Don't Let Telltale Milk Your Fandom Until They Pay The Workers They Screwed


#1

48,000 people (and counting) have liked a tweet shared by Telltale Games last night with surprising news: “multiple potential partners” had “stepped forward” about collaborating with the studio to finish work on the third and fourth episodes of The Walking Dead’s final season. Clementine’s farewell had been garnering all sorts of critical acclaim, including some from yours truly, until it was cancelled, following the unexpected decision to shut down Telltale.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/gyn5qy/dont-let-telltale-milk-your-fandom-until-they-pay-the-workers-they-screwed

#2

I love the “so tired of this bullshit” tone of this article. I love that Patrick doesn’t pull any punches. Articles like this are why Waypoint is one of the very few video game sites I’m still willing to give any attention.


#3

I feel like there is a general lack of understanding of how business works in this particular case (and Waypoint is way ahead of a lot of other outlets on that score including major newspapers).

I feel bad for the employees, but there’s this tone that there was a deliberate attempt to mislead and exploit workers in this case that without specific information is not in my opinion justified.

Lots of businesses with a difference between the timing of their revenue (game sales) and their expenses (paying employees) use revolving lines of credit. In the case of retail this is literally the entire game, they receive cash which goes to pay the credit line, and they pay from their line for everything else (known on the lender side as “cash dominion”). Those lines of credit are what allow companies to pay their bills every week because even if on an annual basis they have positive cash flow (not necessarily the same thing as being profitable), there are times when there’s just no money in the bank otherwise.

If the bank suddenly decides they aren’t renewing that line, or they aren’t extending it, you are fucked and so are your employees. Employees go into the line at bankruptcy court with everyone else the company owes money to when it is liquidated. There is not always an indication that this is about to happen, although it definitely happens at smaller companies that they allow themselves to get stretched and stretched and upper management twists and turns to try to find a way out without just firing everyone, and then some breaking point is reached. That isn’t necessarily a sign of bad faith, at tiny companies you often have owners literally drowning in debt and losing their homes when things go bad. I doubt that is happening to anyone at the top of Telltale, but it happens.

The worst case scenario where the bank (or other company in the case of commercial paper) doesn’t just say “yeah you can’t borrow any more money” but they also say “by the way pay me back that twenty million dollars by Friday” is the equivalent of being unable to refinance your 5-year balloon mortgage in 2009. You lose everything when you may well have thought it was under control because in normal circumstances you’d be able to roll it over to another bank. You made the interest only payments hoping to gain some equity before you refinanced so you would be in a favorable position and instead your property is underwater and you can’t even resell it. The bank steps in and auctions the house and you’re living in your car or on relatives couches.


#4

#5

All of this sounds like a terrible way to run a company to me, personally. Just because something is standard practice doesn’t mean it’s good practice.


#6

I get the frustration. The righteous anger is well deserved. The fan response to that Telltale tweet is somewhere between pathetic and gross. But I feel like it’s setting up a false choice. They can get the money to finish TWD /or/ they can get the money to pay severance.

There’s a reason almost every other country provides for severance either through public funds or legal financial requirements. THQ Nordic or Gearbox aren’t going to front the money to pay severance. But they might front the money to finish an episode and a half of a game (and, presumably, take any receipts).

I don’t have any horse in the “should they finish the season” race. I haven’t played a TT game since Tales from the Borderlands. I don’t think fans should buy additional episodes. But I totally understand why people who bought the season up front (which I read was the only way to buy Season Four - apologies if I’m wrong about that) would want to see it completed. I think these are two separate issues.

edit: spelling


#7

In hindsight, the decision to sell this season not as episodes but as one $20 purchase for all four episodes should have been a warning sign to us.

If I knew some of the money would go to the laid-off workers, I would buy the game right now.


#8

let’s be real, no investors are likely to give telltale money so they can pay their employees severance. investors give money to get money back. they will be investing in further business endeavors only, like, for example, launching a nearly-finished sequel in a popular franchise.

we are forced to assume, at this point, that Telltale has no money, and that’s why they fired their entire staff. They have property (IP, games in development) that are currently owned by the company, but they can’t do anything with those things without any more money to pay people to make stuff. They probably hope that revenue from upcoming games will allow them to stay afloat, at least long enough to find a buyer for the company or whatever intellectual property they have, but I don’t think any naturally-generated money (read: money earned through doing business, selling games) will end up going towards fired employees.

If that money comes from anywhere, I’m guessing it will be from the coffers of executives who, for whatever reason, decide to do that on their own. Because guess what: business law is structured to defend executives from exactly this scenario. Generally, if a business has no money, no one is personally responsible for paying owed debts without going to court to prove that individual is liable, and let me tell you as someone who has been refused pay by a defunct employer, that shit takes YEARS, and usually amounts to nothing. LLC stands for “limited liability”, and this is that liability (though it looks like Telltale is a corporation, but I’m pretty sure there is still no personal liability). When you have a case against a business, you have a case against the business, literally. Not a person, not even the founder or current CEO.

So if the business goes under, the executives, no matter their personal wealth, can turn to you and shrug and say, “gosh sorry, wish there was something we could do.” Granted, the proprietor now has a bankruptcy under their belt, but to my knowledge, that only really affects their ability to start new businesses, or start new lines of credit, per @falcomadol’s post.

