We look at a games property that has been going strong for over a decadeâ?¦
Worms - The Stats
Estimated total unit sales: 13 million (console and PC)
Number of iterations: 11 major iterations, two spin-offs
Game Release Timeline
1995: Worms (Amiga)
1995: Worms Reinforcements (DOS)
1996: Worms United
1998: Worms 2
1999: Worms Armageddon
2001: Worms World Party
2002: Worms Blast
2003: Worms 3D
2004: Worms Forts Under Siege
2005: Worms 4 Mayhem
2006: Worms Open Warfare
2007: Worms (XBLA)
2007: Worms Open Warfare
2008: Worms: A Space Oddity
1987: 17Bit Software formed within Microbyte
1990: Team 17 formed out of initial team
Creator: Andy Davidson
GAME INCEPTION AND GROWTH
The original Worms was designed by lone programmer Andy Davidson in his bedroom, and the first concept, called ‘Artillery’, did not feature worms at all but soldiers and tanks. Its creator entered the game, now called ‘Wormage’, into a competition run by Amiga Format magazine, where it failed to make an impact. Undeterred, Davidson then took it to the European Computer Trade Show in London in 1994, and showed it to a producer from Team 17, who agreed to develop and publish it under the title Worms.
The original game featured turn-based combat on a fully deformable landscape, with touches of quirky humour, strong animation and characterisation. It was darker and slightly less cartoony than later sequels, but had the trademark ‘bloke-ish’ humour characteristic of its target audience, a feature that helped its sales perform well. It also featured strange, comedic weapons in an unpredictable terrain that changed with each game session, which encouraged repeat play and acted as a hook for sequels. The game sold well on Amiga, and was later published by Ocean on a number of additional platforms.
For the second game, the teams split into two, one working on the final Amiga version and the other working on the most viable of new platforms, the PC and other formats. This split was the result of an amicable difference of opinion between the originator Davidson and the Team 17 producers. Davidson’s version was released onto the dying Amiga format, and sold barely 5,000 units. Worms Reinforcements did better on PC and succeeded in recruiting a community of Worms addicts that suggested new gameplay elements and kept the faith between instalments, encouraged by Team 17’s community site The Allotment. Worms 2 featured a reworked game engine, support for better resolution graphics and it introduced both customisation, allowing players to change many of the game’s settings, and some limited online play to the game. The graphical style also changed slightly, becoming more cartoony and seemingly targeting a younger audience. Nevertheless, it sold well.
With the delayed publication of Worms Armageddon in 1999, however, the game took a step forwards, adding 33 missions in a wider campaign, deathmatch features and more extensive online play which, while it was abused by some, was popular. Reductions in customisation and some persistent problems with the online play caused further rifts with the game’s fans. Before Armageddon was released, Davidson, having operated at arm’s length from the company for some time after disputes over the game’s direction, formally left the company to pursue other projects.
The developer made the leap to 3D in 2003, producing a game with 3D terrain, more detailed missions and levels and a decidedly more youthful feel. Although a more approachable style of game, the game did not sell as well as previous versions, having alienated its core fans. Some of the game’s original appeal – its focus on gameplay and humour – were downplayed in this version, which pushed graphics to the fore.
However, the later handheld, 2D versions of the game have been a return to form for the company. The success of Worms Open Warfare on DS and PSP stimulated a sequel, and a deal with Microsoft Games Studios transferred Worms very successfully to Xbox Live Arcade. In 2008, a version of Worms (subtitled A Space Oddity) launched on the Wii, with a simplified, but only moderately well reviewed version of the franchise.
COMPANY INCEPTION AND GROWTH
17Bit software was formed in 1987 within the Microbyte retail chain to produce and publish games for the Amiga platform, the market leading platform of the day.
Initially, the company was largely staffed by freelancers but in 1990, Team 17 coalesced more formally, separating from Microbyte to form a new company. Its first game was Full Contact which topped the format’s charts for weeks. Following this success, a run of popular games followed including Alien Breed, Assassin, Project-X and Body Blows. A collaboration with Ocean software saw their reach extend to more platforms, driving better global sales. For a time, Team 17 also acted as a publisher for small UK developers such as Audios and Eclipse.
