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Kevin Bruner still not reading room 15 Apr, 2019 / 9 comments

Bad management killed Telltale Games. The studio's fall gets a write-up over on Game Informer, going in-depth about the post-Walking Dead delirium which saw the studio's two-act implosion last year. It's a good read, partially because its follow-up gives Kevin Bruner, the CEO who arguably steered Telltale into the iceberg, a voice.

Bruner's been on something of a redemption campaign—his Twitter is all nostalgic for the Telltale he helped close by suing, for example—and this does read like a continuation of that. But the portrait of Telltale painted is actually sordid.

Consider nuggets like this, for example, which ignore the very different feel you got playing, say, "They Stole Max's Brain!" (helmed by Mike Stemmle) than you did "The Penal Zone" (Chuck Jordan)...

I think one of the misconceptions is that Telltale was auteur-led, and what I mean is that [the games are envisioned by] myself or by particular individuals. One of the things that I take the most pride in is that for many people at Telltale, it was their first job. And we would give people a lot of responsibility really quickly for better and/or worse. But then team that made The Walking Dead was a different team than the team that made The Wolf Among Us, Borderlands, or Minecraft. The fact that people could come in and really do stellar work, particularly early in their career – I take a lot of pride in that.

...To, well, this:

We tried to create an environment where you really had to do that to survive at Telltale, because we didn’t have these three-year long production cycles. You would have to say, "You know, I need to go home and not work on the game that I care so deeply about and that I want to be the best game ever, because this is the chance I get to work on Batman or this is the chance I get to work on that or the other thing. I know they’re going to record my script in two days and I want it to be as good as it can be."

Managing that was really, really hard because everyone cared really deeply. The simple answer is: "Just take more time." A big studio costs a lot of money every day in order to open the doors. We didn’t have the option of taking more time even though that would have been the perfect thing to give to everybody. Everyone worked really hard because they were really passionate. We wanted to make the best content possible, which I think is what everybody does in the industry. I think the difference with Telltale was how relentless and ceaseless the content was.

As soon as you finished passionately working on an episode and you’re just like "I’m just going to put in a couple extra things to make sure it’s as good as possible," you turn around and there’s another scene that you’re like, "I want that to be good too." It really was ceaseless. We needed people to go home, and we encouraged people to go home, but it’s hard when you care.

Everybody knows you write great existential dialogue when you don't get to go home to see your family.

I think this all lends credence to that description of Bruner as a jealous Eye of Sauron. Ouch.

Read the original article here. Read the follow-up interview here.

9 Comments

  • Avatar
    ThunderPeel2001 on 16 Apr, 2019, 09:52…
    Yep, I totally get it. I wasn't aware just how toxic TTG had gotten :(
  • Avatar
    Kroms on 16 Apr, 2019, 08:38…

    ThunderPeel2001

    I work in a job where everyone is insanely passionate about what we do. We put crazy hours in sometimes, just as he says, because it's your chance to build something amazing, and chances don't come around too often. Last week, for example, I left the office at 11pm at the earliest and 2am at the latest. I didn't earn an extra penny, it was all about working on something I care about.

    At certain times in our production cycle, some of our staff work 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. We all do it because we're lucky enough to work in a job where we care about what we make so much. So I don't really get the, "Everybody knows you write great existential dialogue when you don't get to go home to see your family", jab. What he describes DOES exist, and if it's your first job, I can see people killing themselves to develop and create a game like that.

    Even at LucasArts Schafer has talked about the crazy hours he put into Grim Fandango, and how working on games there turned him into a monster at times. I think the problems only really arise when management starts to EXPECT such behaviour. Has anyone said that about TTG? (I've not read the articles yet, so I honestly don't know).



    I've been doing a lot of reading on TTG (and Bioware, following the Jason Schierer articles), and I feel I need to highlight that the situation at Telltale (as Jennifer pointed-out) tipped from "passion project" to "suppressed existential scream" quite quickly.

    I helped write (and shoot and cut) a TV show in the Arab world, and it was a huge hit. We poured our hearts into that—I'd work for 48 hours, get about four hours of sleep, shower, and go back into the fold, and never complained once. (In fact, when it was over, I went through a pretty sharp two-day bout of depression.) That kind of passion is good, and I've since only ever worked on projects that induce it.

