Just 17 - Part One

Team 17's Martyn Brown talks Worms, Alien Breed, and living the online self-publishing dream

Team 17 is one of the oldest brands in UK videogame development, and even in publishing back in the Amiga days. But now the company has come full circle into self-publishing, using some of its classic brands - including Worms - to gain a strong foothold on the next-gen consoles' downloadable platforms.

Here studio director Martyn Brown reflects on the success of Worms, looks ahead to the new Alien Breed game and offers his thoughts on how a new tier of online-only publishers are coming to the fore.

Q: At the time of writing you've got two Worms titles in the XBLA top ten - congratulations - but is that something you'd have predicted when you started on the road to self-publishing that first Worms game?

Martyn Brown: No, not at all - we never expected that. When we green-lit the whole XBLA stuff, which was late 2005, we didn't really have any expectation of the market place. Obviously we were aware of the longevity of the Worms brand and what it could do in the market, but the expectation on digital was nothing - we had no idea. At that time we didn't really have any expectation of how Xbox Live itself would do - it just made a lot of sense for us to do it, with the opportunities to extend the brand.

So we went ahead with it, and to find it 28 months later still in the top ten... I think secretly the last few weeks we've been saying amongst ourselves that wouldn't it be great if we had two titles in the top ten, and we kinda figured maybe that would be the case with the new Worms and Alien Breed later in the year, but not with the first two Worms games.

For the first one to be at number seven at the same time the new one's number one is phenomenal really.

Q: And what's your expectation for the second game - you must be hoping it'll kick on and do as well as the first, but there's no way to tell?

Martyn Brown: No, there isn't - it's sold very well so far, but it's early days. The problem for us is that while we get very good data from Microsoft now, unfortunately we didn't have that data in the same period for the original Worms, so we don't now how that one tracked for the first months.

If it does half as well as the original we'll be mighty pleased, to be honest - it's suck it and see though really, we've got no great demands. We've broken even already, so anything else is a plus.

Q: How long did it take for the game to break even?

Martyn Brown: The first one was a matter of hours, this one's been a matter of days. That's pretty good news.

Q: As a business model, you've also got Alien Breed coming later in the year, so this self-publishing lark seems to be alright, doesn't it? You're in a better position than most, with established teams and your own IP, but it's looking nice.

Martyn Brown: Yeah, I think that's the secret though really - having the IP. But that's also married with our previous publishing experience - we did retail publishing for six years, so we know the nuts and bolts of how you publish a title, regardless of the platform, it just happens to be digital now.

The way that works for us, because it mirrors very closely how we behaved in the Amiga period, our foremost years really, when there was less of an accent on the marketing. But yes, it's brilliant, and the great thing about having our own IP is that we can establish it over a number of platforms as well.

We do the odd exclusive periods, like the new Worms was exclusive on XBLA for a while, but eventually it'll hit PlayStation Network, PC, Mac, iPhone... but further down the line we've got other titles, including Alien Breed and other things as well. It's a great opportunity for us to revisit old brands and create new ones.

Q: Why is it all coming together now? Is it the maturity of the downloadable platforms? Is it that the technology is right?

Martyn Brown: I think it's pretty much everything. You look at the speed of broadband, you look at the amount of users on Live Arcade, iPhone, PSN, you look at the cultural acceptance of people buying things digitally with the App Store and things like that - not so long ago people were reluctant to spend over the internet, but now they're used to it.

Technology-wise things like Unreal is around, the next-gen platforms and all the rest of it, so we can make very attractive things much, much quicker than we probably could before.

So it's an amalgamation of everything - plus our own experience, our own IP - it's kind of like the stars are aligned. We're in quite a good, dare I say, a unique spot almost as an indie - particularly looking around at the moment there's not a lot of others in this position. But it's taken twenty years for it to happen... it's a nice place to be right now.

Q: Digital distribution is a huge buzz phrase right now, as evidenced by the popularity of the recent BAFTA/ event - although I get the impression that while there's a lot of interest, there aren't that many people that are in a position to take advantage of it, at least on the Xbox and PlayStation platforms.

