Unless you've been taking a vacation from the gaming bubble, you'll likely have heard that esteemed narrative adventure factory Telltale Games has suddenly undergone a majority closure, sacking at least 225 employees with no severance and thirty minutes to clean out their desks — right in the middle of production of The Walking Dead: The Final Season. It's been a shock to a lot of us that such a well-liked studio with a history of decent narrative adventures — not to mention some impressive IP acquisitions — could be in such financial trouble as to effectively disappear overnight. But behind the critical acclaim and a loud and adoring fan base lies a difficult truth: Telltale Games has never produced a game that reached the success of the title that put the studio on the map — the first season of The Walking Dead.
Unfortunately the statistics make this glaringly obvious. Here's a breakdown of player numbers across our community members here and on TrueAchievements. This graph shows how many players have played through at least the first chapter of the first episode in each series. While it's tempting to wonder if achievement and trophy hunters are fully representative, it's worth remembering that those communities love a simple achievement list; Telltale's games are some of the most straight-forward completions outside of the indie scene.
The first season of The Walking Dead has of course been deeply discounted and even made free on Xbox's Games with Gold program in 2015. But almost all of Telltale's output, even as recently as last year's seasons, have seen several deep discounts over the years. Tales from the Borderlands and The Walking Dead: Season Two have been free games of the month on both PlayStation and Xbox. The Wolf Among Us has been on Games with Gold and both Game of Thrones and BATMAN have been free on PS Plus in the past. So it doesn't appear that The Walking Dead has a discount advantage. It really does seem like no other Telltale game has generated anywhere near as much enthusiasm from the general player base.
Does the problem lie in the games' episodic nature? It certainly seems to have had an impact. Even the most popular and critically acclaimed Telltale Games see a significant drop-off in player retention after the first episode. In fact, the beloved first season of The Walking Dead has the most drastic drop off after Episode 1 of all the major Telltale releases, despite having a higher total number of players reaching the end of Episode 5. There's less drop-off for titles released later in Telltale's lifetime, but then the overall player numbers on these titles are so tiny in comparison to The Walking Dead that one has to assume the majority of players are dedicated fans of either the IP or the company.
A couple of series had six or more episodes, these were discounted for ease of reference. The data shows that player counts mostly plateaued between Episodes 5 and 6.Why hasn't the player base had an appetite for Telltale's games in the long run? It might be down to the episodic structure or it may be problems more specific to Telltale — such as a tired graphics engine and a perceived lack of gameplay innovation over time. Whatever the cause, it seems that the Telltale love affair may never have been as widespread as we thought, and the company's downfall isn't so shocking after all.