Analysis: Beyond The Walking Dead, No One Has Been Playing Telltale Games

By Sam Quirke, 1 year ago
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.

TWD Final Season

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.
Sam Quirke
Written by Sam Quirke
Sam has been gaming long enough to know the pain of a failed DOS install on the fifth floppy disc. When not hopelessly lost in the latest open-world epic, Sam is busy devouring books of all genres or trading Pokémon with his wife.
Posts on this article have been added to a thread in the Gaming News Forum.
AuthorMessage
DrNefario
55,354
DrNefario
Posted on 28 September 18 at 13:21
Funnily enough, I went back to The Walking Dead on my Xbox 360 recently, about a week before the news about Telltale broke. I realised it had been well over a year since I'd earned an achievement, and thought TWD would be an easy one to pick up. I was surprised to see that I hadn't even finished Episode 1.

I always seem to struggle to bring myself to play these games. I have several of them - often from PS+ or GwG as mentioned in the article - but I haven't finished a single one. I thought I would just rush through TWD and get it done, but I haven't felt like playing it again after that one go.

And, thinking about it, I realised why: I hate making major decisions. I hate the idea that I might be closing off parts of a game, or that I might be doing something irrevocable, and that's pretty much all you do in Telltale games.
kintaris
93,712
kintaris
Posted on 28 September 18 at 13:43
DrNefario said:
Funnily enough, I went back to The Walking Dead on my Xbox 360 recently, about a week before the news about Telltale broke. I realised it had been well over a year since I'd earned an achievement, and thought TWD would be an easy one to pick up. I was surprised to see that I hadn't even finished Episode 1.

I always seem to struggle to bring myself to play these games. I have several of them - often from PS+ or GwG as mentioned in the article - but I haven't finished a single one. I thought I would just rush through TWD and get it done, but I haven't felt like playing it again after that one go.

And, thinking about it, I realised why: I hate making major decisions. I hate the idea that I might be closing off parts of a game, or that I might be doing something irrevocable, and that's pretty much all you do in Telltale games.
Part of my inspiration for writing this is that I own every Telltale series apart from the sequels, and have never gotten past the first episode on any of them. I don't mind major decision making but something about those games just left me feeling hollow -- and I say this as a lover of adventure games and narrative experiences. But as you say, the major decision points are basically "all you do" in Telltale games apart from QTEs, and I think maybe that's just not enough "game" for me. I'd argue even most walking simulators involve a little more player engagement because you have to piece the narrative together yourself.
strifekun
114,261
strifekun
Posted on 28 September 18 at 13:56, Edited on 28 September 18 at 13:56 by strifekun
I think the episodic structure is a huge problem for those games. And I think the wait between episodes is what really kills the games for most people. It's why I don't play them until all of the episodes come out. I don't want to play an incomplete game, which is essentially, what episodic games are.

I think I'm different from most people because I actually do very much enjoy the style of gameplay that TellTale does. It's very visual novel/otome game esque; and as someone who enjoys that sort of thing, that style of gameplay, it doesn't deter me from the game. And I think that throws people off some. TellTale has some very engaging stories, but unless you're familiar with and enjoy that type of 'gameplay', you probably won't have too good of a time. Which also probably factors into why they don't do so well. Visual novels/otome games are a very niche thing in western spaces.

I'm pretty disappointed to see them go, and even more disappointed in how they treated their staff. But as someone who's familiar with the sustainability of visual novels and otome games in the west - it's not truly a surprise that they couldn't keep going, only that they got as popular as they did.
ScottishNub
621,423
ScottishNub
Posted on 28 September 18 at 15:36
Telltale got at least at least £900+ from me and that's probably not that much to a studio that size they've made amazing games great games good games and bad games. Sad to see them go like this if only they finished season 4 and season 2 of the wolf among us
ScottishNub
621,423
ScottishNub
Posted on 28 September 18 at 15:37
strifekun said:
I think the episodic structure is a huge problem for those games. And I think the wait between episodes is what really kills the games for most people. It's why I don't play them until all of the episodes come out. I don't want to play an incomplete game, which is essentially, what episodic games are.

