us came out. All of those were pretty big, at that point the company just didn't know how to expand and meet the demands that it was looking to fill. This restructure happened, they laid out a road map of what was to be the next couple of years. Some of what was included were games that have since come out, they told us about the Batman game and some other things that at that point were not announced. That they were also going to be restructuring the entire company, departments were going to change, leadership was going to change. I honestly don't know that the restructure was the best thing that could happen. Even before the restructure there was a lot of crunch going on a lot of tension and fear and rewrites and concern over how these games are getting made. Even in the short time after the restructure, those didn’t go away and I would learn that none of it really improved long afterwards. I think that it was really more of a power grab that occurred with that restructuring as opposed to actually trying to improve the dynamics of the company, so that was at the point where I kind of figured at the rate that we were going and the burn we were going through people and the scheduling they were trying to push on us with these last minute rewrites, it was not going to be an attainable sustainable process.”
Emma, this is something that has been unclear in terms of unionization, does the funding to help cushion to help developers in between jobs when it does go bad, does that come straight from the employers ahead of time or is it more accountability where they have to plan for that, how does it exactly work?
Sure so the most common thing you are thinking of is just like having a secure locked away severance fund for employees. It’s something a union can demand from their employer, if you’re going to hire someone you need to make sure you're saving up a special secure set of funds to make sure that if they’re laid off for whatever reason, you can provide severance for them. Its a common thing you see in industries that are unionized and have a more vibrant labor organizing situation and yea, even if Telltale was going to hit the red line and start to go bankrupt, they would have hit that cushion where it’s like, okay, what’s remaining is the severance funds and that’s when we’re going to declare bankruptcy so all these severance funds go to the laid off developers and that’s something you would include in any kind of bargaining contract when you’re doing your collective bargaining with the employer.
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