Take-Two's Private Division sees 'industry, somewhat sadly, falling prey to sequel-itis'

Michael Worosz, head of Private Division, explains how devs can pursue creative firepower and get away from org charts.

Success breeds success breeds… burnout? That’s not always the case, but it certainly has happened to a number of veteran game developers who’ve been asked to make sequel after sequel for big name franchises. Publishers have to answer to their shareholders, and making yet another Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty makes good fiscal sense. Known entities are lower risk than new IP, but developers aren’t suits; they’re creatives who want to explore their ideas without the shackles of shareholders. Ironically, a group of developers may be given that freedom by a company that’s very much beholden to the market: Take-Two Interactive.

Take-Two’s new label, Private Division, started to make its presence known late last year, but it’s already signed deals with triple-A veterans like Patrice Desilets, David Goldfarb and Ben Cousins (The Outsiders), Obsidian Entertainment and others. Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick acknowledged that Private Division will help bolster the publisher’s portfolio but the genesis of the idea goes far beyond that. Private Division boss Michael Worosz sat down with me at E3 2018 and talked about how he saw a unique opportunity to help veteran creatives who were growing weary of the triple-A lifestyle.

“We saw very veteran creative developers who were leaving the bigger shops, and they had sort of built their careers working on someone else's idea, someone else's IP,” he began. “They gleaned experience and they worked with people for many years. They wanted to get out of that, and do something more entrepreneurial, working against their own idea. And hang their shingle, build their own shop, and they were bringing their teams with them. We saw a couple of these opportunities, one after another really, and we said to ourselves, 'We think there's an opportunity for us to do publishing in this space.' These are people who want to get away from managing 400-person teams and five-year development cycles.”

When you're writing a bigger and bigger check for the next game, you gain a little bit more confidence on the risks you're taking if the previous IP has done well. At the same time, it comes at the expense of planting new seeds. We're constantly harvesting instead of planting.

Ken Levine of BioShock fame is not working with Private Division, but Worosz did note that his team was even inspired internally somewhat by seeing what Levine decided to pursue with his new post-Irrational venture called Ghost Story Games. “[Ken’s] working on a new IP after he wanted to get away from BioShock which is a very big endeavor,” Worosz said.

Patrice Desilets, who is best known for creating the Assassin’s Creed franchise, is perhaps the most famous example of this phenomenon. He ultimately went on to found his new studio Panache Digital Games so he could work on an interesting new property called Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, which deals with human evolution.

“Patrice was on a massive team at Ubisoft. He was doing org charts, instead of using his creative firepower,” Worosz said. “One after another, we saw these opportunities. Then we asked ourselves, 'Well, within Take-Two, what's the best home for these projects?' Rockstar generally works on their own ideas, their own IP. 2K does third-party publishing deals on occasion, but a game needs to be able to start half their size to make the math work from an ROI standpoint, just by virtue of their overhead, and the opportunities they want to put their bets on any given year.

“Yet, these are great ideas that are flung by the wayside when it comes to within the four walls of our company. How do we pursue those? And that gave rise to, let's build a publishing team squarely focused on this opportunity, where we're working with veteran creatives who've been there, done that, we can obviate some of the risks by virtue of their experience. It's not like we're funding a new team, this is not their first rodeo. In stark comparison, these people are all proven. They've made games like Halo, Assassin's Creed, and Fallout.”

Goldfarb, who has a long history in triple-A at companies like Starbreeze, DICE, Guerilla Games and others, admitted to me in 2015 that he was burnt out. Even then, he saw the potential in a mid-tier that Private Division is now exploring.

"I do think there's a spot between the $100-$200 million dollar AAA games and the $1 million indie games that is not being adequately explored. To me that's a really rich field to plow and you can do awesome stuff there," he said at the time.

And that’s precisely the idea, Worosz explained. Private Division is aiming to find that ground between $100 million budgets and the two-person teams that are funded on Kickstarter. Frankly, apart from market opportunities, it’s an endeavor that can leverage some of the best creatives in the business, and that can only be a good thing for an industry that “somewhat sadly, is falling prey to sequel-itis,” said Worosz.

“When you're writing a bigger and bigger check for the next game, the next iteration, you gain a little bit more confidence on the risks you're taking if the previous IP has done well. At the same time, it comes at the expense of planting new seeds. We're constantly harvesting instead of planting,” Worosz observed.

Worosz noted that Private Division isn’t some small, experimental initiative for Take-Two but “represents a really significant investment by the company.” There are already four games underway (that have been announced so far) and Private Division acquired the Kerbal Space Program IP, “which has been great because we have cash flows and profit coming in the door to help fund our publishing overhead, and pursue new opportunities, but also we love that IP. We think that we can take it to the next level with things we'll do with it in the future.”

While Take-Two now operates Kerbal Space Program, Worosz made it clear that the developers Private Division works with will maintain their IP rights. That said, Private Division keeps long-term rights to publish sequels. “If we have a good experience in the first game, we like working together, we created a successful hit, it would probably work in our favor that you came back to us,” Worosz said.

In analyzing which developers to work with, Worosz said that Private Division is definitely leaning towards the veterans who’ve already shown their pedigree, but he wants to empower them with the full weight of Take-Two’s resources.