I think I'm different from most people because I actually do very much enjoy the style of gameplay that TellTale does. It's very visual novel/otome game esque; and as someone who enjoys that sort of thing, that style of gameplay, it doesn't deter me from the game. And I think that throws people off some. TellTale has some very engaging stories, but unless you're familiar with and enjoy that type of 'gameplay', you probably won't have too good of a time. Which also probably factors into why they don't do so well. Visual novels/otome games are a very niche thing in western spaces.

I'm pretty disappointed to see them go, and even more disappointed in how they treated their staff. But as someone who's familiar with the sustainability of visual novels and otome games in the west - it's not truly a surprise that they couldn't keep going, only that they got as popular as they did.
Also people could just of watch a simple play through
minpinz23186
40,099
minpinz23186
Posted on 28 September 18 at 16:46, Edited on 28 September 18 at 16:47 by minpinz23186
To me, my enjoyment of these is less about the IP and more about the story. I enjoyed Tales from the Borderlands and Minecraft enough to buy them, even though I don't really like either of those games. Other than Batman (who I may be mildly obsessed with), those are the only ones I played all the way through.

The episodic nature is a real issue for me, as I'd much rather take a day or so when I'm not feeling like playing something more intense and go all the way through than have to remember what happened in a chapter I did a month (or more) earlier. Plus, with the slightly broken engine, yielding random lockups and interminable loading screen times, you have to really care to sit through that for 5 or 6 chapters. I tried the first free chapter of most of the others, and didn't get invested enough to want to see how it ended.

Honestly, I think I'll miss the concept of Telltale, its emphasis on storytelling, and what it represented in the industry far more than I will any future games by them.
strifekun
114,261
strifekun
Posted on 28 September 18 at 17:44
ScottishNub said:
Also people could just of watch a simple play through
You can do that with every game, visual novels & otome games included. I don't feel like that really impacts as much as people like to think it does. Certainly not as much as the games being episodic versus fully complete upon release does. Or even the genre type of the games.
Bullmuck
64,570
Bullmuck
Posted on 28 September 18 at 18:10
This article makes a real valid point. I have played most if not all of Telltales games. I haven't paid hardly anything for any of them. If I haven't received them free with PlayStation Plus or Games with Gold then I've got them heavily discounted in sales. In fact I've held off paying full price for any new releases from them knowing full well that in a few months they will be available for peanuts. Whoever was responsible for finance strategy at Telltale is ultimately who sent them down cry
Listen to Bob Marley
MadDogProskelion
Posted on 28 September 18 at 20:13
Its a funny situation - I have played most of the offerings from Telltale - both on Xbox and PS. Some I got for free on one platform and paid for on the other because I enjoyed the experience. As far as I can remember I have completed all of those that I started.

I don't quite know what to make of the shutdown, but for it to be this sudden and badly managed with regard to regulation I think there has to be more to the story than the retention of the player base.

Might it be worth doing a delve into the Visual Novel / Otome genre and how much market share it has in the West by comparison? Maybe they just seemed such a big deal because they were in a more niche market? I don't know - asking more experienced heads in the matter!
The_Monk_BAD_iT
Posted on 28 September 18 at 20:30
Ok It's time to start one of this series .. redface
Twitter: #emanuele_mauri | YouTube: #Play4Fun-TV | The Monk BAD iT™
yannyb83
127,064
yannyb83
Posted on 28 September 18 at 20:31
I will tell you why I stopped buying Telltale games despite my love for them... PS Plus / Games with Gold. They were giving so many away that I figured I could wait til they were free.

If there are others who share my cynical attitude it's not surprising sales fell.
kintaris
93,712
kintaris
Posted on 28 September 18 at 22:01
yannyb83 said:
I will tell you why I stopped buying Telltale games despite my love for them... PS Plus / Games with Gold. They were giving so many away that I figured I could wait til they were free.

