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Video Game History 101: Martyn Brown

We continue our series of interviews with the head of  Team 17, Martyn Brown.

Team 17 are a well known development house throughout the UK and gained notoriety throughout the world with the multi-platform storming Worms series.  What many don’t know are the origins of this Osset in West Yorkshire based developer.  These guys do a lot more than make comically entertaining games about monomaniacal non-arthropod invertebrates (aka worms to you and me).  There was a time that every title birthed from the offices of Team 17 would set the Amiga games community a blaze.  Still gloriously independent after 19 years we sit down with founder and studio head Martyn Brown to discuss what has changed over the years and look forward to todays release of the amazing looking Alien Breed reboot, Alien Breed Evolution.mb_colour

Please tell us about who you are and what you now do.
I’m Martyn Brown and am studio head at Team17, I run the studio and also do business development for the company.

What made you interested in Video Games in the first place?
I think I was around 8 when I first clapped eyes on a home entertainment system, the stuff with Pong etc. I just found it all very magical, I was always keen on gaming (board games) when I was young and just got enthralled with the idea of video games.

You started out in Public Domain (PD) software as 17-Bit. What made you form Team 17-n (for the Codemasters published Miami Chase) and thus Team 17 (for Full Contact & beyond)?
Actually “Team7-N” were Andreas Tadic, Pete Tuleby and Rico Holmes. These guys I’d brought together whilst at 17Bit, I helped them in the early days and Codies picked up that game. After that, Team17 (the 17Bit team) was formed and the guys made games under that label and worked with us for many years.

The fantastic Qwak!

Where did you take your influences and reference points from to inspire your output?
In the early days, we wanted to visit most of the popular genres and create an Amiga related Team17 spin on them. I think we managed that pretty well looking back. It was mainly core arcade titles of the day.

What were the greatest challenges for you during the early years?
Everything was a little ad-hoc and we learned as we went on, so there were a lot of challenges. It’s hard to think that back in the early 90’s there was no real Internet or email so it was quite cumbersome communicating and sending new versions over the modem for example. We were also learning a lot about retail distribution, marketing, PR, all of it.

Did working with limited hardware make things harder or more simplistic from a design point of view?
Working with defined hardware actually makes it easier in a way in that it forces certain limitations & design considerations. The memory was a little bit of a limitation on what you could do, but at least it was a level playing field with everyone else.

Video games are now big business, but was it hard to get taken seriously as a producer of interactive entertainment when dealing with investors at the start?
We have never worked with outside investors, but we are aware of how difficult it is. I never thought there would be so much open opportunity as there is now with devices such as the iPhone – for many years the industry was pretty much a closed shop.

Which of your previous productions are you most proud of?
I’m proud of quite a few. Key ones include Full Contact (first game on a shelf), Alien Breed Special Edition (33 weeks at No.1), Superfrog, Project-X, Body Blows, Arcade Pool, Worms… All for various different reasons. The original Worms being no.1 on the all formats chart (above Fifa, Tomb Raider) was pretty cool. The recent digital success (XBLA, iPhone) has been great too.

If you could go back and repair one thing from any one of your games what would it be and to which title?

Wow, during working with 3rd party publishers, it was always a struggle to get everything we wanted into our games. I’d imagine I’d go back and put the online mode into the Wii version of Worms we released with THQ, as they’d told us to pull it out because they didn’t think they could test it in time – which was galling. Fortunately we’ve done a new game with online in it which will sell through wii-ware.

You guys initially self-published if I remember correctly. With this in mind do you find it more frustrating when certain situations, for example the issue with THQ over Worms online play, rear their heads? Or is it just a godsend not to have to deal with the angst and tribulations of physical distribution?

The lack of physical media and the fact that we can publish without reliance on huge marketing spends means it’s a lot more straight forward. It means we have full control too.

Alien Breed 3D on the Amiga 1200
Alien Breed 3D on the Amiga 1200

What are your thoughts on the videogame industry as we see it now? How has production changed?

We’ve seen an incredible number of changes in the last 19-20 years. I’m a huge advocate of digital delivery and the wide range of formats (next gen, handheld, smart phones) means that we’re not always talking about huge AAA blockbusters but simple casual titles too. I think there’s an “everything’s possible” mentality now which is a great position to be in after a very formulaic decade for many.

Would you say progress has been for the best now we have teams with tens, some times hundreds of people working on a title?
Those huge teams only make sense on 15-20 titles a year and it’s not an area I’m personally interested in. I prefer smaller titles with closer teams. Those huge projects are a nightmare to run, fund and present massive risk – it’s more akin to a movie production.