At any rate, yes, businesses are structured in a way that protects executives first, and yes, that sucks ass, and I suspect that no one will give them the money they need to finish the series if they express any interest in using that money or any revenue from sales to pay fired employees.

anyway please feel free to correct me on any of this. I learned about this stuff through years of research because of my own experience, but I don’t have an MBA or anything


#9

The issue is that this is considered good practice. Having worked in finance, I can tell you that almost all small-to-medium-sized businesses spend a huge amount of their time managing their debt. Even businesses that have a lot of private finance behind them will take out loan facilities rather than spend their own cash. There’s this persistent and pernicious notion of “good debt” in finance and what we’re seeing with Telltale is the extremely common result of good debt turning bad.

Financialised capitalism is set up to allow businesses to get deeply into debt, refinance that debt, seek private funding etc until they bottom out because there’s a legal structure set up to ensure that the people and organisations with capital and access to the capital markets get their’s every single time.

Going into debt this complex is often considered best practice and within the normal course of business. There’s no form of corporate governance taught in business schools that precludes these types of obligations, which is why finance is so unmoored from the actual value created from labour.


#10

Definitely liked how the podcast framed this around the need for radical change. This stuff is extremely broken and the crimes of the 1980s (onwards) can never be paid for via slight tweaks to the formula of financialised capitalism. Catastrophic climate change is coming along at the same time to really make it clear that radical change is the only potential path for the survival of humanity.

Those who don’t consider radical change are effectively now a death cult. It’s not that we can imagine a better world but that this world will end in the lifetime of the younger members of our current society. We must work towards a better world (even to just imagine it is insufficient).


#11

Had the exact same shit happen to a friend of mine, albeit at a much smaller scale of course, but it’s still infuriating regardless.


#12

The way liquidation bankruptcy is legally designed also fucks people over in a specific order:

  1. Stockholders or other equity investors, they get nothing until everyone else is paid
  2. Bondholders, unpaid vendors, groups with legal claims (in this case the employees), these people have their claims vetted by the courts and get part of their money back unless there are enough assets to sell to pay them off. The court may determine that some groups are more deserving than others.

Meanwhile the people who were employed (including management and generally “venture capitalists” who paid themselves in management fees and special dividends over the years) don’t get anything clawed back (they don’t have to repay things unless there are special situations like loans to executives). Money was given or borrowed to run this enterprise, and it was paid to people for their work as the company was still a going concern. The investors (equity and debtholders) got interest and dividends along the way too, but at the end they are holding the partially full or entirely empty bag.

In a reorganization bankruptcy, the company negotiates with bondholders to forgive some debt or adjust payment terms so that they can keep running the company. Bondholders might accept this if they think they will be repaid more than they would get in a liquidation.

There are lots of ways to structure companies and some are more humane than others (coops instead of franchises for instance), but unless people are working for free, the cash money has to come from somewhere. Employee ownership etc don’t change that. That is why there should be an extremely well made social safety net (personally I’m all for basic income and two stage universal healthcare, and I’m not talking single-payer).


#13

I’ve worked in startups and small businesses that relied on seed funding or revolving credit for seasonal businesses. You’re never borrowing for next week, you’re borrowing for next quarter at a minimum, but more likely, next year. And if you’re in danger of running out of runway, you let people know. Ideally they know how much is left at all times and whether it’s increasing or decreasing.

There’s no excuse for “You guys all need to find new jobs and have 9 days to find health insurance.” Hell, someone moved across the country for a job with them a week before they were laid off. You know if you’re about to lay people off a week before you do, it’s not something that’s done on a whim.

They also had talks with contractors lined up to finish the series in 3? 4 days? Unless it’s something where you’re just posting it on Upwork, there’s no way that happens overnight.

Every sign I can see points to them intentionally hiding damaging information from their employees to get the latest game released because they didn’t care about their employees at all.


#14

Seriously, not sure how it could be argued that this came as a shock to senior management? A charitable case could be made that they were criminally naive / optimistic about their ability to weather the storm but it’s still gross negligence combined with ongoing mistreatment of their workforce.


#15

I have an MBA, but just from researching you have the general gist of what an LLC stands for, and how it shields the C-Suite and Owner. All of the following is incredibly generalized, and may be missing some minutia.

The only way they could be potentially hurt is if their ethics are so comprised, or their hiding of information is so egregious, that the law can “pierce the corporate veil”, and go after the assets of the C-Suite, Owner etc;.

This is incredibly rare, but upon reading into the known issues, a great business law lawyer may be able to make some progress to do this. Still, I don’t see it happening, and that is incredibly depressing.


#16

I understand that the purpose of these laws is to encourage entrepreneurship, but it is seriously messed up that the only people that are more-or-less fully shielded from risk are also the ones with the most complete picture of that risk, while the people who have to take it on blind faith that the owners know what they’re doing get little-to-no protection.


#17

Right, which is why running a business leveraged up to its eyeballs in debt is considered best practice by those people even though it’s objectively a terrible way to build a sustainable business. However, if you’re looking at a company as just another thing to extract value from instead of an organization designed to provide products and services and receive payment in kind, then you don’t necessarily care if the business is sustainable or not.


#18