Martyn Brown: I was pleased to see that event at BAFTA, and obviously there is a buzz about it - but my perception of it is that everybody thinks it's a great place to be and should do something about it. As somebody who's been involved with it for three or four years, I know the momentum needed to actually get involved, so unless it's people who are into it now... I think a lot of these gates are closing. The quality bars are rising, and people really have to put up or shut up.

It is all going that way - I think the tipping point was mentioned at GameHorizon this year, but for us that's already happened. But for other people there are different tipping points. There's no looking back for us, we've left retail behind.

Q: I remember talking to people shortly after Live Arcade launched and it was feasible to put out a reasonble game with a team of about five or so, and a development period of about nine months. How does that compare with the forthcoming Alien Breed title?

Martyn Brown: Alien Breed's probably 30 people, and probably by the time it's finished about 16 months of development time. I think the title looks a lot bigger than that in its final form, it's surprised a lot of people, but at the end of the day that's a three-part episodic title across three platforms as well, so for us it makes a lot of sense to build it that way.

However, for a small start-up, to get funding of perhaps GBP 1.5-2 million by the time we've finished... that's big money in digital download right now, but it's something we started a while ago. That's the point we're at now, while other people are still talking about small download games, and that's really the wrong thinking - the larger sort of PlayStation 2 budgets at the back-end of that transition is where we're at now for digital download.

Yes, it's a different market, serving a different audience, but there's certainly room for it.

Q: Ultimately people will still appreciate quality.

Martyn Brown: Yeah, and we're not competing with the Gears of Wars, or Halos - it's a different market place.

Q: And a different price point...

Martyn Brown: Totally - the sort of stuff we're doing is pick-up-and-play, not the huge cinematic experiences that you're getting with those games which are always going to live at retail. We've got a different offering, and the market is such that's there's room for choice.

Q: Although, you say that, but taking something like Alien Breed - the visual quality, the length of gameplay... if the 'triple-A' development space is almost impossible to access for new companies now, surely the same thing is happening to the downloadable platforms?

Martyn Brown: Yes, we're seeing blurring now and over the next year or so it'll become even more blurry. My perception is, the people that play these games aren't necessarily about the cinematic side of things, but it's a case of how long they're playing and are entertained. It's the same entertainment hours we're battling for, so we're in it for as much as possible.

Yes, of course the production values for digital stuff are going to fly forwards - I think given the recent price points they can't escalate to the price points at retail. But certainly I think people are going to be impressed with the quality of the digital stuff in the next year. I've seen a lot of it - just look at Trials and Battlefield, let alone Alien Breed.

I think the quality is certainly going to be there, and make people consider why they should need to go to the store, if they're available from the sofa. I can't say when we'll get to the same level, or overtake it, but I think the way it's carrying on it'll be sooner rather than later.

Q: You've got your own IP, a consistent revenue stream, and you can add to it over time. But if traditional publishing has its own club and the door is closed, it seems that publishing on downloadable platforms will also shut its doors soon?

Martyn Brown: I think to a great extent it's already happened. It's difficult for any third party, start-up, whatever, to get titles onto Live because there are only so many titles appearing. Obviously I can't speak for Microsoft or Sony in particular, but they're kind of guided by their portfolio of content, so for anything to come out they've got to like it, got to like its appeal.

So if people want to put stuff on those platforms they've got to put a lot of thought into the kind of titles they're preparing - you've got to give yourself the best chance. Sony tends to like the new stuff, but that's quite often not the most mass market stuff. If you've got something that's really techy and quirky then you're best bet to get a listen is probably Sony, whereas with Microsoft you're really going for the commercial mass market audience - which they're had a lot of success with.

But it's very, very tricky - I know the amount of applications that get sent for Live Arcade is huge, and there's a finite door there.

Q: So it's much harder to get stuff on XBLA now than it was a couple of years ago?

Martyn Brown: Oh, massively so. There just aren't that many gaps in the portfolio - if you look at the sales charts over the last 18 months, most of it's been established IP. There are a few new IPs in there, but only a few. I think that's going to be the case, really - people will see brand extensions going on there, and all the rest of it, but it's very, very tricky.

Martyn Brown is the studio director at Team 17. Interview by Phil Elliott. Part 2 of this interview will follow next week.

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