The biggest publishers in the world have been somewhat reticent when it comes to new IP for some time now. The likes of EA and Activision by and large stick to their regular franchises [OK, I wrote this before EA unleashed Apex Legends, but the trend still stands]; small publishers meanwhile try to unearth indie gems from fledgling studios. But that’s left a gulf in the middle.
So it was a pleasant surprise to hear that one of the biggest publishers around, Take Two, had decided to create a whole new division, Private Division, to operate in that space. It’s not aiming to fund the next triple-A goliath but neither is it looking to sign unproven breakouts.
It’s a year on from that launch and Private Division has recently become a more public division with the announcement of two big titles for 2019: Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds and Panache’s Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey. Though that’s just for starters.
In the last 12 months, the organisation has also filled out its staff with a core publishing team of around 20 and fast approaching 100 when QA is factored in. It also has a far more definite sense of what it is and what it wants to achieve. So we caught up with the team to discover how it’s trying to redefine the publisher role and banish the bogeyman image of the external producer.
We put that stereotype to executive producer and VP of production Allen Murray, who tells us: “This is my first time on the publishing side and I knew that what I wanted to do when we set out was to be the publisher that I never had, or that I always wanted to have.”
And having worked at Bungie, Popcap and run his own Atomjack studio, which had its big project cancelled by a publisher, he certainly speaks from experience.
“Seattle is our game production and operations office,” Murray continues, with other functions based in New York, Las Vegas and Munich. “So here in Seattle we have a staff of producers that work with all of our developers, and the vast majority of them come from the development side.”
One example is Shana Bryant, a senior producer who recently worked on Hololens and includes EA and Capcom in her CV, who captures the mindset perfectly: “I’ve been a development producer and a publishing producer. But regardless, I believe my job is ultimately the same – to help empower teams to make cool games. That’s it. That’s the guiding light, whether you’re on the team or working with the team… We’ve got a huge opportunity here. If we can keep that up, we can build something really special and maybe even change the face of publishing. Or at least, give it a good nudge.”
Murray adds: “So we’ve been in their shoes, we’ve sat in that chair and given a pitch and we know what it’s like, we’ve tried to close out games on our own. We’ve been there. So my hope is that we bring that understanding and empathy to the process.”
Of course tough decisions do still have to be made, though Murray is keen to approach them with an open mind and let the developer take the lead on finding solutions that work for them and their game.
“I think it would be a failure for us to have to come in and say: ‘You have to cut those features’. What I would rather do is sit down with the developer and say: ‘OK here all the things that we’re concerned about,’ like it might be dates or cash flow, or there might be an opportunity if we can hit a certain launch window, get them to really understand that.”
Murray explains that it’s then up to the developer to decide what needs to happen and for him to say what they can do to help: “I want all that to be directed by the developer and have them be a part of solving the problem versus us just telling them what to do. Because frankly they know the game more than I do.”
Bryant continues: “Creativity isn’t a process without limits. And milestones aren’t just about demo builds and payment schedules. Being able to properly articulate a plan, bringing dozens of cross-discipline professionals to bear against a singular creative vision is really difficult.
“A milestone definition is just one way that developers and publishers communicate expectation with one another.” she expands. “It allows us to establish a ‘meeting of the minds’ on features and content that can be tricky to explain, but that we ultimately need to be able to. But we’re always mindful of how we can work with our teams to make a milestone process that’s additive, thoughtful, and explicit. It’s not always about ‘a milestone every X weeks’. Sometimes, that’s not what a project needs.”
Murray concurs: “I want this to be a publisher that understands, that is along for the ride and can be supportive in that process because it’s never the straight line to get from concept to launch, it’s twists and turns all the way. Just being cognisant of that and having a lot of empathy for the development process.
“And in our relationship with them they own the IP and they’re the caretaker of it, and we want to be a good partner and shepherd it into market.”
THE SPECIAL SAUCE
For a couple of years it looked as though publishers were on the back foot, crowdfunding and self-publishing were the big buzzwords, though the flood of content that followed brought the spectre of discoverability and suddenly a publisher, with its marketing and PR clout, seemed like a good idea again, but lessons were learnt in those transitions.
Michael Worosz, SVP, head of strategy and independent publishing, who heads up Private Division, agrees: “We’ve looked at ourselves in the mirror. Publishers need to expand their value proposition with live operations, performance marketing, global marketing... Those are all things we feel we really need to offer, beyond just capital, straight marketing and production support. And I think we have now.”
