Zoonami, Wideload, Tetsuya Mizuguchi

The internet is a funny place. Last week when British development studio Zoonami announced its first project, I read people’s comments before I even saw the game. So I knew that after years of hype about the studio founded by ‘GoldenEye 007′ director Martin Hollis, Zoonami’s first sign of life was somehow underwhelming. In fact, the general consensus was something like “Oh my, I really hope ‘Funkydilla’ is not their only game”.

I had considered writing about Zoonami a couple of weeks ago, when Matt of ‘IGN’ wrote about the company in his site’s mail section. He mentioned Hollis and his team could be working on not just one, but two projects.

This struck me as awkward because Zoonami was, according to the studio’s website, just seven members strong. I wondered how they could do even one major game, the unknown genre title ‘Game Zero’ that’s been hyped beyond proportions — especially for a game we know absolutely nothing about.

Well, apparently Zoonami is indeed doing multiple projects, and it indeed has seven core staff members, but it’s developing games with a new working method that’s quite interesting and could be trend setting: Zoonami mainly works with contractors on a project-to-project basis.

So while just two core employees might do the main design of a game, a whole army of contracters might do graphics, sound and programming. Very efficient, because when a game is done you can pick just the best guys for your next game, or not at all if you’re unable to sell your concept to a publisher. This is actually quite similar to how movie production houses work.

Actually, while reading IGN’s interview with Martin Hollis I started thinking the Zoonami project that disappointed so many people might actually be pretty cool — a small game with an interesting vision and addictive gameplay.

In Hollis’s words: “We have an incubator system where we consider original ideas we have — this year we had about 50 — and we got a load of hurdles where we try to narrow the field. Funkydilla was one of the few original game ideas that cleared all of the hurdles. And it was bloody good fun.”

While screenshots look uninteresting, the game concept sounds like a music game with the cleaning element that made ‘Tetris’ brilliant: “There are a bunch of instruments in the piece of music and rows appear on the screen gradually over time, each row for one instrument. If you play the notes on the row correctly the row is eliminated and if you don’t it remains on the screen. So in this way the screen fills up with music for you to play. If you’re too slow the screen fills up and it’s game over.”

The vision I’m talking about is pretty intriguing: “Our vision is that this is a template for a franchise and you could make a load of games out of it. We’re looking for a publisher that’s got the sales and marketing and distribution, that has experience handling external licensing, and maybe that has experience with music licensing or links with the music industry. With the right partner I think we can help to make the music genre bigger than the film-to-game genre.”

While this sort of sheds doubt on how well Zoonami is doing selling its original games to publishers, I think I agree with Hollis on the music genre. Obviously there’s an opportunity in music albums coming with a music game as a free extra to win out on illegal downloads, for example.

I said Zoonami’s way of working could be trend setting. In fact, it’s already happening. Bungie co-founder Alex Seropian just started a new studio, Wideload Games.

Wideload, too, follows the principles of a movie production company, with a small internal team to focus on “game ideas, engine technology and game prototypes”, to then “assemble a team of independent talent” to put the game into production. In contrast to Zoonami, though, Wideload seems to be working on much larger projects, their first project being an action game using the ‘Halo’ engine, to be released in 2005

Also, apparently Tetsuya Mizuguchi of ‘Rez’ fame is doing the same with his new company, although in his particular case he also lends his expertise to other developers as a gameplay consultant of sorts. So it seems like a new age of game development might finally be upon us, in which games start where they should: at the desk of game design experts.