The Justified Skepticism of the New Telltale Games

A year after its closure, Telltale Games is back after its assets were purchased by LCG Entertainment. The new company has committed to offering employees of the old Telltale positions at the new company. The gesture is significant given that the original studio’s closure was sudden and the staff were dismissed laid off without severance. Not everyone will get a job at the new Telltale and the jobs that are available will be freelance, leading to mixed feelings about the move. covered the new owners’ plans for the future. Was the offer a tacky reopening of old wounds or are the new owners doing their best in a difficult position? These two possibilities are not mutually exclusive, and while it does not make for sparkling commentary, it is likely that both are correct.

The tackiness is self evident. Losing a job so suddenly and then being offered it a year later but on a freelance basis is already a sour state of affairs, even before considering the specifics about the working conditions at the old Telltale and the practicalities of working freelance in a notoriously costly city. Ignoring the previous workers or having them apply with the general population isn’t a better option as it communicates indifference to the people who built the assets the new owners hope to turn into a profitable venture. A complete restoration of the studio as before isn’t an option since it wouldn’t have closed in the first place if that were possible. The fact that there are no good options does not make the hiring decision any better. Admitting to running over a neighbour’s pet and offering compensation is a better thing to do than speeding off and hoping nobody notices, but the neighbours are unlikely to express gratitude.

However, LCG Entertainment is not responsible for the state of the world. They have explained their reasoning behind the hiring decisions and it is consistent with addressing the problems reported with the old company. The old Telltale went into assignment and LCG bought a specific asset. They have not taken on the old liabilities, and while there is an important discussion to be had about a company’s obligations to its workers relative to its creditors, that issue should not be resolved through a given company’s discretion. The new company can take any form up to and including a big box where all the payments for old titles come in without producing any new games. The staffing decisions of the new company will reflect the intentions of the owners and the circumstances they are in.

The justification for the response to the new Telltale falls to the nature of the asset that was purchased. The Telltale brand is a distressed asset for which the new owners presumably received a discount. The value of that asset is built in part on work that was not fairly compensated and brands come with the good and bad. These facts were known at the time of purchase and the calculation of the new owners is that they will be able to repair the brand enough to make the time, effort, and money spent on restoring it worthwhile. The skepticism is part of the purchase price, and if the new owners weren’t expecting it they only have themselves to blame. The amount of leeway an individual is willing to give the new owners is a matter of personal preference and so there is no right answer. The criticism reflects the nature of the asset and insisting the new owners get the benefit of the doubt credits them with work they have not yet done.

If realizing the gains from turning around the distressed asset is the goal, there are good reasons for the new Telltale to prove its skeptics wrong. Telltale Games was not some magical label that turned work from random developers into fun games. Telltale, like any company, was a group of people and a way of doing things that could take advantage of its reputation for providing a certain experience to be able to connect with its customers. The reputation remains, but the people and process are missing. In order to restore the desirable parts of Telltale’s process, it makes sense to hire people who are familiar with it. Those hires will also be more valuable due to their ability to work effectively within it right away, as opposed to others who will need to be trained. But there is only so much institutional knowledge freelancers can provide. It’s possible that the new Telltale may hang on to the old guard long enough to absorb the knowledge and let them go, but this would mean that the Telltale way is easy to transmit and that there are approximately 250 people who will be working for competitors after such a move.

The sound business decision does seem to be to find a way to produce games that are in line with the brand sustainably, and that means hiring talent that can produce it effectively. While the intention seems to be to use the freelance period as a trial balloon for the new process, it is clear this is not an effective way to attract the talent that will produce the sustainable success the new company wants to achieve. This means that it is in the new Telltale’s interest to turn these positions into full time ones and to demonstrate that its intentions to produce a better company are genuine as soon as possible. The reasons for doing so are as much economic as they are altruistic.

There’s no way to predict how the new company will turn out. It is difficult not to hope for the best, but this is an easy hope for someone who is looking forward to Telltale’s future releases. The skepticism on display reflects the damage to the Telltale brand from the old company and it is up to the new owners to make the new company worthy of the talent they wish to attract.

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