Very few independent British developers can boast 18 years in the business like Team17. We caught up with Martyn Brown, Team17's veteran studio director, to talk about resurrecting classic IP, Worms, Xbox Live Arcade and life as an indie in a consolidated industry.How many staff do you have up there in Team17's Yorkshire HQ now?
Martyn Brown: We're a studio of around 85 or so, up by 30 per cent on a few years ago. Of those 85, about 75 you'd call day-to-day development staff (leaving admin and management aside). Other than the ten or so in production/production-support, the developers roughly divide up to be about 20 programmers, 25 artists and animators, a dozen designers, and then the audio guys and so on.
Is the studio still expanding?
We've expanded pretty slowly to be honest, to try to ensure we avoid periods where we could have a lot of staff in-between projects - such is the lot of a larger indie. Mostly we've done pretty well on that score which has helped us grow steadily, especially when we landed a larger title like we did with Sierra/Vivendi a year or two back.
Do you make much use of flexible freelancers and outsourcing these days?
We make use of a few select outsource people when it makes sense to, but our preference is to try and handle everything on-site where possible. I think most indie developers of some age have experienced difficult periods when circumstances combine to make life hard. It's usually very difficult to 'dovetail' production from one signed project to another, given the complexities and nature of the business and how things pan out.
I seem to recall your staff turnover rate is really low - is this still true?
I'm not sure what the actual figures are, but yes, they're pretty low and always have been.
What do you attribute that to?
I think it's explained fairly easy: We try to be straight with people where possible and transparent. We've worked hard to adopt a good environment and sensible working practices for people who have wives and kids. I know this has all been done to death, but we aren't naive young kids anymore.
As a result, the environment is pretty professional these days, but it has to be. That's been to the cost, if you like, of the exciting, super-enthusiastic creatives, long crunch periods and clichéd developer stories of how things were in days of old, but I think if you asked everyone, they all prefer the modern day company set-up.
How do Team17's projects divide up now between original IP and work-for-hire?
We have a really good mix. Generally we have things going on three fronts. We are lucky to have some good publisher relationships and are happy to work on work-for-hire projects. Recently this has seen us reinvigorating old IP, giving it a lick of paint and some TLC. It's work we enjoy, and given our experience of a wide number of genres going back some 18 years now, we usually have first hand experience. We have done this for both retail and digital releases, with Lemmings being the first Euro-developed digital PS3 title, if not the world's first.
We've added good Unreal 3 skills to that repertoire in recent years, and also built up some good internal cross-platform tech.
And your own IP?
This falls into two categories - the handheld and Wii retail Worms series, and our efforts in the digital publishing realm with XBLA and PS3, iPhone, and Steam, which we've really invested in and which in 2009 will see quite a lot of action. We spent six years in the early 1990s self-publishing at retail, and it made sense to move to digital when the opportunity arose. Worms was a massive success story on XBLA.
Speaking of 2009, would that be Alien Breed?
Yeah, Alien Breed is making a very long-awaited return. It's something we've always wanted to do, and despite being exceptionally close on a number of occasions to getting the right deal on various platforms, it never worked out. Fortunately sci-fi action is back in fashion, and we look forward to delivering Alien Breed - the details of which may surprise a few people when we cough them out.
How will you handle the funding for that, and do you think there's any feasibility of hanging on to your IPR?
In terms of IPR, our strategy is that we should retain it and have earned the right to retain it. We haven't totally ruled out working with a traditional publisher on our new titles and IP, but ownership is very sensitive to us going forwards. It takes a ton of investment to get something solid ready, and funding that ourselves is perhaps the only way to underline our commitment.
Where are you at with Alien Breed?
We've been in production a few months now, and publishers will get their first glimpse of what we've been up to over in Lyon. I imagine we'll start previewing it to the press in the early part of the New Year and release more information then. I think it's safe to say that it's perhaps one of the larger indie digital titles to date and has pretty high production values. We're happy, too, that whilst it's a totally new title, it shares a ton of spirit and vibe with the original game.
I think a lot of people are expecting a polished port or something, but people will be pleasantly surprised - and no it's not first-person!
What about Worms in 2009 and beyond?
The success of Worms still surprises us to be honest. Its outing on XBLA was totally amazing - it managed to be the most played game on Live in 2007 (a nice stat to 'win' in the awards) and performed incredibly well. We've listened to what people said about that and there'll be something coming to follow it up, maybe even two years to the date. Worms will also be heading for iPhone where we think it'll also perform strongly.