The Worms franchise began with a lucky break for Team 17, finding a random programmer at a trade show who had a game concept that would hook millions of players. The company was doing well before the game was published, but this title took the company’s revenues to a new level. It did, however, face a few bumps along the way in the middle of the current decade. Acclaim, its partner of a previous game and funder of the Under Siege version of Worms, suddenly collapsed in 2004, leaving Team 17 with a hole in its finances – and more set-backs came when Worms 3D failed to sell as well as hoped.
Despite offers to purchase both the company and the IP, Team 17 has remained a privately owned company and is still based in West Yorkshire. Its fortunes have revived with the success of Worms games based on the original game concept, with its releases on new digital platforms such as Xbox Live Arcade and its success in winning ‘work for hire’ from long term partners to work on games such as Lemmings on PSP.
Worms is an interesting case study because it is a rare example of a prominent UK IP that was developed from scratch to become an triple-A seller, which then peaked in sales, declined and was finally successfully resurrected to perform well on smaller platforms. The franchise has been a success in spite of working with many different publishers, whose number could have muddied brand, distribution and audience. The company had a track record of developing many good games before Worms, and had nurtured relationships with publisher partners that allowed it to secure better distribution as the franchise grew.
Worms was also the product of a generation of games consoles that were cheap to develop for and whose number and spread allowed developers to specialise in, and get the best out of, individual platforms, even in an immature publishing market. Worms’ decline as a franchise was triggered by succumbing to the temptation to go 3D, which ironically has historically been a trigger for other franchises’ sales to soar. The game’s fortunes were ultimately in the hands of a classic ‘90s gamer demographic who remained loyal to a simple, addictive game with few pretensions towards being graphically impressive. The game flourished as Team 17 marketed to their customer base, allowing them to buy into the game through community features and gameplay suggestions. The game began to wane as it abandoned some of its founding principles of humour, re-playability, lo-fi graphics and imaginative weaponry; features cherished by its core user group. No doubt its renewed success on new platforms has in part attracted back some of its original players, although their launch on new platforms probably means that the game is reaching new audiences.
Team 17 has resolutely stayed independent, even through bad patches where the company’s future was in doubt. This survival has undoubtedly been assured by some fairly level-headed management and some financial decisions that were beneficial in the long term, particularly when the company faced shortfalls due to lack of projects or a defunct publisher. Team 17 has also held onto its IP so tightly that no publisher has taken rights away from the company, and this remains the case today. The IP has in many ways assisted the company to reach its position now as one of the UK’s leading independent developers, although it is fair to say that its portfolio of IP is not at all balanced, listing heavily in the direction of its one major franchise.
Despite its success with original IP, Team 17 now is notable in demonstrating the trend that is seeing major UK developers turn towards work for hire to maintain their scale. The future success of its IPs, including Worms, will be reliant on selling well on new platforms such as handheld and the online console games platforms such as Xbox Live Arcade. As publishers turn towards demanding ownership or at least control of all IP in their portfolios, it will be interesting to see whether Team 17’s approach can be maintained and if future iterations and new brands will reach as wide an audience as earlier versions released when publishers exerted less of a stranglehold on new IP.
- Worms succeeded through a combination of quirky humour, unique characterisation, replay value and careful marketing towards its user base.
- A very loyal fan base helped the game grow in sales, and web-based community features were instrumental in hooking more players.
- The IP has never been sold or licensed for more than a limited time to third parties, allowing the developer to harvest significant long-term value from its property.
- The developer has been well managed by executives who value building relationships while keeping a firm hold of proprietary IP.
- Despite the success of Worms and other own-IP games, Team 17 is inexorably moving towards becoming a work-for-hire developer (Editor's Note: Although since the original publication of this article in Develop 87, the company has told us that it is in fact moving closer to an owned IP model with new properties on the way)