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Team17 targets US developers with major hires

“I really want to go for it,” says CEO Debbie Bestwick

One of the UK's fastest growing games publishers has made a series of major hires in a bid to become a more internationally recognised force.

The move follows the £16.5m ($20.2m) investment the company received from private equity firm LDC in September last year.

Justin Berenbaum, former VP of business development and strategic relations at 505 Games, will lead US operations for Team17 as head of publishing and business development for Asia and the Americas. He is also a member of the board of directors for IGDA and the Global Game Jam.

Justin Berenbaum will lead Team17's US charge

Back in the UK, Team17 has named Matt Benson as its business development manager, following marketing stints at 505 Games and Ubisoft. Ste Stanley is marketing and sales co-ordinator, Ian Pickles joins from Sony XDev as senior producer on external projects, while Ellie Spanovic is recruited as community manager, having previously worked for Oddworld Inhabitants

The company has also bolstered its development team with Davide Fabrizzi joining from Rare as concept artist, and Niklas Hansson, formally of Little Nightmares studio Tarsier, becoming lead programmer. Octavia Vasilescu has also been hired as Lead QA after nearly 10 years at EA as QA project manager

Speaking to, Team17 CEO Debbie Bestwick hopes to attract US talent to its games label (a term she prefers over 'publisher'), and also to overcome the perception that the company is just 'that Worms studio'.

"A lot of the developers in North America know us as Team17: the guys who created Worms."

"We made a statement when we did the LDC investment last year," she tells us.

"There is a massively diverse talent pool in the States. We are well known amongst developers in the UK and Europe, but a lot of the developers in North America know us as Team17: the guys who created Worms. It is about taking what we're doing so well in the UK and into America. Justin is a key part of that in terms of his heritage - he is based in LA, which really helps. I really want to go for it."

Team17 signed one US-developed game last year in the form of Deadwood: The Forgotten Curse, but now hopes to significantly add to that. Bestwick says they've already signed one big game that will be announced in the coming weeks. "That deal is done and it is a game that will come this year.

"Our US move is about spreading the word. I may be the CEO of Team17, but I'm a game developer at heart. And I want to share what we do with a broader audience and to give people that choice over who they want to work with and how."

Team17's label output (so games that aren't Worms) have been entirely new IP, and not every game has been a hit. However, the firm has made a name for itself due to the success of The Escapists (by Mouldy Toof), Overcooked (Ghost Town Games) and the upcoming Yooka-Laylee (Playtonic).

Clockwise from Top left: Davide Fabrizzi, Ellie Spanovic, Matt Benson, Ian Pickles, Niklas Hansson and Octavia Vasilescu

It's not clear exactly how many games the firm is looking to sign from the US, however. Bestwick team is already working on five announced projects, so how many more can it handle?

"I get asked this so much internally," Bestwick admits. "The beauty is that we are incredibly well financed. We are in a very fortunate position in that we don't just publish games, but we own IP as well. That is our own revenue stream. We will continue to expand. The announcement today is just the first of many you will see. We are not going to slow down.

"You know of five games we are planning to release, but I know there is more, I've just signed a couple of games, and I'm talking big titles as well. So if we need people, we will find them. But it is about finding the right quality of people. That's super important. We are doing things in a very different way and it really is important that the people who come to work with us don't see this as just a job. It is a passion and a commitment to help build these studios. We all as a team, collectively, want to be able to look at each other and say: 'We made a difference'.

"There are so many stories. When I think about my friend Chris [Davis, who created The Escapists], and what he has achieved versus where he was three years ago.... life changing, absolutely life changing. Overcooked is a similar story. That team is on a good path."

Bestwick often talks about how important it was Team17 managed to retain the rights to Worms. It nearly lost the IP twice, most notably in the late 1990s when it signed a deal with a publisher for extra funding. The deal featured a clause that if Team17 missed its sales targets, then it would have to relinquish the rights to the franchise. The firm beat its target by 1.7%.

It's part of the reason Team17 doesn't do deals with indie devs that include taking the IP rights, although interestingly it did acquire The Escapists immediately after securing that £16.5m investment from LDC.

"If someone walked through the door and offered us their IP as part of a deal, I'd probably walk away from the table."

"I stress all along that IP ownership for developers is fundamental," Bestwick says firmly. "We once nearly lost our IP. The fact that we didn't is why we are here today. Technology changes, but content and IP ownership is a fundamental part to sustainable businesses.

"We have an incredibly close relationship with Chris over on The Escapists. It was one of my first signings. The way that we have worked together has been very collaborative. We ended up building a team for him to help with the console ports. Chris wanted us to become more involved, and obviously The Escapists 2 has been announced this year, so it was a logical step.

