The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

TellTale Games and the video game industry’s labor crisis

Written by: Robert Hamer, CC2K Staff Writer

Clementine isn’t real. In fact, no character in The Walking Dead, the episodic videogame series that briefly put the now-shutdown TellTale Games on the map, is real. The designers who crafted the game are though. The artists who rendered the unique and striking cell-shaded look of these games are real. The writers who created the dialogue and story are real. They have families to support, bills to pay, and retirement to think about. On September 21st, all of that fell into uncertainty and peril when the studio announced a “majority studio closure” and laid off almost all of their staff, with  the barest skeleton crew remaining to complete the projects they’re contractually obligated to put out. To make matters worse, none of the laid-off staff received any severance pay and their medical benefits have already expired by the time you read this article.

I extend my deepest sympathies to everyone who is now unemployed because of this. Video game design teams are among the most overworked and underpaid people in any entertainment medium, and most stay in because they love making games. In fact, some employees worked late the morning of the announcement that they would be laid off. Let it sink in for a moment, the utter cruelty of making people you employ work that late knowing you’re about to lay them off the next day. But according to The Final Chapter‘s lead designer, it was worse than that. 50-hour workweeks were expected, and often they were ordered to work far more than that. Development teams were so understaffed and had so many tight deadlines and huge demands placed on them that they went from crisis to crisis to crisis with all of their projects. Many of the milestones they hit would be for naught, and they’d either start over or heavily re-work. And yet:

“We still strived to tell the best stories possible, to make the best games we could. It was a pressure cooker, high stress environment, but still,[p’; everyone cared SO MUCH about the games, and about one another.”

A company saw dedicated, creative people who love making video games, exploited that passion, and then threw them out like garbage. Not. Even. With. Severance. But at least the full-time staff will collect unemployment in the meantime. If you were hired as an “independent contractor,” you don’t even get that luxury.

TellTale Games decided the most urgent matter to attend to in the wake of this tragedy was the status of their flagship series, and so decided to comfort everyone by announcing don’t worry, the concluding episodes to The Walking Dead: The Final Season will be released in some form in the future! Thanks, guys. I’m sure your ex-staff are relieved knowing that. Especially since the hardworking creators who worked to death on the very games that launched your company to unimaginable heights won’t see any of the rewards from these last installments if they’re big sellers, nor will they have a hand on how the story they started is finished off.

This is especially galling since the financial woes plaguing TellTale right now are not due to anyone who was laid off. The people who worked on the games did not make the decision to take on too many projects and over-saturate their own initial success without investing properly in the manpower to handle it. The people who worked on the games didn’t get overexcited about the breakout success of The Walking Dead and snap up expensive licences to Batman, Borderlands, Game of Thrones, and Guardians of the Galaxy, without any real idea of what to do with those properties. The people who worked on the games didn’t catastrophically mismanage the $40 million invested in them by Lionsgate in 2015, then turn around and make another deal based on empty promises with Netflix in 2018. They’re being punished for the mistakes of the people in charge; the people who laid them off in the first place.

Batman: The Enemy Within is an example of TellTale management mining the well too many times, with diminishing returns.

(Okay, that’s not entirely accurate — many of those bad decisions were made by leadership that later stepped down or were forced out. Both Kevin Bruner and Dan Connors stayed on the executive level and neither of them are in the financial situations these newly laid-off employees are now in.)

But it appears at least one laid-off employee is fighting back. Last week, a complaint was filed in federal court in San Francisco alleging that the way TellTale went about laying off their workforce is illegal because they did not provide “advance written notice as required by the WARN Act.” WARN stands for “Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification” and the law, passed in 1988, requires employers with over 100 employees on their payroll to provide advance notice of mass layoffs at least 60 calendar days before. I do not know if this lawsuit will succeed or not; the federal courts have been heavily-packed with judges with an extreme hostility to labor over the last twenty months, and there are exceptions to this law that TellTale could successfully argue its situation falls under.

There is a clause in the law that allows for an exception due to “unforeseeable business circumstances.” The notion that upper management was not aware they were headed for financial ruin and massive downsizing based on the decisions they were making over the last five years seems hard to believe, but it is an argument that the company is making right now. But here’s the good news, at least on the state level: there is a much stronger version of the WARN Act in the state of California that does not include this exception. TellTale may not be found liable on a federal level, but on a state level they may yet face accountability for how they treat their employees.

Sadly, it’s possible that even if successful the company will have no money available to award to their wronged ex-employees. If this proceeds to a jury trial, as the plaintiffs request, it could take months for a judgement to be made and by that time TellTale may be completely cleaned out as a remotely solvent entity.

Is it any wonder that so many talented, creative video game industry professionals get chewed up and spit out? That so many promising developers abandon their craft to work in other tech sector jobs? That’s what happened to over half the former employees laid off from Visceral Games. They were the creators of the Dead Space series, and like TellTale were also victims of executive leadership that over-invested and over-saturated an unexpected breakout success, and when the writing was on the wall, the studio shut down and hardworking people lost their jobs. Since the Dead Space games are excellent and very popular, almost all former Visceral developers and artists were actively recruited by rival game companies to work for them in the wake of the layoffs, and some took up the offer. But most of them went on to work for companies like Facebook and Google, because those companies offered decent hours, treated their employees better, and paid them more.

Visceral Games is another example of hardworking professionals being exploited and laid off in the video game industry.

Say what you will about the state of Hollywood, but one thing I credit them for is being a heavy union town. You cannot get away with the kind of rampant labor exploitation on a movie set that is still allowed in game studios. They happen, but not with the same frequency or severity. Organizations like Screen Actors Guild and the Motion Picture Editors Guild negotiate reasonable work hours and good benefits for the professionals they represent. As any union should (the ones that still exist and have any bargaining power in this country). It is simply immoral to demand professional creators, of any entertainment medium, to work over 18 hours a day for weeks on end. No one should be asked to work so relentlessly and nonstop on a project that they develop serious health problems requiring hospitalization. And unless you’re in emergency services, no job should arbitrarily impose last-minute “crunch” periods and strenuous demands with unreasonably short deadlines. Yes, these things happen in the video game industry and with alarming frequency.

It is long past time for the video game industry to unionize, and it is a long past time for gamers to support such a move. These are people who pour themselves into the games we love, and a country like ours should not be okay with their lives being ruined and their work being exploited like this. Anyone looking to get into the industry should demand nothing less.

One of TellTale’s character artists said it best:

“Don’t work overtime unless you’re paid for it, y’all. Protect your health. Companies don’t care about you.”