At the tail end of last year, I wrote an article on Telltale’s closure. I talked to those who had worked there about what it was like at the company when roughly 274 people suddenly lost their jobs. With this many writers, artists, testers and others left stranded without severance more than four months ago, I wanted to find out how those affected are doing in 2019.
Following the closure, there was a huge push by fans of Telltale’s games and the industry as a whole to help those in need however they could. On the industry side this led to a careers fair for those recently made unemployed, while the community of gamers supporting Telltale employees used the Telltalejobs hashtag to spread word of employment opportunities.
Emily Grace Buck – a former narrative designer at Telltale and current lead writer at Gato Salvaje Studio – has been a major voice for those left jobless since September, going so far as to talk about her experience at the Sweden Game Conference 2018. At the talk she mentioned only 20 per cent of those let go had been employed, but since then that figure has improved significantly. “It’s been almost three months since I gave that talk and the percentage of people who have landed jobs has steadily grown since then, with a number of people accepting positions just as the year started which isn’t much of a surprise. I gave that talk less than a month after the layoff, so even then 20 per cent wasn’t a bad figure really.”
However, the’re a long way to go, with many still out of work or surviving on temporary contract work. “I think the issue is there are still way too many people who don’t have new jobs and there are a number of former Telltale employees who are on contract work that is unreliable, unstable or set to expire,” Emily says. “So it’s kind of shifting, that number doesn’t stay the same.” While an accurate figure would be incredibly hard to determine, Emily estimates the amount of people still looking for a stable job would be roughly around 25 per cent (69 people).
Thankfully Emily – among many others from Telltale – found a new job as a result of the influx of support coming from social media. This is true also for Steven Moore, formerly the lead character artist on The Walking Dead at Telltale, who attained a new job at Ubisoft due to the industry lending a hand. “I can’t take all the credit,” he says. “No, I got my job through connections I would say, a lot of it had to do with connections who I sent my portfolio to. It was people in the industry just reaching out across the board, just helping us out.”
A situation many found themselves in following the closure of Telltale was the frustration of not finishing their respective games. For some like Steven, this hurt more than losing their job. “In all honesty I wanted to finish up the project I was on,” he says. “That was the big frustration for me, not finishing that project. It wasn’t being laid off, because I was smart enough to have savings, because stuff happens. But it was definitely brutal.”
Congratulations to The Walking Dead: The Final Season’s dev team for launching episode one, “Done Running,” today! 🧟♂️🧟♀️ pic.twitter.com/cJT7NZnhx3
— The Walking Dead Game (@telltalegames) August 14, 2018
Instead, the torch was passed to Skybound Entertainment, which saved the The Walking Dead’s final season from evaporating half-finished. Nicki Rap, the voice actor for Lily in the first season of The Walking Dead, recalls her relief when Skybound announced it would finish the game. “When I found out [Lily] was coming back I was like, ‘Oh my god this is the greatest thing ever,’ and then… it wasn’t. I thought, wow this happened, but then it didn’t really happen, and now it’s done. Thank goodness Skybound saved the day.”
Nicki and her peers were welcomed with open arms by Skybound, she says. From what she told me over the phone, there was a sense of relief from the team that they’d get to finish what they started. “I really enjoyed being there and there’s excitement this happened,” she says. “You can feel it. I felt like I was really a part of things. And that’s a good feeling, when you’ve been away from something and you think it’s not gonna happen. So I felt really fortunate that despite everything that happened I was able to be a part of it.”
Some, however, did not join Skybound. Having picked up the rights to finish The Walking Dead’s final season, Skybound CEO Ian Howe said in a Reddit Q&A the company wanted to have the as much of the team working on the game to be made up of former Telltale developers as possible. But for Steven, the offer came too late. “I was keen to come along and finish it, so I was interested in that,” he says. “But the negotiations took so long it didn’t work out.”
While people like Steven are of course happy the season is being continued by Skybound, there is an understandable concern about whether or not they’ll do it “right”, according to Steven. “On a personal front we were planning some really cool stuff for episode three and four. We had some flashbacks with Lee and Clem on the train, and we had made new models for them. I was pretty close to finishing them. Of course, Telltale’s gone and so have all the assets. So there’s that frustration of not quite finishing. So the narcissistic side of me is like, ‘oh I hope whoever took over does it right’.”
