True story: during the Hertford-London leg of the journey to Brighton, home of Zoë Mode, a young lady sat opposite us on the train. A typical commuter to the City – ambitious looking, smart, pretty – she was everything you are told a gamer is not. But still, she produced a blue DS Lite and spent the rest of the journey to London Liverpool Street playing Brain Training.
As far as the team at the studio formerly called Kuju Brighton might be concerned, she was Zoë Mode – or, rather, she was everything the team’s recent rebrand was trying to capture. Someone that, in the words of studio head Ed Daly, was “a SingStar-playing, MySpace loving girl that likes games, is a media consumer, but like most gamers these days doesn’t define herself as a gamer, it’s just part of her lifestyle. Games are important, but not too important.”
But if once upon a time that kind of consumer wasn’t common, neither was a studio deciding to, when arguably finally starting to make a name for itself in the lifestyle game space, suddenly rebrand. To explain how the studio jumped to that point, however, would be to do a disservice to its journey so far, and not truly explain how the company has now become known not as the Brighton office of many owned by one of the UK’s most famous renowned independent studios, but Zoë Mode, a team with its own human identity.
Fittingly enough, Kuju Brighton never started out with that name – it was Wide Games, founded by Daly himself. He had started his games industry career at Kuju in 1996, but left to start his own studio in 1999. Five years later he was back in the fold when the studio was acquired by his old employer, with Kuju Brighton built around the old Wide team.
Since then, the studio arguably (in a commercial sense, at least) shot past the performance of Kuju’s other teams in Godalming, Surrey, central London and Sheffield via a fruitful relationship with Sony. The result has been six SingStars (plus a clutch of European variants which have topped charts in countries like Denmark), a few EyeToy projects, some unannounced software in a similar vein (“hugely exciting and promising,” says Daly, unwilling to say any more) – and the studio-on-sea even put together the small arcade-style games seen during Sony’s Home demonstration at GDC.
Work on such a diverse but scheduled line of games (the turnaround on SingStars can be as short as three months) has given the studio an invaluable push forward, explains Daly.
“One of the great things about making something like a new EyeToy or SingStar game is that the codebase is mature – so we don’t have to do anything else than come up with ideas and be creative. Quick prototyping means that there is instant satisfaction,” he says. This is the first step in understanding how the studio operates, having seized the opportunity presented by fast-tracked SCEE work.
For its most recent EyeToy title, EyeToy: Play Sports, the team for that game used the agile project management method Scrum (which, as its rugby terminology suggests for those unaware of it, advocates that a development team works in a small-scale sportsman like manner - independent, but collaboratively with the same goal in sight).
“It really motivated the team to solve problems and find ways of working together – but there is plenty of room in that framework to make people be creative,” elaborates Daly when asked how it impacted the production.
“I think that fed into the overall creative stucture of the studio – people don’t just want to be given a list of tasks and work through it in a linear fashion. They prefer more freedom and that feeds back into better communication and improves efficiency of production.”
What's in a name?
This agile attack method seems matched only by the studio growth and the variety of staff it is taking on - a ramp up for staff has seen the team expand from just over 32 at the start of 2005 to close to 90 today.
A number of projects are keeping that payroll active – Daly says they’ve never had a team go larger than 40, and even that was only for a brief time as a project finished - including games that are taking Zoë Mode outside of its Sony comfort zone. They include PSP game Crush (see boxout) for Sega, the first project the team signed with someone other than SCEE (it previously had a deal in place with LucasArts for PSP music game Traxion, but that’s since been put on hold with the Zoë team rethinking its approach).
Other titles, although unannounced, are in the same lifestyle field as the studio’s other productions, the intention, says Daly, being to prove that “we’re ready to take the step away from being known just for those [Sony] games.”
The studio also has a self-funded prototype team working on a music/puzzler it wants to get out on XBLA or PSN.
