Developer Profile – ZEN Studios’s very own Will Anderson corresponds with Zen Studios’ Mel Kirk;  Gamer, PR guy, and all around friendly dude.  Zen Studios has has some great success with their Xbox Live Arcade Game, Pinball FX2 and most recently released a new Ms. Splosion Man themed table.

Take a look as they discuss Pinball FX2, how they landed the Ms. Splosion Man deal, and how developing an Xbox Live Arcade game really won’t kill you.

Will Anderson (W75): Pinball FX2 has been a huge success for Zen Studios since the game’s launch last October for Microsoft’s Fall Game Feast.  So who approached whom regarding bringing in PFX2 as part of the lineup?

Mel Kirk (Mel): Microsoft approached us with the Game Feast opportunity. We were scheduled to release right in the middle of the promotion and they though the game was high quality, enough to throw a bunch of marketing and support behind it.


W75:  How far along were you in the development of Pinball FX2 when the decision was made to slot it into the Fall Game Feast?  And how closely did you work with the Xbox team to get it launched?

Mel:  The game was done and queued for release when the decision was made to be a part of Game Feast. It’s no secret that these big promotions are the holy grail of XBLA promotion; we were very excited to be a part of it. The second part of this question is really big, because we worked with them for a long time on Pinball FX2 on both design, production and then on the marketing side. We felt like we had support from all aspects of their team and that they put a lot of energy into our release.


W75: What has your overall experience been with your partnership with Microsoft?

Mel: Our overall experience has been extremely positive, and we feel that our success has to be shared with them (we can’t take all the credit!). A bunch of the key elements to Pinball FX2 came about due to our collaboration and close communication. We were willing to take risks; Microsoft was willing to take risks so we both ran with some really cool ideas. The guys at Microsoft are really top notch, they care about XBLA and they want it to be a healthy place to release good games that appeal to a really diverse group of people.


W75: Recently one of your fellow Fall Game Feast developers, Team Meat, stated publicly that they will likely not be working with MS again.  Most notably they mentioned in an interview with Gamasutra this last February that they worked at a “nearly lethal” pace of development to make the Fall Game Feast and their disappointment regarding the promotion offered by Microsoft stating, “Ed and I killed ourselves to get this game done, and we’re just kind of pushed to the side.”  How would you compare your treatment during your crunch before the launch, and would you have anything to say to their statements?

Mel: I cannot think of a single game that does not present these ‘crunch time’ moments. It just comes with the territory and I can promise that every developer feels terrible at one point or another while getting a game ready for release. Sure, we felt pressure at times to get the game done within certain time requirements, or add a feature that we’re not so sure would be polished completely. But at the end of the day, being a game developer means crazy cycles and hard work. Microsoft was really supportive and encouraging during the crunch time moments for Pinball FX2. We had open, honest communication and it really helped everyone stay focused on the important tasks at hand.


W75: You’ve launched games on both the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3.  How would you compare the cultures between the two companies when pushing out a new game?

Mel: The cultures are quite a bit different. Sony publishes more games on average per week on PSN than Microsoft does on XBLA. Simple math says that more games equals less marketing space for each title so you really have to make sure you have your own plan in place to make sure people know about your game.

That’s not to say that every title gets marketing support on XBLA, because that is not the case. It’s just a matter of competition for that week. I will say this, there is a lot of confusion out there with indie studios as to how marketing and PR works in games. Just because you make a game and get published does not guarantee anything – start thinking about how to promote it at least six months before you release. View first party marketing support as icing on the cake.


W75: Pinball FX2 has managed to show up pretty regularly in the Xbox Live Arcade titles for Full Versions Purchased; you’ve also regularly released add-on tables such as the Marvel themed tables and most recently, Ms. SplosionMan.  Would you credit the exposure that you received from the Fall Game Feast promotion to be the driving force that opened the doors to getting the license to properties such as these?

Mel: The Marvel license was secured long before Game Feast was in the works, and Ms. Splosion Man is two companies who admire each other’s work getting together and having fun. So no, Game Feast really had nothing to do with anything on the licensing side.


W75: How much time would you say it takes for you guys to design a new table from start to finish?

Mel: From start to finish is an 8 month process. That’s design, development, testing, queue and off you go.


W75: What’s the story with the Ms. Splosion Man table?  How did that come about?

Mel: The Ms. Splosion Man table was a really fun project. We were doing a BioLab tournament and I would out scouting for prize packs. Twisted Pixel was kind enough to give us some Comic Jumper swag and then we got to talking. A few days later we were making a pinball table and they were figuring out how to allow people access to Pinball FX2 via Ms. SplosionMan.We are all really happy with the outcome of our work together and hope to do more in the future.


W75: Will we be seeing anything new in the near future in terms of a new game from ZEN studios for Xbox Live Arcade?

Mel: There are new games coming, yes. And they will not all be pinball. :)


W75: The market for games in the handheld/mobile phone space is getting larger every day.  What’s your take?  And could we see a ZEN Pinball property on our phones in the near future?

Mel: Well, we announced Marvel Pinball for literally everything including iOS, Android, Vita, 3DS…so yes, you will see pinball everywhere hopefully very soon. We are really excited to get out game out to as many people as possible; it’s a regular pinball renaissance!


W75: What is your favorite all time console bar none?

Mel: My favorite all time console has to be the PS1 because that is when I fell in love with games. I also had a Nintendo, Game Boy, and Super Nintendo, but Final Fantasy VII did something for me that changed my life forever. So, yes, it’s the original PlayStation.


Article Sources:

Gamasutra – Team Meat On Working With Microsoft, Steam ‘Powerhouse’ (September 7, 2011)
Gamasutra – GDC 2011: Team Meat Discusses Super Meat Boy’s Nearly Lethal Development (February 28, 2011)

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