Game time Kiz Studios on Johns Island makes work out of playing

Corey McClammy (left) and Chia-Hao Liu both are 3D modelers at Kiz Studios on Johns Island. Buy this photo

It’s almost like a portal to the secret level of your favorite video game: You’d never find it but for a tip-off or a good map.

Kiz at play

How the game-making process works at Kiz:

After a call for submissions and brainstorming, the lead game developer pulls together a “game bible” document that describes the play, narrative, target audience and other guiding factors.

With roles assigned, the art process begins with a “white box,” a basic two-dimensional map of what the arena or level will look like. Then an artist will color in that 2-D design.

With that in hand, the modeling team begins translating the concept into 3-D, taking gridded polygons and making them into the figures that will become the characters. After notes and revisions, the 3-D model gets painted for details.

The animators then breathe life into it, adding emotion and expression. Meanwhile, Mike Flynn makes the sound effects and the background music, an experience he likens to “doing a film score blindfolded.” The art and the animation and the music eventually are integrated by the programmers.

“Sprinkle some pixie dust on top, and magically a game appears,” Flynn said, pausing before adding “fraught with bugs.”

Those get worked out over time as Kiz allows gamers to play during the months testing.

Brendan Kearney

But across Maybank Highway from the Johns Island post office, down a dirt road past a deserted bingo hall in a mostly windowless building, such fantasy worlds take form.

Open the unmarked front door, and the bright morning sun outside gives way to a dim room. All around, in clusters and on risers and in a corner “cave,” dozens of people stare at computer screens, clicking and typing.

This is the creative headquarters of Kiz Studios, the Lowcountry’s undercover gaming weapon.

“It’s pretty rural,” said Stephen Johnson, the company’s creative director. “You can step outside and hear cows.”

It might be “the last place in the world” you’d expect to find a video game studio, in the words of vice president of content development Drew Allen, but the team has been there since 2008.

And after a few years of “research and development,” during which the company’s product strategy took a journey of its own, Kiz seems to be hitting its stride.

Within the past year, the studio has released its centerpiece multiplayer online battle arena, or MOBA, game, “SmashMuck Champions,” and a pair of mobile games, “Critter Escape” and “Mix-a-Muck.”

Two more mobile games, an adventure puzzler game and a card game featuring the same “Muck” characters, are scheduled to debut this year.

Michael Derrig, technical art director at Kiz, was one of Johnson’s first hires in 2008. He remembers when the creative team was just a handful of guys, mostly graduates of the Savannah College of Art and Design like him and Johnson, in the center of the room, with skateboard ramps around them. A basketball hoop outside the front door serves as a lunchtime escape.

“Now we have a great hold on things,” he said.

Toying around


It all started in 2007, Johnson recalled. Then running his own three-dimensional animation studio in his first college town of Charleston, he got a call from his oldest brother, Ashley, who said he had an idea.

“Basically having a toy that becomes an entry point into an MMO,” or massively multiplayer online role-playing game, Stephen Johnson explained.

After working from home for a bit, Johnson picked the off-the-beaten-path office near his Johns Island home.

Meanwhile, Ashley Johnson, a veteran businessman and Kiz’s chief operating officer, set up the Atlanta-area corporate headquarters and secured funding for the venture. He now runs the company with Kiz Chairman and CEO Chris Moreau. Their board of advisers happens to include retired baseball great Phil Niekro.

Derrig called the “dichotomous relationship” great for creative productivity. In the dark about the company’s money situation (and in the no-lights-on sense of the word), the Johns Island team can focus on making games.

New wave


Although toys and figurines sit on the cubicle clusters at 1832 Bluebird Road, Kiz Toys became Kiz Studios, and, cutting out the gateway toys, makes only video games now.

All the virtual action takes place on the Planet Muck, a mythical place with kid heroes, robotic warriors and Muck monsters that sow chaos wherever they roam, from forests to islands. The lead villain, Simon Welk, was a powerless outcast kid until he got his hands on a magic crystal that controls the monsters, Allen said.

After struggling to build the “Kiz Planet” MMO that the brothers Johnson envisioned for a couple of years along with a collection of flash games, they re-evaluated the market and decided to join the new wave of MOBA and mobile games.

Kiz began developing “SmashMuck Champions” in 2011, and the game was released in beta form last summer.

Whereas the MMO was a long-form exploration of “Planet Muck,” “SmashMuck Champions” uses some of the same settings and characters but in a more limited but climactic context. It pits teams of players battling each other in a kind of themed arena.

Instead of 45 minutes per sitting, “SmashMuck” takes between only five and 10 minutes to play, explained art director Allen White, another SCAD graduate. There are longer options, but the point is it’’s a quicker experience for a quickening world.

The mobile games, which are developed by Derrig’s team on Johns Island and another team in Atlanta, are even shorter.

“We’re conditioned to that now,” Derrig said of the short attention spans and periods to play. “That’s something we recognize.”

All games are free or almost free. “Critter Escape,” wherein Muck creatures try to escape from Welk’s evil lab, is 99 cents through Apple’s App Store. Kiz makes its money when players get engrossed and want to build up their characters or experience with more features.

“It’s our job to keep you invested,” Derrig said.

Kiz enlisted Chilingo, the game publisher that helped make Angry Birds a hit, to help release and promote “Critter Escape” last summer. Kiz independently released “Mix-a-Muck,” a dress-up game, released in December, and doesn’t plan to use a publisher for its next two offerings to the mobile market, which Allen called “massive.” Kiz is considering making a mobile version of “SmashMuck.”

“That is the market,” he said, a nod to the ubiquity of smartphones.

Kiz, which consists mainly of men in their mid-20s to mid-30s, has “aged-up” the game somewhat to the college crowd, Allen explained, while also keeping the games kid-friendly, hence the enduring company name.

There’s violence, for instance, but the Kiz leadership wanted to avoid the kind of shoot-’em-up, blood-and-guts violence of “Call of Duty” or “Grand Theft Auto.” The mud-bodied bad guys on “Planet Muck” are instead melted with water. “ ‘Tom and Jerry’ violence” is how White describes it in a reference to the classic TV cartoon.

“We basically needed an enemy we could kill without spraying blood everywhere,” Stephen Johnson explained.

Next level


In addition to the mobile games scheduled for release in March and this fall, the “SmashMuck” team is working on a new level for one of the game’s five modes, a variety of options that puts Kiz “light years ahead of everyone else in this MOBA genre,” White said.

Kiz is looking forward to presenting its games at the Penny Arcade Exchange conference next month in Boston. That’s where gamers will be able to play this generation’s version of arcade games and give feedback.

The company also hopes to have area students in the studio to see how the games are made and tell Kiz what they want to see in future games.

They pride themselves on the efficiency of the roughly 35-member creative team at Kiz, pointing out their competitors on the West Coast are many times larger.

“We’re probably a quarter or a third the size of other studios that are doing the level or quality of these games we are making,” Stephen Johnson said.

Johnson wouldn’t mind moving to a more centrally located office, but even though he makes video games and leaves the financial details to his brother, he’s not living in fantasy land.

“It really depends on the success of the products,” he said.

Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906.

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