Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Interview: Zen Studios' managing director on saving pinball, Star Wars, and more to come

Zen Studios is basically doing everything right in the market. It's the forefront developer and publisher of videogame pinball titles, and so has been heralded as something of a saviour for the entire pinball industry.

And at the helm of Zen Studios is a businessman, not someone who has come from the games industry. Zsolt Kigyossy, the Managing Director of Zen Studios, comes from a pharmaceutical background. And yet through shred business decisions and a commitment to quality he's built a company that has a lucrative relationship with the largest entertainment company in the world, Disney, and now enjoys a robust community across all platforms.

Kigyossy took the time to sit down and have a chat with us around Zen Studios - what inspired the desire to go after the pinball market ("no one else was"), its strict quality control practices ("we drop game projects that are just not working") and why he got involved in the games industry in the first place ("It's more fun than selling drugs!").

Joking aside, I think the games industry can learn a lot from watching what Kigyossy does. Zen Studios might not be the size of, say, Activision, but considering hid background; Kigyossy knows exactly what happens to a company in terms of reputational damage when a company releases a bad product. In his previous career releasing a product to a negative wave of publicity can destroy a company. You know what? That's happening in the games industry now too.

Digitally Downloaded (DD): Congratulations on the massive success of Zen Pinball. How do you see the franchise evolving from here?
Zsolt Kigyossy (ZK): Thank you for your kind words! The franchise is strong with a very active community, so for us, we have a lot of work to do! The game will continue to evolve with new features and exciting ways to play, as well as new brands and content that certainly have me very excited, hopefully players will be as well.

DD: What inspired you to set up Zen Studios, and make pinball your primary franchise?
ZK: We started as a company focusing on technology in games, but soon we had to realize, that without actual games on the market we were not going to get very far. Around that time Microsoft launched XBLA, and no arcade can be complete without a pinball game - and we had been working on a pinball simulation for years by that time. This is how our pinball story started.

Our review of the PlayStation 3/ Vita version of Zen Pinball 2


DD: Zen Pinball has had an incredible shelf life, and continues to find new fans today. What is the secret for creating such an enduring product?
ZK: We have six independent teams working on exciting content from some of the most prestigious brands available today, really at the center of pop culture. There is absolutely no compromise with our tables and we work on every detail to make authentic experiences. For example, we use a studio in LA to do the voice over recordings and involve original talents, and most of our character animations are motion capture based. We have dedicated talent and experts for each and every task. There is not one day we do not try to improve the quality of our games; we try to surprise our fans by quality, creativity and attention to details table by table.

DD: What has been the main challenge in building a pinball game?
ZK: Telling how far can we go from the traditional, loved classic pinball models. It would be simply limiting not to utilise the opportunities we have in the virtual space, but we simply have to respect the proven basics. Enhancing visuals is OK, but if we were to change the arm, ball size and so on, it would be unfortunate. This is a fine line we are always walking, and we always try to include elements that fit with the theme of the table.

Kickbeat is one of the most experimental of Zen Studio's portfolio
DD: With the Star Wars pinball tables just released (brilliant concept!) following from Plants Vs. Zombies and Marvel Tables, do you believe that licensed tables is the future for Zen Studios?
ZK: We try to have access and implement brands which are simply interesting to our customers, and I do not only mean pinball fans. My kids, and probably most other young players under 15 did not have the chance to play real pinball, so we need to find the key to introducing them to the genre in an exciting way. Then they can decide if they start to like playing pinball or not, and since all our pinball games come with free demos, it does not cost any money for them to try before they buy.

DD: Aside from pinball you've produced some very experimental projects, such as Kickbeat and Minigolf. How do you scout out new ideas for game development?
ZK: We analyze dozens and dozens of ideas every year, and only some reach a stage we start making a prototype, then the full game. Over the last year we had to kill several already great looking and playing concepts, since either we were not convinced that the game is fun, or another studio created such a great game we did not want to make a less quality version. Zen can only afford to release high quality, fun games in the future!

DD: Zen Studios supports most game platforms, but there are even more platforms on the way in 2013, from Ouya to next-gen hardware from Sony and Microsoft. How are you going to decide which platforms to support?
ZK: Our games will be available on all of these platforms, but these new versions are never straight ports. We spend months and months to make sure our games are unique on each new platform, using the extra horsepower of the new platform, the unique displays, input devices etc. Customers on new platforms do not only want to play games, but want to see why the new platform is unique.

CastleStorm - every single Zen Studios game looks impeccable
DD: You are not a game developer by trade and you've worked extensively in the pharmaceutical industry in the past. What encouraged you to start up a game developer and publisher, and how did your prior background help get Zen Studios off the ground?
ZK: Making and releasing games is a lot more fun than making and releasing drugs! But seriously, making games is great fun, and with the easy access to the market by Apple and Android everybody should try it once. However for me the extra challenge is to do this in a professional way, building balanced teams, providing them all they need to focus their talent on our products and deliver top games for players to enjoy.

DD: How do you see the games industry evolving over the next 12 months?
ZK: We all love our smartphones and tablets, and we continue to use them as part of our everyday routines. Smart TVs could become very viable for gaming, but as those TVs become smarter we will like them more and more. Big publishers with tonnes of money and great games will choose platforms with the biggest install base and/ or potential. I believe the big console manufacturers will make sure it still makes sense to be investing heavily to bring those brilliant big AAA games for their devices.

DD: Finally, what games are you playing at the moment?
ZK: Skylanders with my 6 year old son, and COD... not with my son!
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