On Friday, the video game world was shocked to hear that TellTale games, the leading developer/publisher of episodic adventure games, was shutting down. The sad thing is, we all should have seen it coming.
TellTale’s model is one that, on paper, should work very well – regular releases of chapters for a low price that, when put together create a full-length game that can be replayed with different results. And while the company started down this path in 2005, they didn’t have their first real hit until 2012, but it was a huge hit. While their Sam & Max series (based on the acclaimed indie comic) was a cult hit, it was their The Walking Dead game that was the undeniable success.
The success of The Walking Dead, which had a fantastic story with in-depth characters and honestly hard to make choices, pushed TellTale to the next level. Along with more Walking Dead games, the company obtained the rights to other high profile franchises, including Game of Thrones, Minecraft, Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Fables. Each of these games came with built-in audiences, making them seem like no-brainers.
The problem was, TellTale’s episodic adventure style really only connects with a limited section of gamers, and with so many games hitting in such a quick pace – 10 in the last 4 years – TellTale managed to overfill a market that they basically had all to themselves. Now, 10 games in 4 years may not sound like a lot, but you have to remember that these games were episodic, with chapters coming out every two to three months – some of them monthly. Across those 10 games, you have over 60 episodes at an average price of $5 an episode. And that’s for people who paid for the games. Xbox Gold players sometimes got TellTale’s products for free as part of Xbox’s monthly offerings of 4 free games.
The worst issue that TellTale ran into, in my opinion, is that the games weren’t innovative enough. They all became too similar, and with storylines that didn’t really grab players, the lack of new gameplay makes it hard to shell out the cash every month.
None of this brings up a very serious issue with TellTale’s games – it was all licensed IPs. By not building out their own intellectual properties, TellTale was trapped paying for the IPs of others. Some of these properties – like Sam & Max or Bone (another indie comic series), probably weren’t too costly, but Batman, Game of Thrones, and Stranger Things aren’t going to be cheap. To note – the Stranger Things game has been canceled, so don’t go looking for it.
Without outright owning any of the IPs, TellTale had nothing on their plate that they didn’t have to pay out for. There couldn’t be toys or plushies based on their own stuff. No books or shows or movies. The entire business model of TellTale depended on the popularity of other company’s creations. That never goes well. There’s a reason Activision was willing to take a risk on something like Skylanders – because the reward was so high for them. TellTale never took that chance, and while it can seem like a safe move at the moment, it’s really setting you up for problems down the line.
Basically, a mix of too much of the same thing and a lack of new IPs put a stake in the heart of TellTale. And while we hope every employee lands on their feet, we also hope that the game industry looks at the lesson to be learned from TellTale’s rise and fall and see that you can’t count on a single genre to keep you, or the industry, alive (cough! Battle Royale! cough!).
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