The Nintendojo Interview: Zen Studios’ Mel Kirk

We talked to one pinball wizard on what new tables are coming to Wii U, what the team’s dream IP is, and more!

By Marc Deschamps. Posted 04/30/2015 07:00 Comment on this     ShareThis

The video game industry has changed quite significantly over the last few years. Arcades have all but disappeared throughout most of the world, and with them, the pinball machine as well. Luckily the team at Zen Studios has kept the arcade staple alive and well with the fantastic Wii U eShop title Zen Pinball 2. We tracked down Mel Kirk, VP of publishing at Zen Studios, to find out what new tables are on the way to Wii U, the process behind table selection, and more!

Nintendojo: How many staffers are currently with Zen Studios?

Mel Kirk: We currently have 75 employees divided between the US and our office in Hungary.

ND: Zen Studios started out with a focus on pinball, shifted focus on to licensed games like Ghostbusters on Nintendo DS, and then seemed to switch back. Why the change?

MK: Ghostbusters was one of our last “work for hire” deals. Right around the same time, digital distribution was starting to establish in the gaming industry, so we shifted gears from working on games for other companies to making our own. This was the shift that paved the way for all of our original titles.

ND: Obviously physical pinball tables based on licenses were once very popular. You couldn’t walk into a pizza parlor in the ’80s or ’90s without seeing a table based on a movie or TV series. Those have all but disappeared, but Zen Studios is kind of keeping that tradition alive with digital tables based on popular brands. Was there a conscious effort made to focus on that niche?

MK: While it might be a niche genre overall, what we are doing with pinball is now the mainstream. Our focus has always been on new experiences and trying to create the next generation of pinball, keeping it relevant for old and young alike. Many of today’s pinball players have never touched a real machine, so this is how they know the game. For older players who spent a lot of time in arcades, this is the way they can enjoy the game without being able to go to them. Zsolt Kigyossy, CEO of Zen Studios, was one of those guys who simply missed the arcade days, and wanted to keep the game alive for people to enjoy.

ND: Zen Studios is a relatively small developer, yet the team is working on some of the biggest licenses in popular culture: The Walking Dead, Star Wars, South Park, and Marvel Comics, to name but a few. How did that start?

MK: Our very first licensing deal was with Capcom for our Street Fighter II table. We did a decent job and definitely showed potential for bigger licenses. From there, we produced tables with a few other smaller brands before Marvel was impressed enough to give us a shot with their IP. The original Marvel Pinball pack (Spider-Man, Iron Man, Wolverine, Blade) knocked it out of the park, and from there, doors started to open quickly. Since then, we’ve gone on to work with some of the biggest licenses in entertainment.

ND: On the topic of South Park, I found it impressive that the team managed to deliver such an authentic experience without any of the show’s trademark vulgarity. Was that a challenge for the development team?

MK: Yes, it was definitely a challenge. In order to maintain our ESRB rating, we couldn’t include certain elements for obvious reasons. However, our teams were talented enough to find ways around it, while still maintaining authenticity to the IP. There are so many awesome things about South Park, and we chose to focus on what we could and do a good job with what we could include.

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