Debbie Bestwick has been in the games business for 31 years, and she has known nothing else. Starting with her first job in a game store in the United Kingdom, she stayed put and grew up with gaming. As CEO of game publisher and developer Team17, she is one of the veterans of gaming.
That’s why it was interesting to hear her talk at the Gamelab event in Barcelona about the roller coaster journey she has been on at Team17, which rocketed to stardom as the publisher of the Worms franchise.
She had to deal with sudden success and a golden era where the company could do no wrong to a period where it became overreliant on a single game. Then, she had to make wrenching changes to the business, deal with 10 publishers over 14 years or so, take over as leader, go public, and finally climb out of a rut.
I interviewed her about her talk and extracted some of her wisdom about being in the games industry for so long. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: It was a good talk. I wondered if you skipped any of the roller coaster parts.
Debbie Bestwick: Thirty-one years, right? We had a roller coaster journey. I do say, there was always a number of things, but I won’t — it’s history. We learned from that experience, and it made us stronger. I always view our journey as — it’s an experience. You learn and you step up. You go on the stage again. We have worked with a lot of publishers.
GamesBeat: That sounded like a nightmare. At least 10, you said?
Bestwick: Yeah, 10 over about 13 [to] 14 years. What I say to people, when you’re an independent company and you’re trying to build, sustainability is fundamental to creativity. You don’t want to worry about where paychecks are coming from for your team.
GamesBeat: It sounded like, at the beginning, you were thrown together by a sort of happenstance. You weren’t chosen partners in this.
Bestwick: Again, the hard thing is, you can only spend a few seconds on each part when you’re talking about so much. I came from a retail background. If people don’t know what the shareware world was like back in the ‘80s, it’s tough to explain. You’re talking about public domain. There was no Internet. Games creators weren’t creating games, they were creating demos. We were working with incredible talent.
The way we were, we owned Microbyte, which was a retail chain, and we owned 17-Bit Software, which was the public domain side. You had the retail outlet chain, and you had access to creativity. Why not start a publisher? It was the logical step. You’ve also got the distribution outlets, our retail stores. To give you an idea, in the U.K., we had one the biggest chains of independent retailers. It was part of the foundation of Game, which in the U.K. is quite a large chain.
In the early ‘90s, games cost significantly less than they do today. ROIs and break-evens — we could do that in our retail stores. It was almost like having your own app store, in a very small way. We were incredibly close. It was bringing the two areas together that formed Team17.
GamesBeat: It sounded like you had the right sort of people together.
Bestwick: Absolutely. Where we lost our way a bit — this is a lesson for a lot of people. You probably see this more than I did. A game is successful, and the team keeps on trying to make new IP and it fails. The cost of investment that goes into this is phenomenal. The damage it does to studio morale and all that side — where it was hard for me in particular was between 1990 and 1994. We launched more than 20 games. Every game we launched over here in Europe, where the Amiga scene was huge, hit number two or number one. We didn’t know what failure was. Every single game — Alien Breed, Project-X, Superfrog.
GamesBeat: A golden age.
Bestwick: We had huge success. We shared publisher of the year with Electronic Arts in 1993. We had more than 50 percent of the Amiga market. That’s phenomenal.
What I found difficult was when Worms launched. Huge, overnight success. We had twice as much press coverage that year as Tomb Raider and FIFA. Put that in perspective. That changed us completely. Changed everything about the culture and the business that we were. In part it’s because you’re approached from so many directions for so many opportunities. We were very young, all in our early 20s at that point. We lost a part of why we [built] this company, who we were, and we became this company that created nothing but Worms for almost a decade.
Remember, in that first four years, we made more than 20 games. Then, this changed us. It’s what happens when you have this huge success. Where I come from today is, we just didn’t know how to manage that success.
GamesBeat: In some ways, it’s an enviable problem.
Bestwick: It is. It’s not negative. I always say it’s a good problem to have. But what would have been really cool — if we’d been older, wiser, smarter at that point — we could have had both. We could have retained those new IPs we were bringing through working with those great creators. Epic, Housemarque. We could have continued like that. Instead, we didn’t know how to deal with it. We turned into a developer, a complete developer, on milestones.
Usually, you start out on milestones, and you work your way up to self-publishing today. We’d gone from having full financial control, full creative freedom, funding ourselves — don’t forget, also, we’re talking about the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Low risk for publishers at that time. They didn’t want to talk about new IP. They wanted a guaranteed seller. Every version of Worms sold more than a million units, minimum.
GamesBeat: It seems to coincide with the period of time when all these publishers got their bad reputations.
Bestwick: We all have experiences. We all have our horror stories. But we also have good stories. Ubisoft was a fabulous partner for us and Sega Europe as well. Our timing, though — we resigned with Acclaim, and nine months later, they went bankrupt. THQ, after a couple of years of great success, they got themselves into trouble. Publishers that we went to work with were sold.