    But my team and I were, despite the occasional conflict, like family; in fact, we still are. By all accounts, the situation at TTG had just become toxic; worse, the studio seemed hell-bent on making you feel insignificant, a cog in a machine. That's now how this should work. It's not only the crazy hours were expected (although it sounds like it was) and honestly untenable in the long run, but that Eye of Sauron thing suggests it was often fruitless.

    Bruner's tenure is one of a series of things that hurt Telltale (evidence suggests the problems started earlier, but we won't know until all former developers are retired and can speak candidly), and this interview showcases a lot of the mindset that made poured into that. Or so it seems to me, reading about it.
  • Avatar
    Call me Squinky on 15 Apr, 2019, 21:30…
    Even though the original TWD was a great game, it seems it locked them in to that format for games for other license holders. I really wish they'd started to focus on some original IP before that - that would really have contributed to the Lucasarts legacy of being creative pioneers and maybe would have allowed them to experiment more with the formula for a bit longer. Also sounds like all the legal issues around other companies' licenses was a real burden.
  • Avatar
    ThunderPeel2001 on 15 Apr, 2019, 21:00…
    To coin a phrase, "Yikes". I'd not read those Glassdoor reviews. It sounds like a horrendous place to work, and everyone seems to point to "toxic management" as being the problem. I stand corrected. How awful :(
  • Avatar
    Jennifer on 15 Apr, 2019, 20:39…
    "Forced" for emphasis, not as finger quotes, BTW.
  • Avatar
    Jennifer on 15 Apr, 2019, 20:38…
    Yeah, a lot of people at Telltale had said that they were "forced" to work crazy hours to get the game out, unfortunately. The Glassdoor employee reviews were full of them.

    https://www.glassdoor.com/Reviews/Telltale-Games-Reviews-E256429.htm

    As moderators, we had to walk the line between letting people see those grievances and the spamming of them by people who were either banned by us for abuse of other members, staff, and moderators as well as people who were just miffed that a certain game didn't have the story that they wanted.

    Even from the odd middle ground that the moderation team had between fans and staff, I could see that Kevin Bruner had an opposing kind of personality. Sometimes the moderators would even be at odds with Kevin Bruner himself, back when he actually communicated with the moderation team.

    Dan Connors always seemed like he really cared about making games and making fans happy though, from his interactions on the forums.
  • Avatar
    ThunderPeel2001 on 15 Apr, 2019, 20:10…
    I work in a job where everyone is insanely passionate about what we do. We put crazy hours in sometimes, just as he says, because it's your chance to build something amazing, and chances don't come around too often. Last week, for example, I left the office at 11pm at the earliest and 2am at the latest. I didn't earn an extra penny, it was all about working on something I care about.

    At certain times in our production cycle, some of our staff work 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. We all do it because we're lucky enough to work in a job where we care about what we make so much. So I don't really get the, "Everybody knows you write great existential dialogue when you don't get to go home to see your family", jab. What he describes DOES exist, and if it's your first job, I can see people killing themselves to develop and create a game like that.

    Even at LucasArts Schafer has talked about the crazy hours he put into Grim Fandango, and how working on games there turned him into a monster at times. I think the problems only really arise when management starts to EXPECT such behaviour. Has anyone said that about TTG? (I've not read the articles yet, so I honestly don't know).
  • Avatar
    Remi on 15 Apr, 2019, 15:56…
    That story is a bit all over the place . . . I do wish the interviewer would have challenged Bruner on things like changing "we" to "I" on who is responsible for the TWD’s success.

    Still, while Bruner has to shoulder his share of the responsibility for TTG crashing, particularly when it comes to the loss of talent, it’s the boards job to set a company’s overarching direction. TTG grew too quickly, tried to do too much, became stagnant creatively and technically, etc. etc. That goes higher than Bruner.

    Good to see The Wolf Among Us get some love, though.
  • Avatar
    Kroms on 15 Apr, 2019, 10:41…
    I should probably explain that, from outside, video game development is a wholly collaborative effort, but I can't deny the role a director/project leader has in shaping a game. Maybe Valve is the exception...but I think, eh, not really. You still need someone to make decisions. Or you end-up with Anthem.

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