I’ve often thought the games business has striking parallels with gambling. Somehow then it seemed appropriate that Northern Exposure, a one-day event organized by Game Horizon and Game Republic, two of England’s regional game agencies, was held at a racetrack. Maybe it was a throwback to the days when the big US game shows were held at Vegas.
Sadly however, York racecourse wasn’t also open for its usual horsetrading, so we couldn’t nip off to place a lunchtime bet on the 12.30. Instead, the assorted 160 developers, publisher, biz devers, academics and others rolled up, expectant in the title of the event: Exciting times for an evolving games industry.
Frankly it all sounded a little abstract. Thank goodness, then, for Team 17’s Martyn Brown (pictured). A typical straightup Yorkshire man (and one who proved he wasn’t averse to some real Northern Exposure later on in the evening either), the title of his talk was Global Worming.
The pun of words refers, of course, to Team 17’s perennial Worms game, which has sold 14 million copies in 12 years. Not bad going, but it was the future sales Brown was most interested in. Having self-published a version of the game on Xbox Live Arcade in March, he provided some impressive business figures, using Team 17's internal data and sales estimations using MyGamerCard.net and other methods:
- The game cost $140,000 to develop.
- As a self published project, Team 17 had a 70 percent royalty deal with Microsoft.
- The game costs 800 Microsoft points ($10) to buy.
- It broke even on launch day.
- In the two months since, the game trial has been downloaded 600,000 times.
- There have been 200,000 sales, Team 17 believes.
Now, doing the math on those numbers suggests that in two months, Team 17 has grossed $1.4 million in sales, and has made $1.26 million in profit. Equally impressive, a third of players who tried the game demo have gone on to buy the game; a far cry from the typical sub 1 percent conversion rate experienced by casual PC portals. Worms also sold at least 20,000 copies of the game on launch day. Indeed, Brown went on to say it’s currently one of the top five most played games on Xbox Live.
And maybe, in hindsight, that’s the most significant fact. While there’s plenty of talk about the potential of downloadable games - pretty much every developer I’ve spoken to in the past 12 months has got over-enthusiastic that finally they can break out their own special project on the back of Xbox Live Arcade or the PlayStation Store.
But the more you look into the mechanics of the business, the more it seems to settle down into something akin to the retail market. If you’re not a brand, whether as a game title, as a developer, or have the backing of a publisher, I think it remains a hard market to break into.
In fact, in many ways the success of Worms may be the worst thing for independent developers to base a business on, as Worms is perhaps the most successful game IP to stilll be owned by its original creator.
So the moral of the story is, if you own the rights to a game like Worms (which, lets’s face it, has already sold 14 million copies), Xbox Live Arcade is a dream come true. Everyone else better keep dreaming.
In a sense, Brown’s talk retrospectively highlights a point made by Northern Exposure’s keynote speaker, Hugh Mason, from creative services firm Pembridge Partners.
“The closer you are to the money, the bigger the cut you get,” he said, and in terms of the likes of Xbox Live Arcade, it certainly helps that developers (and publishers) don’t have to deal with retailers, distributors, disk manufacturers and the other mysterious companies assorted with the physical goods business. In that sense, there’s more money to go around, so Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo can be more generous when it comes to sharing out the dough.
However, Mason - who, incidentally, has a TV background, and hence isn’t a games expert by any means - also warned that if you’re replacing the publisher, you have to replace all the things a publisher does too.
In the case of Worms, this replacement theory wasn’t too onerous, as it’s a brand most people know about, so Team 17 didn’t have to do much marketing or publicity. Equally, with it being a small download console game, there’s little need to deal with support issues or help lines, all of which might become important outside of the Microsoft’s walled garden.
Mason’s final point of significance was that in this interlinked, cross-media, globalised world, if you want to be an intellectual property-based company then the game doesn’t matter. Potentially it’s a radical point, but what I think he was saying that if you want to be a IP-based company, the game matters less than the IP.
It doesn’t mean that the game doesn’t matter at all, but if the thing that matters most to your company is the Metacritic score your latest opus is going to get, then you’re not in the business of IP, you’re in the business of game development.
And if that’s the case, don’t fool yourself. Even in these downloadable days - especially in the downloadable days - don’t gamble away your future. Go find a nice publishing partner.
[Jon Jordan is a freelance games journalist and photographer, based in Manchester, UK. He’s spent all week betting on IP... well, randomly putting numbers into the IP address of his misaligned broadband router.]