When Game Developers Attack

A full and frank exclusive interview with Team 17's Martyn Brown on the realities of modern game development in Britain. With a few words on Worms 4: Mayhem thrown in for good measure.

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Team 17 is the kind of developer that needs no introduction. Once upon a long ago they also used to be regarded as the best publisher around, too, winning multiple awards for its ability to turn out classic games like Alien Breed, Project X, Superfrog, Body Blows and eventually the Worms series - the latter having seen Team 17 through a rough period for British game developers, which sent many of its contemporaries to the wall.

But with the Wakefield-based developer having signed yet another Worms game - on this occasion to Codemasters - we wondered how the firm felt about having its desire for originality sidelined by a risk averse publishing community. After some strong comments from studio director Martyn Brown in our very own comments threads, we tracked down the outspoken Yorkshireman for his take on what life's like in game development in 2005, his thoughts on having to concentrate on the Worms franchise and how he feels about having "not a jot of interest" over Team 17's next-gen Alien Breed, which by his own admission "looks the dogs"...

Eurogamer: Team 17 these days seems to exclusively produce Worms games, but older gamers will recall a time when you could develop and publish your own original titles almost to order. In the last five years or so you've only put out Worms title. What's the reason for focussing on one brand to the detriment of all the other brands in your canon? Can you tell us if you're working on new brands once again?

Martyn Brown: I think most major commercial developers will tell you that the opportunities for developing new IP are extremely limited these days. Unfortunately this is down to a number of things: the production values/costs associated with leading formats, publishers who are largely risk-averse; opportunity cost (for both publisher/developer); and the costs involved with launching a new title/brand in the market-place today. All of these issues being substantially more of a barrier than they were five and especially 10-15 years ago.

As a studio with 75 or so people, we obviously wish to stay in business and that has meant producing what publishers are likely to publish, otherwise we'd be out of business pretty damn quick.

Fortunately there are some windows opening up in terms of new opportunities (on the new handhelds in particular) and also regional development agencies are promoting new developments (such as the GRIPP project by Games Republic). We've had recent attention from a number of publishers hoping to work with us on new IP too, since our ability is recognised, which is very exciting for us. Despite the success of Half-Life 2 via Steam, digital distribution isn't quite with us yet and it's difficult to gauge widespread penetration given that it was Half-Life 2 after all.

We are working on some non-Worms stuff, which is great for our studio (to have a bit of a breather) but it's a case of ensuring a good commercial mix for us. It's not like how it was 10-15 years ago where the route to publishing was much less complex and it was relatively cheap to take a risk, teams were small, development relatively quick and commercial success wasn't overly concerned with marketing impact. (At Team 17 we hardly did any in the first three years).

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Eurogamer: It's pretty well known that you've been prototyping a new Alien Breed on and off for the last six years or more, but can't get the game signed. Surely a brand with such a grand heritage, sales, critical acclaim and awards would be snapped up by now? Can you share some of the responses you've had to the game, and why do you think they came to that conclusion? Do you empathise with their position or do you think they're completely wrong?

Martyn Brown: We've developed a couple of ideas using the Alien Breed universe. One was a kind of RTS called ABA (Alien Breed Assault) which got quite far into development around 1998 and more recently we did a more action/RPG-light return to the original mood with "Alien Breed 2K4". This version was to use the Snowblind Engine (used in Baldur's Gate on PS2) and we were quite excited by how it looked and played, the co-op two-player options etc. To us - and in our experience, the project seemed like a no-brainer. We had nothing but very positive response from everyone who saw it. At publishers, product development people loved it and wanted to do it, but for one reason or another, it never got signed up despite a few "very nearly" situations.

We haven't pursued the Breed thing for a year or so and we've just tried to forget about the annoyance of not getting it away and crack on with ensuring we meet our salaries by producing titles that publishers do want rather than what the press and the public seem to think we should do! I think for Alien Breed it was a case of right game, wrong time. I still hope we can get the opportunity to re-do the game in the future - it looked the dogs! Recently there's been a bit more publisher interest in bringing the game back, so you never know. It might resurface one fine and sunny day.

Eurogamer: Why don't you use the cash from Worms games to fund pet original projects? A bit like Traveller's Tales has done over the years.

Martyn Brown: Heh, if only it was as easy as that. We've had so much bad luck in terms of publishing and suffered a lot of bad debt - as recent as last year - that this is generally a very risky policy. For the record we had two titles with Acclaim when they went Chapter 7, which was almost disastrous for us. Given that publishers have become risk-averse in the extreme, we've adopted the same policy - and guess what? We're still in business when many other developers have gone out of business.

Eurogamer: Ever thought about self-publishing again? Why did you exit the publishing business anyway? Surely being in control of your own destiny would have avoided all these knock backs?