If there are others who share my cynical attitude it's not surprising sales fell.
I hope to hear the history of those decisions one day once the dust has settled. I can only imagine that the company got into immediate trouble trying to keep up with its own hype after The Walking Dead. I'm not entirely clear how GwG and PS Plus work but the publisher still gets a kickback -- I think it may be a one-off payment but a significant one, balanced to how many downloads MS/PS expect to get from it. (Otherwise no publisher in their right minds would release a new game straight into one of the schemes, yet many have over the years).

If that's the case, my suspicion is that every time Telltale chased after a big IP to convert to their format, they took a quick cash injection via GwG/PS Plus or a deep sale to seal the deal. It's crunch taken right up into the boardroom level -- it seems to be that they were living episode to episode, not even series to series. It'd certainly explain why those three extra episodes appeared for Minecraft, or how Michonne kind of cropped up out of nowhere -- burn a little more with the existing assets and grab whatever cash you can for the next big investment. Never take time to upgrade the engine or rethink the strategy... just keep swimming. It's a crazy industry.
BrainStormYT
94,220
BrainStormYT
Posted on 28 September 18 at 22:38
The Wolf Among Us, in my eyes, is by far the best Telltale game.
XxSoWxXJames
41,874
XxSoWxXJames
Posted on 28 September 18 at 23:42, Edited on 28 September 18 at 23:43 by XxSoWxXJames
From what I can see people have been playing games from Telltale. Otherwise there would not even be a chart.
Slayer1189
428,566
Slayer1189
Posted on 29 September 18 at 09:08
I had expected Telltale to experience financial trouble, but I really didn't expect it to come so suddenly! I at least thought that they would finish TWD final season, given it was the project that put them on the map!

I'm not a Telltale fan, but it would be a shame if TWD final season stops just 3 episodes short of the conclusion cry. Simply because it has been going so long and so many fans are invested in Clementines story and want to see the end.

DrNefario said:
Funnily enough, I went back to The Walking Dead on my Xbox 360 recently, about a week before the news about Telltale broke. I realised it had been well over a year since I'd earned an achievement, and thought TWD would be an easy one to pick up. I was surprised to see that I hadn't even finished Episode 1.

I always seem to struggle to bring myself to play these games. I have several of them - often from PS+ or GwG as mentioned in the article - but I haven't finished a single one. I thought I would just rush through TWD and get it done, but I haven't felt like playing it again after that one go.

And, thinking about it, I realised why: I hate making major decisions. I hate the idea that I might be closing off parts of a game, or that I might be doing something irrevocable, and that's pretty much all you do in Telltale games.
I find this comment interesting, as I am not a huge fan of Telltale games for the exact opposite reason. You don't get to make any major decisions! Ultimately, It does not matter what you choose, the outcome is unchanged. Sure, a different person may live or die based on a choice in the moment, but the game is written to minimise the impact of any 1 character dying. The one that lives will leave, die or be useless shortly after the so called 'major choice'.

To me, the Telltale games sometimes have an good story, but they are basically movies, with a few 'scenes' you get to pick. I don't watch TV or movies as they don't hold my attention. I need some interaction or I get bored.

strifekun said:
ScottishNub said:
Also people could just of watch a simple play through
You can do that with every game, visual novels & otome games included. I don't feel like that really impacts as much as people like to think it does. Certainly not as much as the games being episodic versus fully complete upon release does. Or even the genre type of the games.
I don't think the reason for low sales was people watching a play through online, but I can see how it would be more likely someone would watch a Telltale game than they would a VN.

Telltale games run at a set pace, are voiced and every so often have a seemingly 'big' choice. Because it is voice acted and at a set pace, anyone watching is getting the same experience as the player (Like watching a movie). When it gets to the choices, people who are watching on Twitch could all type their input as to what they think should be chose etc.

VN are fully text. The choices often have less of an immediate impact that the viewer can see, everyone reads at different rates etc.

