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Former Telltale developers accuse studio of breeding toxicity

Co-founder Kevin Bruner is strongly criticised by former colleagues complaining of never-ending crunch and stifled creativity

A new report has detailed an alleged work culture that "promoted constant overwork, toxic management, and creative stagnation" at developer Telltale Games.

The Verge's report explains how the huge success of The Walking Dead in 2012 led to a period of very rapid expansion for the studio, which tripled its headcount in "just a few years". In a small space of time it had gone from a comparatively small outfit of 100 people to a hugely important company working with colossal licenses such as Batman, Game of Thrones and Minecraft.

Sources say the credit for The Walking Dead can very much be placed at the feet of lead developers Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman, who garnered such respect that they were able to stand up to a pushy management structure that was accountable to investors, and ultimately shape an excellent product.

However, as developer numbers swelled to over 300, the working culture allegedly never adapted, with teams becoming tribalistic. The then shock departure of Rodkin and Vanaman (to form Firewatch developer Campo Santo) left a creative vacuum that the company's then many disparate parts were never able to fill. This was a cycle that would repeat over and over, the report adds.

The Verge's sources are particularly critical of studio co-founder Kevin Bruner, whose behaviour was said to have become "significantly more abrasive and inflexible" following The Walking Dead's hit status.

The success of Firewatch, along with other hit games from former employees such as Adam Hines' Oxenfree, left Bruner unwilling to praise workers in fear that they too would leave. Ultimately he is accused of creating a culture of fear in which developers felt belittled for any decisions Bruner disagreed with, and were dissuaded from trying to create new mechanics that strayed too far from the studio's established formulas.

"Inevitably, the Eye of Sauron looks at you, and that beam of light just blows everything up and makes it a hellscape," one former employee told the site. "A lot of times at Telltale, you don't feel like you're wanted there."

Added another: "It often felt like we were building games specifically for [Bruner]. We were tailoring the type of content we were building - not just gameplay mechanics, but tone, the types of characters we chose to use - to his taste. This was one of the biggest issues with him as a CEO: he was pretty convinced that his taste was everyone's taste."

Bruner has contested these claims, saying that any efforts to downplay the creative importance of any one individual was done in the greater interests of the team.

"All Telltale productions were truly team efforts and I thought it was important that they be presented that way," he stated. "Developing any game is an enormously complicated endeavour with many people working together to make it happen.

"I don't think anyone was intentionally bullied or belittled. The episodic nature of the games meant decisions had to get made quickly so we could produce the best possible content."

Bruner became Telltale CEO in 2015, although he left the company in 2017. He was eventually replaced with former Zynga GM Pete Hawley.