Murray adds: “Where a publisher comes in handy now is helping the developer understand that they’re building not just a game but a product, and how’s it going to work in the marketplace, stand out in such a crowded space.”
Taking the lead in that area is Tom Bass, VP of marketing: “We are transparent and collaborative,” he asserts. “We don’t walk into a development studio and present a marketing plan that we did in a corner. We ask the team a lot of questions, we do a ton of research, and we hear out what’s important to them and what they believe is important to communicate. When it comes time to develop creative, we work on the brief together, we brainstorm together, bring creative talent on site and work hand in hand every step of the way.”
A recent example of that approach impressed at the Game Awards. “In the case of The Outer Worlds trailer, every daily drop we received was shared with the developer. Working lockstep means there are no surprises, and we’re working hand in hand to ensure we’re delivering creative that’s authentic and that everyone is equally as proud of. ”
The Outer Worlds, as with Ancestors, is a brand new IP, and that requires a somewhat different approach, “but we thrive on the excitement of launching something new,” Bass tells us.
“There’s no playbook to an annualised franchise we are beholden to; every campaign is a blank slate. We approach every game with the goals of being authentic, demonstrating discipline in our strategies and planning, and developing incredible creative. Oftentimes that means taking risks, but we’re fortunate to be partnering with developers who are not averse to that.
“There are certainly challenges in breaking new IP,” he continues. “Breaking through the noise of bigger campaigns from established franchises, educating the audience, and managing hype versus buzz.”
Managing expectations is increasingly a key part of publishing new IP, with the touchstone still being No Man’s Sky, a subject that we discuss with Murray. “We’re all aware of that and the problems with overhyping,” he tells us. He explains that “a real challenge for us is setting correct expectations” because the company operates in a very broad space between “triple-A and tiny indie.”
PICKING THEM FRESH
Speaking of that middle space brings us back to Private Division’s mission which Worosz describes as: “To empower the world’s best creators with the best publishing resources and help them bring their best ideas to market.” But finding the world’s best creators was something of a mammoth task at the outset: “We’ve seen a lot of interesting projects over the past 12 months. When we first started this venture, our business development funnel for new pitches was upward of 400 ideas. Over the last year its whittled down, and that’s not because we’re not seeing everything but rather that we’re finding our eye.”
That eye appears to be settling on exciting new IP from developers with heavyweight experience – exactly the kind of projects that many have been calling out for more of from the industry.
“We’re really looking at the cream of the crop,” says Murray. “We have a lot of wonderful developers we’re working with currently, and a lot on the horizon that we’re talking to.”
New IP always comes with risk though, whatever the developer’s track record, so just how much risk is Private Division willing to take on?
Murray is initially pragmatic: “We look for games with a commercial aspect to them because, to be transparent, we are a publisher and we’re both looking to make money and we hope that these games make money for our developers. Because of the budgets we operate in, they’re much smaller than triple-A but they’re not tiny indie.”
But why are such undeniably-talented developers choosing such projects? Bryant explains: “Developers are opting in to the mid-size triple-I game for a reason. They want team sizes that are manageable, deadlines measured in numbers of months, not years and, most importantly, they want the kind of creative autonomy that it’s often challenging to maintain on big-budget stuff.
“It sounds sexy but making the switch from hundred-million-dollar budgets to not-that isn’t always easy. In triple-A, your resources can feel boundless. But in this mid-size game space, you can’t always solve your problems by throwing money or people at them. So, it’s scoping. It’s being strategic about risk. It really takes a complete shift in the cultural mindset to be successful in the space,” says Bryant.
Those mid-range budgets aren’t suited for novices either, Murray tells us: “It has been hard for us to take that risk on somebody without a track record. So all of the groups that we are currently working with – and there are quite a few that we have not even announced yet – have some pedigree, some track record.”
A track record doesn’t have to mean an established studio though. Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is made by Panache Digital Games, “a brand new team” Murray notes. “But that team has a pedigree with Patrice [Désilets, founder] and his core group he’s been working with since the first Assassin’s Creed or even before that. So they have a good track record – even if as a studio this is their first title.
“I think that one is quite challenging, quite risky… I think it’s somewhat genre defining in the survival genre and it’s been really really fun to work on, to work out what it is and what it will become. And how do we educate people on what it is and get them interested in it?”
The publisher’s other big title, The Outer Worlds, appears to be on better-known ground, but Murray points out that even with a team such as Obsidian, “two creators that have been doing this for decades, backed by a team that’s been doing this for over a decade,” new IPs always come with some element of risk. However, the team’s experience “helps mitigate that risk,” he adds.
