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Telltale Games and the lure of the cliff edge

Disastrous studio collapses are a fixture of the industry - and that won't change until we stop celebrating the brinksmanship of executives

That what has happened to the staff of Telltale Games is shameful and indefensible is well-established at this point. A great many words have been written about the treatment of the developers, many of them heartfelt and sensible.

Question marks remain over whether the failure to retain adequate funds for severance payments or to inform staff of the firm's condition prior to their sudden layoffs were merely morally abhorrent or actually illegal, but the message of this whole messy, sad affair remains the same regardless. Development staff, no matter how skilled and valuable, are in the same boat as any other employee - a long way down the priority list of company bosses when things get tough.

This isn't a new message. As Brendan observed in his op-ed yesterday, this is a pattern we've seen over and over again in the games industry; perhaps this time we have truly been pushed closer to the tipping point of actual, genuine change in labour relations and working conditions, but it's not because the Telltale incident is genuinely new or lacking precedent. 'Studio goes to the wall, turns out not to have enough cash to pay severance, employees seriously screwed over' is a story that's popped up with wearying regularity on this site for over 15 years, and in other industry publications for decades before that.

"Development staff, no matter how skilled and valuable, are a long way down the priority list of company bosses when things get tough"

We could talk about the drive for unionisation, or the industry's strong efforts to avoid it; about the push-back against abusive work cultures and the industry's masochistic embrace of bad work-life balance as a virtue; or even about the general sense, especially in Anglo nations like the USA and UK, that employees are disposable and low-priority. We could and should talk about all of those things - but for today, let's talk instead about the intrinsic dysfunction that has led studio bosses for decade after decade to make the kind of awful, ego-driven miscalculation that results in this kind of studio implosion in the first place.

There is a culture that exists on the management end of the games industry - and in other industries too, it's far from being exclusive to this corner of the business world - which actively promotes this kind of outcome. It's a celebration of high-risk brinksmanship, a deeply flawed belief in the 'hero story' of the company that skates right up to the edge of disaster and is saved by a last-minute, Hail-Mary intervention by a brilliant manager or executive. Such stories - the tale of the time when it wasn't clear if the lights would still be on by Monday, but a miracle deal came together on Sunday night - are the bread and butter of get-togethers between managers and executives around the industry.

Here's the thing about hero stories - the great ones, the really heroic stories, are tales of selflessness and sacrifice for the good of others, not about putting others at risk for the satisfaction of your ego. Parts of the business world have become convinced, however, that stories of improbable odds and skirting the cliff edge of disaster are also hero stories, worthy of raised glasses and macho back-slapping.

"When handled intelligently and responsibly, the end of a company doesn't need to blow up the lives of everyone around it"

These aren't hero stories; they're self-selected survivor stories. The story is only told because it has a good ending, as like as not by dumb luck. Stories about companies being pushed to the edge by failure and hubris, then collapsing in the most damaging, ruinous way possible don't make for great bar tales, after all.

This is the dysfunction at the heart of every single case of a studio collapse - and to be clear, "collapse" is a specific term here. Studios shut down all the time without collapsing; business has gone bad, but they pay their bills, look after their staff, help them get into new jobs where they can, handle the disposal of assets and IP as best they can, and wind the business down with as little drama and damage as possible. It's still an emotional and unpleasant experience for everyone involved, but when handled intelligently and responsibly, the end of a company doesn't need to blow up the lives of everyone around it.

Collapse, on the other hand, is disastrous for everyone. The knock-on of a firm that can't pay its bills is hundreds of staff who also face unpayable bills and immense stress and disruption to their lives, caused by an employer that was no doubt willing to wax lyrical about loyalty and passion when it came to requesting overtime during crunch, but conveniently forgot all about those concepts when it came to looking after their staff.

As detail has emerged from the Telltale collapse, it has become clear that the whole story - this time like every other - rides on a single, dumb thought: 'Sure we're financially circling the drain, but if we can just pull off this one great deal everything will be rosy'. Put in those simple terms it's easily recognisable; it's not the statement of a slick executive who's about to get a standing ovation for his business nous, it's the despairing plea of a gambling addict who's about to get his legs broken in a back alley by loan sharks.

"A story of a company that skirts the edge of the cliff but is pulled back isn't a story of executive brilliance"

They've already drained their kids' college funds and quietly stopped paying the family's healthcare premiums six months ago. That's when the One Big Win - or the One Great Deal - actually needed to come in. That's when there could still have been a soft landing; severance paid, company wound down sensibly, all that was salvageable, salvaged.

When people celebrate and lionise this kind of back-from-the-brink story, it's worth remembering exactly what they're talking about. This isn't Daniel sticking his head into the jaws of the lion; wealthy execs are gambling with the severance pay, healthcare and career options of their staff. A story of a company that skirts the edge of the cliff but is pulled back isn't a story of executive brilliance; it's a story of absolute irresponsibility bordering on malfeasance, a Lifetime movie about a gambling addict who almost destroys everything around him, given a fake veneer of happy ending by sheer luck.

That's why the brakes should have been hit long before this happened - at Telltale, at every other company in the past few decades where it happened, and at every other company where it's inevitably going to happen again over the coming years. It's going to keep happening over and over again for as long as studio bosses and company executives can trot out stories about "that time we weren't sure we could even keep the lights on, right up until the last minute." By the time you aren't sure if you can keep the lights on, you've already screwed over everyone that depends on you, regardless of whether that irresponsibility gets covered up by a last-minute deal. These stories shouldn't be treated as heroic snatching of victory from the jaws of defeat. These stories should be greeted with silent horror and condemnation.

"But what's the alternative," you may ask, "just throwing in the towel?" - to which the answer is, precisely that. A decent business owner or manager throws in the towel while there's still a towel to throw, because a decent businessperson looks around their studio and understands that those aren't "assets" sitting at the desks, they're human beings to whom they owe a degree of responsibility and, yes, loyalty.

Letting things go right to cliff edge may appeal to the ego far more than calling a halt while the brakes still work, but it's the moral duty of any good manager to take stock of their own situation, take on board the professional advice they are receiving - and let the passengers get out before the cliff edge arrives, and it's already too late.

About the Author

Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.

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