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Develop 2009: Team17’s Brown Talks Challenges Of Self-Publishing Online

Team 17 (Worms) co-founder Martyn Brown summed up his philosophy for success in digital distribution as “right product, right place, right time,” detailing positives and pitfalls at his Develop talk.
How does one succeed in the digital distribution marketplace? "Right product, right place, right time," says Martyn Brown, co-founder of Worms and Alien Breed developer Team 17. But there are numerous pitfalls possible when self-publishing online, warned Brown in an address at the Develop conference in Brighton, UK. For example, Xbox Live is designed for the mass market -- but it's a closed system limited by Microsoft's aims for its online portfolio, said Brown. Still, Xbox Live might be a better location for developers than Apple's App Store, which is swamped with titles. If developers want to make a name for themselves on Live Arcade, PlayStation Network or any other online service, Brown said the key is to have realistic expectations. "The top ten on Live Arcade is dominated by games which are either a known IP or very high quality, and there’s not really space for ‘me too’ products," he said. "Of course, when it comes down to it, the audience isn’t looking for new, unknown products either!" But in aiming for the correct audience, developers must not limit themselves, Brown warned. Unlike most other small developers, Team17 owns all of the IP it created in its 19-year history, including Worms, something that has "put it in a very good position for self-publishing online." While ownership is no requirement, being sure of IP rights is essential, Brown cautioned. "Licensing your IP is a possibility, and if you really don’t think you’re going to grow your IP, there may be no reason to own it," he said. "But still, if your game is a huge success and you don’t own it, you’re going to feel stung. The most important thing is to talk to a good IP lawyer before you make any deals." Additionally, developers shouldn't be quick to sign on for exclusivity, said Brown. "We’re platform agnostic," he said, "and when we’ve decided to provide exclusivity it’s been when we thought the positives outweighed the negative." "When we launched Worms on Xbox Live, for example, we received a lot of promotion from Microsoft on the dashboard, and that kind of thing is very hard to get without exclusivity," he said. But once the deals have been signed, there are a lot of special considerations in a closed system -- developers can't cut corners just because they're online. "Use quality testing houses and do a lot of usability testing," he advised. "When it comes to certification, you can expect it to take a few months, and it can take a year if you make mistakes -- if you don’t have a contingency plan in this kind of situation, you can be screwed." Indeed, this was a pitfall that Team 17 had fallen into -- Brown said Team 17 expected Worms on XBLA to take three months to certify, and it actually took nine. "You need to understand this," he sid, "and if you aren’t personally prepared for it you’re going to want to hire a producer who is familiar with this and lived through it, because they’ll be invaluable." Rely on others when unfamiliar with something, concluded Brown. "Publishing is not easy," he said. "It requires a wide variety of skills and understanding of localization, financing, public relations, legal issues... If you don’t know something, get someone who does, because you will not be able to wing it."

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