“We'll look at the broader market, what's interesting. We'll start with the former. The market is a data point. And then we'll do analysis against what we think this thing can do from a P&L standpoint,” he remarked.

“But in terms of our sources, we're super well connected to the industry. We have a team composed of producers, and marketers and QA personnel. We've set up Private Division where anybody in the organization, if they're connected to someone who has an idea that wants to get a game made, we'll bring them into the funnel. We'll evaluate it, and we'll see if it has merit. Anybody can really source a deal, so we have lots of eyes and ears on the ground, sourcing new opportunities on our behalf.”

Worosz was reticent to define an exact budget range for the titles Private Division will work on with these veteran developers. And while they clearly won’t be $100 million projects, his team isn’t necessarily compelled to stop at $1 million either. “Take-Two is not capital constrained. We'll pursue the idea if we have conviction behind the team and the idea itself, and we think we can make a profitable release from it,” he noted.

“The promises we're making to our developers is we're going to do a kick ass job on your game, and we're going to bring your baby to market, and hopefully achieve success together,” Worosz continued. “If our organization is not sufficiently staffed to realize that ambition, then we've fallen down on the promise we made from the very beginning of that conversation with a developer. At this point, we think that we, ourselves, are growing the organization bit by bit. So far so good, but if and as we release profitable, creatively successful games on the market, we'll grow the organization. We don't need to make a 150-person publishing team, but we're not going to be constrained either based on just trying to keep the team lean.”

When we think about our games, we think that it's eminently achievable, we can hit high production values, and give gamers a satisfying experience but perhaps it doesn't take a 100 hours of their lives to get through the experience.

Of course, Take-Two is not the first triple-A publisher that has gone after the indie market. Electronic Arts has published some great titles (like Unravel) under its EA Originals program and Ubisoft, too, has experimented with smaller projects like Valiant Hearts.

“Obviously, our budgets and our endeavors, they're bigger and more ambitious,” Worosz said, referring to other publishers’ indie efforts. “We're really putting the full resources of the company behind this. We've recruited a dedicated team… It's strategically significant for the company, so we're all in on this in ways, I think, other publishers probably haven't been to this point.”

When developers work on major franchises under the triple-A umbrella they inevitably are asked to do things that might be outside their comfort zone, whether that’s loot boxes, games-as-a-service monetization, or anything else to enhance a publisher’s bottom line. Working with Private Division, however, means that developers will have autonomy and creative freedom.

“We're not going to force anything,” Worosz said, “And some of the developments we've seen from E3 this week, including very respected RPG franchises that are doing online modes, you know certain types, certain number of games won't include any online component. They'll feature traditional DLC, and they'll be really heavily focused on single-player experience. We think that's great for our games, because there certainly is a market for that, and we're going to go after it.”

With rising budgets and rising expectations from gamers, the mid-tier is a bit of an endangered species. Even calling it mid-tier is something that Worosz is not thrilled with because “it connotes a game of certain mixed quality,” but he also sees how hard the triple-A space has become for anyone but a handful of studios.

“I think that to compete in the arms race that is super, high fidelity, open world endless choice, there's only a few studios who can pull that off,” Worosz commented. “CD Projekt seems to be on another path with their new game. Certainly our own team at Rockstar is really defined in that category, and they'll achieve it with Red Dead 2. We're not obviously in that arms race. We're a different proposition. When we think about our games, we think that it's eminently achievable, we can hit high production values, and give gamers a satisfying experience but perhaps it doesn't take a 100 hours of their lives to get through the experience.

“You can give someone a really compelling interactive entertainment experience that might take them 12, 15 hours, and at the end of the day they completed it, they feel really good about it, they're ready for the next iteration, or a piece of DLC. So, a lot of times what we think about is given the myriad number of distractions we all have for anything in this world, including demands on our time from different content, can you get somebody a really satisfying experience, deliver high production values on a budget, and set up a new IP for the future?”

Desilets’ Ancestors might be the first new IP to lead the charge for Private Division. Worosz said 2019 should be when we start to see his team’s work bear fruit. And Desilets is chomping at the bit.

“Patrice’s creative firepower kind of like shines through, and he can't help himself sometimes, and he wants to get out there. He's one of his own best marketers,” Worosz said. “He's obviously shared some stuff on that. We've gone quiet a little bit since, but there'll be a lot more details about the game towards the end of the calendar year.”

A game that deals with human evolution is exactly the kind of fresh experience that the industry needs, Worosz noted:

“You can certainly make that into a compelling piece of entertainment. I think he's done that, and we're sort of reflecting back on the press conferences of what we've seen so far at E3. There's a lot of post apocalyptic zombie games. There's a bunch of samurai games. There's lots of guns. Some of ours games don't contain any of those elements, and that feels really good. It's fresh.”

Editor-in-Chief

James has been covering the games industry since the early 2000s and was most recently the editor of GamesIndustry.biz. He loves Zelda, Metroidvania-style games, action adventure and single-player narratives. He's also the proud father of twin boys and is obsessed with good coffee and Yankees baseball. You can reach him @bright_pixels on Twitter or you can email him at james.brightman@gamedaily.biz.