Debbie Bestwick looks at the changes digital has brought to the company and the game industry

Team17: How digital distribution turned us into a publisher again

[Debbie Bestwick is one of the founding members of Team17. She pioneered Team17’s leap into digital publishing, and was promoted to CEO in 2009. Find her on Twitter: @djbteamsters]

Over a decade ago, Team17 digitally distributed its first PC game. The same year also saw the launch of its first mobile game and the live beta launch of its first online-only game – in South Korea of all places.

At the time, this generated probably less than one per cent of the business’ yearly revenue. Fast forward to the current day and over 90 per cent of Team17’s games revenue for 2013 will be generated by digital distribution via mobile, PC and consoles.

Developers, like Team17, that took that early leap-of-faith into the digital space have radically changed the way they make games and run their business. Team17 has grown from being an indie developer, transforming its business into that of a digital publisher. Sales, marketing, legal, finance, operations, QA, localisation and community support are just a few additions that have been made in the last five years.

The whole process has left Team17 ahead of the curve, allowing the business to open up its expertise in digital publishing and to work with fellow indie studios that are new to the space.

The Digital Shift

Here’s just a few of the high-level changes digital distribution brings:

  • Who needs focus groups when we can now make our games with the community involved? In fact, we can involve them before the game is even being made.
  • Funding has never been so easy. It’s now possible to release an early version and monetise from the start of the project.
  • PR finally means what it should: ‘public relations’, not just ‘press relations’.
  • Who cares about day one sales? Now it’s about lifecycle management and, yes, I can see worst case for my daily sales by region.
  • Gold Master: what’s that? All I hear is Minimum Viable Product – I hate this term, by the way. Games are a service, no matter what platforms you release on.
  • Price write-downs and sale-or-return. Anyone who’s published into retail knows these are the dreaded phrases when uttered by retail buyers. Now we promote our games by country or globally for the day, weekend, week and so on, at the flick of a switch. I know only about half of the platforms can do this, but the others will catch up.
  • We know we’re going to get paid and in almost all cases it’s monthly. This is a biggy – I think every dev has a few horror stories. No waiting until 45 days after the quarter’s end, 60 days after the end of the month or when your third-party can actually pay you.
  • Increase your fanbase. On Worms alone, we’ve seen the core age range drop in the last few years due to the game being introduced to a new audience. Digital distribution simply offers more promotion opportunities than traditional retail.

A new era of distribution

A few years ago the industry talked about the sales levels of triple-A, A, B and C grade games. Today, I believe there’s triple-A (retail and digital distribution) and “everything else” (digital distribution only). If you’re in the “everything else” camp and not digitally distributing your games, you’re more than likely struggling as a business, never mind making a profit. I can’t begin to tell you just how important it is for the survival of many development and publishing firms that they get into and understand the digital space.

Digital distribution has ensured more games than ever are being made. Team17 would not have remade Alien Breed or Superfog without the existence of digital distribution, and I certainly wouldn’t have greenlit the third-party games or new IPs we’re working on.

I recently asked Sony’s Shahid Ahmad just how many of the game deals he’s done in the last few years would he have done if there was only retail. His response was telling: just one.

Competition is fierce for visibility across all digital platforms and it’s never guaranteed. Getting digital publishing right takes hard work and lots of time. It took the failure of a non-Worms game that cost a seven figure sum to make us realise we had to change how we approached everything, building our own publishing firm in the process.

The really good news is we now have many platform choices with lots of different business models. The spirit shared between the indie developers and publishers is something I’m incredibly proud to be part of.

Be it mobile, PC or console, we work to help each other and care about each other’s success, often cross-promoting in some capacity – whether through social media or in-game.

About MCV Staff

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