The Developers We Support
I've talked a bit before about the idea of voting with our dollars. For a recap, you can
read my previous blog on the subject, where I discuss some of my regret in waiting to buy Bastion (Xbox 360)
on sale, or my more recent and impassioned plea
for people to buy Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
at "full" price.
After all that digital ink spilled, how can I possibly have more to say? Well, no one has accused me of being less than verbose or opinionated. So let me ramble on again, but this time I'm going to take it in a different direction.
As a result of the recent news coming from Telltale Games, the developer and often publisher of many point-and-click adventure games, that the company was declaring bankruptcy and terminating their staff of over two hundred talented game developers, artists, programmers, etc., there have been numerous discussions about what this means for gaming in general. It is a catastrophic moment for the gaming industry when a developer can make a game that wins massive critical claim, awards, sells, literally, millions of copies, and within 5-6 years is completely bankrupt. When Gazillion went toes up a little less than a year ago, I spent some time talking about how awful that was, and that was a company that had essentially one game and it was nowhere near as well-regarded as The Walking Dead
. So what caused this disaster?
Declining Sales definitely played a massive role in the fate of Telltale
While the graph above may seem self-evident, it's not nearly so cut-and-dry. First, this is Steam data as acquired by a third-party agency. This data is necessarily flawed and inherently limited to the platform. If console sales outperformed Steam massively, then all of this could be a blip. But the evidence is that the console sales mimicked Steam and that these figures are fairly accurate. Telltale sold a lot of games. But they certainly didn't sell as many recently as they used to. That isn't necessarily a recipe for bankruptcy, but it is a huge problem.
Other problems can be attributed to management. Including out-right mismanagement. Telltale seems to have had many of the same bad practices
we have come to expect from other development studios of treating their staff badly. And many more of these stories are seeing the light now as everything. Management also failed to sufficiently address the changes in technology, relying on an ever-more outdated engine. They also went to the well, the same well, over and over again. While the IP was different, the games were not that different. If you bought a Telltale point-and-click, you knew what you were getting. A series of 1-2 hour episodes which were primarily a visual novel. Maybe once in a while you solved a puzzle. Occasionally you'd make a choice that would seem to have some limited impact. Check out the frequency on that graph. It isn't so obvious because the graph isn't time-scaled. Check out the intervals below. I've added numerals for the number of months between releases.
Back to the Future.
(eleven months) -- 11
(five months) -- 5
The Walking Dead
(nineteen months) -- 19
The Wolf Among Us
(two months) -- 2
The Walking Dead Season 2
(eleven months) -- 11
Tales from the Borderlands
====This is where it starts to go downhill fast====
(one month) -- 1
Game of Thrones
(ten months) -- 10
Minecraft Story Mode
(four months) -- 4
The Walking Dead: Michone
(six months) -- 6
(four months) -- 4
The Walking Dead: New Frontier
(four months) -- 4
Guardians of the Galaxy
(three months) -- 3
Minecraft Story Mode: Season 2
(one month) -- 1
Batman: The Enemy Within
Here it is graphically, including start and end dates.
Quite the back-heavy schedule.
Going from a system of approximately one game a year to two, or three or even four per year put enormous strain on their team. They likely had to hire a lot more people to do it, because it's obvious that even when things were better, they were still always crunched to meet deadlines. Hiring more people while simultaneously selling fewer and fewer copies of the titles they made was a surefire way to end up in difficult financial straights.
Why keep doing it? Because clearly one of these titles will be the next The Walking Dead, right? Like the gambler looking to hit a second jackpot Telltale kept pulling the same lever over and over again. And if they couldn't hit the jackpot then maybe they could make up for their loses on volume, by selling lots of different Telltale products each year. But that simply accelerated the oversaturation of their own market. If they had taken their time and continued to release one, probably better, game each year they might have had more success.
