How a 25-year-old studio is reshaping the games industry

Matthew Jarvis
How a 25-year-old studio is reshaping the games industry

For more than two decades, Team 17 has helped to define the UK development sector. Now, it plans to redefine what it means to be a games publisher.

Following her recognition as Person of the Year at 2015's MCV Awards, MD Debbie Bestwick tells MCV more

Team 17 remains one of the UK's longest-running indie developers. How has the sector changed during that time?

It seems almost like we've come full circle – and then some – from where Team 17 originally started in the early ‘90s.

We're seeing something similar happening in the indie space with an explosion of creativity and talent that we probably last saw on the Amiga.

This industry never stands still and is very cyclical in nature; as the number of indie titles increases exponentially we expect to see a great deal of upward pressure on production values as a way of making titles stand out.

One of the challenges the indie community faces over the next two years is how it responds to the issue of going up a level – whether it's the larger indies becoming even larger and more professional or smaller groups banding together to work on individual projects.

PS4 and Xbox One have doubled down on their attempts to entice indie titles onto their platforms. Are their efforts sufficient?

Both Sony and Microsoft have made huge strides in the last five-or-so years and are unrecognisable to what they were back then.

While I accept things take time, for consoles to keep up with PC and mobile they need to be even faster, and more flexible and agile, on the business side.

"The term ‘publisher' represents a way of doing business that's completely at odds with the new world of digital distribution."

Debbie Bestwick, Team 17

Has the growth of indie on console affected the sector's strength on PC?

It's made it easier to build a sustainable business for all developers – not just indies – as we now have a number of viable platforms and storefronts, which in turn increases the audience.

That's not to say that PC doesn't come without its own challenges. Simultaneous releases across platforms are pretty much mandatory if you're going to get the most out of your marketing budget, otherwise an average game can see the profits of one SKU ploughed into the next to promote its release.

Some developers recently told us that bundling sites have cultivated key reselling. Having recently offered a Worms Humble Bundle, what is your opinion?

Bundle sites always have a potential of being a source of cheap Steam keys. Having said that, I don't think that is where the majority of the keys that are sold through reselling sites come from.

The vast majority of business done outside of Steam is on larger new release products, where a significant saving can be made on the SRP on day one. Bundles tend to only include products that are at least a year or two old, and that have already been through their own promotional price lifecycle, and hence have been available for a low price in the market – these are less appealing to the kind of consumers that are seeking large savings on new games.

2014's Flockers marked the first new IP from Team 17 in over a decade. Why was last year the right time to launch a new franchise?

Our internal studio is always experimenting with its own ideas. If any of them look particularly promising, we put them into the same greenlight process we use for external projects and see if they have the creative and commercial potential we're looking for.

The game performed well for a brand new IP and met our expectations. As for a sequel, who knows? If we can come up with something equally compelling then we'd obviously look at that.

You've said in the past that Team 17 is a ‘label', rather than a ‘publisher'. What does this mean?

‘Publisher' has too many negative connotations and represents a way of thinking and doing business that's completely at odds with the new world of digital distribution and the kind of company we wanted to build.

When we started our Indie Partner Program we came up with a manifesto – a statement of our core values.

In brief, this was a commitment to being a vehicle for our partner's creative vision, putting them front and centre, never taking IP ownership, showing our partners where every penny is spent and giving them sign-off on it, helping them however and wherever we can, and, most of all, helping them to build a sustainable business.

When we looked at it, it didn't resemble any kind of publisher that we either knew of or had worked with. So we looked at other mediums for inspiration, particularly in the field of entertainment that constantly sees huge artistic and business upheavals: music. Once we'd changed our perspective in this way there was only ever one thing to call ourselves – and that was a label.

Competitors of ours will have no option but to attempt to follow suit, I'm just not sure how many of them will be able to. It means divesting yourself of all the old ways of thinking.

Those that are unable to follow where we're leading will simply miss out; we're already signing games where our partners are choosing us over first parties and traditional triple-A publishers, which is both very humbling and gratifying – it's a sign that we're getting it right and building something different.

What's next for Team 17?

I want to build the best label in the world for games creators that has a huge impact in what they expect from their publisher, label or partner, and that will hopefully help reshape the industry into something that's better for everyone: labels, developers and consumers alike.


PLATFORM PICKS

Team 17 MD Debbie Bestwick offers three tips to Xbox and PlayStation on boosting their indie business

1. Give account managers more power and responsibility, including providing them with their own budgets, with less oversight and sign-off from higher up the chain.

2. Less indie branding.While it's helpful to some, it generally stigmatises and ghettoises indie developers and publishers. These are simply great people making great games, and they deserve to be judged on the quality of their games. Great titles compete on any level. I don't want to see indie-branded sections on digital stores where you have to hunt around for quality games – they deserve to be alongside triple-A.

3. Look again at your subscription services. Using indie games to pad these offerings out is great for consumers but it's not helping the indie cause as a whole. We talk to plenty of developers who've had their games signed up to go into these programs and it's really no better than the old work-for-hire model and the subsistence-farming level of business it breeds. On a wider point, it breeds a perception of indie games as being of little-or-no value – I'm starting to lose count of how many times I see comments like ‘I'll wait for it to be on PlayStation Plus or Games With Gold' when a title is announced.

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