Take-Two has made its move into the world of premium indie publishing with a new label: Private Division. The publisher has traditionally operated by working with its own stable of studios, supported by the biggest licenses, such as the NBA and WWE, or massive own brands, such as GTA.
So the move into publishing externally developed titles is a radical one for Take-Two. Heading up the label is Michael Worosz, head of corporate development & independent publishing, who starts by talking about why the time is right for Take-Two to ‘go indie’.
“There’s a trend where veteran creative professionals are taking their passion and experience of working 20+ years in the major publishing systems and branching off to do something smaller and more entrepreneurial by starting new studios,” he explained.
And Take-Two is respecting that entrepreneurial spirit as Worosz promises the studios under the label will maintain their creative independence: “That’s the way we tend to operate across Take-Two. Our small executive team isn’t in the business of demanding anything creatively be put into our games—that’s what the paid professionals who work in production, design, art and engineering do.”
"I believe their ambitions eclipse what they could otherwise raise from crowdfunding platforms"
There are lots of smaller publishers working in the space already, of course, while Take-Two is new to the sector, and comes from the very place that many indies purport to be moving away from, so what persuaded them to sign on with Take Two?
“I think it’s a testament to the passionate and experienced team we’ve built at Private Division, and the beliefs we hold as a label. We put the developer first and empower them to create the games they are passionate about creating, and allow them to operate with creative control of their IP. When you combine this with the backing and support of the global Take-Two organization, I think we present a great publishing option for these incredibly talented independent developers.”
With crowdfunding having certainly reached the end of its ‘golden age’ with both consumers and developers being more wary, it looks like Private Division is well positioned as a more robust alternative to the 'self-publishing' dream.
“I can’t speak for every studio out there, but in the cases of teams we’ve partnered with, I believe their ambitions eclipse what they could otherwise raise from crowdfunding platforms. That said, there are many examples of teams which have become quite successful in true ‘self-publishing’. Larian Studios, Playdead, Capybara, and Red Hook Studios are just a few that come to mind across the spectrum of great indie studios.”
BETTER SLATE THAN NEVER
Another, more pragmatic reason for the move, was the company’s largely barren 2017, with the new label providing some much-needed balance to Take-Two's slate - which this year had a surfeit of releases as 2K launched only two major titles (compared to eight the year before) and Red Dead Redemption 2 was delayed to 2018.
Worosz talks about the challenges in creating flagpole titles in the triple-A space. “The reality of blockbuster development is these are huge financial, multi-year undertakings involving hundreds of dedicated studio personnel. That all means larger financial risks which are hard to underwrite when you’re talking about trying to break through a new IP.”
"If we can deliver high-quality, immersive experiences which might wrap someone up for ten to fifteen hours... then we’re hopeful we’ve made good on our promise."
And how Private Division can sit alongside those behemoths: “We are making smaller (but still quite meaningful) investments, betting on proven track records, to help bring new universes, characters, and storylines to the market. That’s good for Take-Two, good for the industry, and good for the players.”
He’s also mindful of the increasing competition for consumers’ time: “In a world of ‘always-on’ connected entertainment, consumers have myriad ways to spend their free time. If we can deliver high-quality, immersive experiences which, at the end of the day, might wrap someone up for ten to fifteen hours instead of fifty plus, then we’re hopeful we’ve made good on our promise.”
That’s a refreshing note from a big publisher, suggesting more traditional gaming fare, and presumably linear games, rather than just the open-ended, games-as-a-service template.
“I see game publishers becoming smarter and more responsive to consumer sentiment because of improved [direct-to-consumer] technologies, which are being used to inform new content development,“ comments Worosz.
The emergence this year of Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds can’t be too far from Worosz’s mind when the company is making these ‘meaningful investments’ in indie titles. The sky really is the limit now for games coming out of leftfield, and that’s in part thanks to a new media landscape, where a big hit on Twitch can snowball into something that puts even triple-A blockbuster earnings in the shade.
Is there a new kind of studio emerging then? With highly-talented and more importantly highly-experienced staff, a sort of super indie?
“My friend Ben Cousins has used the term ‘Triple I’ that I think is another way of expressing this same observation. These are games that may be smaller in scope than the massive blockbusters, but aren’t lacking in terms of gameplay, visuals, or production value.”
They’re not lacking in cultural variety either. With Panache Digital Games in Montreal, The Outsiders in Stockholm, V1 Interactive from Seattle and finally California's Obsidian being arguably the jewel in the crown. Between them they have talent from Halo, Assassin's Creed, and Fallout of course. The label’s announcement was foreshadowed by its acquisition of Kerbal Space Program, by Mexico City's Squad back in May.
Did Worosz consciously intend to build a lineup of international superstars? “It’s an acknowledgement that games are global and we operate in a vibrant ecosystem, but we never explicitly said, we need to back studios from X, Y, Z countries. We’re genuinely excited to be working with such high-caliber creative professionals and their projects that just happened to be based in amazing locales,” he replies.
DIVIDE AND CONQUER
The new label is a smart move for Take-Two. Moving into a burgeoning sector, which has been more open to publisher deals since Kickstarter lost its sheen. With Private Division Take-Two can fill out its release schedule, and does so with games that are radically different from its core offering, giving it the opportunity to develop new IPs and to reach gamers that its current, highly-focused line-up doesn’t appeal to.
In terms of competitors and challenges, Worosz is looking further afield than Take-Two’s traditional set of rivals:L “I see game publishing as an increasingly global business, particularly as large Asian players such as Tencent, Netease, and Netmarble look to expand further in Western markets via new releases plus [mergers and acquisitions].”
There’s no date on when the first title will come, or what it will be, but Worosz is adamant they won’t be rushed: “We’re not tied to specific releases per year—we’ll ship games when they’re absolutely ready and not before.”
It’s already been a long journey to get this point of course, now accompanied by the usual relief following a long period of secrecy, which is where the name for the label started its genesis: “When we first started the group, we referred to ourselves as ‘Secret Division’ in the spirit of Lockheed’s ‘Skunkworks’ or the Wayne Enterprises Special Projects Division, as we were working on something new and still very much on the down-low.”
“Private comes from ‘Privateer’, which fits well with the independent developers we’re working with. Private Division is a variation on this theme while retaining this legacy, so we went with it. The logo includes a diamond, which connotes quality and craftsmanship, two attributes we’d consider as our north star.”
It’s rare to see a new gaming brand from such a big player, and it’s hard not to be impressed with Take-Two’s reveal, from the big name indies, to the slick announcement video, down to the well-thought out approach and attitude. Private Division looks all set for very public success.
“As a lifelong gamer, the promise of giving gamers what they want is pretty exciting and we’re getting there.”