Develop:Brighton is back in 2021, in its usual physical format, from the 26th to the 28th of October. Headlining this year’s speaker lineup, and receiving the 2021 Develop: Star Award, is Team17 CEO Debbie Bestwick.
The 30-year industry veteran has led the indie developer and publisher to big success, especially since its float in 2018. We caught up with Bestwick to discuss how the pandemic impacted Team17, the importance of in-person events, her keynote and her outlook on the industry’s future.
The industry has largely done well financially from the pandemic, does that come with added responsibilities and expectations?
Honestly, no. I’ve always said the biggest responsibility as a CEO you have in the finance markets is managing expectations, and we’ve been very sensible regarding our own messaging since we floated in 2018. I honestly never worried about day one valuation (that’s vanity and can be short lived) what I cared about was showing the strength in growth that I was so convinced of over the next few years (that’s sanity).
Of course, everyone wants to get excited about what the next big thing is, be that growth in audience, new trends, new tech or changes to business models.
When you’ve been in the industry as long as I have, you learn to be very grounded and sensible. I’m the person that listened in on earnings calls as a hobby across gaming for a decade before we IPO’d – I learnt a lot! My focus is on driving the business we want to be in 5/10 years’ time, and I believe our investors understand that, they know me well and know I care passionately about Team17 and what we are building.
My favourite quote of the year was from Take-Two Interactive’s CEO and chairman, Strauss Zelnick, who, when asked in an earnings call about current trends, said, “I’m always allergic to buzzwords”. I couldn’t have said it better. The investment world saw gaming stocks last year as a safe haven during Covid! We need to be sensible in our messaging and continue to build upon the respect we’ve all built as listed companies.
More practically how did Team17 cope with the changes and how much will things stay changed?
We moved very fast! We had been monitoring developments as COVID spread from late 2019 (we have a number of development teams in China and had visibility of what was happening early) and had been preparing for a while.
I have to commend Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo – they were amazing! I recall conversations with them at the start of 2020 asking for their help to put COVID plans in place. At the time it still wasn’t known how it would impact globally, but the console platforms moved exceptionally quickly and did everything possible to support us. They’ve been a constant support for Team17 throughout the pandemic, in fact I’ve never spoken to so many CEO and exec level management across the industry as I did in 2020. We came together as an industry and supported each other in a way I’ve never seen in over three decades.
I think everyone knows absolutely nothing is more important to me personally than the wellbeing of my Teamsters and label partners. Our people across the Team17 sites in the UK, and the many studios we work with around the globe, moved swiftly to put people and their families safe. In fact, we acted ahead of the many countries’ lockdowns to ensure their safety.
I pride myself on inspiring the people I work with to aim high and lead by example, and I can say across the Team17 group and our label partners they were inspirational in their focus to deliver the games we planned. Not a single game slipped out of 2020 and that is testament to the passion within the group and teams around the world that I have the privilege to work with.
Looking ahead, I’m a huge fan of the ‘hybrid’ model regarding working practices. Building games, QA and collaborative creativity is far from easy and whilst indies manage this well it’s not easy for large teams. So as an industry we need to work out what best suits each of us. Personally, I detest micro-management and have a very experienced team that support me, so I’ve passed the future working practices to my team. It’s a matter of ‘Simply show me this works and I’m behind you all the way.’ Let’s empower our people!
Do perennial events such as Develop:Brighton now seem even more vital having missed out on them in 2020?
Absolutely! We’ve all adapted to online conferences and from Team17’s side we have adapted well, seeing more games submitted for publishing last year than in any previous year. In-person events were always a vital part of the industry, but I believe the last 18 months have really underlined their importance.
Events organisers have pulled together some remarkable interpretations of real-world events in a digital space, but nothing can ever beat the excitement of meeting colleagues to discuss new business or the latest trends – they’re fantastic celebrations and ‘coming togethers’ of the industry.
Team17 continues to grow impressively, do you foresee putting out more titles yet again next year?
Thank you! We work with many talented development teams around the globe, but it’s quality over quantity that drives our business. We have built a company that in 2013 generated 95% of its revenue from one major IP, to today where that IP accounted for a single digit in 2020.
We have one of the best track records regarding genre diversity and lifecycle management, and our back-catalogue across all platforms is impressive to say the least. Too many get hung up on the number of annual releases, but that’s never been a key internal metric for me.
During some years we will have more releases than others, but it’s about working with the best possible independent teams and supporting them to firstly create the best game they possibly can; secondly, help nurture their talent; and lastly try and help as many become sustainable studios in their own right. We want to help create the game studios of tomorrow!
You’re going to be opening Develop:Brighton this year with your keynote session – can you give us a little preview of what people can expect?
The title of the keynote is ‘The Spirit of Independence: Challenges and Inspiration From Three Decades at the Top’. After 30+ years in games with over 120 games created and launched, how you manage the ups and downs of that journey? The keynote will discuss signing amazing games, building franchises, and transforming a business; it’ll be about helping build the studios of tomorrow and taking the UK stock market by storm by quadrupling share prices within two years and winning entrepreneur of the year of the UK AIM stock market in 2020. It’ll be about putting gaming first as one of the only female founders of a games listed company in the world today.
What does winning this year’s Develop Star Award mean to you?
Gaming has been my life from the age of seven, I fell in love with the business of the games industry at the age of 12 and knew 100% what my destiny would be! There is no other creative industry that challenges you like our industry does.
When you look at previous winners – they’re icons of games development – so to be recognised in this way is incredibly humbling. I’m just the child that grew up loving everything from playing games – to helping make games – to helping build a better environment for games creators!