The Past, Present and Future of Iconic Games Developer Team17
Famous for <i>Worms</i> and <i>Alien Breed</i>, the British institution now stands for innovative indie games.
Worms are horrible little things nearly every way you look at them. If they're not being all slimy and slithering around your garden, they're infecting your computer network and replicating themselves before moving on somewhere else. Even if you change the spelling a bit, wyrms or wurms aren't something you particularly want to see flying above you. But there is one type of worm that has been delighting millions for 20 years. The kind that fires bazookas and lobs grenades at other worms. Worms wasn't Team17's first video game franchise, but it's most certainly the one that people most associate with the company. And it's the success of Worms that has helped the Yorkshire studio become one of the longest-running video game developers in the world.
After all this time, it's not slowing down either. In fact, Team17 is rapidly accelerating into third party publishing. We haven't seem the last of Worms, but the products leaving the studio with the Team17 logo stamped on them are becoming more varied than ever. I spoke to Debbie Bestwick, the award-winning managing director of the company, about all things past, present, and future.
"You're making me feel old," Debbie tells me, as I mention how long Team17 has been around for – since 1990. Many other, bigger studios have fallen since Team17's founding, so I ask what she puts such longevity down to. "Retaining our IP; looking for the right, as opposed to the newest or shiniest, opportunities; and, most of all, working damn hard over the years has ensured we are sustainable."
"Team17 was partially formed out of a Wakefield-based public domain software distributor called 17Bit Software," Debbie continues. "In the days before the internet, that's how small pieces of software and indie games were distributed, on floppy disks for a couple of dollars a go. It was funded by a guy called Michael Robinson, who owned a UK indie retailer called Microbyte at that time.
There's still nothing like inflicting cartoon pain and misery on someone sat next to you!
"When we first started, Team17 had no internal development, we worked out of a small office above an amusement arcade, and was built to be a games publisher for the Amiga platform, working closely with the talent we knew via 17Bit and using Microbyte's chain of stores for distribution. Fortunately we were insanely popular almost immediately, with 90 percent of our games hitting number one and, at one point, we had over 50 percent market share of all games sales on the Amiga.
"It's kind of interesting how things have almost come full circle. We started off as a publishing outlet for super-talented friends of ours and now, 25 years later, here we are helping the new breed of amazingly talented indie developers get their games out and build the next generation of world-class game makers. If only we knew what we were starting!"
We've seen a resurgence of local multiplayer games in the past few years, the likes of Nidhogg, Samurai Gunn and The Jackbox Party Park. Back in the '90s, people were playing Worms. "I think Worms was one of the first games to do competitive local multiplayer well," Debbie says. "There's still nothing like inflicting cartoon pain and misery on someone sat next to you! I think people keep coming back to it because it still satisfies that primitive itch. I also think it's because the game has such a great idea at its core, which we've been able to keep adding to and building on without spoiling the core experience."
It hasn't always been plain sailing for the past 25 years, though. "There were a few hairy moments in the late-'90s and mid-2000s involving external factors and bad choices at the time. The important thing when these situations come up is to stay strong, not lose sight of your vision or principles, and learn as much as you can from them so you can either avoid or learn to address them as soon as they start to happen in future. As a result, Team17 is one of the most sustainable privately owned companies in games that I know."
Team17 even had a somewhat of a "feud" with Amiga Power magazine in the 1990s. Two of the magazine's former writers, Stuart Campbell and Jonathan Nash, claimed that one of the developer's staff members bribed French magazine Amiga Concept. Team17 refused to supply review copies to Amiga Power, and even filed a libel action after reviews of Kingpin and ATR: All Terrain Racing.
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"I was obviously around, but it was such a long time ago that some of the details are probably lost to the mists of time," Debbie recalls. "I believe one of the guys who used to be at Team17 back in the day had a particularly bad relationship with Stuart at Amiga Power. What started as a love/hate thing got blown up when they gave Worms a particularly bad review, despite it getting 90 percent and more from everyone else.
"From what I remember, Ocean Software (read our feature on said studio, here) – who we were working with at the time – placed a double-page ad in the trade press ridiculing Amiga Power and it all snowballed from there. It did turn into a bit of a free-for-all but we were all young, passionate and probably not as wise as we are these days. I think we've all grown up and mellowed since then, we even follow Stu on Twitter – and not just to check his reviews!"
It seems that Team17 has left its troubles behind, and is now doing better than ever. Its most recent delve into third party publishing is almost like a return to its roots. I ask Debbie what the reason behind the shift was.
