From developer of retro classics such as Worms and Alien Breed, to publisher of exciting new creative titles such as Beyond Eyes, The Escapists and Allison Road, British game studio Team17 are celebrating their 25th anniversary this month – and their story is a fascinating one.
Alex Nelson spoke to CEO Debbie Bestwick about the company’s evolution, and their backing of bold new indies, including the hugely anticipated 3D platformer Yooka Laylee.
You’ve been around for 25 years, which is quite incredible in the current climate. How has Team17 managed to stick around for that length of time?
“We’ve had to learn to survive. We know how to dig deep, deliver commercially and Team17 also have a habit of being in there early on the next big thing, from mobile to digital to our games label.
“Working without fear is incredibly powerful and that’s the culture we’ve tried to install across the company.”
You guys started from fairly humble beginnings, but are now at the forefront of British indie publishing with some hefty names in your line-up. How did you make that transition, and was it an easy process?
“It started around four and a half years ago. Firstly, we had to ensure the business was sustainable, as up to that point we had been a yo-yo business and far from that. Within 2 years we had a very different business, it was sustainable, it had solid foundations and also for the first time in a very long time, the studio had a long term road map of releases in place.
“The bad news was my fellow shareholder and I were starting to get bored. The hard work had been done and to be honest we both thrive on challenges and need that in our lives, and so I came up with the idea of going back into handling other developers and building a new kind of publisher, one that we would be happy to work with and one who lives the day to day of making games. The rest, as they say, is history.”
Has adapting to trends in publishing/development helped?
“We have a history of being in there early on trends that happen to be the right ones. For example, we started in mobile in 2001, in PC Digital downloads in 2000 and we were also one of the first known games to be downloaded on XBLA with Worms, as well as also being the first Western creators of a game for digital download on PS3 with Lemmings.
“Let’s also not forget that our first “indie label” first existed way back in 1990 – we’ve just come full circle doing what we do best.”
How has the advent of digital distribution services like Steam etc affected the way you approach a game’s development/publishing? Are there less or more roadblocks in the way?
“Back in 2009/2010 there were less roadblocks definitely. These days’ video games as a whole have a very fierce marketplace. For a game to survive let alone succeed, it needs to be GREAT. Nothing less is good enough and it’s also vital that its fully supported by strong marketing, PR and community too.
“The great side of digital distribution is that there are no stock issues, which of course allows for a much better lifecycle management and is therefore great for the consumer. Finally, the speed of which a game can go from Master to Release is also much easier and quicker.”
You guys seem to be focusing a lot more on publishing titles from smaller indie developers. Has this been a deliberate change of approach in response to a changing industry, or was it something you’d always had planned?
“The label was reintroduced to disrupt traditional publishing. It’s no secret that developers and publishers traditionally haven’t enjoyed the best of times working together. To counter this we have a developer’s mind-set but have also built a dedicated commercial unit to support the whole commercial side.
“I openly tell the development teams we work with that our commercial unit is there to ensure they generate the maximum revenue for their games. We’re 100% transparent with all of our partners and right now it seems to be working well.
“Regarding the team’s sizes, we actually never set out to support smaller teams in all honesty, we just set out to work with people we believe share our vision to create a new type of games company and games we all believe in. It’s always been about the people and the game. If those two points are right everything else works itself out.”
You recently took on Yooka Laylee as publisher after its successful Kickstarter campaign. How much of a hands on approach are you taking with the game, or are you pretty much letting Playtonic get on with it?
“As with all of our partners on our label, we are there when they need us, as much or as little as they want. To be honest, we actually take care of all of the really boring things that hinder the game making process so it works well.”
It’s obviously a highly anticipated title due to its links with Banjo Kazooie, and possibly the biggest launch from a publishing perspective for you guys in years (correct me if I’m wrong!). How do you approach a project such as this?
“We have an incredibly experienced management team who have all spent the last few decades working for some of the largest publishers and platform holders in the industry on some of the biggest games IPs selling tens of millions.
“Team17 have also had its own fair bit of success with a number of our previous games selling multi-million units too, so we are more than ready and the word “excited” really doesn’t even begin to describe how we feel. I’ve no doubt the next year or so is going to be incredibly hard working for both Team17 and Playtonic, but that’s exactly as we both like it.”
