Just 17 - Part Two

Martyn Brown talks WiiWare, iPhone, release dates and the question of price points

Q: What's your perception of WiiWare?

Martyn Brown: I think there's a lack of maturity on the Nintendo side - there are, what, 30 or 40 million Wiis out there, but I'm not quite sure how many users are connected. My theory on Nintendo in that because of the way they handle online gaming as a number, they're two steps away from social interaction - and the shopping experience isn't so great, either.

Q: But the company's been very careful to make sure it's protecting children, and so on?

Martyn Brown: Oh I see the point, but having compared it to Live Arcade, and a lesser extent PSN, I don't think it really encourages people to be on there. However, I don't believe their audience is the kind that would really go online and seek out games, so I think they've got some work to do.

That said, we have got WiiWare plans, and we are talking to Nintendo about a title - so eventually, I think they know they've got to get a presence there because that's the way it's going.

Q: The new start-ups these days are mostly going to the iPhone platform now, which is great - but there's a lot of Apps on the Store. What are your thoughts on that platform?

Martyn Brown: Well, we've got Worms for the iPhone, so it's something we've been looking at. Our approach to the iPhone, having spoken to representatives from Apple, is to treat it seriously as a console. So the version of Worms we're doing is pretty much the PS3 version, running on an iPhone. You've got very high production values for the title, rather than something that's quickly put together.

I must admit, there are probably only 30 or 40 game applications for the iPhone that I like and have got the sort of quality I'd expect, if they're going to be serious about games. I know there's 13,000 on there now...

I just think it's very difficult to maintain any kind of attention on that because of the way that the App Store works. They've kind of got organised chaos at the moment.

Q: But that's the risk you run having an open platform?

Martyn Brown: Yes, but it's a double-edged sword. What I love about the iPhone is that it gives people a commercial platform to aim at. You can do stuff pretty cheaply and quickly on there, and start-ups can get a foot in the door and create new ideas. I think in terms of that I think it's a great thing.

We've certainly got plans for it - we want to treat it almost like another SKU, alongside the DS, PSP, whatever. We'll certainly be putting a lot of stuff on iPhone.

Q: When you're looking at doing an iPhone version of a game, how much in terms of resources can you justify putting into it? It's not yet got the installed base of other consoles, and you're competing at much lower price points against lots more other Apps...

Martyn Brown: Would we do a standalone iPhone game at the moment? I'm not sure. We've justified it by having spent some time building a cross-platform development platform, and we added in the iPhone to our internal tech.

So what we can do then, when we're developing a game like Worms that's cross-platform we can then put it onto iPhone, and it'll take about three months of embellishment to get the controls and stuff. That was certainly a lot cheaper than writing an iPhone title from scratch.

The team's therefore pretty small, but pretty strong because it's got the benefit of a big team doing the main game. We've been able to structure it like that, but to do a full, new game for iPhone... until we know what the model is, because pricing's an issue. We'll be going out at GBP 2.99, but the pricing is a little Wild West at the moment...

We've justified the resource in terms of what we expect and what Apple believe we might do on there, with a known IP and a quality implementation - but since we've gone completely independent we're only interested in hitting things that are very, very good and of a high standard.

If Worms iPhone is a massive success, then it may ramp up our focus on that platform. Right now we can develop a new title, a new project, and hit quite a number of digital platforms pretty easily and rapidly.

Q: So you don't really need to look at it in terms of how long the iPhone version takes to break even, because it's more of an integrated solution?

Martyn Brown: Yes - and what iPhone does as well is because we've got a few small new concepts, we could try a cut-down version of that, blast it onto iPhone, see what the comments and reception is like and maybe we can then develop that into a much bigger title somewhere else.

I think over the next few years there'll be more touch screen devices, an awful lot more hardware platforms, which will give us a good chance to experiment. It's almost like a new game style in many ways - the new interfaces have brought many ways of getting at games, and the way that people like to play games.

