Telltale Games 2.0 is committed to a 'healthy, non-crunch culture'

The new Telltale Games isn't the walking dead. It's a new incarnation that hopes to honor the studio's legacy while fixing some of the systemic problems that crippled the old company.

The company called Telltale Games we knew is gone. It has been since November 2018 when the owners assigned the company’s assets for fire sale to slake creditors’ thirst. Since then, the studio’s games have been disappearing. Microsoft fully removed Minecraft Story Mode from sale and distribution. Skybound and others have reclaimed their intellectual property.

The situation seemed dire… until this morning. As GameDaily reported, Telltale Games’ assets and brand have new owners (an assembly of video game veterans) with a fledgling team led by CEO Jamie Ottilie. 

Today at a GameDaily Connect fireside chat, we spoke with Ottilie about how he’s rebuilding the studio, the challenges of completing the acquisition, and how he and his colleagues are planning to do right by the studio’s original creators and its fans. There has been much talk in the few short hours since the announcement about how the new Telltale Games will be slowly scaling up full-time staff and relying on contractors as it builds up.

"We need to grow this company slowly and carefully," Ottilie said. "We want to build a healthy work culture, a non-crunch culture. We'll be staffing up slowly. We'd love to bring back every Telltale employee that wants to come back but that's not the economic reality of the game industry today and that would be irresponsible."

Ottilie expanded on this during the fireside chat, naming Sara Guinness, Telltale's former director of operations, to the same role in the new company.

"We've gotta stabilize the catalog and shore up the development pipeline," Ottilie said. "We're working with a group of artists, engineers, and QA folks that are former Telltale. They're being fairly compensated for every hour that they're with us."

The original Telltale Games was 275 strong when it underwent its mass layoff in September 2018. The remaining 25 or so were let go when the company entered assignment in November of last year. The old Telltale Games business was hit with a WARN Act lawsuit over its alleged failure to comply with that law. Those legal matters are separate from the new entity operating under the Telltale Games name.

Ottilie and his team began the process of acquiring Telltale's assets in November, shortly after the assignment process began. He had originally been scouting for a client that ultimately decided not to pursue the purchase. Instead, he assembled funders in what he calls a three and a half week "mad dash."

"It's a blind process," he explained. "You have to put your last and best offer first and cross your fingers that you have the winning bid. We held our breath for about 15 days and then the offer was accepted, but it was 700 pages of contracts to go through immediately after."

Telltale’s collapse also triggered a ripple of licensors to recapture the rights that had been granted to the studio.

“Many of the licensors elected to bring our IP back in house while they waited to see what happened with Telltale and the assets,” Ottilie said. “We've picked up specifically… the Batman games, Vertigo and Fables/Wolf Among Us, Puzzle Agent One and Two.”

Ottilie and his team are also aware that fans are hungry for Tales from the Borderlands and Minecraft Story Mode to return to sale. He suggests we stay tuned for more info on those properties.

"Licensing was the most complex part of the deal," Ottilie explained. "It took six months of heavy lifting to go from the offer to closing the deal and securing the assets. Much of that was about securing the licenses and IP. There were all sorts of pitfalls along the way. It was a difficult process in terms of securing the rights. We were careful and stayed away from the IPs that the companies wanted back."

Because the new Telltale Games is starting slow and methodically, it doesn’t yet have a publishing operation. The studio has contracted external PR and needs assistance coordinating with platforms and first-party. Athlon Games, a partner in the business venture, is filling that role for the time being on legacy Telltale Games. 

“Athlon is the publisher on the games that are already out in the marketplace on our behalf,” Ottilie said. "So the titles that we've acquired from Telltale that were out that needed to be supported in the stores and needed community, PR, marketing, et cetera, behind them, we have partnered basically with Athlon and their group to package with publishers and distributors for that.

"In the short term, we're working with Athlon. Longer term, we'll continue to evaluate what makes the most sense. In the short term, we're stepping away from [publishing third party]. In the longer term, we would need to find … narrative driven content where people would look at it and say 'Oh, that's a Telltale game.'"

We don’t expect it will be long before we hear about the new Telltale game, which is likely to be on new technology (as Ottilie explained in our earlier story). During the fireside chat, he said that news will be coming in the next few weeks about Telltale Games’ next project.

Ottilie is also cognizant about how the industry has moved around Telltale’s laser-focused formula. He believes that changing business models will be a boon for narrative games.

“All game companies are sort of under pressure for eyeballs and mindshare at this point and not just from games, right? We're a content rich culture right now,” Ottilie said. “But I think narrative-driven games are actually really well positioned for the future as it comes to streaming devices. Telltale had already conquered that in a very early fashion and the next generation of streaming is substantially more advanced and subscription versus premium games versus free-to-play in terms of business model. I think we're in a place actually where creatives have more opportunities to entertain people and to bring work to an audience rather than less as these business models evolve.”

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Amanda is the editor-in-chief of GameDaily.biz and host of GameDailyRecap. Mike is a regular GameDaily.biz contributor and occasional newsroom chief, in addition to the author of the GameDev Business Handbook (and its follow-up, the GameDev Budgeting Handbook). 

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