In the recently-released episode from Skybound, a scene with Lee and Clementine on the train does occur. “I’m not sure if I want to see it or not!” Steven says. “I kinda want to see it but I’m not sure. I hope it came out good!” (Steven would later email me that he had given the scene a gander and was happy with how it turned out).
When it comes to those who found jobs after Telltale, things seem positive. For some, it’s been an opportunity to move to a new role. “I have one friend who I was trying to mentor at Telltale, she was in QA but she was an artist. She got a job just around the corner from me doing 3D work. So that’s an example of somebody who its worked out better for. I was really happy about that,” says Steven.
Despite all this good news regarding those who have found work, ranging from people who have moved onto new jobs or have been picked up by Skybound, there is still a significant number in need of work. While the industry push following the closure helped many, it didn’t result in new opportunities for others. According to Emily: “For a few weeks there was a party or mixer thrown for us by a different company almost every single night at some bar or meeting place in the San Rafael area, which was absolutely incredible. Some of those lead to great jobs for people, but there were companies that threw parties for us but didn’t end up hiring anybody. There were a number of companies that shared our hashtag who didn’t pick anyone up. A few of those companies even ended up having layoffs themselves just a few months later. So in some ways the vocal and excited response to us losing our jobs was very heartening and helped place some people, but a lot of it didn’t actually come through with change for the people who needed it most.”
That’s not to put other companies in some sort of antagonistic light, as one problem with the Telltale layoffs is the sheer number of staff with the same role. “Telltale employed far more writers, narrative designers and cinematic artists than most game companies due to the nature of the games,” Emily explains. “So we were focused on story and cinematic presentation. The cinematic department at Telltale was the largest department. I know in its hayday before the first layoff there were 50 people in that department. That’s enormous. Game studios, even large ones, have a couple cinematic artists. So that has made it pretty hard for a lot of people in that department to find new work. On top of that, for many people in the cinematic department that was their first or one of their first few jobs in the game industry, because TT did a lot of training in that department. So you have people who are skilled cinematic artists who that’s their only type of credit, which is tricky!”
For those unable to find work in the video game industry, they’ve had to turn elsewhere – be it temporarily or for good. “I have seen some of my former colleagues turning to other forms of tech, turning to film, turning to animation, getting other types of jobs,” Emily says. “I know some people who have retail jobs or are driving ubers right now as they’re searching for concrete work. Some of that is voluntary. I know some people who have left the games industry since this layoff because it was a sign for them that they didn’t want to work in games, or games weren’t necessarily their first pick anyway, or they were disenchanted, or that’s just the kind of job they found.”
Then there’s the mental toll long-term unemployment has on those still looking for stable work. Whereas the push on social media to get these people hired was highly encouraged months ago, there’s the inevitable self-doubt that comes with being ‘left behind’. “For people who are still looking there is a desire of course to put yourself out there, but there’s also to deal with when you realise you’re one of the people who haven’t found work yet,” Emily says. “That’s something I’ve heard expressed to me by some of my former colleagues, that you have been out of work for a couple of months now and that’s scary, and that’s something, especially in the US, that is sometimes looked upon with scorn or derision. Which it shouldn’t be! And it’s completely wrong, but I get why people are cautious about continuing to blast they need work.”
With all this taken into account, the situation surrounding those affected by Telltale’s closure is positive, yet far from perfect. While the majority of those left unemployed have moved on, the road ahead for the rest looks tough.
“It does seem a lot of people have forgotten about us now,” Emily says. “Many of the people who are still out of work are starting to feel pretty hopeless about the situation. A lot of the companies still trying to hire more people have not been able to fast track them or get them through quickly. I’m hoping now it’s the new year, and we’re approaching the end of the financial year, companies will be able to pick more people up. Layoffs in Q4 are extremely hard. I get that. But it’s difficult to feel optimistic about it right now seeing how many people are still struggling.”
Yet despite the deck being stacked against them, there’s an optimistic attitude from those who worked at Telltale that their peers are more than capable of finding a place in the industry. That it’s only a matter of time before everyone who worked there will make games again. As Nicki puts it: “Everyone’s so talented and what they had to work through, and the detail of these games, when you finish one you have to go to the next chapter y’know. It was kind of relentless. So I know they have skills to survive anything. I believe in Telltale people.”