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Troubled Production / Video Games

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"I loved that game, but am probably most dissatisfied with the final result. Certainly tried my best, but that thing nearly killed me."

Video game production often proves to be a game in and of itself: sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose.

  • The article Dis-Illusioned! How a Great License Killed a Small Developer lists the things that went wrong with developing licensed adventures at The Illusions Gaming Company, which expected to greatly cut development costs by using established characters, established designs, and available teams of voice actors as seen by developers. It seemed to work well with the Genesis version of Scooby-Doo Mystery. But then...
    • The Brothers Grunt was expected to become the next Beavis and Butt-Head, and the studio invested a lot in the game. The game was nice (or so the authors say), and the kids loved it, until they heard the title and realized what the game was actually based on. Afterwards, they wouldn't touch it.
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    • The making of the Duckman game was delayed by a dispute with the titular character's voice actor Jason Alexander, who demanded an unreasonably high price (for the publisher) because the game had about three seasons' worth of voice acting and the strain of speaking like a duck risked damaging his throat. When Illusions ended up hiring a voice-double, the show got axed because of power struggles between Viacom top management. The game was allowed to be finished, but suffered great budget cuts.
    • Beavis and Butt-Head Do U was going to have some great puzzles (or so the authors say), which had to be cut because "Beavis and Butthead are too stupid to think of that". Again, there was the problem of voice acting: the licensor demanded that Illusions hire the duo's voice actor Mike Judge with the same billing he got at the show's peak popularity, but the game's budget would only allow him to record approximately half the game's dialogue. The publisher suggested a low-budget solution - recycling the lines from the show's audio track and from the previous games. All Illusions staff spent a week and a half trying to piece together this jigsaw puzzle of scripts and ended up replacing most jokes with just giggles. After that, the studio founders deemed their business model too unrewarding and shut down.
  • There was never one single Creator Killer for Telltale Games; instead, according to insider accounts, virtually every game they ever made save for The Walking Dead: Season One (the studio's Breakthrough Hit) and Minecraft: Story Mode lost the studio money. Given reports of a toxic work environment and culture at the company as it grew from an indie upstart to a behemoth - and came crashing back down - it's perhaps no surprise that the studio's management didn't exactly have its hand firmly on the wheel.
    • To make a long story short, Telltale grew eyes bigger than its belly after The Walking Dead blew up and singlehandedly turned around the studio's perilous finances. The small studio rapidly grew from less than 100 people to over 300, and started greenlighting games based on licensed properties left and right in hopes of making the lightning of The Walking Dead strike twice. However, the studio's culture remained stuck in an indie mindset that valued tribalism and buddy-buddy relationships over professionalism and open communication even as it entered the big leagues.
    • The inevitable consequence of Telltale's indie mentality running head-first into its emergence as a major studio was that quality control suffered as camaraderie broke down. Developers were cycled around various projects willy-nilly, especially when a game was under a tight deadline and management simply threw more developers at it to get it out the door; one former employee described this as trying to get nine women to bring a baby to term in just one month. Crunch time, of course, also existed, but whereas most studios restrict it to the final few months of a game's development as they scramble to finish it, former Telltale employees describe workdays of 14-18 hours as near-constant thanks to the episodic nature of Telltale's games; there was always a project that was approaching completion. Burnout was inevitable, especially given that salaries were reportedly lower than at rival studios (bad news given the sky-high housing prices in Silicon Valley), and the studio burned through talent at a rapid rate. The poor resource management also led to some projects getting understaffed. For example, it is known that Telltale's management prioritised Game of Thrones over Tales from the Borderlands; the latter's famous "finger gun shootout" in Episode 4 came about because the developers didn't have the time or resources to do a proper action scene, and Episode 5 was reportedly made with a skeleton crew so Telltale could complete the game and move on.
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    • The studio's issues with retaining talent caused further problems - since Telltale continued using their own internal game engine instead of anything industry-standard, each round of hires would then involve training new people to use their toolset all over again. This meant that each person who quit could potentially leave a team short on developers for weeks, if not months. Telltale eventually decided to move over to Unity for their cancelled Stranger Things game to make new hires easier, but by that point it was too late.
    • Most of the blame for Telltale's deterioration goes to co-founder Kevin Bruner, who wanted to be seen as the driving creative force behind Telltale's games. When The Walking Dead became a hit and most of the credit for it went to project leads and co-creators Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin, Bruner did not take it well - he saw the game as his baby and the product of his company, and the resulting fights between him and Vanaman and Rodkin led them to leave Telltale and start Campo Santo Productions. The success of Campo Santo's Firewatch, as well as of Night School Studio (co-founded by former Telltale dev Adam Hines) and its game Oxenfree, drove Bruner to take a far more direct creative role in development, fearing that allowing anybody else to take the spotlight would give them the clout to run off and start their own studios like Vanaman, Rodkin, and Hines before them. Former employees describe Bruner as a "creative bottleneck" who micromanaged games in order to leave his mark on them, belittled those who disagreed with his decisions, and left the studio creatively stagnant as he came to favor certain story beats and narrative structures (often those lifted from The Walking Dead Season 1), especially after he took over as CEO from Dan Connors in 2015. By the time he left in March 2017, the writing was already on the wall.
    • That's not to say that Bruner wasn't himself eventually screwed over by Telltale. He later sued them in 2018, saying that he was effectively forced out of the company and that information (specifically, information on the studio's finances and management) was withheld from him as he prepared to sell his stock, in violation of his contract.
    • While conditions improved somewhat after Bruner's departure, the announcement of new CEO Phil Hawley (formerly of Zynga, where he had overseen widespread layoffs) in September 2017 immediately raised alarms, and for good reason: within two months of his arrival, Telltale had fired a quarter of its workforce. Most of the rest would go in September 2018, at which point Telltale announced it would cease production on all new games except for Minecraft: Story Mode Season 2 (out of contractual obligation with Netflix, which commissioned the game). This news came as a shock to employees, especially given that none of them received severance pay, leaving many of them bitter and frustrated with management. Within days, former employees filed a class-action lawsuit against Telltale for violating the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, mandating 60 days of advance notice in the event of a mass layoff, and California's more stringent version of the same.
    • There is a happy ending to this story (for now): in 2019, LCG Entertainment acquired Telltale and most of their assets. So far, the revival is very much in-name-only (think THQ Nordic), and the new owners are not associated with the original company's management and seek to try and avoid the mistakes the old one made. While some games like The Walking Dead and the canceled Stranger Things game reverted back to their proper rights owners (though Skybound Games re-released an updated collection of the Walking Dead series with updated graphics and a ton of bonus features), a few properties like Batman and Fables have been retained. Aside from a re-release of the two Batman seasons, the first major release will be the long-awaited The Wolf Among Us sequel set for release in 2023, followed by a game based on The Expanse sometime afterwards.