Team17 studio head Martyn Brown has been in the business for longer than most, and while his veteran firm may have had their ups and downs, the Yorkshire-based outfit are still going strong, and have been given a new lease of life by digital distribution on consoles, and via handhelds like the PSP... and more recently the iPhone. With a new Worms release already under their belts this year, Brown is hoping to celebrate the return of classic Alien Breed soon. We sat down at GamesCom for a bit of a natter.
How has the business changed since you guys started Team 17?
Well, jesus, it's twenty years. Obviously it's a full, total shift. We started the first 5-6 years we were self publishing on the Amiga and then PC back in the early 90's. The market initially changed when the original PlayStation hit and the mass market industry marketing driven industry that we've known it for the last dozen - 15 years.
Because it went marketing heavy it made it really difficult for smaller publisher-developers like ourselves to publish and compete in that zone, so we went development only with a third party publisher. I never thought we could publish a game and compete on a level playing field, which with the advent of digital distribution has meant that we can to a certain degree. This is only because we've maintained hung on to the original IP over the years which allows us to do that.
What would you regard as your most important IP?
Obviously it goes without saying it's Worms, which has been pretty extensively used over the last 14 years. And we've got Alien Breed, which is an old title now, but we'll bring that back as it's got some history, so people will have a look at that. So that's pretty important for us and we'll try a different business model with that - in terms of the episodic approach. There are other things we're working on at the moment - some of the older games we've looked at but I don't think we'll be going through our back catalogue as we've got to balance what we're doing with a mixture of new titles and self-established IP.
So you are working on new IP?
Yeah. There are five different titles in development at the minute. Apart from Worms there is quite a lot of stuff under the Worms banner, and then there is Alien Breed and there are a few other things that we can't really discuss at the moment.
So you'll be releasing these new titles by yourself?
Yeah, there might be one, maybe two in the next few years that will be in partnership with first parties. Depending on.... you know... if there is new hardware that comes out. If our stuff is centred around... it's difficult to word it there without things being in place. Basically we'll build for certain hardware configurations.
Is it fair to say you're focusing on smaller style digital releases at the moment? Things like Worms and Alien Breed?
Yes, and no. We've got some title where there are 4-5 people working on them, but Alien Breed has 35. The scale of that project is like a larger PS2 title in terms of budget, scale and scope. It's quite large for digital, we refer to them as AAA-lite, where your going towards AAA production values with smaller content. That's where we want to concentrate our experience and skillset. It's an interesting area to be.
What do you make of things like the cloud computing services? Are they the evolution of digital distribution?
Yeaaaaa... the jury is still out on this, and on how quick and easy it will be. The theory is certainly there, but I remain cautious until it is actually is in place and we can see it. It's inevitable that is will happen I'm just skeptical on the timeframe. Everyone will have to have fairly quick broadband connections to make it work.
Going back to Worms. What is the next big Worms title you're releasing?
We've just released a couple over the summer. The Live Arcade version has done pretty well for us, and also the iPhone one has spent quite some time at the top of the paid apps [chart]. We have some other things coming along, but it'll be a little while yet.
More for the iPhone?
Yeah. What we've done with the iPhone is essentially put the PS3 version on the iPhone. We'll be adding 3.0 features, so it'll support Twitter and Facebook, then there will be Bluetooth multiplayer then there will be full infrastructure internet play. So it's a product we want to support. I think the way the titles on the iPhone app store work are almost community based. It's not a case of pop it on there and drop it, so there will be a lot of effort to continue supporting the franchise. It's been very successful for us so far, so we want to keep going.
We've heard mixed reports about the iPhone. Obviously there are a lot games being released, but are they all profitable?
Yeah, well, I can assure you we are! It's the same at retail with all the platforms. There is a huge polarisation of titles that are successful and those that are not. The fact that there are 8000-9000 titles, it's very hard when you've only got 30 that are visible on the digital shelf to promote, if you're not in the top 20 it's very, very difficult. Other than word of mouth, which again with the 8000-9000 apps it's very difficult. I think you'll see most of the successful apps will be known brands or quality apps, the rest will really struggle. The gold rush is over.
It seems you've played up your independent nature. That must have it's downsides as well though? What are the challenges with maintaining independence?
I don't there is any really any. It's just about saying "no" to approaches really. We've done 6 years of publishing so we know how it all works, and we've worked with most 3rd party publishers and have extremely good relationships with the 1st party publishers. The only downside with the self funding is that we've got to take all that on the chin, but at the same time what we invest in we have the belief that it will be profitable. Whereas if you work with a 3rd party putting funding in place takes forever and you're party to their steerage on those projects. If it's all down to us then any mistakes are down to us.
I guess it's not to have the pressures from big publishers?
Exactly. They tend to use their leverage when putting the funding in place, which isn't nice when you're trying to develop something. When you're working for a large corporation it's all about their share price and the quarter[ly results]. Obviously we don't get any of that. We've got all our own pressures because the studio isn't cheap to run, I can assure you of that. We have to make sure we know what we're doing, so it's all down to us which I wouldn't consider a distraction but has real benefits.
I was playing a PSP Go earlier, and it looks like they are going all out on digital distribution business model. Is that something you'll consider in the future?
Yeah, we've got some PSP stuff coming out. Not so much specifically for the [PSP] Go, but things that will run on it. Obviously they are cashing in on the Apple situation, and it's an aggressive price point for the titles. I don't know, we'll have to see what the titles are and how the unit itself performs.
Do you think Sony have done enough recently to boost the PSP and the PS3 with the price cut yesterday?
I saw that - obviously it's very welcome, particularly on the PS3 price cut. They seem to have an awful lot of stuff going on. The market is better for a stronger Sony, so they need to do the right thing.
Going back to Alien Breed. Why that IP and why now?
It's one of those things we've been watching for a few years particularly for Xbox Live and PSN. Apparently the visual approach of the game really meets the demographics of the user. The alien blasting fits with the Halo/Gears [of War] crowd - that kind of content is made for Live Arcade. It was also a case of doing something as a juxtaposition of where Worms was at, to remind people that we can do more than just 2D characters. There is a lot of care that's gone into that title, so hopefully people will enjoy it.
Thanks for your time Martyn, best of luck with your future projects.