Developer Retrospective: Zen Studios

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posted 3/14/2012 by Charles Husemann
other articles by Charles Husemann
Platforms: Multiple
A retrospective is an agile development term for a team meeting at the end of a development cycle where the team determines what things were done well, what things could have been better, and what things they were going to try to do better in the next cycle. It's a great way for teams to celebrate what they did correctly and identify the things that they need to improve on. 
 
Given the state of flux that the video game industry is in right now I thought it would be an interesting idea to do several small retrospective with folks from around the industry with the end goal is to develop a holistic view of the state of the video game.
 
The format is fairly simple. We've asked each company the same four questions about what they did great last year, what they could have done better, and what they plan to do in the coming year. We then asked them how they thought the entire industry answered those questions. To keep things interesting we also asked a few company specific questions too.
 
We'll be running a retrospective each day for the next few weeks. We've got a nice variety of opinions ranging from game developers to publishers to hardware manufactures and everyone in between. This is one of the more ambitious projects we've ever done and we think you'll enjoy seeing the wide spectrum of opinions on the industry.

Today we are talking to Zen Studios, the folks behind the best selling Zen Pinball games.  To say they had a big 2011 would be something of an understatement.  The questions below were answered by Mel Kirk, the Vice President of Marketing for Zen Studios.
 
2011 was a huge year for Zen Studios, looking back at the last year what were the things that Zen did right? What things could you have done better?
2011 was a huge, busy, crazy, insane year – no doubt. When things are moving at what seems like light speed, it is really hard to keep an eye on the big picture and make sure you are delivering what is most important: a fun experience for gamers! Looking back at 2011, I think we managed to accomplish this. Other things we did right were continue to support our pinball platforms with new DLC, and we were able to get a polished mobile game out, as well as 3DS in Europe (North America came early 2012), and we really set the stage for what I am hoping to be a great 2012.

I think Zen could have done a better job getting out to industry events like PAX in a more formal way. That is definitely an interaction that we are missing and something we are trying to get on track in 2012. The problem is always bandwidth! There are other things we can improve on, but a lot of that is internal stuff, like communication during development and not trying to change things at the last minute while also trying to intersect with the latest trends in digital distribution. That stuff is just par for the course in digital distribution, so I’m not sure if we will ever get to a point where things are just “rolling along nicely” so to speak. It is always intense!


What do you think went well for the game industry in 2011? What do you think the industry could have done better in 2011? Digital distribution channels continued to explode during 2011. Steam blew up and is now a huge force. Xbox LIVE Arcade had a growth year according to recent reports, and the Nintendo eShop really started showing signs of life near the end of the year. Throw in success stories like OnLive, the continued growth of mobile, emerging markets like China, better games on Facebook, PSN, and EA’s Origin – BOOM, you have no shortage of solid channels to distribute a game. It’s a matter of prioritizing, choosing the correct model for the platform and off you go.

I think the industry learned a lot about security within digital channels in 2011. Obviously there were some really big issues. Hopefully we do not see these repeated in 2012. I also think that publishers who did not start implementing a solid digital strategy in 2011 will really suffer in 2012 – I think we are actually already seeing some of this now. The industry could have planned better for the emergence of a strong digital market.

Looking ahead, what are you most excited about from Zen in 2012? What’s the one thing you’re planning on doing now that you weren’t doing in 2011?
There are a lot of exciting things happening at Zen right now. While we are riding the good feelings of 2011, we are hard at work on several new projects that are totally unrelated to pinball. These new games will be announced in the coming months, and I think we are out to show that we can do more than pinball. We have such a talented group of guys, it will be really nice to showcase their skills in new ways. As for pinball, we should be out on literally every digital channel by the end of 2012. There will be new Marvel tables, as well as tables based on other huge, iconic, internationally known, amazing (I guess I should stop there) brands.

One thing we are planning on doing in 2012 that we did not do in 2011 is to release a game unrelated to pinball!


What are you looking forward to most in 2012 from an industry standpoint? What should the industry do better in 2012?
I am most interested to see how the indie scene will continue to develop into a new breed of developer/publisher that controls all stages of development, publishing and distribution. Just look at Mojang. They are blazing new trails and proving that a small developer can in fact control its own destiny and not be subject to a traditional publisher.

I am also interested to see what happens with the next generation of consoles. We know that Wii U is coming this year and there is a lot of speculation over what Microsoft and Sony will do. Depending on these outcomes, gaming could look very different in a few years.

I hope the industry gets rid of online passes and on disc DLC in 2012. As a gamer, I detest these practices and hope to see enough backlash that publishers decide to stop doing these annoying things.

It looks like you’ve got some non pinball games in the line-up for 2012, are you at all worried about moving away from your core genre?
No, not at all! We have a dedicated (and growing) team of pinball developers who are passionate about their craft, and energized by what they are working on in 2012 and beyond. I guess you could say we have only just begun with pinball, there is so much unexplored territory – look at how we are mixing RPG and pinball in Epic Quest. If the table is well received, we can keep going in different directions to create new and exciting pinball experiences. As for the other games in 2012, we have had excellent feedback so far and are excited to see what happens.

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