“It is interesting as there is no longer that one straightforward route to market,” comments Daly. “We’re able to think that maybe we are better off investing a bit more in the self-publishing route. There are only a finite number of companies or publishers willing to invest so certain games we aren’t always going to chase a traditional publishing deal for.”
In fact, tradition is something Daly thinks has gone out the window – if there’s one thing that Zoë Mode’s activity in the lifestyle game space has proven, and the accompanying growth of the Wii and sales of games like Buzz, is that “publishers have realised they have enough first person shooters or racers and they are now looking for something new – and consumers have shown they want something new.”
Zoë Mode’s royalty statements are presumably a testament to that – it’s clear that SingStar and EyeToy games have closely stuck to the Long Tail effect; they sell regularly to an audience that buys each game in a series, and their price never erodes.
And it was this cultural shift which saw Daly and co. bite the bullet and come to the notion of changing the studio name.
As we’ve said above, a studio giving itself a new brand and new identity a few years into its career is unheard of. You could interpret it as insecurity, or an attempt to distance itself from its past – or a mixture of both. In truth, it’s the opposite, revealing a confident part of a company comfortable with its humanistic, socially-oriented games and keen to capitalise on and consolidate that.
There was much debate at first as to whether the idea would have any traction, says Daly; “Changing the name, the logo, the website – was it going to be worth it?
“Then Joel [Benton, Kuju’s business development director] came up with this idea – that we wuld put out a press release saying we had hired an 18 year-old girl as creative director and she had decided to rename the studio after herself as her first act. At first I thought it was a joke – but at least that’s interesting, and wouldn’t be some typical game company name, like Intrepid or Super Games or whatever. It’s an idea that would get us noticed. Obviously, we realised that there were impracticalities to it – if someone rang up and asked to speak to her there wouldn’t be anyone to take the call, nor could we list her as a contributor on a project – that’s just silly. But there was something in the idea of having a personality that was different – so we invented a character to represent us.”
That character is Zoë, the “a SingStar-playing, MySpace loving girl” described above (and pictured above). The name itself was settled after a long boardroom brainstorm (and a bit of a internet cross reference – turns out IMDB does have a practical use for non-movie companies).
“Zoë Echo was the first name we liked,” explains Daly, adding that a Google hunt and Marc Ecko’s new games publishing company scuppered that name the very next day.
Opting for Mode as surname instead (because it can have different meanings, from ‘graphics modes’ to fashionista terminology) and chatting with an modeling/acting agency soon thereafter further proved that the team was doing the right thing and had a fairly good grasp on its audience; the actress chosen for the ‘face’ of Zoë herself was an avid EyeToy fan, and knew her way around a PlayStation, but wasn’t ‘a gamer’.
“That reflects what the culture here is like – it’s important that the staff have other interests, a lot of our guys are into music and are in bands, or film, or just have other side projects. In all, it’s that games aren’t the be all and end all of what we are and do – I think that really helps feed back into who we are as a studio, making social games.”
If mother is the necessity of invention, then necessity is the mother of Zoë – she was needed for the team to finally understand who it was, and make a confident step into promoting its identity (and, if we want to continue the metaphor, Daly may well be Zoë’s father – he’s got a framed picture of her press photo on his office desk).
“The thing I was most worried about was that it would run out of steam and people would go back to calling us Kuju. But it has been noticed and generated a reaction,” explains Daly, who says the provocative choices made for Zoë - choosing a real face to front it, and the personable signature-like brand, has generated a response amongst publishers. (And here’s a good game to play over a pint – what’s the ‘name’ that suits your studio; Billy Tyre? Or what about someone like Epic Games; Robert Bullet?)
But most important is how Zoë herself could interface with the very lifestyle she embodies – she could appear at the start of the team’s games, conduct an in-game tutorial, or even make a public appearance – especially in an age where, as Daly says, the options for independent studios have moved on to include self-publishing via digital distribution channels. He says: “Having a consumer facing brand might be something that develops further down the road – and something like this definitely lends itself better to that.”