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Four developers, three years, and a lot of passion. That’s what it took to create the innovative rhythm-based fighting game KickBeat. The kung fu title debuts on Sept. 4 on the PlayStation Vita, and it is the latest title from Zen Studios, an indie game studio based in Budapest, Hungary.

Mel Kirk of Zen Studios

Above: Mel Kirk of Zen Studios

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Zen is one of those rarities in the game industry: an indie game development studio that has had a number of repeat hits. It has worked on numerous hit games such as Capcom’s Street Fighter and Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden. It has branched out into its own original titles such as Pinball FX2, one of the best-selling games on Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade. And last year it debuted Star Wars Pinball, the first Star Wars pinball game to hit the game machines in decades.

But it finally had a chance to work on an original game, KickBeat, that was born out of a passion for both fighting games and music titles. Naturally, most publishers said they didn’t want to publish it. But Sony liked what it saw and it opened the doors for publishing on the PlayStation Vita.

We talked with Mel Kirk, vice president at Zen, at Sony’s recent PlayStation Vita event in San Francisco. Our chat covered the making of KickBeat, how Zen became a successful indie, and the choices facing indie developers.

GamesBeat: How did Zen Studios get started and break into the game business?

Mel Kirk: About 10 years ago, Zen Studios started as a technology and work for hire studio. There was a team of 4 guys doing a range of things, such as engine development, middleware tools, and ports for other games. This went on for about 5 years, and the studio gained significant knowledge and experience with console platforms and gaming handhelds.
When PSN and XBLA came on the scene, we found an opportunity to control our own destiny. Zen Studios CEO, Zsolt Kigyossy, is a huge pinball nut, and spent a lot of time playing in the arcades. He set out to make the best video game pinball sim on the market, as there was nothing very good for consoles, or anything sold via digital. Zen managed to develop and publish a decent game, and we were able to make enough to keep it going.
Zen is now at a pivotal point. We are the masters of video game pinball, working with the biggest names in entertainment. This year also saw the release of CastleStorm, which has reviewed and sold very well on XBLA and Steam. September will bring the release of KickBeat on PS Vita and  PS3. Between these three very diverse offerings, I think the studio has shown some pretty dynamic flexibility. Not to mention, we are able to publish on literally every digital channel, and we do all of this in house and all privately funded.

GamesBeat: Can you tell me about how you guys got started on KickBeat?

Kirk: KickBeat has been a long time in development. It’s probably a three-year project at this point. Our creative director, Neil Sorens, and I have been huge fans of music games and rhythm games. We’ve worked on them in the past with other big franchises. We got together and decided on a music game with 3D interactive characters, and a way for people to use their own music in game. We thought up this crazy story for the characters that evolved into a kung fu type of plot.

GamesBeat: Kung fu and music games don’t normally seem to go together.

Kirk: No, it was a crazy idea. The majority of publishers and first-party types said, “This is crazy. It’s never going to work.” Sony said, “Yes.” [laughs]

GamesBeat: So it sounds like it was hard to explain, but you could see it in your heads.

Kirk: Neil had a very distinct vision for the game. He had the creative aspects nailed down, and during development he made sure we stayed with that vision. The music that we used was very important — music that inspires a fighting feeling, that makes you want to go out and kick some butt. Then it was a matter of evolving with the technology. The Vita was a great platform, because it showcases the graphics. You have a multimedia experience in your hand, using your own music. It’s a platform that embraces the indie culture and new ideas.

GamesBeat: What was the process of finding a platform like? Why did you like Sony?

Kirk: Zen’s been publishing on PlayStation Network now for the better part of five years. We were one of the original companies to self-publish with Zen Pinball back in the day. When we had the idea for Kick Beat, we were shopping it around to see who might be interested, to see if we needed to get a publisher.

We encountered a lot of closed doors. But when we came to Sony — I call it the culture of yes. They said, “Yes. We understand what’s going on here. This is new and innovative. People are going to gravitate toward this game.” It was really easy.


GamesBeat: What did you need from them? Did you need funding or just publishing support?

Kirk: Zen is totally self-funded. We control our own destiny in that sense. What we needed was a partner to allow us to take the game out on a platform where we felt it would succeed. Obviously, with the success of Guitar Hero and Rock Band and games like those on consoles, we know there’s a demand for music games — even if those franchises have been kicked to the wayside for the moment. We don’t need to gross billions of dollars to be successful. If we can get a small percentage of that part of the market to try a new experience, that’s all we need.


Above: KickBeat

Image Credit: Zen

GamesBeat: So you used a small team to make this? How many people?

Kirk: The KickBeat team is probably four full-time guys and three others on and off. Seven people total.

GamesBeat: Was Vita the natural choice here for some reason? Was there a reason why you chose that particular Sony platform?

Kirk: Like I said, KickBeat’s been in development for three years. We were actually working on it as a launch title for Vita. Before Vita was even announced publicly, Kick Beat was in mind for the platform. Here we are much later, and Vita’s done what it’s done. It has some history now. But we’re coming, I think, at an opportune moment. There’s a lot of energy behind Vita, with the price drop they announced today and a ton of killer games coming. It couldn’t be a better time for us to finally make it.