Martyn Brown: Of course. However it has its own pitfalls and one quick glance at the charts (or the TV advertising slots) demonstrates what you have to contend with in terms of competition with the major marketing forces out there.

I guess if we were PC only, then we'd investigate it further - and we're always keeping a close eye on digital distribution which we've already been doing to some degree of success in the USA.

The six years we spent publishing from 1990 through to 1996 were terrific in terms of controlling our destiny and it saw a spate of new games and ideas that the Amiga market was especially receptive to. We don't for one minute consider the "then and now" scenario to be remotely similar!

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Eurogamer: Now that online distribution appears to finally be a viable option for developers, are you looking into this route? Can you foresee many developers of note going down this route?

Martyn Brown: It makes a lot of sense for us and Valve have just demonstrated how outrageously successful it can be. Simplifying any business route is always for the best - and your customers are in direct content.

Obviously in the future it's all going to be about content - and I imagine the costs of purchasing games can be cheaper online given there's no retail cut, less marketing outlay, no cost for box/manuals etc. All this is on the horizon, but we're not quite there yet. Of course we'd be bonkers not to keep our eyes on the developments. (We're not strictly bonkers, by the way.)

Eurogamer: Given the huge restrictions placed on developers by hardware manufacturers (for example "no 2D games"), why don't you use the freedom of the PC market more as an outlet/test-bed for some of your company's undoubted creativity? Is it really as simple as the piracy issues that send most developers fleeing from this scene?

Martyn Brown: The PC scene has its own share of large-scale problems. The market is massively over-saturated with products, there is wanton piracy, only certain genres seem to gain a foothold and software has a very hard time of maintaining its price point in a box-shifting market place.

With regards "no 2D games", that was certainly the message coming from the hardware vendors over the last few years, since they were chasing titles that visually upped the ante, rather than supported unique game-play elements.

However, I've reason to believe that the tide may be turning on that issue and once more games will be regarded as being great no matter what the implementation is (i.e. 2D, 3D, isometric, first or third-person). Many people loved Elite (myself too) but I don't remember its greatness being anything to do with it being in 3D especially - and it's the same with many other great games.

Eurogamer: You've faced a mixed reaction to Worms transition from 2D to 3D and it seems clear that a lot of people have complained that 3D makes simple things unnecessarily hard. Do you think you got it right? What did you learn from the first incarnations, and what does Worms 4 do better this time around?

Martyn Brown: I will always maintain that the transition was always going to be very difficult. Having said that, one or two minor issues aside, I think it went as well as we could reasonably expect. Looking back (and in particular with W4 in front of me) I can see what people were saying and we've gone a long way to addressing some of the issues people had - I only wish we would have had a few more months to really balance Worms 3D.

In gameplay terms we've moved the balance of the game firmly back towards the strategic, added things so people can be sneaky and "dark-side" as well as fixing probably the most fundamental flaw in W3D, that of too many water deaths. This has been done by improving the technology to give larger worlds with an underlying beach material. The difference to the game is immense.

Visually things are much better and feature-customisation has gone through the sky. We've listened closely to what people have said about the interface and controls and done what we can to make it a friendly, easier experience this time around. It's basically better in each and every department by a considerable distance.

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Eurogamer: Is there not a place in modern gaming for 2D games? Are publishers really that resistant to them? Why, especially when a game - like Worms - has consistently sold well in that form? What about a compromise where you design the game with a flexible enough camera system that you leave it up to the user what viewpoint they use so that everyone's happy? Or maybe a picture-in-picture so the gameplay is ostensibly still 2D, but you see the results of your actions in 3D?

Martyn Brown: I'm sure there is still a place for 2d games. I think publishers have to get over the thought that gamers (and the mass market) see them as "old fashioned". I think anyone who's played Advance Wars will know that 2D games are here to stay. Would being in 3D make any difference? Advance Wars is a great example since it's a 2D, turn-based game (similar in that respect to Worms) and people love it and cherish it. It's a question of content, not dimension, surely.

However, a dose of reality is given once more with a cursory check of the game chart. NFSU2, Spider-Man, Shrek, FIFA etc. Until that changes, publishing considerations are likely to continue as they are and anything off this well beaten track will remain a huge unlikely to be green-lighted risk.

Eurogamer: What original games coming out this year have piqued your interest? Which ones will actually sell do you think?

Martyn Brown: To be honest I've had my head way too deep in our own affairs to notice what's been going on elsewhere. I'm keen to see some of the new DS stuff and I'm pleased that something like Mercury [on PSP] is getting attention - but then I like the feeling there is about the PSP and the opportunity to appeal to a new market with new ideas - there's some pretty bold statements coming out of Sony. Come Christmas though, I wouldn't anticipate a different top ten to the last few years!