You only have to look at Flight Controller to see how popular that is - and it's a very simple game. Is it any less interesting than playing Call of Duty, for example? I don't know. It's all about entertainment - it's heading in different directions. We've got to watch all those trends and be part of it.

Q: So what's the latest on Alien Breed - when will you start ramping up the activity?

Martyn Brown: Well, the great thing about digital is that we don't really feel we need to have a long tail going into it. What we wanted to do with Alien Breed is just show a little bit of it five or six weeks before it hits, and hopefully the reaction from people would be "Oh my God, where did that come from?"

I think we'll probably start to do stuff late July, early August and start showing it.

Q: And the game releases roughly...?

Martyn Brown: We can't specify dates, but I would imagine the third part of the year. That's as clear as I can be without getting slapped.

Q: I guess you don't want to fall into the pre-Christmas window.

Martyn Brown: If you look realistically, the second week of October is a minefield of releases. Whether or not people still consider digital to be competing with that, I'm not sure - because obviously price points are different - but I certainly wouldn't be comfortable being in that space, so I would think a little bit before then if we can.

Q: And it's a three-part project - how do you go about making that? Do you have one completed then move on to the next, or do you have work on all three going on at the same time?

Martyn Brown: Everything's kind of layered, really. Most of the effort goes into the first one, but a lot of the mechanics and core stuff is shared between the episodes. Most of the game was created in the early part of the year and the team then embellishes each episode. As one enters certification, the team works on embellishing the second lot.

We have no idea on how far apart the episodes will be yet - that's part of the beauty of being able to make the decisions along with Microsoft. We can react, and have all the episodes ready to be able to act. It's a case of learning about the market and episodic delivery, which everyone's still trying to crack - but we've put a lot of effort into thinking about it.

Q: But crucially you can sit back and not have to worry about piracy, second hand, rental, and so on?

Martyn Brown: Absolutely - there's pretty much none of that involved in everything we do. Small amounts of piracy here and there, but generally-speaking everything's a lot more protected. At the end of the day the consumer's paying a lot less as well, and we're earning more royalties - and it's digital delivery, so everybody's kind of win-win, other than the distributor and retailer.

Q: Although retailers are benefitting well enough from the second hand market.

Martyn Brown: Well, exactly. Everybody's still making money here and there, and it's not like the retail market's disappearing.

Q: Will digital distribution drive prices down at all on what you'd consider triple A now? Publishers I've spoken to don't want to commit, even though physical distribution costs would go down...

Martyn Brown: Well, just look at the music industry. It's not so long ago that music CDs were about GBP 14-15 - they're about GBP 7-8 now in HMV.

Q: Isn't there a risk that, if you take all three Alien Breed episodes there are a lot of hours of polished gameplay there - yet altogether, without knowing the final price points, arguably you'd be looking at something that's maybe half the cost of a full boxed triple A game. Consumers won't stand for that, will they, if the bar is raised high enough on the downloadable platforms?

Martyn Brown: Well then it just becomes a delivery mechanism. You'd have to ask consumers whether they'd be prepared to pay GBP 15 or 20 to get it in their living room, or pay GBP 30 and get it in the store in a box.

Q: But will publishers really pass the cost saving on, or just add it to their profit margins?

Martyn Brown: You'd have to ask publishers that. Obviously a lot of publishers are still doing what I'd call mainstream marketing - I'm not sure where that's aimed at to be honest, but they're doing a lot of that, whereas we're doing different things, and not spending nearly as much on marketing, because we realise for digital it's a little bit different.

I don't know - we argued pretty strongly with Microsoft about the price point for Worms, for example. And we argue the price down, not up, because we saw the benefits in doing so - a larger volume means more people playing, populating the servers... so we could probably have made a lot more in the first week than we did, but in the long term, for the brand...

I think it is possible to make good profit without screwing the consumer.

Martyn Brown is the studio director at Team 17. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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