Developer Interview: Zen Studios On Portable Pinball Success And Wii U

The pinball wizards have more to come

Zen Studios is an experienced indie developer that, despite its varied projects, is possibly best known for its pinball games. It's a team that wasn't entirely unfamiliar with Nintendo hardware in past generations — it developed Ghostbusters: The Video Game for DS — and it's become best known to fans of the big N's hardware for its two pinball releases on the 3DS eShop, Zen Pinball 3D and Marvel Pinball 3D.

With experience of working on smartphone formats and other home consoles, news of Zen Pinball 2 coming to the Wii U eShop wasn't necessarily a surprise, though its delay from a planned December release demonstrates that switching to new platforms isn't always easy for small studios. We've spoken to Mel Kirk, VP for Marketing & Public Relations at the company, about the studio's experiences bringing its pinball titles to 3DS and, now, Wii U.

Nintendo Life: If we can start with a look at your two pinball releases on the 3DS eShop, how would you summarise the reception and sales of Zen Pinball 3D and Marvel Pinball 3D on the platform?

Mel Kirk: We are quite pleased with the reception of Zen Pinball 3D and Marvel Pinball 3D on the 3DS eShop. User reviews have been very positive, and sales have been quite strong. Nintendo really helped us out with strong store front marketing for both games which really helped. It turns out that both games were included in the top 25 for 2012, something that we are very proud of.

NL: When preparing those releases, can you explain whether the development process was smooth, difficult or somewhere in between?

ML: There is always a learning curve when preparing to release on a new device or platform. Overall, the development process on 3DS was smooth. There was a lot of work done to make sure the 3D experience was well implemented, and that the game really took advantage of this feature. In the end it worked very well and we are really happy with the result.

NL: Did your experience of smartphone development assist the process of preparing the games for the smaller screens on the 3DS?

We knew Zen Pinball 2 had to be on the Wii U from day one. There was no question that we would support the system, it was just a matter of finding the bandwidth to get the game ready.

MK: Actually, development on smart phones and the 3DS were done concurrently for the most part. We have a very talented team, so they were able to figure things out without much trouble.

NL: What's your view on the impact or relevance of the stereoscopic 3D with these releases?

MK: I think 3D has challenges. There are a lot of experiences that simply do not work in 3D, and a lot of people experience headaches or health issues when trying to play games in 3D. Still, the 3DS is selling at an amazing pace and there remains a big demand for 3D content. I do not see 3D making a very big splash on any other system – perhaps the PS3, but outside of that it is still movies that seem to really drive interest in 3D entertainment.

NL: Moving onto Wii U, at what point did you decide to release Zen Pinball 2 on the system?

MK: We knew Zen Pinball 2 had to be on the Wii U from day one. There was no question that we would support the system, it was just a matter of finding the bandwidth to get the game ready.

NL: Can you explain how approval to develop for the system came about, and the role Nintendo played in those early days?

MK: It was a pretty natural progression to go from 3DS development to Wii U. We have a great relationship with Nintendo on all levels, so I think both parties just assumed that we would work together to bring Zen Pinball 2 to the new system. Of course, once the project was confirmed, both Zen and Nintendo were really happy.

NL: Zen Pinball 2 was initially slated for a December release but has been put back. Can you clarify the precise reasons for the delay?

MK: There are always a variety of reasons for game delays. This time around I think we can chalk it up to the fact that it is a new system and there is always a learning curve. Also, Zen Pinball 2 is a very complex game and any time you release a free game download with lots of in-app content it is going to be quite tricky. This implementation is taking just a little longer than first expected, but we are very close to completion.

NL: As you’ve said this will be a free app that'll offer a range of paid-DLC options, so can you explain the format for those who are unfamiliar?

MK: The big idea here is that players can download a free pinball platform that will provide them access to a variety of pinball tables. There are demos available for each table so players can see what they like – perhaps they like the Marvel themed tables, perhaps only our original designs. This provides flexibility to play what you want. We add new tables quite frequently, and I am excited about what is coming in 2013!

NL: The free download may tempt a high number of initial customers and encourage smaller, progressively higher spends on content. Is that your experience from using this model on other platforms?

MK: It is different with each platform and each user. We see people who show up and buy everything on day one, and then request more tables just a few days later! Other people go into the game not understanding what ‘free platform download’ meant and were expecting to have an entire library of tables for free. It is important for people to understand that we are not trying to trick anyone, this model is simply a means for users to experience the game they want and we have found this to be the best option.

NL: It's the first release with this setup on a Nintendo system; how challenging has it been to implement the format, and how big has Nintendo's role been in recent weeks?

Nintendo has done a lot of work to improve the Wii U eShop. I really like that the focus is on games, whereas other digital stores seem to be less about games these days.

MK: We have worked quite closely with Nintendo to make sure the game is set up correctly for users and that the process of downloading the game and buying tables is totally seamless. It is always challenging to set up this type of model, and the challenges with Nintendo have been no different than what we have experienced on other platforms. Nintendo has been more than accommodating and have really given us tremendous support.

NL: How would you summarise the ease — or otherwise — of development and bringing Zen Pinball 2 to Wii U?

MK: We have experienced the same challenges that are presented on any new platform or device. Nintendo’s support has been excellent, we really could not have asked for more support from them. Overall, it has been an extremely positive experience and I think the doors are wide open for other small studios to bring games to the Wii U. This is an amazing development for Nintendo; huge, positive changes have been made since the days of WiiWare.

NL: In terms of the system's capabilities, what does the team think about the GamePad and built-in functionality, as well as the core technical specifications?

MK: The system capabilities are sufficient, allowing us to create a high quality game with all the features that we need to add to the game. The GamePad is a great addition to the console. The tables look great on the GamePad, and it will no doubt add to the overall experience, as well as allow players to play the game when the TV is being used to entertain others in the room.

NL: What are your impressions of the Wii U eShop platform, and its potential development in the future?

MK: Nintendo has done a lot of work to improve the Wii U eShop. I really like that the focus is on games, whereas other digital stores seem to be less about games these days. I think we have seen only the beginning of Miiverse, and it will be fun to see how social interactions develop on Wii U. I know that our community manager is excited to interact with the community once the game is launched, and Nintendo has made a generous effort to grant us special accounts so we can be helpful to Zen Pinball 2 players.

NL: Do you have future plans for the 3DS and/or Wii U eShop platforms?

MK: Oh, yes. Zen Studios has big plans for both the 3DS and Wii U eShop. I cannot wait to show you what is coming next – there will be more pinball, as well as completely different games that are being developed as we speak.


We'd like to thank Mel Kirk for his time. Zen Pinball 2 is coming soon to Wii U, while Zen Pinball 3D and Marvel Pinball 3D are currently available on the 3DS eShop.