It seems anodyne to suggest that Grand Theft Auto III struck a nerve. On the gaming end, it was met with near-universal praise, earning a very high 97 on Metacritic. From the cultural end, it created a firestorm of controversy. The fact that players could so easily run over pedestrians and hire sex workers lead to an outcry about the game encouraging deviant behavior.
Rockstar has been very upfront about wanting to continue pushing boundaries in its games—not necessarily courting controversy but continuing to tell gritty, captivating stories that let players explore different sides of life.
“These key design ideals—freedom and variety—are what have always set Grand Theft Auto apart from other games and continue to do so,” Houser said before the release of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. (If there’s one thing Red Dead Redemption 2 has in spades, it’s freedom and variety.) Rockstar has certainly continued this mission, and blatantly flouted it in evocative, sometimes shocking games.
But telling good stories was Telltale’s mission as well. It’s in the name. And judging by the Game of the Year awards, they weren’t too bad at it. Arguably, they continued making the same games they had been making, albeit with more prominent licenses.
What went wrong with Telltale is very much up for debate. Fingers can point at the resurgence of adventure games being just a fad or the fact that Telltale’s outdated tech left players with janky, untrustworthy experiences. The studio’s release schedule following The Walking Dead inspired the term “Telltale fatigue.” The high-profile names attached to the games, like Batman and a now-scuttled Stranger Things project, gave Telltale far more exposure, so perhaps that contributed.
Since the studio’s closing, many reports have circulated about poor management. An exhaustive report from The Verge details how the quick move from a small studio to a large one disrupted the company’s culture. Additionally, below-industry standard pay and long hours took their toll. Bruner, who served as the CEO from 2015 to 2017, is thought by many former employees interviewed by The Verge to have exacerbated conditions with micromanagement and a hostile work environment.
Maybe what went wrong is Telltale simply made B-games. A Metacritic survey of their games over the past six years shows that scores rarely made it above 80. Rockstar’s are continually top-ranked. But making a good game takes time, and time costs money.