Nunchuck Games recently teamed with Electronic Arts to co-publish action title Ninja Reflex for Wii and Nintendo DS, in development by Sanzaru Games for a March 2008 release in North America.
David Luntz is the former studio head of Z-Axis, which was acquired by Activision in 2002. He founded Nunchuk on his own in 2006, and describes the company as a "micropublisher" -- performing a lot of the functions that large publishers do, but eschewing marketing, distribution and sales. Luntz focuses primarily on creating game concepts, believes that finding the right developer and pairing with a solid distributor parnter is the right way to go.
Gamasutra spoke to Luntz ahead of the release of Ninja Reflex, which will be Nunchuck's first game, about this somewhat unusual business model built on relationships, and why Luntz feels he's finally free to make the kinds of games he's always wanted to make -- nunchuks, shuriken, ninjas and all.
Ninja Reflex is being developed by the Sanzaru crew, while EA is doing the marketing and publishing stuff. Can you give me an idea of where you guys fit in?
David Luntz: Nunchuck contracted Sanzaru to develop the game. They're a studio... they took my game concept and did what developers do -- created a title out of it. And EA... I brought EA in to partner with them on the marketing and distribution end of things.
So you're basically going to be coming up with concepts, and finding developers to work with them. Is this going to be your normal way of working, or will you take different approaches?
DL: Yeah. I have no aspirations to build a publishing empire. I have every interest in focusing on making new games that are actually different from what's out there, and finding the right people to make them.
Are you going to be working with developers? Say a developer came to you with an idea. Would you potentially work with him, or is this all going to be stuff that's in the wellspring of Nunchuck?
DL: Well, it's certainly possible.
You said you have some other projects going. Are they also in the same vein?
DL: They're not at all related, content-wise, but yeah, they're completely new concepts.
And you came up with them, or your company came up with them?
DL: One of them actually, per your question, was an idea of somebody else. It's a guy I've known and worked with for a long time. The other one is another concept of mine.
Do you have a long-term relationship with EA, or are you going to negotiate publishing deals for different titles?
DL: We're just doing it one deal at a time.
Do you guys fund the development of the game?
And then take it to the publisher?
DL: Yes, that's correct.
Do you have venture captial, or angel investors, or...?
DL: No. I have -- trying to think of a cutesy way to say this -- balls on the line, you know? Invest your money and make it work.
This is not a typical sort of model. How did you develop this idea for this publishing model, and how did you get it off the ground?
DL: I started a development studio in 1994. When you're running a development studio, you have to base your business on satisfying cashflow demands, and oftentimes that means making games that are available to be made at that time that a publisher's willing to fund. Which is just fine.
That was Z-Axis, right?
DL: Yes, that is correct.
So they got bought by Activision?
DL: Yes, in 2002. And so something that I wanted to grow into is being able to make the games that I wanted to make, and at the right time. Ninja Reflex would not have been appropriate to make back when I was with Z-Axis, because the Wii wasn't out there, and the Wii sort of provides the canvas for the gameplay.
But is this an idea you've had kicking around in sort of a vague way?
DL: I wanted to make martial arts games for a long time. Growing up, I had things like nunchucks and shuriken that my friends and I would play around with. Up until this point, the ability to translate those things into gameplay has been very constricted, just by pressing buttons and a d-pad.
This lets you bring that into the realm where you're actually swinging a nunchuck with the Wii remote, and blocking and slicing with a katana, and throwing with the shuriken. To me, that was something that A) hadn't been done, and B) I know I want people to experience, because nowadays, you can't get shuriken. You can't get nunchucks.
The way you could in the past.
DL: Period. They're banned! They're outlawed. It's state law. You cannot buy them.
This game also, while it does have the weapons, there are no human or even animal targets, or monsters. It's training. It's sort of Wii Sports kind of training.
DL: Yeah, I say Wii Sports meets martial arts as a metaphor, because the same way Wii Sports has five sporting games, this has six martial arts games. Half of them are weapon-based, half of them are not. But it's training in the sense that your sensei guides you and teaches you martial arts principles, and you use those to train yourself to get faster.
And speed and reflexes are fundamental to any gamer, because gaming is really based on reflex, but it also applies to sporting events, and it applies obviously to martial arts. If somebody throws a punch or a kick at you, your ability to move out of the way is going to have a big impact on your life. Even driving home -- if somebody cuts in front of you on the highway, your response time will determine whether you get into an accident or not.
Was there an inspiration from some of the training games that have been popular on some of the Nintendo consoles in any extent?
DL: No, it was really a function of the fact that I wanted to do something different with martial arts. As you pointed out, our game is not about killing stuff. There are lots of games that do that very, very well. Our game is about doing things that you do in martial arts, and doing them in a multiplayer competitive environment, but not really with the point being to kill stuff. It's to see who has greater skill.
How did you hook up with Sanzaru to develop the game?
DL: Sanzaru is a studio...also a relatively new company that is composed of guys who I worked with for many years. Many of them are from Z-Axis. All of them came out of Activision, and they're brilliant, creative guys.
So this is their first shipped product?
DL: Yeah. This will be their first shipped title.
Are they doing the DS version as well?
So it's kind of growing out of the natural relationships that you had.
So that's sort of how you find the people...you come up with the concept, but then you find this studio to make the game, and that's how it works, through your relationships?
DL: Yeah, absolutely. At the end of the day, when you're investing your own money, you have to feel comfortable that the people who are spending it are going to be spending it wisely, and have the ability to deliver an idea into execution that works.
What did you do at Z-Axis, personally?
DL: I founded Z-Axis in 1994, and the studio became part of Activision in 2002. I ran it for a couple of more years after that, and then started Nunchuck.
When you came over to Activision, was that when you got more of a taste for the publishing side? Did your perspective change?
DL: Well, it went from going all those years of dealing with publishers as an external relationship to being part of the publisher. It's very, very different. It has its advantages and has its disadvantages.
The two things that stick out in my mind when it comes to Z-Axis were Aggressive Inline, which everybody thought was amazing but didn't really perform in the marketplace as well because it couldn't compete on name with Tony Hawk. Even though it was a really good game.
DL: At the time, Acclaim was really on its last breath.
That was a long last breath, wasn't it?
DL: Yeah. It was a while, though it was really close to the tail end, and their ability to market a title and the amount of...you know, to market a game so people will know about it takes quite a bit of money that they didn't have. It was unfortunate.
Well, the reviews were stellar, and the game, I've played it...
DL: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
And then of course BMX XXX.
DL: Yeah, well...yeah. Everybody has a Hot Coffee once in a while!
I guess what I'm saying is that it illustrates the ups and downs of working with a publisher, in kind of an interesting way.
But now you're in the driver's seat.
DL: Yep. Absolutely.