(This is an interview conducted on the Game Dev Unchained podcast)
This is a guest post from a former worker at Telltale Games that wishes to remain anonymous. There are parts of the article that was redacted so that our guest will not be identifiable. This post doesn’t have an associated podcast episode with it and is just an article alone.
I worked QA at Telltale games during Tales from the Borderlands, Game of Thrones, and Minecraft. I was a regular QA tester, and it was my first job in the industry. I had heard a bit about the working conditions in the games industry but was young and eager to make my start in the industry, particularly a former senior level employee I had met at PAX gave me the singular best bit of advice I received in regards to TTG: "At some point they're going to fuck you. Get what you want out of the job and then get out". I didn't particularly want to believe it at the time as I had just scheduled my interview, but the words would encourage me to take leave of the company after some abuses and mismanagement.
After I started there was very little time for training as the work load was substantial for QA: We were responsible for testing on all platforms (PS3 SCEE, PS4 SCEE, PS3 SCEA, PS4 SCEA, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC, Mac, and Mobile which had roughly 11 different tested skus itself) with a team of 15 people. Generally for 2 simultaneous projects. Plus there was usually one or more testers taken to looking at the early development stages of the next episodes, or for a ratings build. Out team would later grow to around 20 at its height during my tenure, but it was never enough to get all of the work done in a reasonable amount of time. I would say my average week at TTG was around 48 hours, usually a half day was done on Saturday or Sunday, with the occasional peak of over 60 during release weeks. And I tried "not to push myself to hard" by only working that much overtime. The longest day I had was 18 hours, from 10 am to 4 am during the release of one of the episodes of Tales from the Borderlands.
The overtime greatly contributed to a poor quality of life while working at Telltale. It was however an evil shackled to you as the base pay for a tester was 12$/hour in the San Francisco bay area, notoriously expensive even during my time there. So while us in QA were actually paid overtime, this only did enough to offset the cost of living in such an awfully expensive place where only working 40 hours a week might mean slight starvation or missing rent. God forbid if you came down with a sickness and couldn't work because while the rest of the salaried employees were given an unlimited PTO policy, which is in itself a bit of a trap, the QA department got 0 paid time off. No sick days, no vacation, only overtime pay. This would eventually change while I was there when the state of California made it illegal to not provide at least 3 sick days paid for all full-time employees. It still wasn't enough and there were a number of times I went in with a slight cold because I felt like I couldn't afford to take the day off. Thankfully I had a great manager who would let employees who were coming in a bit sick take the day off and mark it as paid so as not to get other testers sick. However that changed after the company restructuring.
In January of 2015 the company restructured. The place had grown and was continuing to grow at an exponential rate. It was around 200 when I started and was growing to 250 within a few months and showed no signs of stopping, which prompted the upper management to rethink its plans and reorganized its structure. This was also the time that Dan Connors "stepped down" from his position as President of Telltale, putting Kevin Brunner in the double President/CEO position. This is where I'd like to take a quick moment to describe Dan and Kevin, the co-founders of Telltale, from my opinions and perspective as someone who interacted very little with them personally; so take it all with a grain of salt. Dan and Kevin were opposite sides of the same coin. Dan was fantastic. He cared, not just about putting out great games but also about the people and opinions of those around him. He would talk to me in the elevator and would come down on occasion to the QA room and ask about the state of the build, the unfiltered truth of the status and my opinions on what needed to be done to get it done quickly and become quality. (I'm going to digress a second to clarify that at my time QA was on the 3rd floor of our building, along with customer service. The rest of the studio was on the 4th floor. QA was almost entirely divested from the development team, with the exception of the leads) Kevin Brunner was a Lovecraftian nightmare; an entity of fear that you seldom saw but could rend your life apart on a whim. The stories were of him being quoted saying that "[Brunner himself] is the only irreplaceable part of this company." as well as reprimanding and firing people seemingly without warrant. He was described to me by a designer that had to show their work to Brunner as "a sociopath". So nobody in my department believed for a second that Dan Connors stepped down of his own volition. Additionally, with this restructuring, our manager also left "of his own volition" Without having further knowledge of the history of the operations of the company, this is the point that I would mark as "The beginning of the end" for Telltale.
My manager's duties were then given to the web department's manager, who didn't have the time, energy, nor the compassion to actually help anyone in QA. Telling someone that works 6 days a week to "Do game jams on the weekend so you can prove you know how to design" to move into another department isn't exactly helpful advice. This would be what drove me to find another job. But on the company level things were picking up. There were more projects being planned and the monthly release schedule was in full force. But it was costing people their lives, the tight deadlines and constant rewrites that were directly because Kevin Brunner had an unwavering and unchallenge-able vision for Telltale games that would eventually spell doom for the company. Everyone at Telltale knew that the fans were stagnating on our formula. Even in QA we organized a small group to talk about how we could change it up in the hopes of presenting it to designers. But all of that would fall on deaf ears. I stayed in the bay area and kept in contact with many former Telltalers and would often hear over drinks how one of them were suggesting changes to a project to improve the game play experience, only to be strung along with ever shifting meeting dates and ultimately having their efforts and ideas ignored. I would hear about the turnover rate of employees 3 months in feeling like war veterans always in combat with the closing deadlines and crunch time, eventually to burn out and leave. Even back then most of us knew it wasn't a question of whether or not Telltale was going to collapse on itself, but when it was going to.