GamesBeat: Describe the action in the game. So you’re pressing buttons to match the beat?

Kirk: Yeah. It’s a beat-matching mechanic. You have 3D interactive characters who are actually your button cues. The game helps you along through the tutorial. By the time you’re playing in an advanced mode and you understand it, the characters light up. They themselves are the beats. You hit the corresponding button — whether it’s a direction or a face button — on the beat, and you’ll take care of an enemy. You have a whole bunch of different combos that you’ll end up using in order to successfully beat a song.

GamesBeat: With two new consoles coming, do you have a new favorite platform, anything you want to hit next?

Kirk: We’ve been lucky enough, with our pinball game, to learn how to publish our games across this whole myriad of digital channels. Zen publishes pinball everywhere. We have another game alled Castle Storm that’s on PC now through Steam as well as XBLA. For us, we want to have our games everywhere and let everybody enjoy them, no matter what device they’re on.

We’re working on stuff for next-gen consoles. We haven’t officially announced any titles, but I think you’ve seen our logos on both parties’ presentations. We’re a staple digital developer-publisher hybrid or whatever you’re going to call us indies nowadays.

GamesBeat: It’s more of a digital story on either one of these consoles now.

Kirk: Yeah, definitely. We’ll be everywhere.


Above: KickBeat

Image Credit: Zen

GamesBeat: Does that make you excited for the indie community nowadays? Could there be good things to come for indies in general?

Kirk: Yeah. The indies are one of the differentiating factors now. Microsoft and Sony are both putting their offerings forward to attract indies. Clearly it’s a pivotal point for the industry now. We have some big triple-As, and let’s face it, we all need them to help sell hardware. Those are going to attract the masses. But after that it’s what indie experiences you have, the diversity of games you can offer.

GamesBeat: What about Android and iOS? Are those interesting to you?

Kirk: Pinball is already on iOS and Android. We’re bringing our other games there as well. Mobile is more of a challenge as far as getting the business model right. It’s not just a matter of “sell the game and you’re done.” We have to look at it as a service, with free-to-play models and virtual currencies and cross-promotion. It’s the wild west out there. We enjoy some mobile experiences, and we need to be more mobile-minded to be successful there.

GamesBeat: Vita is very interesting, but it also seems like the smallest platform you’ve hit so far. How do you feel about that side of it?

Kirk: We’re not worried. Like I said, we don’t need to sell at a high level of units to be successful. We’re big fans of buttons on our mobile game platforms. The Vita does that. We like some depth to our games. We’re all gamers at the company, very hardcore. Vita does have the smaller installed base. But it’s a platform that has a lot of connective tissue linking it to PS3 and PS4. Sony is supporting it in a big way. We had the price drop, and we have a ton of games like Minecraft coming. Those are good moves. I think we’ll see Vita sales take an uptick.

GamesBeat: Do you still see a difference between the openness of things like Android and iOS versus the more curated platforms from the console guys?

Kirk: Sure. You really have to know what you’re doing on Android or iOS if you’re going to get any level of visibility or promotion, whether it’s from the press or getting featured. With iOS it’s a crapshoot. You don’t know what Apple’s going to promote. Android, there’s a little bit more as far as people you can contact. They’ll actually return your calls or e-mails and give an indication of what they’re looking for. But with the amount of apps that come out every day, you have to do something different to stand out.

Sony is more curated on all their platforms. They know their quality partners. It’s easier to align yourself with them and their goals and understand what they’re looking for. That’s key for a small developer.


Above: KickBeat

Image Credit: Zen

GamesBeat: The number of platforms is pretty rapidly multiplying. At some point, what’s your thinking as far as, “We’ll publish on these, but we can’t do the rest?” Where do you draw your line?

Kirk: That’s what we’re facing today. We’ve published our pinball game now on 13 or 14 digital channels. I don’t know of any other game across that many. We certainly have numbers telling us where we’re most successful. It’s a huge range, from XBLA to PC to 3DS and wherever. Like you say, where do you draw that line?

It is unreasonable to assume that we can support them all on a long-term basis. That’s where first parties have to be able to move hardware. They have to create a good market for selling games, or it’s just not worth it. We can easily look at all the gaming devices today and understand which ones are failing. Short of saying it – as an indie developer, I don’t like to bite the hands that feed me — there are definitely some where we’ve decided that it’s probably the end of the road.

GamesBeat: How do you sort out the trends and the fads? You look at the mobile messaging network Kakao in Korea. Any developer in the world should maybe be thinking about making a Kakao game. Is it a fad?

Kirk: We’re going to that event in South Korea in November, G-Star. Asia has our attention right now — China, Japan, Korea, Singapore. That’s totally a mobile market. They didn’t ever have a console generation. Mobile is a huge market over there. So we’re going to be doing some very specialized things for the Asian market. Even if you localize down to the smallest detail, they’re not necessarily going to embrace a western flavor of game. We have to build experiences from the ground up for that kind of culture. If you’re going to be successful globally, you can’t ignore it.

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