Why do you think we’ve seen a decline in 3D platformers in recent years, and can Yooka Laylee buck the trend and bring them back to the 21st century?
“As projects became more costly and inherently riskier over the past decade or so, many companies chose to invest more conservatively and focus on the trending genres such as shooters and action games. As hardware power increased, the trend was also to focus on realism, which perhaps doesn’t suit the fantastical nature of the platformer genre. Combined, this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where only certain games make money if only those games get invested in.
“That’s great news for us and the development team at Playtonic, because there’s now an exciting gap in the market and a hungry audience we’re keen to satisfy.”
The British video games industry seems to be rather fertile at this moment in time. Why do you think that is?
“It’s been this way for the last three or four years now, and I believe it is down to the closure of many big studios such as Bizarre Creations, Sony Liverpool, Monumental Games, Juice games, Blitz, Eurocom etc combined with great middleware and the openness of the platforms allowing developers to handle their own games via digital releases.”
Independent games that do things a bit differently have gained quite a niche following in recent years. Do you think they’ll ever truly compete with the triple-A blockbusters? Or is the gaming mainstream set to always be ruled by ‘dumb fun’? Would they even want to compete?
“I think they actually already do. I look at Minecraft, Terraria, Rust, and Binding of Isaac as just a few examples that all started out as ‘niche’. It’s getting harder but this year just look at games like City Skylines, Rocket League and Ark, all have broken out and I’m curious where those teams go next year to develop their brands further.”
Are there any games currently floating around Kickstarter etc that you’ve got your eyes on?
“I’d rather not share what I’m currently looking at, we do have competitors! However some that have impressed me this year are Yooka Laylee, Strength Of The Sword, and Deadwood (also on our label). I love everything Harebrained do. Those guys know how to do kickstarter properly and I’m hugely excited about BattleTech.
“Allison Road, our recent partner signing, is exciting – and I am looking forward to helping those guys achieve their goals. We’re fortunate that word of mouth and recommendations are bringing lots of games our way. Team17’s past and solid reputation also helps massively, as we’re so developer friendly because of our heritage. It’s the essence of who we are and so it makes working with us is a lot easier for most developers/studios.”
What makes a game a good candidate for being published by Team 17?
“We have no set type of genre or set type of team, so it’s pretty unique. We like games that do something different or have a unique spin on an existing mechanic or genre. We’re all gamers so it has to be fun and something we can feel connected to, as we’re going to be as closely embedded as the development team or person is.
“Take The Escapists as an example. I saw something that was unique to the prison genre and wasn’t about putting huge hours into the game to have fun.”
What does the future hold for Team 17?
“We have a very busy year ahead. 2015 has been a good start but we have very clear, ambitious goals and know where we want to be.
“There will of course be more signings, some high profile as well as the odd random one or two, as I’m keen that we continue to take risks on projects that have great concept potential. Sadly we can’t handle as many as I’d like as resource wise they are hungry, but it’s vital that we do a few a year.”
I notice a new Worms game on your 2016 line-up. Worms is obviously your big ‘franchise’ player; how have you had to adapt its playstyle to meet current trends?
“Worms W.M.D is going to be a really, fantastic entry into the series and it’s one we’re all very much excited about. It’s back to 2D with gorgeous, new hand-drawn cartoon inspired visuals and we’ve taken a look back at fan favourites to get the Ninja Rope feeling as it did previously, so we’re expecting to see some pro roping moves!
“On top of that we’re adding in vehicles and buildings for the first time ever. Now if you see a building on the landscape, it’s not just for show. Your worm can get in there, hide away and fire shots from inside. This is a lot of fun in online matches as your opponent will see you’ve entered the building, but your exact location won’t be revealed, so it really adds to the strategy.
“With vehicles we currently have a helicopter and tank available that you can use on your turn. These are something we’ve been having a lot of fun playing with internally and have gone down great at events.”
Your recent portfolio and your 2016 line-up seems quite varied in terms of the types of games on there. Are you trying to go for a broader spectrum, rather than focusing on being known for one particular type of game?
“That’s intentional as we’re building a label that aims to be home to some of the best gaming talent from around the globe, so why restrict what we do to a type of genre or style? The beauty of our label is that the people and games we represent come from all walks of life and all have amazing stories and opportunities.
“I love the fact we’re working with such a broad spectrum of genres and talent as it makes each day very interesting to say the least.”