The first two episodes of Telltale’s Minecraft: Story Mode, a story-driven adaptation of a game wildly popular among kids and families, were originally written with a teen rating in mind. Former narrative designer Emily Grace Buck says this is just one example of how Telltale’s executive team had “fundamental misunderstanding of who our audience was.”
Speaking at the Sweden Game Conference, Buck says that Minecraft isn’t the only example of studio bosses pushing for grittier storytelling. “Our executive team insisted that what was popular about Guardians of the Galaxy was darkness and violence and sadness. And that people did not associate humour with that brand.”
That led to Telltale’s Guardians getting rewritten to be more serious and less funny. In her comments at the conference (captured by GamesIndustry.biz), Buck says “One of the biggest comments in editorial was that it felt very off-tone for Guardians of the Galaxy and wasn’t very funny. And we were like ‘we know.’”
Buck says not every member of the executive team was so ill-equipped to see what fans wanted, but it could be an “uphill battle” to get them to listen. “If you fought it too hard, you would be taken off a project, replaced, or even let go, and that happened to people on a number of occasions.”
At the conference, Buck mentioned an M rating for Minecraft, though later she amended that on Twitter. Instead, it would’ve been rated T. Buck says “it was not appropriate for young kids… but not that raunchy.”
Former Telltale game designer Stephen McManus says changes to bring the game to an E10 rating “required just a few line cuts, maybe a dozen total.” But McManus adds “this change was asked for very late in development, creating an unreasonable amount of rework in an unreasonably short amount of time, for a team already dealing with impossible deadlines and other late changes.”
Rewrites were common at Telltale. Buck says the studio often had to do 90% rewrites after executive reviews, and some major revisions would come just days before a given game’s launch. That means that while some of the bugs that came to be associated with Telltale were part of the engine, some were the result of executive-driven demands for last-minute changes.
“A lot of the time what people thought were frame skips or buggy parts of our engine, were actually scenes that had gotten redone so last minute, that there was no time to smooth out the cinematography or the animation. what you were seeing was not a product of a buggy engine, but buggy management system.”
The idea of an adult-oriented Minecraft or a fundamental misunderstanding of what people like about Guardians of the Galaxy are funny enough, but those missteps had a dark cost, as Telltale’s closure left hundreds out of a job without notice or severance. Buck says only 20% of former employees have since found new work. That’s not a terrible number in many contexts, but without a safety net in the notoriously expensive area near San Francisco where Telltale was based, it’s not great.
Musing on how leadership in the game industry can be held accountable to their employees, Buck says “I’m not going to say this is the only answer, or even necessarily the best answer, but especially in the United States, where your work is tied to your healthcare, I think we need to have a really serious conversation about potentially starting a union.”