"I'd never actively... in fact, if someone walked through the door today and offered us their IP as part of a deal, I'd probably walk away from the table."

Team17 is proud of its line-up of new IP

Team17's move to the US comes at an interesting for the UK games publishing scene, which had appeared to die away following the sale of Eidos to Square Enix and the downsizing of Codemasters. Today, there are numerous UK companies that are capitalising on the discoverability challenge posed by Steam - some 4,200 PC games were released on the platform last year, which has seen an increasing number of studios turn to publishers for help.

It's still relatively small, but a burgeoning publishing scene is starting to emerge in the country.

"I see it as a natural evolution of the games industry," Bestwick says. "UK games publishing hasn't died out, it has just changed. There is this new breed of publisher in the UK that is doing very well, which includes ourselves. But there are also a lot of developers out there that have self-published their last three or four titles. That is what life is like now."

She continues: "Obviously I am aware of what other people are doing, but I'm very focused on what we're attempting to do. When we started our label we were very clear in terms of what it is about. It is about delivering for developers. This was a collaborative concept. It is game developers working together to build something.

"I'll be happy in years to come if I can see that companies like Playtonic have grown into some huge studio that's developing major triple-A titles - if that's what they choose to do - or still making super indie games. If I see that, my job is done."

"People love boxed product and I don't see that changing anytime soon."

Team17 offers the usual marketing, PR, distribution, and also works with partners (Sold Out in the UK and U&I in America) to release many of its games at boxed retail (including The Escapists, Worms, Overcooked and Yooka-Laylee). Bestwick insists ignoring the physical space is leaving money on the table, although it's not for every game.

"People love boxed product and I don't see that changing anytime soon," She says. "I do think physical retail is a tough place to put new, original, indie IP. No matter how much noise is being made on gaming websites, you are dealing with a mass market audience at retail, and they won't have necessarily read about any of these games. Where it makes sense, we will do it."

Releasing games in boxes and marketing them isn't unique to Team17, yet Bestwick believes what has given her company an edge is its own development studio - which she says is the secret to competing more effectively on over-saturated digital platforms.

"I am incredibly optimistic about the indie scene," she says. "It all comes down to the quality of the game. Absolutely nothing is more important. It is competitive out there. We are not publishing games these days, we are retailing them. We are going direct-to-consumer. The stores that we work with are digital storefronts, and visibility is a challenge.

"Two years ago we started to see big changes and we knew that production quality of indie games was improving at a phenomenal rate. That's not new, we've seen the evolution from bedroom coders to triple-A before.

"When you look at the game like The Escapists, which is very indie. Or Way To The Woods, which is made by Anthony who is one person. How do they compete with these high production values? We have an incubation programme, which I'd love you to see. This is where you take unknowns, like Chris on The Escapists, or Sherida from Beyond Eyes, or the guys who made Sheltered.... currently we have three in incubation at the moment. This is where you wrap these people up, protect them and put professionals around them to help. These people have access to all the facilities that they would have in a much larger team. whether it is experienced network coders, lead game designers, experienced Unity or Unreal programmers. All that kind of thing. It is also where we help them to understand how to run a business."

Going forward, the firm is interested in new platforms. It has already announced Yooka-Laylee will be a Nintendo Switch game, and Bestwick hinted that there will be more. The firm has also dipped its toes into the VR waters with the release of Lethal VR from Three Fields Entertainment. However, although Bestwick didn't rule out any future VR releases, she is cautious about the commercial potential of the technology.

"If you look at the PlayStation VR, Oculus and HTC numbers, you'll see that VR has a very long way to go."

"If you look at the PlayStation, HTC and Oculus numbers, you'll see it has a very long way to go," she says. "We have seen a couple of titles do well. Job Simulator has generated $3m now, so there have been a few success stories. But only a few. My job is to build sustainable development studios with our partners. Where VR makes sense, absolutely. The technology is incredibly exciting. But install bases need to grow."

In terms of what comes next, Bestwick says there are some major titles to come that will 'raise a few eyebrows'. And now it has people on the ground in the US, and a bigger team in the UK, the company is beginning to look further afield.

"We're not trying to take over the world," she concludes. "But we're looking at Asia very closely, and we are very well aware of the opportunity. But it is important for us to understand the landscape, business models. distribution models, the consumers, what the partners might be, we want to make sure we fully understand what we're walking into. We like to do things our own way.

"US is one area, Europe... some of the titles we will shortly announce are coming from other European regions outside of the UK. We have Way to The Woods from Australia. We are looking all over at the moment. Even with the recent investment, there is no pressure on us to do anything. We set realistic goals that we were looking to achieve ourselves, and this move into the US was all about finding the right games and the right teams."

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Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who
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