Today Zen Studios announced Operencia The Stolen Sun, a new dungeon-crawler RPG set in the backdrop of Hungarian legend. Primarily known for their immersive pinball games Zen Studios the developers decided it was time to let the pinball drop and start working on something different, and we got a chance to speak with the team about their new passion project.
Headquartered in Budapest, Hungary Zen Studios came to prominence thanks to the Pinball FX and Zen Pinball series. The pinball sims proved so popular that Zen Studios released virtual pinball tables for franchises like Marvel, Star Wars, The Walking Dead, and more. Along the way Zen Studios worked as developers on various licensed digital games for companies like Marvel while experimenting with games developed for mobile, motion controls, and VR. While pinball might be Zen Studios' claim-to-fame, it's hardly the sole focus of this eclectic studio.
Enter Operencia, a game based on the legends of Zen Studios' native Hungary. Operencia is a first-person dungeon-crawler set in the eponymous land. The developers say Operencia is a modern take on an old-school experience where players must traverse and chart their way through winding dungeons, solve intricate puzzles, and engage in turn-based combat with over 50 different types of enemies.
There are between seven upgradable characters to switch from and a difficulty slider can enable things like permadeath and disable automatic map charting so you can grab a pen and paper and map the dungeons yourself. The trailer shows off a colorful 3D world developed in Unreal Engine 4, but cutscenes and character portraits will be hand drawn in 2D.
Before getting a glimpse of Operencia I admitted to Zen Studios that I unfortunately wasn't too familiar with Hungarian folklore. The team in Hungary wasn't surprised, but Zen Studios is a multinational team and for Operencia the studio tapped American writer Chris Baker as creative director on the project to write and develop Operencia's story and lore.
"We want to make sure [Operencia] is accessible to a wide audience and that they understand the story we want to tell," Zen Studios producer Akos Szabo tells me in a Skype call from Budapest. "You don't need any social-historical knowledge of Hungary, these are tales and legends."
We've seen with franchises like The Witcher and local traditions and local folklore can be used to tell epic and adventures understood universally. Chris Baker agrees. "You know I'm in the same boat. I didn't know a lot of this [Hungarian] mythology coming in and it was kind of one of the more interesting challenges," says Baker in the same Skype call.
The origins of Operencia are obscure for sure. Probably because there's no readily available English-language resources on the subject. The best I could find was a Hungarian Wikipedia page I translated using Google which told me that Operencia is literally an unknowable fairytale land.
"It wasn't like the Marvel Universe or Middle-Earth or something like that where there was one person thinking this one cohesive universe," says Baker. Instead, Operencia is a, perhaps library is a good word, of specific Hungarian legends that span hundreds of years and take place a long time ago in an unknown land. "Literally if you type [Operencia] into Google translate you get 'far far away'. So, I like to joke that we're making a Star Wars game," says Baker.
Baker is designing Operencia's overarching lore to feel original while incorporating real-life touchstones. Operencia includes real-world locations with legends attached to them, along with historical figures like Attila the Hun, or just King Attila in Operencia. Attila is a figure that's more myth than history and his reputation depends on your culture. For Operencia Attila is being depicted more as a hero, though not without complications.
Operencia began as a prototyping project about two years ago when Zen Studios decided it wanted to work on something other than the pinball series it became famous for. There were some VR games Zen Studios tried out, but ultimately the team decided to pursue something more traditional.
"Pinball has always been our stable horse and it's something we know how to do and we're experts and we're pros...but we have so much other talent in the office and in the studio and they've been developing over time and working on successful projects and we knew that we had something else to do," explains Mel Kirk, vice president of publishing at Zen Studios. Once the studio found Operencia it was a no-brainer. "We put everything behind it and we just say, 'hey yeah, we're know for pinball, we've made other things, but this is really where the passion lies within this team itself."
One thing that's cool about Operencia, at least for gamers on the go like me, is how Zen is taking a "level-based" approach to the game. Players can choose to explore a single-dungeon level, leave, and return to tackle the next level. Olivér Sándor a game designer at Zen Studios says that one of the goals of Operencia is to find a balance that will appeal to the hardcore but let a new generation of dungeon-crawlers to enjoy the genre.
Zen Studios admits that it has had some trouble getting players to pay attention to its non-pinball works in the past but sees Operencia as a unique opportunity. "I think there's things original and special about this game and it's also going to be a moment for the Hungarian gaming scene," says Kirk.
"There's a sense of the culture that is going to be highlighted here which is going to stand out. I look back with CD Project Red with Witcher that put Poland on the map, I look at other parts of the world where game development hasn't really been felt yet from the cultural sense and this is a really special moment I think in that regards."
Operencia: The Stolen Sun is available on Steam wishlist now.