Involuntarily awake at 3AM, blearily scrolling through my Twitter feed, the news of Telltale’s majority studio closure was a real heart-stopper, despite the multiple times similar news had already broken this year. Just like that, one moment a developer is there, then they’re gone. This, coupled with more than one indie developer opening up about the obligation to turn their games into huge successes to keep their head above water, and several reports of unacceptable working conditions at large-scale studios, made it obvious that video game development is a volatile business, perhaps more than ever.
Telltale is an especially pertinent case, because when a beloved studio abruptly closes, after the smoke clears and the bafflement dissipates, the illusion that many have of video game design as some sort of magical land of endless creativity and piles of money has taken another hit. Telltale is even more than that – it has had great influence on the gaming industry and the way we look at narrative games, to the point that even the words “ex-Telltale employee” are a badge of honour, both for delivering creative storytelling and doing the best in the face of adversity.
A high-pressure environment, unbelievably long hours, steadily shrinking team sizes and finally, being stranded with no health care at the end of it all, are more than mere stumbling blocks, yet they’re ones that many thought of as necessary trade-offs for a dream job. They aren’t and shouldn’t be. It’s easier to forget about the human cost of video game development as long as a studio is still intact, as long as the only words we hear are ‘redundancy’ and ‘restructuring’. Once the whole house comes down, there’s a shift. It’s no longer ‘just’ a select few people who lost their jobs.
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