We're also building new handheld games and discussing those with publishers at the minute. A full-on, next generation edition is about to go into concept and pre-production, and we'll look to advance the game, taking with it many of the lessons we've learnt in both 3D and 2D iterations.
We're very thankful that the industry has gotten over the endless desire for purely 3D experiences, too, which allowed us to take the game back to its roots two or three ago, although I must say we were very happy with the second iteration of the 3D Worms game - Worms 4, Mayhem, published by Codemasters - and it sold about a million copies, too.
How will you move it forward?
We'll be looking to take the visuals further and add a lot more character to the game, without breaking the way the game plays. Having a very successful IP is in some ways a nice problem to have in terms of keeping the thing alive, but with so many new players coming to the game every year, it's actually fairly straightforward. It's easy for people who've been around the industry a while to say 'Oh no, not Worms again!' but in reality, a fair percentage of the gaming public is new, year-on-year. Besides, we've added things like Lemmings, Leisure Suit Larry, Alien Breed and others to the mix of late!
What are the biggest technical challenges you're finding at the moment with the current gen systems?
Technically, I think we made the right call not to get involved in next-gen tech too much (other than building support into our internal tech libraries) and spending a lot of time getting to know Unreal 3, which has really helped us get to places where we perhaps couldn't, at least not in the time we have. Likewise we have also used middleware solutions for networking, given our experience in the past with those - although online on 360 and PS3 is much more stable than it was in previous iterations due to widespread broadband.
We chose Unreal 3 simply because of the time and cost benefit. I don't doubt given a number of people and a number of years, you could create similar effects and similar tools - but that time and those resources cost a hell of a lot, not only in dollars but also in opportunity.
Is digital distribution - particularly Worms XBLA, where you've had such good results - living up to your expectations?
So far it's been excellent and we're hopeful that 2009 will underpin that success, too. XBLA is a very different place to what it was when we launched Worms in March '07 and I think it's three or four times the size it was, with stronger titles and bigger production values. I'd hope that with our line-up, we'll be at the forefront of very well-produced, super-playable mainstream titles when we go out there and I'd like to think it'll be the success we hope it will be.
We have about ten self-published digital SKUs planned to ship in 2009 across three or four platforms. Worms XBLA was a terrific start, and we have learned a lot about content offering, content feature set and what makes a quality digital offering since then.
Do you think this multiplication of hardware and software platforms in recent years has offered a lifeline to studios that might otherwise have been choked off by publisher and developer consolidation?
I think perhaps to studios like ourselves who own IP - there are only a few - then yes it has, although I think in recent times we owed more to the likes of the PSP and DS, which came at a very useful time to 'bridge' the last transition. Not all developers have managed to self-publish, and that's the key really.
However, it isn't quite as easy as that, you have to have the experience and resource-bandwidth to manage publishing and all that it entails. It's not a case of mastering a game and shipping it live - we were lucky enough to have a lot of experience from our formative years and excellent platform-holder relationships to make the most of the opportunities.
After many years championing independent development, what do you put Team17's successful survival down to? Other studios have made decent games, after all, so perhaps it's what you haven't done - mistakes not made?
Survival is down to a few core things, I think:
Retention of our IP, which was helped by establishing a lot of it in our early days, publishing it ourselves, and always hanging on to it. Being honest, open and fair with people and partners where we can. It's a tiny industry and generally speaking most people have reasonable things to say of us.
Being fun to work with is important too - being passionate about what we do and how we do it. We have people with care and pride in their work. And making the odd decent game helps! We got off to a very impressive start in 1991 and in some ways could never hope to keep that hit rate up.
As for mistakes, we've made many, but that's what's perhaps helped us survive. Not making the same mistake twice is key.
Will Team17 be an indie forever?
Personally, I'd love to be an independent forever, and I imagine that'd suit the rest of the industry who'd probably worry about working with me! However, it's not just my personal decision, there's a board at Team17 and business is business so you can never rule it out, especially in this industry.
I imagine that a year or two of forging ahead in the digital space may make us more of a target, since we've really been operating under the radar for a while. For now, it's just a case of keeping our heads down and making sure our titles are what we and our partners want them to be.