Don’t forget, we had huge consolidation in the late ‘90s. Infogrames acquired a lot of companies — and others too. You sign a game with a publisher, and if they’re sold, all of a sudden, the other publisher says, “Well, this isn’t really our thing.” You’re in the mix of decisions. We lost our ability to control that. That, in part, shaped exactly what we’ve now managed to create and build.
GamesBeat: It sounds like it took years to extract yourselves from the problems you got into.
Bestwick: You’re trapped. You talk to developers that survive on milestones. You live milestone to milestone. It’s painful. If you’re super successful and your games sell phenomenally well and you recoup out quickly, it’s a good world. But how many games do that? You’ve heard the stories where developers never recoup out and never earn royalties. We were fortunate. We did. But you’re living in the world of milestone payments in terms of your business.
GamesBeat: You identified the problem and put this plan in place, but it took a long time.
Bestwick: It had to change. Like I say, 2009 was — I was a minority shareholder. I had no control over the decisions of the business. In 2009, life had to change. Couldn’t keep doing it. It can be soul-destroying when you’re trying to build going forward. Let’s not forget, we were still in the world of boxes at that point. We didn’t have digital. I tell developers today, “I know it’s hard. Visibility is hard. But it’s so much easier taking games to market today than what it was.” We didn’t have the Internet to start with, even. It was a very different world.
I’m growing as an individual all the time. I always tell people, I don’t think I started to grow up properly until about 2009. Now, it’s time to grow up, take responsibility, and do what needs doing. That was a turning point for me. I called it a coming of age. I think it was the time when I was ready. Up until that point, the only people who knew I even existed were publishers because I worked on the contracts and the commercial side.
My entire career has been this industry. When people go to university to study video games, that’s been my life, I guess. But I feel like I’ve grown up and matured. I now get what needs to be done, what’s really important. I’ve made decisions. I want to work with independent game creators. I want to help them. I want to teach where I can and mentor where I can as far as building sustainable studios. Teaching them to retain IP. You don’t need to sell.
GamesBeat: You have those lessons from the early days that are coming to be helpful.
Bestwick: A lot of lessons. A lot of wisdom.
GamesBeat: As far as where you want the company’s goals to be — or what is sustainable in the business today — what do you think that is?
Bestwick: We’ve achieved sustainability since about five years ago. I think it’s public. I’m not sure you can access the public documents from the states, but we’ve had good solid growth for a number of years now — and profitability. Team17 is in a very strong position financially. But also, we create our own games too. We own our own IP. They generate significant revenue. It allows us to do what we do.
People ask what we’re doing moving forward. Truthfully? More of exactly what we’re doing. I get asked about mergers and acquisitions all the time, and I say, “The right thing is right. Cultural fit, vision fit.” We’ll look at it. We’re in a fortunate position to look at those things. But we’re genuinely enjoying doing what we’re doing, working with great creators and helping them. We’re almost the supporting act. It’s a crazy situation. I get questions all the time. “I didn’t even know you were involved in Overcooked! I didn’t even know you were involved in Yooka-Laylee!”
The reality is we’re having the time of your lives making great games with great creators. We’re doing it our own way to a degree. Things are really good right now. I like the company more now and the way we’re doing this. When I see the success of games like Overcooked and The Escapists, it’s why we do this. It sounds crazy, but I was so proud the day Chris from The Escapists bought his parents a house. Changed his life. Oli DeVine and Phil Duncan from Overcooked, when they picked up their two [British Academy of Film and Television awards (BAFTAs)], I was like a proud parent watching them. This is good work.
I’m fortunate. I feel like I have the best job in the industry at the moment. We get to help bring through the next generation of games creators, but we’re also helping extremely experienced creators build businesses and studios.
GamesBeat: I talked to Ilkka Paananen from Supercell, and he talked about the same thing you mentioned, the demo scene, back in Helsinki.
Bestwick: Most of our games in the early ‘90s were made in Scandinavia. Alien Breed and Superfrog were all Sweden.
GamesBeat: They trace that heritage to why they’re successful today. There was a community that developed in Finland that long ago, and those people got good enough at what they were doing that today, they just stand out from lots of other people in the industry. These veteran companies in Finland have made it into an economic stronghold for games, and it all seems to logically fall into place from this source decades ago.
Bestwick: When you look at the markets that were around in the ‘80s — when people ask me about indie games today, I can tell them I was part of an indie world back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the demo scene and where that came from, the way people were creating games and getting those out. Those games were made in people’s bedrooms, in kitchens. People hanging out with their friends on dark nights and seeing what they could do with an Amiga or a PC. Sharing with people to see what everyone thought. It’s the way you learned.
