7 min read

Zen Pinball dev Zen Studios is getting into the indie publishing game

The studio is branching out to help other indie devs market and publish their own games, starting with Rocketwerkz' Out of Ammo. Here, Zen exec Mel Kirk explains why this seems like a good idea.

After nearly 15 years in business, Hungarian indie dev Zen Studios is branching out beyond game development to help other indies port and publish their games -- starting with a PlayStation VR version of Rocketwerkz' PC VR game Out of Ammo.

It's something of a surprise for the studio, which got its start making Pinball FX and has predominantly focused on pinball games (specifically, Zen Pinball) in the many years since.

In an email to Gamasutra, Zen Studios VP of publishing Mel Kirk confirms that this business decision wasn't so much planned ("it's actually a totally organic unplanned development") as it was a natural outgrowth of where the indie market is at now that so many small teams are able to bring their games to market.

"I was at dinner with a few mutual indie dev friends who had found success on PC and knew they wanted to go to console but did not have the first idea of who to talk to or what that process looked like," wrote Kirk. "I had a team available at the time and put them to work on one project just to see what would happen – and it went really, really well. Soon we signed another game and then all of a sudden, we started getting inundated with publishing requests."

That's all good for Zen -- but what does it mean for fellow devs, and what can they expect from Zen going forward? To try and shed a bit more light on that, Gamasutra put a few questions to Kirk (again, via email) about where the studio's head is at and what kinds of deals potential partners should expect.

What value does Zen see in expanding to become something of an indie porting/publishing house, in addition to its work as a developer?

Zen has been taking many small steps over the years which have put us in a great position to expand our capabilities and grow Zen into a capable digital publisher for own original titles, and for PC developers hoping to get their title to expanded audiences on consoles.

This began with the proliferation of our very successful Pinball FX platform – itself celebrating 10 years this year – being published widely across most digital channels, allowing Zen to build a great pipeline for which we can push other high-quality content to users. We learned how to sim-ship content across a myriad of platforms – just recently we shipped over 350 digital SKUs in a single day when Pinball FX3 launched!

As a game developer, we have worked with custom technology, Unity, Unreal and other game engines developing cross-platform games that are in line with the platform they are being released. For example, CastleStorm is an award-winning console game with a premium business model, and it is also an Editor’s Choice game for both iOS and Google Play as a F2P game. We understand the nuances of each platform, and I think that experience will help us morph amazing PC games into amazing console games.

The value here is simple but huge. Zen is leveraging its strong distribution and publishing capabilities with its strong development experience across many technologies and platforms. We are offering this one-stop port-and-publish process to successful PC developers so they can work on new content or projects. Developers are used to finding a port studio, paying money to have a port done, receiving the port back, securing a publisher or publishing themselves – and this can take a very long time, resulting in lost time to market, changes to their financial situation, etc. Zen aims to speed the process to market, streamline the port-and-publish process, and ensure the developer is spending time doing what they love – making new games.

Okay, let's talk value. What terms can indies expect when they're approaching Zen to collaborate on a console port of their game?

While there is never a cookie-cutter type of deal, developers can expect super-fair and transparent terms. Zen covers 100% of the investment in both the port and publishing duties. The developer does not need to outlay cash to get the port done! We also invest the necessary resources for marketing, PR, influencer support, community management, customer support, title management, and so on. We have been doing these things for our games successfully for over ten years, so we are confident we can offer the same for other developers. Zen and our partner developers are paid when we ship a project and start collecting revenue.

What challenges have you faced in tuning and porting your own work for multiple platforms, and what lessons you've learned there that you can apply in your work with other devs?

Zen’s extensive experience has afforded us many valuable lessons – one of the biggest is never get comfortable! This industry operates in a constant state of change, if you work with your head down for six months and then look up, things are totally rearranged.

We felt this risk very early in Zen’s jump into self-publishing, so we took a multiplatform strategy to try and mitigate risk. This means that we develop a game with more than just one market in mind from the very beginning.

Understanding how to take a game from one platform to others is not as straightforward as it seems. UI, UX, controls, presentation, business model and more are all likely to change from one device to another, and Zen has sorted these out and has a constant handle and actual data on how all of these platforms are doing at once. I think this is some of our secret sauce that allows us to continue to be successful.

So how has the actual porting process gone? Is there a point in the future where Zen is more port house/publisher than developer?

Not every successful PC game wishing to come to console is a great fit for Zen. However, we will find the right projects and invest heavily into those. Our first game out of the gate is Out of Ammo for PSVR from Dean Hall – the creator of DayZ – and his company, RocketWerkz. Zen has already published several VR titles for PSVR, and we found Out of Ammo to be a lot of fun. Turns out it was also actually already being asked for on PSVR by many players. This was a great fit for us!

The second title will be announced in Q1 2018, a successful PC game from a single-dev studio. Right now, we’ll just say it features a ball with physics-based gameplay – again, something Zen knows really well. This is a game that I played right when it was released on Steam and immediately thought that it should be on PlayStation and Xbox. I fired up an email, introduced myself and Zen, and then we started the process of making this all happen. I can’t wait for the game to be introduced on consoles. It’s crazy that one person could create something so awesome – I wish I could tell you what it was now.

The porting process for these first two games has gone unbelievably smooth. I thought for sure we would have major issues somewhere – like, teams might not get along or we would run into some sort of crazy roadblock. I was hoping to see where the weak point was in all of this, but so far everything has been perfect.

I consider this to be phase 1 of this whole endeavor. As we move to phase 2 – the actual publishing of a game – we will soon find out if the process is as smooth, and will definitely find the challenges we need to overcome. Zen has seen and overcome so many challenges in our history, so I think we are well able to do the same with this new publishing operation.

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