[Budapest-based independent developer Zen Studios talks with Gamasutra about why it's taking the free-to-play risk with Zen Pinball on the App Store, bringing the series to the 3DS eShop, and working with licensors on pinball tables.]
As strange as it may seem, many people will grow up without knowing what it's like to play pinball on a real pinball table. Despite this fact, developers like Zen Studios do all they can to replicate that classic feeling on digital devices, keeping the love of pinball alive.
Zen Pinball has found a home on Xbox 360, PS3 and DS. As of October last year, Zen Studios also added iOS devices to its lineup, and, more recently, the 3DS in January.
Zen Pinball for iOS is actually its second foray into the iOS marketplace, having previously released two standalone tables in an experience the studio would be happy forget, claiming that its "development period was a 6-week blur, and it's hard to recall the details."
Though with the console success of Zen Pinball, Zen Studios decided that now is the time to have another shot at success on Apple's portable devices.
"Because of the success of Pinball FX and Zen Pinball around that time, we had to take our focus off [the first attempt on] iOS, but we are really happy to be back – so much has changed," said Neil Sorens, Creative Director of Zen Studios.
"The iPad, iPod Touch and iPhone have obviously become more powerful devices and there are ridiculous amounts of units out there. We also released Zen Pinball THD on Android Marketplace for Tegra-powered devices."
Each version of Zen Pinball has seen a slightly different release on each platform, but until now, all have required some initial payment. This time, given the App Store's unique micro-transaction and monetization trends, Zen Studios decided to take the risk with an initial free-to-play model.
"We've never put out a completely free product with included content before this, and we never launched on a platform with so much entrenched competition," said Mel Kirk, Zen's VP of Marketing and Public Relations.
Initially a "Sorcerer's Lair" table was available; with two Marvel tables available for purchase upon launch (two further tables are now available). "Even with only two tables available to buy, we've seen pretty brisk sales, not to mention an incredibly large number of downloads," Kirk said. "[So] at least they've seen our product, and visibility seems to be the most important factor in sales on mobile platforms."
To this end, Zen Studios has had an interesting time trying to tackle this new market, finding that "not many customers check Metacritic, read reviews, or follow games before their release," unless it's a blockbuster franchise.
"The difficulty in getting visibility on the App Store and the importance of App Store visibility in driving sales are the main reasons we put out the game and a table for free," said Sorens. "It's probably the best thing we could have done to drive downloads beyond putting Angry Birds in the name somewhere."
By contrast, visibility for the recent 3DS release of Zen Pinball is entirely out of Zen Studios' hands, with "visibility on the eShop itself completely up to Nintendo."
Though Kirk did note that the eShop marketing team was easy to work with, and that while the process of getting the game on the 3DS eShop was more involved than the App Store, it's on a par with how Sony or Microsoft operate. He did say, however, that this may lead to difficulties down the track, "as [when] more and more games release on the platform, it will likely be more difficult to be featured."
Given that Nintendo will soon roll-out DLC functionality for the 3DS, Zen Studios are currently determining its best implementation to ensure ongoing revenue for the game. They hope, however, that once it's up and running, they'll be able to release a table a month, with their ultimate goal being to have synchronized releases across all platforms.
With extra tables being such an important part of Zen Studios' business plan, it's a good thing they've managed to license such successful franchises such as Marvel, which is where three of the four existing downloadable iOS tables came from. These were initially chosen given their success on the console "since the Marvel brand has global reach."
Choosing franchises and themes for tables is simultaneously an easy and a difficult task for Zen Studios, with Sorens claiming that you can "make a pinball table out of just about any theme," with the difficulty lying in finding properties that will resonate with existing fans, while drawing in new players.
Given people are already playing a video game in Zen Pinball, other video game properties are an obvious choice, with Street Fighter, Ninja Gaiden and Ms. 'Splosion Man tables already released on consoles, with an upcoming, unannounced "big one in the works."
Kirk claims that another difficulty lies in actually attaining licenses, as "not everyone jumps at the chance to work with a small, independent developer in Eastern Europe... although that has been changing over the past year."
There are also extremes in license negotiations. "We did a deal with Twisted Pixel for Ms. 'Splosion Man that was literally a phone call, a one page sheet and a signature. This took a few days at most to get done," said Kirk. "Marvel, on the other hand, has a much more rigorous process, as you would expect."
This "rigorous process" includes going through Marvel's creative team, lawyers and marketing, just to name a few. "Suffice to say there are a lot of people who have to sign off," said Sorens.
"It's not just on the license, but on the table art and design, voiceovers, trailers, text, you name it. That level of attention from a licensor means extra work for us, but it also increases the quality of the product in a way that we wouldn't necessarily be able to do on our own."
The process is made more difficult by the fact that license agreements always specify platforms, so new platforms require new agreements.
According to Sorens, bringing Zen Pinball to iOS "did not really pose extraordinary difficulties," the worst of which was that some downscaling was, unsurprisingly, required. But the studio has made sure to take advantage of the full range of iOS features, such as supporting game pads and HDMI output. A trend Sorens believes is leading to the eventuality that "mobile devices and game consoles will be the same thing."
Similarly, Zen wanted to make sure they were taking full advantage of the 3DS features. Speaking with Sorens, he revealed a little about Zen's initial process of developing on new hardware.
"When we come across a new platform, the first step is always to render one simple object, like a cube. The case with the Nintendo 3DS was different, since it needed to be in 3D. Achieving very good results was a bit easier than expected, though, given that the tables are already built completely in 3D.
"However, getting the same results on the front-end/GUI demanded a lot. It required careful design and re-iterating execution to reach the level of polish you would expect from our games."
For the 3DS version of Zen Pinball, the studio has also made refinements to camera settings to help adjust for the system's 3D features, and has used the bottom screen as the dot-matrix display and the online challenge window: a feature that will please many who found the display to get in the way on single-screen devices.
While Zen Studios has desires to release non-pinball games on devices such as iOS at some point (they've previously worked on Ghostbusters: The Video Game on Nintendo DS and Planet Minigolf on PS3), the Zen Pinball series continues to be on top of their priority list, releasing on as many platforms as possible. This includes Zen Pinball and Marvel Pinball games for Sony's upcoming Vita.