Another important point about the mismanagement of the company comes from the discussion of their sales tactics. Telltale was a frequent partner with Microsoft in the Games with Gold program. Four of their games were GwG titles on the Xbox One. Additionally, every gamer in-the-know knew that you could often get the first episode for free and a half-price sale on the Season Pass of DLC episodes fairly soon after, and avoid the wait in-between episodes. In fact, on at least on occasion the Season Pass went on half-off sale while the game's DLC was still being published. There was very little incentive for people to buy each episode when it was fresh. The gaps between episodes meant that story could be forgotten, or emotional pull and weight lost as well, so that even those who bought an episode or two at full price might end up not buying later episodes at full price, or at all.
The article I linked above (and again here
for those averse to scrolling) also showed a major problem with the development process. There was no arc, far too often. They managed to make it work anyway with both The Walking Dead and Tales from the Borderlands, two games I loved. But I think that has to be attributed more to luck and effort than proper planning. The mess that was Game of Thrones after the first episode shows how badly a story arc was needed if that was their normal operating procedure.
So gamers behaved rationally. They bought fewer of the games because they were of decreasing quality overall. The newness factor was gone and the old tricks were worn out. The technology wasn't updated, and the simple inclusion of new IP usually wasn't sufficient. Even if they wanted to buy, they waited for one of an incredibly frequent number of sales and even if they had the means and the willingness to pay more, had no interest in paying more than they had to. Just because I think your game is worth $30 doesn't mean I'll give you $30 when I know it'll be $15 next week--that only works if I care about you more than just as a business transaction.
I like(d)--still having a hard time putting that in the past-tense--Telltale a lot. I've bought a bunch of their games over the years. In researching this piece I decided to have a look at what I own of theirs and how much I paid for it. For those interested in the details, I've included them below in a spoiler tag. But for most people, the answer is sufficient. I spent $140.06 via Xbox on TellTale games. That's more than I have spent on any other developer, with the exception of Traveller's Tales (makers of the LEGO series)
There have been criticisms of folks, like me, who generally waited for the sales for a TellTale game. After all, if I'd bought these games at full price (the ones I didn't) TellTale would have gotten a lot more money. But really, it doesn't matter that much. If they had gotten full price from me on all of these purchases, the sales figures from that graph above show the real problem. It wasn't just that they made less on each sale--but they made a lot fewer sales, too. Converting my $140 to even twice that at $280 doesn't matter a bit if they've lost a million or two transactions at nearly any price.
As I said in my blogs that I linked at the very beginning, we vote with our dollars, but we're just one vote among many. I voted for Telltale several times. Sometimes at full price, often at discounted. But, as sometimes happens, our preferred candidate loses. I refuse to accept any blame for that loss when I did my part. Particularly because, as my sales habits in the spoiler clearly indicate, I was consistent in my purchasing decisions. When the game was actually worth more to me, I paid more. I have none of the regrets I had with Bastion. Bastion was worth every penny of it's $15 asking price and I hesitated. Game of Thrones was not worth the discounted price I paid. In the end, Telltale is going bankrupt because they made poor decisions. And we'll remember those poor decisions--but also some great gaming memories as well.
Aside: In building this data for Telltale purchases, I decided to see how they stacked up. I noted above that Traveller's Tales has Telltale beat with my Xbox purchases. On the Xbox ecosystem only, including all purchases (game, DLC, consumables, etc.) and just the price I paid (not trying to count any percentages that may be different on store prices fees that Microsoft charges) here are my top developers. How about you? Where is your money going? Is that a choice you've made intentionally, or do the results surprise you?
Traveller's Tales (LEGO)
Telltale (Episode P&C)
Ubisoft Montreal (Assassin's Creed, Prince of Persia and Watch_Dogs)
Stainless Games (Magic: the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers)
The Behemoth (Alien Hominid, Castle Crashers, Battleblock Theatre)
EA Tiburon (Madden)
It starts to trail off pretty fast after that with a lot of money going to a lot of different developers for a single purchase here or there, or a couple of purchases, but each at a very low price point.
Posted by Xpovos
on 09 October 18 at 03:58
| Last edited on 09 October 18 at 04:00 | There are 6 comments
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