Develop talks to the Brighton studio on becoming a UK success story
Founded in 2007, Brighton developer Zoe Mode has expanded to employ more than 150 employees in just five years.
With such fast paced growth, Develop caught up with the studio's art director Benjamin Hebb and game director Andy Trowers on how it has become one of the UK's biggest success stories.
How was Zoe Mode in its early days different from what it is now?
Benjamin Hebb: When we started in 2004, we were actually called Kuju Brighton and there were a small number of us - eight or nine people - a mixture of coders, artists and designers. The first project that we worked on was the Playrooms for EyeToy: Play 2, and that went well working with Sony as a first-party dev.
After that, they basically gave us Play 3, the whole game, and that really allowed us to grow the studio. We grew at that point to around 30 people. During the development of Play 3 was when SingStar was booming and prior to Kuju, we had a studio in Brighton called WideGames, and music was important to us.
Kieran Walsh, who was our audio director, built a relationship with Sony and they offered us some test work on SingStar which went well. Basically, from 2004 onwards, we started building a foundation of a really good relationship with Sony working on the EyeToy product Play franchise and the SingStar series.
In late 2006 to early 2007, Kuju decided to have a strategy of really defining each studio and at that point, we were the first to rebrand, and that’s when we became Zoe. It was very easy for us because those were the games we were making. We were making non-typical titles, in terms of interaction, with cameras and we were using microphones.
Our market was very family, social-orientated and we were tackling two fronts. There was an emerging boom, the Wii was coming out, so people were becoming interested in different ways of playing and that was coupled with a boom in music games.
Andy Trowers: At that time there was a really happy expansion of that whole social; music, inclusive games market and a whole bunch of people shared that interest. We have a whole load of musicians here and people who are interested in games that lots of people will play, and those two things really came together. That’s when the studio took off.
Hebb: We became Zoe Mode in 2007. The idea behind it was that we basically wanted to take on the identity of someone who would play our games. That’s when we became Zoe, and when we announced our release, Zoe was cast. She featured in all of our marketing and branding and it fulfilled our ambitions and went down very well.
How did you get the confidence to expand so quickly? What’s the secret?
Hebb: I think it was passion and over the years we have hired a lot of new people, but there are also quite a lot of people here who have worked within the industry for quite a long time. I myself used to work on WWII flying games, very different things, and we found it exciting again.
We’d all grown up, some of us had families and it almost took it back to basics again in terms of design. Simple, clever design that could be expanded upon and grown upon and it was an interest in a new market.
It was exciting but coupled with that; you’ve got people own interests. People involved in the studio were really interested and passionate about music. It’s those two things combined that helped us.
As you said, we were confident about it, there were some bold things that we did but at the same time it was all about people being really into it.
Trowers: I actually transferred down from the London office. I was working at PG London working on first-party Nintendo titles and one thing that I really wanted to do was to get back to making games that lots of people could play, something that’s inclusive.
I used to play a lot of board games with the family when I was younger, as I’m sure a lot of people did, and I really liked that feeling of inclusiveness and social interaction between people through playing games. We just came to a point where the technology advanced in certain ways that helped facilitate that.
The camera and the microphone, all of these things are things that anyone can use. It wasn’t suddenly about you sitting down with a control pad trying to figure out a whole bunch of different buttons.
It was about singing or getting up and dancing, all of those things. It was a happy coming together of lots of different things and our interest and passion in those different areas.
How has Zoe Mode prospered over a period of change in the industry?
Trowers: I think we’ve actually remained fairly consistent over the years and there’s been a big gold rush away from consoles into mobiles. For us, we don’t actually really believe the hype. We think console is still a very, very thriving market.
We’re still making games and we’ve got lots of games in production that are on console. We’ve got no plans to move away from console because we believe there still is a place for these titles in the future and we’re more than happy making quality titles for that.
I think that has been the secret and as well is that, more so than other studios that are in a similar space, we’ve always thrived on quality and pushing those quality levels as far as possible.
Hebb: We’ve worked on some large franchises and each time we approach any game we do, we don’t just sit back and say, ‘we’ll do the same thing again and that’ll be fine.’ We genuinely want to try something new each time.
