One of Sony Group Corp.’s biggest hits this year for the PlayStation 5 came from a little-known studio with no video game experience. It was an unusual gamble for the normally risk-averse Sony and it might not have happened but for a series of unforeseen events.
I talked with the two brothers who led development on the breakout Kena: Bridge of Spirits to hear the full story.
At the beginning of 2020, as Sony was getting ready to formally announce the PlayStation 5, the marketing team worked with Mike and Josh Grier to hone and polish the trailer for Kena to be revealed in early summer alongside the new console. The brothers knew a showcase like that would guarantee them millions of eyeballs and potentially future players.
Then came the virus.
Sony pivoted from planning a live launch event in New York to a Covid-safe digital showcase, and the company asked attendees to record videos remotely. W
hile this was somewhat disappointing, the Grier brothers were still thrilled to participate and set to work to create the video from their office, within the confines of the new “social distancing” rules.
This proved difficult but manageable with a cameraman decked out in protective gear. “He was in a full hazmat suit, sweating the whole time,” said Josh Grier. “It was professionally done but very weird.”
Kena: Bridge of Spirits, a fantasy action game with Zelda-like gameplay and visuals resembling a Pixar film, came out Sept. 21 to solid reviews.
It was a pivotal part of Sony’s lineup this year for the PlayStation 5. With other blockbusters delayed, the company put marketing muscle into Kena and treated it like a big fall release.
The main reason for that prime placement, the Griers say, is because Kena was a breakout hit at that initial June 2020 virtual showcase, winning attention from intrigued fans and critics.
“I think that helped push us to the front of the line in terms of games they were going to highlight and showcase when they could,” said Mike Grier. It turns out it was worth getting the hazmat suit.
The Grier brothers had never made a game before. Their company, Ember Lab, began as an animation service house when they started it in 2009. After going viral in 2016 with a short fan film based on The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, the brothers decided to pivot to full-time game development and create a beautiful, ambitious action-adventure game.
The team pitched early versions of Kena at game conferences and drew interest from several big publishers, then struck a deal with Sony for funding and marketing support.
Working with one of the big console makers had some nice perks. They were briefed on the PlayStation 5 a year before its announcement and even received early development kits, much to the delight of everyone there.
“I think we all turned back into the kid versions of ourselves,” said Josh Grier. “We felt like we were at a private E3.”
The Griers wouldn’t say exactly how many copies of Kena they’ve sold, but they said they’ve recouped the game’s initial costs and have been pleasantly surprised with sales so far. “It’s hard to tell what’s a huge success,” said Josh. “Sony’s happy.”
Kena’s success has allowed Ember Lab to become a full-time game developer. They’re not yet sure what their next title will look like, but they know it’ll be a narrative-driven video game like Kena.
“We’re not going back to commercials,” said Josh.
What to play this weekend
I know I told you to play Metroid Dread last week, but honestly, it’s all I’ve been playing so I’ll recommend it again. The new 2D sci-fi action-adventure game from Nintendo Co. is without a doubt one of the best games of 2021.
I finished it on Tuesday yet I still have the urge to go back and play more (maybe on Hard mode…). It’s a relentless, pulsing game full of alien charm. Even if you’ve never played a Metroid before, check it out.