Words: Tristan Ettleman
Swedish developer Zoink Studios, developer of 2013’s Stick It to the Man, has worked on many projects.
Many of them haven’t been games, though.
After getting burned by a publishing deal gone wrong, founder, CEO, and creative force Klaus Lyngeled steered the Zoink ship in a different direction for a time, one that led to animation work for brands like LG and Nike.
Lyngeled did, however, start in game development.
“I started the company [Zoink] because I wanted to make a video game. It was called The Kore Gang,” Lyngeled stated in a Skype interview. The Kore Gang originally began development as an original Xbox game, in the vein of 3D platformers like Ratchet & Clank. “But the Xbox wasn’t really for that type of game,” Lyngeled said, and after three years of development, the game was put on hold by its publisher, which also changed a number of times.
Five years later, in 2010, the game was released in Germany, but Lyngeled didn’t really have much of a hand in the conversion for the new platform.
“There were a lot of things that I wasn’t really happy with, that I would have done differently,” he said of the final version. “But I was happy it somehow got released.”
Still, Lyngeled was unsatisfied with the way the whole project had turned out. He told me, not without a sense of humor, that he had said to himself, “Fuck this, I’m not working on this anymore, this is too complicated.” He effectively “quit the whole game thing,” and started by making an animated short film called “Munchie Mondays”.
“But that led me to wanting more animation work, and it’s hard to find that,” Lyngeled said. Still, he and Zoink found it, albeit in the low paying field of animated music videos.
Eventually, though, a New York agency that had seen Munchie Mondays ended up being the portal to higher level jobs for the studio. Through them, Zoink was hired on to do animation for a number of commercials.
“That led to us doing stuff like the Nike video,” Lyngeled explained. The 30second spot features a woman transforming into an animated, “cubified” character and traversing a fantastical world that screams Stick It to the Man. Naturally, Lyngeled did all the character designs.
“That was really fun to do,” Lyngeled reminisced, but did clarify that other projects were “just to make money, like Burger King commercials…Sometimes, you have to do some jobs that basically make you money.”
Some companies started to come to Zoink with projects because of the studio’s distinct style, and LG’s Times Square billboard, featuring a character representative of this style, was one of those projects.
Despite the pressure associated with doing work for such big brands, Lyngeled didn’t see it as more restrictive as his work on The Kore Gang. “I think there are a lot of creative people in advertisement that are thinking a lot differently than what you are [thinking] in games,” he said.
Still, Lyngeled took notice of the changes in the video game industry. “Suddenly I was like, ‘Wow, it’s kind of creative to be back in the games business again,’” he exclaimed.
“Because when I quit…the only games that were selling were AAA games. Nothing in between or under it.”
Lyngeled saw that change as an opportunity to come back to game development. Zoink started its video game comeback with a Wii game called WeeWaa, and tried out the iOS platform with games like EnergyMix and Swing King while also doing regular animation jobs.
Stick It to the Man, a game influenced by Lyngeled’s love for Tim Burton, Monkey Island, and Ren & Stimpy, was ultimately the turning point for Zoink.
“It was exactly what I wanted to do. It turned out precisely as I wanted it to be,” he said of the final result.
Since Stick It to the Man, Zoink has been focused on game development entirely. For Lyngeled, it’s because he feels “right now that there is room for being creative.” For the foreseeable future, Zoink will be sticking where it started. The studio is not only finishing up updates on action brawler game Zombie Vikings, which carries Stick It to the Man’s art style and humor, but also a full 3D, much more serious game that Lyngeled couldn’t really say much more about.
All the projects Zoink has in the pipeline are unique, and Lyngeled acknowledged that might stem from his experience with The Kore Gang. “I don’t want to get stuck in the same thing…Since The Kore Gang, I basically decided I don’t want to do a game that takes more than a year to do. I never want to end up in that situation again. It’s too long and nothing happens. I mean, if you lose a year, it’s fine. But if you lose three or four years, it’s horrible.”
He didn’t totally rule out returning to old ideas, though. “We might make a number two or a sequel to games at some point,” he said.
Zoink’s trajectory has changed a few times throughout its existence, and it has changed with both the games industry and the vision of its founder. As Lyngeled said, “It’s been the same company all the time, it’s just changed a little bit depending on what I wanted to do as a project.”
That’s evident with Zombie Vikings, which released on PlayStation 4 and PC on September 1.
The game continues Stick It’s paperthin character design and humorous approach, but it’s clearly a new realm for Zoink.
Stick It was essentially a point-and-click adventure game, whereas Zombie Vikings is a sidescrolling brawler in the vein of genre classics like Golden Axe.
That is, if Golden Axe was about Odin reviving zombie vikings to retrieve his stolen eye from Loki.
Zombie Vikings immediately brings the jokes and references, with an underwhelming order from Odin to get his eye back just because he wants it, not because it’s a matter of the universe’s life or death.
The first level features Earthworm Jimlike enemies (an inspiration for Lyngeled and a product of his former employer Shiny Entertainment), and a hippie zombie spouting antimaterialistic proverbs.
But Zombie Vikings also places more emphasis on gameplay systems, with multiple characters with special moves and unlockable weapons and abilities. It’s certainly the most complex game Zoink has made, in spite of the simplicity of its moment t omoment gameplay.
If Lyngeled’s comments on Zoink’s next game is indication, it’s only the start of the studio’s advancement.
Tristan Ettleman is a freelance writer. You can find him on Twitter @ettletodd.
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