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BlahCade 269: End of 2023 Interview with Zen's Mel Kirk

Jared Morgan Jared Morgan Follow Dec 18, 2023 · 8 mins read
BlahCade 269: End of 2023 Interview with Zen's Mel Kirk
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It’s an annual tradition of having Zen COO Mel Kirk join us to discuss everything happening with Zen Studios and reflect upon what was a massive year for the studio.

We discuss Pinball M, AtGames ALP 4K, and what to expect in 2024.

The interview is shorter than the ones we have done in the past because we used to ask about development stuff, which Mel is no longer close enough to.

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Show notes

01:00 - Was Pinball M supposed to be a Halloween release?

Yep, it was most certainly supposed to be Halloween-aligned, but the delays were not necessarily to do with Zen Studios.

With the downturns that have happened across several industries over 2023, these affected licensor teams, which were responsible for doing license negotiations, as well.

Mel suggested that it was quite remarkable that they were able to release Pinball M only one month after Halloween, given the factors outside their control.

02:00 - What actually is Pinball M to the studio

Mel knew that they had to do something new and fresh. So, the entire team (not just the pinball divisions) put forth their ideas for modes and challenges.

These new features are really tracking well based on user feedback received to date. The most popular thing in Pinball M seems to be the Play Corner idea in Pinball M. Stats suggest that people are actually spending time customizing their play corners.

08:00 - Star Trek table footage and HD video challenges

Mel shared that while the HD video display is the right direction, there are a lot of licensing challenges getting footage.

Mel was saying that video footage licensing is at the same level of difficulty as music licensing, and we know how hard that is to get right.

10:30 - Paramount is a key strategic partner

Paramount has become a significant partner.

Star Trek took a very long time to get right.

December 7th was supposed to look very different.

12:00 - Williams table release slowdown

One-off Williams licensing deals don’t really happen anymore. So, the studio has to come up with more ideas to present to licensors to get them excited about doing the legals for the third-party Williams releases.

There are a few big Williams licenses coming down the pipe in 2024, including a multiple-table original and Zen Original tie-in.

More on roadmaps later in the episode.

15:00 - Is Terraforming Mars considered a sequel to the "Mars" table in FX2

Mel doesn’t consider it a sequel as such, but he can see how those comparisons could be drawn.

He said the engagement with the licensor was to make something original. My take on it is that there isn’t a lot you can do with a red planet’s sandy environment, so the mood is always going to have a similar feeling to it.

16:00 - Where is Steam as a platform?

Mel could see that the team at AtGames was going in the right direction with cabinet pinball. Mel confirmed that he only wants to partner with companies that are forerunners in their area of specialty, and AtGames has a solid track record now.

The process of building a cabinet was for the studio to gain an appreciation of what folks in the community face when building a cabinet. Mel was clear that cabinet play presents a huge potential for both Zen and AtGames. There were other people asking Zen to partner for cabinet play, but they went with AtGames because of their established infrastructure and solid track record of getting products to market.

At the end of the day, Zen is a software partner, and AtGames is the hardware partner. Zen Studios is responsible for making the software work on the AtGames hardware to AtGames specifications for the AtGames roadmap.

18:00 - Will OTG feature sets be comparable with the on-board games?

AtGames store titles have extra software coded in by Zen Studios that make them first-tier experiences for the AtGames hardware platform.

The experience you get on the OTG platform will definitely be different, so don’t expect a 1:1 experience.

AtGames is going to feature approved backglass assets for their first-tier experience. There are some companies out there that are selling officially licensed backglasses, but Mel would like to offer at least a basic backglass included with every table.

The other challenge with these digital tables is that licensors don’t quite get how you can download their game on the platform and then play a bunch of other tables from other licensors on the same platform. Mel doesn’t quite understand that logic because isn’t the PlayStation 5 and Xbox One the same thing but different? Anyhow, there is some ground to break when it comes to helping licensors understand how the digital pinball ecosystem works compared with other types of game offerings.

22:00 - Mobile app?

We will see it in 2024, and the approach won’t be like Williams Pinball on iOS and Android.

You can either buy tables or play with advertising. This is now the standard monetization model for mobile, and Zen doesn’t want to deviate from what is considered standard.

23:30 - VR in 2024?

Something very big is going to happen in VR in 2024, according to Mel. Nothing more than that at this stage.

24:00 - Table roadmap in 2024

The focus will be on expanded distribution (VR, Mobile, AtGames) to assist with revenue health for the company.

To let the team focus on the expanded platform roadmap, the studio will not be releasing 30 games in 2024:

  • There are 6 Williams games confirmed.

  • There are 9 Pinball FX and Pinball M releases confirmed in total (not per app) across those two apps.

A total of about 15 new releases in 2024. And VR. And Mobile. That’s quite a bit if you put that into perspective.

You will see Pinball FX and Pinball M cross-over table packs, with the intent to offer the same title on both platforms in the same ecosystem.

Think Wrath of the Elder Gods (WOTEG) on Pinball FX and Pinball M on your Steam account. But not WOTEG regular on your Steam account and WOTEG Directors Cut on your PlayStation account. Get it? Got it? Good.

Just remember, licensing is hard, but the studio really wants to make this work. Let’s see if they can get it over the line with their licensors.

26:00 - Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Spooky Pinball

Mel confirmed that there is absolutely no relationship between Zen’s release and Spooky’s release. Mel confirms that they actually have had sharing sessions about ideas. But he then follows up that Zen’s version is based on the TCM Netflix version, and the Spooky table is based on the movie version.

30:00 - Mel’s take on 2023

It has definitely felt like the studio was in "launch mode" all year. He confirmed that releasing this many tables was "nuts".

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Jared Morgan
Written by Jared Morgan Follow
Technical writer, product person, VR junkie.