It looks certain that The Other Worlds will be both the first and last game that Obsidian produces with Private Division, as Microsoft bought up the developer in early November. Worosz sees the positives of the change though.
“Microsoft’s acquisition of Obsidian demonstrates that we are choosing the right projects and backing the right teams,” he tells us. “It’s good for the team at Obsidian, they’ve been on the indie road for a long time and it’s a really tough challenge, and this offer is an opportunity to take their game to the next level.”
And with Obsidian, and now Microsoft, owning the fledgling IP, it’s in everyone’s interest that the game does well: “We’re publishing The Outer Worlds, we’re incredibly excited about that, the reception in the market so far has been terrific. And this acquisition doesn’t change that,” stresses Worosz.
Microsoft’s recent spending spree is directly-related to its desire for exclusive content to power Xbox Game Pass. Gearbox’s publishing arm was recently in the exact same situation after Microsoft purchased Compulsion Games, creator of We Happy Few. That could mean Private Division is going to have more competition than it expected in signing premium independent developers.
“Right now it seems clear that Microsoft is trying to accrue value to their Game Pass value proposition, by having uniquely available content there,” Worosz opines. “I think that makes sense to a degree, I think they’re going to have to demonstrate Game Pass’s growth over time to be able to continue to do acquisitions like this, and if it does work for them, then I can see them doing more acquisitions to build out exclusive content.”
That said, the glut of content currently available shows that there’s no great shortage of talent out there, and not all of them want to be bought up by a corporate goliath.
“Certain developers want to to be independent for that reason, they’ve worked at larger companies and want to be able to control their own destiny to a larger degree, they want more creative freedom. Having a larger corporate parent, particularly one with a trillion dollar market cap like Microsoft, sometimes gets in the way,” explains Worosz.
CROSSING THE STREAMS
Looking more broadly, we wonder how Worosz sees the potential rise of subscription and streaming services impacting both the development and publishing functions of the industry.
“A lot of the market, particularly Wall Street is conflating subscription with streaming,” he says, clarifying that “one is a business model, one is a delivery or technology mechanism.
“We’re treating them distinctly, I think the games industry overall is treating them judiciously, the way I see it is that we’re not going to ‘king make’ any subscription service in the way Hollywood did with Netflix. It’s to our benefit that we’re going last sequentially if you think about major media categories: music first, then video, and now video games. And we have the benefit of hindsight to think about services like this.”
On subscription models, he is rightly cautious: “If subs services get the right business model to fairly remunerate developers and publishers for the high-value content they’re delivering into that service, I think we’ll value them, but I feel that we’re not there yet.”
We suggest the ability to dip into titles at no expense could radically change how developers and publishers make games.
“You’re right,” Worosz responds. “If the consumer has maximum choice and there’s little downside to trying new stuff, that could lead to discovery in a way that a la carte purchases sometimes prohibit. In terms of streaming we’re seeing a lot of interesting things coming to market, there’s many services and we’re going to evaluate those services on a case by case basis.”
Those include Google’s Project Stream demo of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and Microsoft’s Project xCloud.
Private Division looks well on the way to defining itself. The current structure of Take-Two certainly doesn’t hinder that. After all Rockstar and 2K are already clearly branded and neither of them will step on Division’s toes.
And we can expect more than just two releases from the team this year, Worosz reveals: “I think we’re well-staffed now to publish a wider portfolio, we have numerous projects underway and we’ve only mentioned the two that are shipping next year so far. We now have the capacity to take on more, there are numerous projects underway and that’s the only way you can make an overhead like this make sense, ”
But the first big test will come later this year, says Bryant: “Making a game is hard, but shipping is hands-down the hardest part of game development. I often joke that games don’t want to ship; they want to stay snuggled up and warm in their incubation chambers. And a lot of them would if we didn’t wake them up and thrust them wild-eyed onto digital shelves!”
And from that process, Murray reckons Take-Two as a whole will benefit too: “It should allow us to be really good champions internally, into Private Division and the Take-Two group, so we can champion and defend the position of the developer.”
Bass adds: “As a label, we’ll be defined first and foremost by our games. Our goal is that the Private Division diamond is viewed as a mark and a promise that you’re getting a quality experience, developed by a team outside of triple-A, that introduces you to an incredible and creative new IP.”
It’s a lofty goal, and an admirable one in an industry that tends towards the safe-ground of sequels all too often. This is one-publisher-powered initiative we’ll be watching closely.