Most games firms crossing the line from boxed product to digital distribution tend to keep one foot on the High Street.
While publishers like EA and Square Enix experiment with releasing download-only outings for major franchises such as Battlefield and Lara Croft, others have wholeheartedly leapt into the digital realm and left retail behind.
Team 17 is one such company. Having focused largely on digital titles for the last few years, the firm has announced it will not be releasing any more boxed products through third-party publishers.
“We are now very much an independent digital publisher first and foremost,” the company’s co-founder and business development director Martyn Brown tells MCV.
“Boxed retail games are not our priority. That’s not to suggest we would rule them out entirely, but we have no ambition to return to actual retail publishing. Digital distribution has allowed easy and direct access to our games for millions of customers at a time when it has become difficult to get attention at retail.”
Given that Team 17 has been publishing digital games since 2007, this announcement may seem a little late.
The last Worms title to hit retail was around two years ago – in fact, the firm hasn’t released a boxed product since March 2009’s Leisure Suit Larry.
But Team 17 has spent the last three years honing its craft on XBLA, PSN, Steam, the App Store and more, and now it’s ready to truly cast off the shackles of retail.
Far from cutting off the rest of the industry, the company is now actively working with other independent studios to publish their IP digitally as well.
“This is an important aspect of our strategy going forward,” says Brown. “We are currently in negotiations with select studios on a bunch of excellent, exciting properties.
“We are actually a very good partner for independent developers to work with as we certainly know what they are looking for and we know how to manage IP. We also understand the aches and pains of simply being an independent developer.”
Worms in particular has benefited from the firm’s digital ambitions. Brown reveals that the series sold more units last year than in any other previous year – not bad for a fifteen-year-old franchise.
“Given the growth of social-casual games, Worms became a big fish in a small sea and achieved a lot of exposure, which has certainly reinvigorated the brand,” he says.
“We have sold more year-on-year for the last three years and expect to do so once again this year. It is also interesting that it has become a much more global brand with the emergence of digital distribution, perhaps because retail and boundaries are not an issue any more.”
In fact, Brown believes this is one of many reasons that developers are rushing to the digital market and expects more to follow Team 17’s example.
“Several traditional publishers have recently announced their digital plans, which comes as no surprise with retail being down and digital being a higher operating margin business than packaged goods,” Brown says.
“I think that, given the general malaise of the third-party publisher ‘work-for-hire’ market, it is no surprise that a lot of developers are heading towards digital publishing as some kind of saviour.
“The issue this brings is the challenge of adapting to a publisher mentality, which is neither easy nor straightforward. Your business has to change to make sure you have the right mindset.”
Brown is quick to point out that this move essentially brings the company full circle. Having started as a publisher in the early 1990s, Team 17 shifted its focus to development as ties strengthened with third-party publishers. Now the firm has returned to publishing and expects this to carry it forward.
Of course, running a business based on downloadable games is not as easy as it seems.
There are both new and old obstacles to face, but Team 17 is more than confident that the experience it has already gained with digital distribution puts it in good stead to be one of the leading players, as more companies swap discs for downloads.
“For both developers and publishers it is no guarantee of success and many of the same challenges and obstacles developers and publishers are facing in boxes are present,” says Brown.
“Companies have to consider title saturation – given a currently much smaller marketplace –and strict gate-keeping on the closed-console systems.
“But put it this way – I am delighted that we made our move to digital around five years ago as it has allowed us to establish good relationships, streamline a digital strategy going forward and build an appropriate sales and marketing team to make the most of the opportunities.”