Telltale Deux: Studio Returns

Telltale Deux: Studio Returns
Digital: Telltale Games CEO Jamie Ottilie at media event for “The Expanse.”

It’s been a busy few weeks for Telltale Games.

After returning to the video game scene in 2019, the brand launched its first new title at the end of July, with subsequent chapters of the game to be rolled out every few weeks. And last week, the Malibu-based company announced it had acquired a London-based video tech firm that will become its operating base for Europe. 

Company officials hope its recent successes will go a long way to rebuilding the brand’s reputation after its first iteration grew to beloved status in the industry before abruptly careening into filing for assignment — a legal process that allows a failed company to sell its assets as an alternative to filing for bankruptcy — in 2018

“We really are looking to expand what Telltale does,” said chief executive Jamie Ottilie. “We want to stay true to that core vision of story quality and evoking emotional responses for characters from the players.”

Not long after Ottilie acquired the company’s assets and reformed it in 2019, he had to contend with hiring a new development team and launching new projects under the restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic. And as the company strives to avoid the problems that imploded its prior operation, it will also have to prove skeptics wrong and reward the faith of its fans. 

“On the positive side, this is a very beloved brand for gamers,” said Franco De Cesare, an adjunct marketing professor at USC Marshall School of Business and entertainment industry veteran. “They created, owned and delivered well for a long time in a unique genre. I think there is a lot of goodwill toward the Telltale brand in the gaming community and that people will give them a chance.”

Bringing it back

The story of Telltale’s initial run is well known in the gaming community.

The company charmed consumers with episodic, choose-your-own-adventure games with rich stories, consequential decisions to make and popular intellectual property. It put itself on the map with games for Batman, “The Walking Dead,” “Game of Thrones” and Fables, a comic series that was the basis for “The Wolf Among Us” game. As opposed to high-octane action games, Telltale’s titles served as interactive stories, a throwback to point-and-click games complete with deep tales that players immersed themselves into; they also featured engaging characters.

“Telltale came along and broke the mold and was really exciting,” said Ottilie, a lifelong gamer. “Beyond that, it was the first time that people created games where people really respected the story.”

That trajectory did not hold, however. The company’s staff ballooned to an unwieldy level and was often forced into work crunches, resulting in delays or a decline in game quality. Investors pulled out, and the studio ultimately shut down and filed for assignment, deciding to sell off its assets in 2018.

Ottilie, who had come to love the studio’s work, formed a holding company in Malibu to acquire those assets shortly after, out of a desire to continue Telltale’s legacy.

“It became important for IPs to have Telltale games made about them,” he said. “When it went away, some of us got together and decided that shouldn’t happen. I was the one crazy enough to sign up to do the work.”

After years of work, Telltale last month released its first title under its new ownership, “The Expanse: A Telltale Series.” The second episode of the game, which is based on the popular television series, was released last week, and three more episodes are scheduled to debut through next month.

New direction

This is part of the company’s new direction, Ottilie explained. Instead of producing and releasing one chapter at a time, without a predictable release date for subsequent parts of the story, the full game is essentially complete by the time the first chapter is released. This way, Ottilie said, players can stay more engaged with the game if they purchase it at launch.

The company recently delayed its planned release for the highly anticipated sequel to “The Wolf Among Us” to avoid forcing programmers into crunch mode and diluting the final product. 

Ottilie said he is acutely aware that the industry is waiting to see what his leadership team can do differently from the prior Telltale.

“The best part of getting this “Expanse” game out is that it proves we can do all of these things,” he said. “Maybe it took a little longer than we wanted, but we got it out and we did good work. There’s definitely a lot of relief on that side.”

De Cesare — who has worked in marketing roles for companies including Nintendo, DreamWorks Animation and 20th Century Fox — said this was a good policy for the company.

“It’s a smart way to go, to kind of stockpile the content as much as possible,” he said. “This is still a very present challenge, because the amount of time people are willing to wait for the next chapter of a game is much shorter than it was years ago. It’s great that they’re thinking about it this way, and I think it’s smart.”

Building up

On top of “The Expanse,” Telltale announced a major move last week in acquiring U.K.-based Flavourworks for an undisclosed sum. That studio, which developed and released the acclaimed “Erica” in 2019, is known for using interactive video technology in its games — “Erica” is essentially a live-action movie in which the gamer is prompted to navigate the story and make decisions for the main character. 

Ottilie hailed Flavourworks’ approach to gaming, and adds that its use of the choose-your-own-adventure format made it a natural fit for Telltale. The studio will rebrand under the Telltale umbrella.

“We’ve been looking at them for three-and-a-half years, when they shipped ‘Erica,’” he said. “It’s a different way to tell stories, and that’s always interesting to us. We’re really excited to get their team integrated with ours.”

Meanwhile, Telltale’s developers will continue their production of “The Wolf Among Us 2,” which is being made in collaboration with another studio comprised largely of those laid off by the prior Telltale team — which at the time was already working on a sequel.

Ottilie said he was committed to keeping the successful formula of Telltale’s games, but acknowledged that it had to adapt. “The Expanse” took a step forward for the typical point-and-click game in creating a large amount of free-moving areas that, because it takes place in space, are multidimensional. 


“We stay focused on what we’re good at,” Ottilie said. “The first things we ask ourselves is what kind of story are we telling, how are we going to tell it, and is this the right place to tell it?”

De Cesare said he was eager to see where Telltale goes. He noted that the brand’s success was in deploying popular IP and said the current company would likely have to go out and win some of those licensing agreements back.

Being committed to finding that magic again is a good start, he added, but they’ll still be under a microscope.

“That carries some weight, but I think they have to demonstrate that they can sustain the business model,” De Cesare said. “They have to reach out and make the case of why it makes sense to give the IP to them.

“If they bring good IP,” he added, “they can be successful with that.”

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