Last week, broadly-revered game studio and publisher Telltale Games announced that the majority of its workforce was being let go, citing poor sales as the primary reason for the layoffs.
The studio went from over 250 employees to a skeleton crew of 25, as the studio finishes work on one project currently in development (Minecraft: Story Mode for Netflix, specifically).
Reports from employees on twitter cited surprise and shock at the proceedings surrounding the layoffs, and many noted the lack of posted notice or severance pay. Some employees had started working at the studio only a week before layoffs were announced.
By all accounts this was a labor disaster. It shouldn’t have to be said that I (and the rest of Paste Games) am a strident supporter of game developer labor organization, and occurrences like this only strengthen that resolve. What Telltale’s former employees are dealing with is not just a bad bunch of layoffs, but a barometer for the state of the industry. If a studio this big, still selling games in the tens of thousands, can lay off that percentage of their workforce without even so much as due notice, what does that say about development studio labor as a whole?
But perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Telltale fiasco is the popular reception to another recent announcement: Telltale will be moving forward with The Walking Dead without its developers. Citing “multiple potential partners” as possible cooperators in the action, Telltale appears to be planning to continue development on the title without its workforce and while continuing to leave its former employees stranded without severance pay.
To say that this is a disaster would be putting it mildly. The games industry has hundreds of success stories and for each success story there are a hundred failures behind it: games that failed, work that was unpaid, developers burnt out from crunch and overwork. Former Telltale employees have flocked to twitter to detail the labor conditions at Telltale shortly before its layoff announcements, citing “sleepless nights and long hours on weekends.”
It would be overly simplistic to say that the Telltale layoffs should be a siren to the industry. To tell the truth, they are only the latest in a series of sirens that have been ringing since 2004’s EA Spouse letter. The problem here is not simply overwork, it is the idea that developers are disposable, that development work is not truly work, and that developers should be kissing the feet of whichever studio deigns to hire them.
It is a paradigm that is reflected not just in the proceedings of last week, but the popular response to Telltale’s decision to move forward with finishing The Walking Dead (a property that will assuredly make money) without committing to paying their former employees severance or adequate reimbursement.
The tone of responses to the announcement tweet in its first few hours were not critical, but thankful. “Yes. Please yes. Oh, pretty please.”Joyous gifs of The Walking Dead characters. Messages of thankfulness, of excitement, of hoping that all their favorite characters make it through to the end.
I can’t blame people for not knowing about the layoffs. Internal industry news like layoffs rarely make headlines outside of gaming outlets, and unless people are paying attention to those they probably have no idea that two-hundred-plus developers are out of a job right now. And it’s definitely not like Telltale is going to publicize those numbers on their official Twitter feed.
But what’s so frustrating about this is that the public is doing what they were trained to do. They were excited for the continuation of a product, with no mind paid to the people who make it. It’s simple logic to deduce that people are out of jobs over the Telltale closing, but few of the first few hours of replies on the Telltale announcement tweet were anything but thankful. Because, after all, Telltale has trained its audience well: They are not here for the developers, the writers, or the artists. They are here for Telltale, and they are here for Telltale’s products. And if Telltale is about to go under, the tears are shed for Telltale, not for the real people that Telltale employs.
This is the insidious nature of game studio brand politics. By making a brand the face of the company, and not individual, real people, it is so much easier to sweep under the rug events like these massive layoffs. If Telltale can deliver The Walking Dead’s season four, the majority of the public will not care that it was done by a different team and involved the firing of 90% of Telltale’s workforce—because it will still say Telltale on the box.
If we want a better, more conscientious gaming world, the solution to this has to be twofold: Conscientious companies must address the fact they are made of workers, and be conscious of the fact that their workers make their products, not a faceless brand identity; and if companies are not sufficiently conscious of this fact, workers must make their companies conscious by organizing.
Either as unions, guilds, or some other form of unified power, we know that organized labor can make a difference.
As Game Workers Unite said in a statement last weekend, the Telltale workers aren’t at fault for getting laid off. And it’s not the fault of the general gaming public for not knowing about the deeper labor issues at play here. Both were being exploited by branding efforts, managerial malfeasance, and labor abuse—issues that are not unique to Telltale, and also not insurmountable. But in order to fight against these events, we can’t do it alone.
Dante Douglas is a writer, poet and game developer. You can find him on Twitter at @videodante.