MadDogProskelion said:
Might it be worth doing a delve into the Visual Novel / Otome genre and how much market share it has in the West by comparison? Maybe they just seemed such a big deal because they were in a more niche market? I don't know - asking more experienced heads in the matter!
I understand why you have posed a comparison of Telltale with the VN genre in the West, as the are both hugely narrative with little player interaction. As a fan of VN who has also played Telltale I would say they aren't really a close comparison. My reason being that Telltale games are akin to a tv series/movie, whereas VN's are very much books.

Books and Movies don't make a good comparison as there isn't a lot of crossover between the people who like one or the other. The other thing is that the VN genre is super biased in favour of Japanese culture. Even if you take a VN that has a 'western' story and theme and is translated into English, they still often reek of Japanese culture.

Telltale are opposite in this respect as well as they normally attain IP's that are really big in the West, such as TWD and GoT.
SinnTrophyHunter
Posted on 29 September 18 at 09:28
i played and got 100% in many telltail games on my 100% profile Perfect_Sinn and i loved most of them the hardest one for me was Game of Thrones, it was indeed dull but i did it 2 times lol PS3,PS4
strifekun
114,261
strifekun
Posted on 29 September 18 at 15:34
Slayer1189 said:
strifekun said:
ScottishNub said:
Also people could just of watch a simple play through
You can do that with every game, visual novels & otome games included. I don't feel like that really impacts as much as people like to think it does. Certainly not as much as the games being episodic versus fully complete upon release does. Or even the genre type of the games.
I don't think the reason for low sales was people watching a play through online, but I can see how it would be more likely someone would watch a Telltale game than they would a VN.

Telltale games run at a set pace, are voiced and every so often have a seemingly 'big' choice. Because it is voice acted and at a set pace, anyone watching is getting the same experience as the player (Like watching a movie). When it gets to the choices, people who are watching on Twitch could all type their input as to what they think should be chose etc.

VN are fully text. The choices often have less of an immediate impact that the viewer can see, everyone reads at different rates etc.
So are VN/otome games. I was just playing a fully voiced otome game less than five minutes ago. I would argue that VN's and otome games also run at a set pace, but their story can be shallow depending on the developer, so you don't get the same kind of storytelling as you would with some Telltale games. But not all Telltale games are created equal either.

I somewhat disagree about choices in VN/otome games. Choices happen right away most of the time, especially in otome games, as you often get taken down different routes and determine your relationship with the person you are interacting with. They even include what events you witness in the games.

You probably won't see these types of things in indie or smaller vn/otome games, but in the more 'popular ones' like Hakuouki, Code Realise, and the Zero Escape series; these types of things are key gameplay features.

But I don't disagree with you about let's plays and sales numbers. I myself have watched let's plays of games, only to end up buying the game myself (Until Dawn and Prey are two in recent memory).
JudgeFish_
50,553
JudgeFish_
Posted on 29 September 18 at 15:58
I've enjoyed each and every Telltale game I've played, because even when the graphics and game engine was clearly past its use by date, the story and characters were always well done, struck just the right tone for whatever the licence was, and really built up into a memorable experience over the course of the various chapters.

That said, just like another poster mentioned above, I stopped buying them on release a very long ago. And why? Because I knew I could eventually get the entire season for free, or dirt cheap, if I waited until after the last episode hit. And as these games were always, for me at least, more enjoyable played a chapter/episode a day, rather than waiting a month between each part, by waiting I got to pay far less (or nothing!), and get a more enjoyable gaming experience to boot. Plus with a permanent backlog, I always had other games to catch up with and play in the meantime.

I never really thought about it, but doing so now it's not really surprising that Telltale fell, only that they lasted as long as they did on such a precarious sales model.
Flakk
145,042
Flakk
Posted on 29 September 18 at 15:57
I will tell you why I stopped buying Telltale games despite my love for them... PS Plus / Games with Gold. They were giving so many away that I figured I could wait til they were free.

If there are others who share my cynical attitude it's not surprising sales fell.
This. Why buy something today if there seems to be a good chance that you'll get it free tomorrow?

The only game that they did not give away that I really wanted to play was the "Strong Bad" game, so I just grabbed that.
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