There are certain features that the client would like or the gamer will expect but then we always try to think how can we add to this, what can we do that’s new and how can we make this more interesting. We want to deliver that in a fresh, new way and add quality all the time so that’s another big motivator here.
It’s not just sitting back and going ‘that’s what we do and we’ll just do it again and again and again.’ It’s like - what can we do and how can we make it better.
In terms of the character and spirit of Zoe Mode, how has that remained unchanged?
Hebb: At the core of Zoe is a group of people that have worked together for a long time. I’ve worked with some of the people here for 16 years, since we were graduates. We’ve been through a lot.
We’ve been through getting our first jobs in the industry, watching the sector grow, change, evolve and being friends as well as being work colleagues. That means a lot.
At the basis of all this is mutual trust and respect for one another and I think that’s a really important backbone to what this studio is and what we’re about.
Then I think, the way we have brought in a lot of new people in as graduates, or as we’ve needed to for specific music titles, we’ve brought people in from outside of the typical games market.
That’s created a really positive atmosphere where we can all learn from one another, progress and add value.
Trusting and respecting one another in the workplace is really important and that just generally adds to a positive culture, which then leads to hopefully a good working environment that, in a creative sense, generates good games and good work.
Trowers: The other thing that’s really important here as well is that we actually have a lot of trust in people and they get to put their own ideas in the game. It’s not of the studios where it’s all very waterfall led where you basically have a task list and you go through and tick it off one by one.
This is a place where people can come make a difference, and their own ideas and values get put into the game as well. I think it’s really important for people to feel they’re making a contribution to this industry.
Hebb: We were early to adopt an agile methodology in terms of how we approach our work, which is all about ownership and buy-in from ever member of the team.
The value that that brings to a project is essential. Some of our teams have been quite big, some of them have been quite small, but even on the bigger teams it has been about everyone having a voice, and getting involved as much as they want.
Have there been any significant challenges for Zoe Mode over the years? How have they defined the studio as it is today?
Trowers: Zoe Mode has faced a lot of the same challenges as other studios. Obviously, the games industry is always a little bit up and down in terms of work for people. That’s the same throughout the industry.
Where we have met that challenge is that we’ve always managed to stay working with the top names in the industry. We’ve worked with Microsoft, Activision, Sony and Disney.
We’ve been keeping our levels of professionalism high so that we can work with those people and they know that they can come to us and trust us with games. I think that’s been really important for us.
Our levels of professionalism are high so that we can weather any storm that comes our way.
Hebb: I think that’s certainly true in terms of what we’re doing right now. We’ve been working with Majesco on Zumba, and that’s a huge franchise.
Based on our previous experience over the years on all those various different titles, we felt confident and comfortable taking on some projects in relatively short timescales and being able to deliver to the quality that Majesco, and Zumba as a brand, really want.
That was an exciting and positive challenge. Zumba is a great brand and it’s been something exciting and positive to be involved with and deliver on. They’ve certainly given us a challenge, which is to really up the quality and raise everything we can do in a dance fitness title. We’re following through on that.
Trowers: That’s been one of the consistent challenges that we’ve faced over the years, working on big franchises, big licenses and working with big licensors like Disney or Zumba or anything like that.
There is always a challenge there because they have high expectations, rightly because it’s their brand, and you have to match those expectations. That’s something we’ve done consistently well over the years, meeting that challenge.
How do you see Zoe Mode evolving in the future? What does the future hold?
Hebb: We’re actually expanding right now. We’re recruiting so it’s good and positive at the moment. One of the things that we’ve always tried to do, alongside the larger franchises, is keep a keen eye on our own personal projects and IP.
Two of those games, one was the puzzler Crush, which was the first title that we released as Zoe Mode and then, more recently, Chime, a music puzzle game, those are things that the larger franchises have enabled us to do side-by-side.
We’re always looking at developing our own ideas and promoting peoples ideas from within the studios alongside working with larger clients on the bigger franchises. That’s something we believe has been successful.
Those two things working in partnership will allow us to go forward in the future, looking further forward to new platforms as well, which is always interesting.