We were insanely young. I was 17. It’s why I’m incredibly protective of the teams that we look after and mentor and try to share our experiences and knowledge, so they don’t make our mistakes. It was all about growing up. But coming from that — I touched on the retail experience I had. It’s very relevant today. People talk about games publishing today, it’s retail. You’re selling direct to the consumer. It’s a collection of a lot of experience from different worlds.
GamesBeat: Do you think the U.K. game scene is essentially [a] parallel story to places like Scandinavia?
Bestwick: We still have a way to go. Creatively, the U.K. — they have the tax credits now, right, the video games tax credit? It allows them to compete a lot better. The U.K. right now is absolutely booming. We’ve seen the likes of Frontier, Team17, Playground, Ninja Theory — it’s a hotbed. There are around 2,000 companies in the U.K. making games or involved in games. It’s never been so good as what it is right now.
It’s not just whether it’s similar to somewhere like Helsinki. It’s how it mirrors the rest of the world. We’ve seen two massive disruptors to our industry in the last decade or so. One is the introduction of middleware and the barriers to entry lowering. Anybody can make games now. We’re seeing people leave triple-A — and even come from unknown areas — who are able to make games that they simply would not have been able to make. We’re seeing a huge influx into the indie space.
The other thing is digital distribution. That’s radically changed the market for people like ourselves. Where we had to have publishers — it’s allowed us to improve our margins. Games creators get better revenues now because they’re handling their content better. It’s being distributed more widely. I just see a healthier market.
GamesBeat: When I look at some other countries here, like Italy or Spain, they don’t have the long stories to tell in games.
Bestwick: Give them time. The U.K. was quite a hotbed for the Amiga. So was Scandinavia. Germany was quite big as well. Italy, less so. Maybe it’s part of that culture. I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it that way. We’re an industry that’s still learning and growing.
GamesBeat: The barriers seem down now. Anybody can make a mobile game anywhere. But there’s still the question of whether you’ve been doing [it] for decades.
Bestwick: What we look at is, anybody can make a game. It’s making a great game that’s the hard part. That takes a lot. But also launching games now, it’s harder. You know all the stories about the app stores and Steam and everywhere else. It’s vitally important that the quality games — it’s why we only sign a few people every year. We only signed 1.5 percent of the games we looked at last year because the focus and the time and the energy that we have to put into these games, preparing them for launch and managing them over their life cycle — it takes a lot of time and a lot of hard work now. You want them to stand out.
GamesBeat: You have 106 people now. Is that down from previous peaks?
Bestwick: Three years ago, we only had 70. It’s growing. That’s just our internal team. We have more than a dozen studios around the world of all sizes. That’s a few hundred people, and we take very seriously our responsibility to them.
GamesBeat: Are there any big events that you see coming? Things like AR and VR or esports on the horizon. Does anything seem to be coming to change the industry again?
Bestwick: I don’t know whether it’s the time that I’ve been in games. Like I say, it’s my 31st year next year. But I have a very different way of looking at things. For me, the focus is all about the game, all about content. If you make great content, technology will change and distribution may change, but you focus on great content that will work across new technology and work across new distribution, new ways of taking games to market. Nothing is more important than the games that we make.
The next couple of years will be interesting in terms of what shifts come into the market, but what I try to do for our label partners is focus on sustainability. People bring VR games to me all the time. We’ve published one or two. But my job is to help studios become sustainable and retain IP. If I believe, commercially, they will get the right ROI for their team that allows them to continue by making a VR game, we’ll sign it. But it has to be commercially right for those teams.
GamesBeat: Not to make light of it, but it seems like there’s a movie script in this. You did everything to get ready for this moment.
Bestwick: When people look at the last few years and our success, we’ve won BAFTAs. We have multiple million-selling titles all over. I saw the E3 critic awards last night, and I was going down the list of the publishers. Two years running, we’ve had a couple of nominations for titles. When you look at the companies on that list, don’t forget, we’re three years old in this space. We may be 28 years old, but we’re really three years old.
I tell developers when I work with them, collectively, we’re stronger. We have our intellectual property. They have their IP. We’re under one umbrella together, collectively, and we’re looking out for each other. We’re doing this from our hearts in terms of ensuring things are being done in the right way.
GamesBeat: Do you worry about anything — like the size of your competitors now? Companies that were once peers are so much bigger.
Bestwick: I don’t. We’re on our journey. We’ll be where we want to be and where we will go. We’re very comfortable in what we do. We’re very honest. We’re very transparent about the way we’re trying to do this. I get asked all the time about being the next Activision or the next Ubisoft. Who knows? What I do know is, we’re having a great time. We’re working with great people. It’s a very prosperous business. It’s profitable.
We have a huge number of people working in the background. You hear me talking about the way we’re working with some of these creators. Most people would be shouting about it. But our partners are the story. When they’re successful — when people say Team17 is successful, it’s because of the number of titles where we’re doing this consistently. We’re focused on making great games.
Disclosure: The organizers of Gamelab paid my way to Barcelona. Our coverage remains objective.