Eurogamer: You've urged people recently to "look at the charts" for proof that originality doesn't generally sell any more. But let's focus on why that might be: who or what is to blame for this state of affairs? Is it just that sequels and licensed games are what the public want?

Martyn Brown: I'm probably as passionate about things as the hardcore gamer. However, I'm right in the thick of it, discussing what publishers want and what we get a chance to prototype (let alone develop). You can't blame publishers for publishing what will sell - that is their sole reason for business. The side issue for us is that they are so positively focused on producing what will sell that anything seen as off this focus is risky and liable to failure (and in most cases they are probably right).

So who is to blame? I can assure you that developers would like to make new games, with new ideas, but the costs involved these days to develop a prototype/pilot are so prohibitive. It's not an easy situation to "fix" (if it's indeed broken) since to me it seems that the games market has "matured" into a similar commercial industry much like music and movies and much of what is going on has to be accepted as normal commercial business practice.

Eurogamer: Or is it that publishers are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby games are under-marketed on the basis that "it won't sell anyway". Maybe the marketing message just isn't effective enough at luring people in?

Martyn Brown: Publishers only have so much marketing energy and resources. These are generally saved for the big-hitters - to both broaden their market appeal and grow the value of the brand. Other titles are sometimes put out with limited marketing effort, which result in limited market success (we've been victims of this in our history, particularly in the USA).

The only time (to date) that I believe a Worms title was marketed successfully (and against all odds, I might add) was when the original title was backed by a massive marketing budget back in 1995 with Ocean Software. The money was spent getting people to play and enjoy the game, which I don't think is always true of today's campaigns.

But for that to happen, we had a publisher that was 100 per cent behind the game and my experience of late is that it's tough to find that in a publisher. However, we've been positively surprised and encouraged by Codemasters' stance behind Worms 4 - there's nothing better than a publisher really getting behind you. We've just not felt it in a while, but that might be something to do with us owning the rights to the IP.

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Eurogamer: What about the role retailers play? Aren't their decisions also vital in making or breaking a game? If retailer X decides to hide a promising unknown at the back of the store and orders one copy, again, isn't that a massive problem to overcome?

Martyn Brown: Lets be fair here. The retailer is in it for one reason and one reason only: to sell units of games. I know there are some great independents knocking about who have gameplay quality vested in their hearts (I know, I once worked as a game store manager in the mid-80's) but the business is all about selling games and making a profit.

I don't think the solution has anything to do with retail, although they became very powerful in recent years and massively effect ship-outs and sell through, as well as "sale or return" which has seen massive shipments of games going in, being piled high and then sold off cheap rather than returned. This has undervalued games software massively and how many times do you see something that's only been out a few weeks discounted by 30-60 per cent?

It's also interesting to note that of the "cake" (the money from the game sale) retailers make on average about three times that of developers from the same sale. And that's just the ones who do one-off sales, not the places that buy-back and re-sell the games, which is another developer-angst issue too (since developers only get the one bite at the cake, not subsequent ones!).

Eurogamer: Are the games press as effective as they used to be at hyping up game? Very few of the games-buying public seem to buy magazines, and it seems that a large amount of what you see in magazines is tied into advertising deals anyway. Very little appears to be down to the personal preferences of the individual writers unlike in the "good old days". In such a commercially-led environment, what chance of a brand new idea or brand making the headlines without a huge publisher with its huge marketing spend pushing it first?

Martyn Brown: I think that a lot of the games press are fairly tired by the relentless amount of sequels coming on the market, especially after having seen so many titles over the years. If anything is new and cool then it's a great place to get some promotion, but it's still difficult to make in-roads into the wider mass market since the majority of that market doesn't read it, but takes notice of marketing instead.

At the end of the day, everyone has responsibilities and influences. Many of the press get behind the big titles because that's what people want to read about - but in that respect it's no different to music/film/fashion etc.

Eurogamer: Do you agree that the freedom of the internet is the last hope for original games, both through their publicity and distribution? What would you do if you were forced to make original games - how would you advise going about it?

Martyn Brown: I certainly think it's an option and one that's becoming closer and closer to being an established platform for PC releases in particular. The hardware vendors are looking at online for the future and online distribution of content - it's going to happen. Making the market aware is going to be just as tough as ever - and hopefully that will come down to game quality - but the upshot of this kind of market is that new ideas and new material will certainly be more acceptable.

We'd like to thank Martyn Brown for taking the time to answer our questions. Team 17's next game, Worms 4: Mayhem, is due out on PS2, Xbox and PC in Q2 2005 and you can read more about it here.

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