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Zen Studios gets into indie porting, publishing

PSVR version of RocketWerkz' Out of Ammo will be first release from Pinball FX developer's new initiative

Zen Studios is practically synonymous with its Pinball FX series of games, which has appeared on every major platform since its Xbox Live Arcade debut a decade ago. Now Zen wants to use its knowledge of those platforms and relationships with the platform-holders to help independent developers get their PC games in front of new audiences.

Zen Studios VP of publishing Mel Kirk told GamesIndustry.biz the idea came up while talking to some indie developer friends over dinner. They wanted to get their PC games onto consoles, but weren't sure about how to start the process.

"They could probably research, build a network and ultimately end up in a decent position, but it could take a lot of time, the market could change by the time they made a decision, and then they end up with a mediocre result," Kirk said. "Zen saw the opportunity to leverage our experience with technology and console distribution to offer our hand to devs who were in this exact position. We also heard that these guys were not really interested in porting their game; they wanted to work on new content for that game, or some new project entirely. 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."

The first project to be released under the plan will be a PlayStation VR version of RocketWerkz' Out of Ammo, set for release in winter of 2018. The second title has yet to be announced, but Kirk teased it revolves around physics-based gameplay with a ball at the center of the action, something Zen is exceedingly familiar with.

While much of the appeal of Zen's pitch is that the port can be done with minimal hassles to the developer, Kirk said it's not an entirely turnkey operation.

"Kicking the project off requires discussions and emails to firmly establish the creative vision for the game on console, and to ensure that we are on the same page about all changes that will be made to the game," Kirk said. "Once this initial kickstart is complete, Zen goes to work, and the developer is free to focus their time on new projects. Devs are essentially handing us source code, we identify some upfront challenges - whether they're technical, creative, business, content additions, UI or UX - and requirements to get things up to par for consoles. From there, we set up a milestone schedule and projected release, and we make it happen! There are times along the way when we need to have a quick chat to discuss challenges or new opportunities, but so far this has been pretty stress-free and easy for both sides."

While Zen has released non-pinball games (CastleStorm, Planet Minigolf, and Kickbeat among them), Kirk acknowledged they've had "varying levels of success." So why should creators of non-pinball games trust Zen to bring their work to new platforms and publish it successfully?

"Zen Studios is one of the most successful, longest-running indie studios in the world. We helped pioneer digital distribution and have had a decade-long successful run developing and publishing our own games," Kirk said, adding, "Over the course of time, we have built an amazing distribution pipeline--we actually just recently published 384 digital SKUs on the same day for the release of Pinball FX3--and experience in all the critical areas to publish content across console, mobile and PC channels."

Kirk also pointed to Zen's experience working with engines like Unreal and Unity, as well as porting its own custom tech between platforms.

"I think developers see us as a super-stable developer who has stood the test of time, can sim-ship games successfully, and clearly understand how to be successful on consoles," Kirk said.

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