The “Indie” scene is a new buzz word but is more of a resurgence than a new thing. The early Team 17 guys like Rico Holmes, Rico Holmes and Adreas Tadic came from this very scene. Worms would never have been created without bedroom coders like Andy Davidson. Would you like to see an element of the “underground” nature return to gaming? Is it still relevant?
I think it has, the iPhone has demonstrated this. Before iPhone, it was very difficult for these guys to break through. I think the Amiga was the last serious platform that these groups could effectively operate on an equal playing field, so I very much welcome it – it’s brought renewed energy and charisma to the industry.
Do you think, with the advent of digital distribution, that new star-ups have it easier to get their material out to the public? Or is this counter-balanced by the fact that the market is much more crowded and competitive now?

Absolutely, with the iPhone the most obvious destination, but with SO MUCH content, it’s very hard getting noticed.

You seem a big fan of bite-sized gaming, do you see it as viable marketplace long term? Being the proud owner of a PSP-Go could we be seeing some PSP Mini content from you & the team at some future point?

I think the bite-sized gaming thing comes from my age/situation where I just don’t have the opportunity for long spells. I’ve noticed it with others of my generation too, people brought up playing video games who have busy lives, families and still want to play, so do that on the move or in smaller chunks. I think this area of the market will explode. Yes, you can expect small playable chunks from us.

What existing game, apart from one of your own, do you wish you had made?
Oh there’s quite a lot really, I wouldn’t know where to start. We’ve been lucky enough to have a couple of real cult hits globally so I wouldn’t want to appear greedy.

Who, with in the industry, do you respect and wish you had/hope to work with?
Probably Sid Mier.

Do you still play games now? If so what genres and what titles excite you most? What are you looking forward to in the next 3 – 6 months?
I play a lot of games, I just don’t really get a lot of time to play them through, so usually just tinker with them. It’s why I like small download titles. I’ve got a huge amount of games waiting to be played at home, so many that I tend to ignore them and go back to other games! I recently got Fifa10, Dirt2, GH5 and Beatles Rock Band (I love Rock Band) and a PSP-GO so I’m messing with that as well as playing stuff like Flight Control, Orbital on the iPhone.

The original Alien Breed title
The original Alien Breed title

What are your top 5 Rockband tracks? I reviewed The Beatles: Rockband a few weeks ago and placed it as the ultimate band-game experience, would you agree?

Freebird (although that’s a GH track, bit of a cheat) is my all time favourite. I pretty much like a lot of stuff other than punk/grunge so I really don’t mind what I play. In terms of Beatles Rock Band, the jury’s out. I love the music (and especially the presentation) but I find the music hard to really ‘feel’ on the guitar since much of it relies on harmonies. It might be better played in a group, which I haven’t had chance to do yet.

What advice would you give to anyone looking to get in to the industry and work in your field of experience?
Be driven, pro-active and ready to learn. Don’t assume anything.

What projects are you currently working on and when do you envisage we will see them come to fruition?
Unfortunately I can’t reveal too much. We’re just about finished with the new Alien Breed though!
Do you view the new Alien Breed game as an remake, update or reboot to the franchise? Is there any chance of a top notch intro movie by Tobias Richter again?

Actually I spoke to Tobias only recently, but there’s no involvement. It’s a total remake/reboot for a new audience & new market.

Finally, on a personal note. Please remake Superfrog and Qwak! Preferably for a handheld but I will take anything! I would of asked for Alien Breed already but you already have that one covered.
We’ve been asked about Superfrog quite a lot. Jamie remade Qwak! For PC/GBA have a google for it.

The grogeous 2009 reinvention of the Alien Breed franchise
The grogeous 2009 reinvention of the Alien Breed franchise

And there you have it.  Martyn was a great chap to talk with and Team 17’s latest entrant in the gaming market seems to be garnering positive comments throughout so look forward to our review as soon as possible.  The feature will now take a break until after teh holiday season when we will return with interview with Andrew Oliver (One 1/2 of the Oliver Twins), Jon Hare (of Sensible Software fame), David Braben and more.

About Zeth

Zeth is our EU Senior Editor and has been writing about video games since he joined BG back in 2008. He's pretty old and has been a gamer since he played Space Invaders as a young boy in the 80's. His genre tastes lean towards platformers, point-and-click adventure, action-adventure and shooters but he'll turn his hand to anything.

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