"It came about as a result of the consoles opening up self-publishing opportunities and the rise of Steam," she begins. "We were one of the first developers to self-publish on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and as a result we got a lot of requests from friends at other studios to publish their games as well. At the time we didn't think we had the set-up needed to do it properly but we kept getting so many requests that in October 2013 we decided to look seriously at building a publishing team.
"One of the things we decided right away was that, if we were going to do this, we were going to do it properly and not be the stereotypical indie developer 'playing' at publishing. That meant building a team of seasoned publishing experts with a strong digital focus and also taking a long hard look at what we'd want from a publishing partner. If we could become the kind of publisher that we'd want to sign with, then there was a good chance we could appeal to other developers, too.
Trading on pure nostalgia is the surest way of dying a slow death
"Another key decision we made was that we'd split our internal development studio, so that 50 percent of it would be working on our own IP like Worms and Flockers, and the other half would be made available to our external partners to either help them with their games or develop other platform versions of the games they were working on.
"In terms of what we look for in games that we might publish, as simple as it sounds, the main things are a great original idea and a burning desire to see it come to life. One of the great things about the indie development explosion over the past few years has been this incredible burst of creativity, as can be seen in some of our recently-released and upcoming titles such as The Escapists, Beyond Eyes and Sheltered."
Team17 is doing a lot more to help its indie developers than normal publishers, even offering desk space inside its Wakefield studio.
"We're very proud of our Indie Partner Program, which was an industry first and now has over a dozen teams in it. As well as the usual publishing-related activities, marketing, PR, funding, localisation, QA, community and life cycle management, we also make our own internal resources available to help with development of either the core game or platform-specific versions. We offer business advice with the aim of helping our partners become completely self-sustaining, and we'll even give them office space in our studio if they need it. Our partners also get input and sign-off on marketing plans and we never take their IP. To be honest, we're so far removed from a traditional publisher that we don't use the phrase to describe ourselves, we call it 'the P-word'. We much prefer to think ourselves as a label. Our job is really to be a vehicle for our stars, the developers we work with.
"Some great examples of this are The Escapists, which we recently released on PC and Xbox One and has generated over seven million dollars in sales, and Sheltered (previously profiled on VICE Gaming) which will release later this year. When we first signed The Escapists, the developer was working as a roofer; signing with us allowed him to work full-time on the PC version of the game while our internal teams worked on console versions for him – we actually had the unheard of situation of the developer signing off the publisher's milestones! Unicube, the two-man team behind Sheltered, were working at Cineworld and Screwfix and didn't even have an office of their own. We invited them to move into our development studio and are now helping them build a multi-platform game.
"Likewise Beyond Eyes, a stunningly original game that just wouldn't be possible under the old 'traditional publisher' model, was being produced by a one-woman team called Tiger & Squid. Since signing with our program she's also moved into our studio, now has a team of 12 people working with her, and has seen her game featured at multiple press events, including Microsoft's media showcase at this year's GDC."
It all sounds too good to be true, but having met the developers of The Escapists, Beyond Eyes and Sheltered at Rezzed (our report) this year, they all echoed how grateful they were to Team17 and its Indie Partner Program. None of what Debbie tells me is PR-fed lines and empty promises – these people's lives have been changed. Sherida Halatoe, developer of Beyond Eyes, had been working on the game for years before Team17 stepped in. She had had to cut certain aspects of it, but now with the added support, she is able to construct her vision properly. (No pun intended, given Beyond Eyes is about a blind girl who has to visualise the world using her other senses.)
So what about the future? More third party publishing, or more in-house franchises like Worms and last year's puzzler Flockers? "We'll continue to do both. We have half of the studio working on original IP – nothing we can announce right now – and half working on supporting our partners. We do look at our back catalogue every now and again and see if there are old franchises that we could revisit. We'd have to be sure that the franchise was something we could update in a meaningful way and would have the same impact and excitement as something totally new. Trading on pure nostalgia is the surest way of dying a slow death. In that way we hold ourselves to the same high standards we have for any external project we sign."
Team17 was built on publishing other games, Worms carried it forward for 20 years, and now we've cycled back around with a fresh batch of exciting partnerships. Will the developer's next original be a world-famous franchise that proves to have legs decades after its release? (Worms don't have legs, obviously, but Worms does.) Only time will tell, but Team17 as a company will most certainly be around for many years to come.
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