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Having spent over thirty years working in the games industry on projects like Crash Bandicoot, Guitar Hero and even more recently Mario Kart, it wouldn’t be out of the question to think that Guha and Karthik Bala are experts at bringing other people’s dreams to life.
They even named a company after that notion while they were still in high school before they had even made their first game.
“The two of us, we were 14 and 15 years old and we took the bus to go register our company …that was May 3rd 1991.” Guha says of their first endeavour as wannabe game developers and that is how their first game studio “Vicarious Visions” came to fruition.
Guha Bala co-founded Velan Studios with brother Karthik
Karthik Bala and his brother Guha were also behind Vicarious Visions
Now three decades later Guha and Karthik have stepped away from their childhood venture to start a new company under the name Velan Studios as President and CEO, respectively.
Launching in 2016 the studio have already cut their teeth with the novel mixed-reality game Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit but now the studio has launched a brand new IP in conjunction with EA – a multiplayer competitive action game called Knockout City.
Knockout City is Velan Studios' first original game
The process of setting up a studio from scratch is nothing new to the Bala brothers. After registering their company name in 1991 and developing a number of games in the late 90’s, Vicarious Visions quickly made a name for itself as a developer that could take game properties primarily known for their home console outings and condensing those experiences to serve on the limitations of handheld consoles. This led to the development of games like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 for the Game Boy Advance which won Vicarious Visions their first BAFTA award.
But after 25 years at the helm, the Balas made the decision to leave the company to start a new studio
““We became part of Activision in 2005 and we left on the 25th anniversary of the studio. It felt like a good time to leave and start from scratch, which is what Velan Studios is all about doing something different and unique, creatively taking risks in new ways.” Karthik says.
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As Velan Studios prepared to launch its first original title, their previous experience working on some of the biggest gaming franchises of all time came into practice. The Bala brothers approach each title with the same philosophy they adopted at their previous company: keep things simple.
“No matter how big the franchise is, or walking into a large franchise trying to make it bigger or coming up with a brand new breakthrough, it all starts with some simple core principles and really tight game concepts at the core of that proposition” Guha says.
“That discovery process almost always starts with a few people that are thinking differently, that are really focused on finding that element of fun, that makes that thing tick. And then everything comes afterwards.
“It's a continuous process of iterating, with a core team to be able to find something simple, but super scalable.”
The gameplay of Knockout City is easy to learn, hard to master
With Knockout City, the core concept was as simple as they come: throwing a ball back and forth across an open space. The challenge came with extrapolating on that mechanic and making it work as a competitive multiplayer experience.
“Anybody can pick up, it's very inviting for anyone to pick it up, but then it's got this significant amount of skill depth to it, that skill ceiling is really high for those competitive players. It's that easy to learn, hard to master type of experience.” Karthik says.
Working with EA helped the Balas to expand the project
Working with a new, smaller studio gave the Bala brothers plenty of freedom to experiment and arrive at the core gameplay of Knockout City but with a global rollout for a brand new multiplayer IP they partnered with EA.
“So it was actually one of the reasons why we picked EA Originals. The project was prototyped and incubated at Velan and we spent 18 months showing it to different publishers to find our prospective partner and once we met with the EA Originals team, it became pretty evident.” Karthik says.
“They really trusted us in the team to just run with it. They were there for support. We're a small team deploying on a global scale across so many platforms.”
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Outside of working on Knockout City, Karthik and Guha also began mentoring other tech start-ups with the launch of Velan Ventures.
“It's really an expression of where Karthik and I came from, and what we love doing.” Guha says.
“One through-line for us throughout our careers has been making games. We've had opportunities to be on a more corporate side, or scale in more of a commercial capacity but we've always stayed close to our studio roots.”
The pair want to use their experience and expertise to help people in other tech fields
It’s a nod to their humble beginnings as two high school students wanting to make games and a way to pass the torch forward for other new start-ups that are trying to transform different tech sectors through gamification.
“A lot of VCs they don't understand games and if you can help support game entrepreneurs who are looking to disrupt other markets, other industries, and help them and whether you can help them incubate, just like we incubated ideas for Mario Kart Live and Knockout City, we can help them that way. So that they find the magical breakthroughs and they could change the world.”
Knockout City is available now on the Playstation Store, Xbox Store, Nintendo eShop, Origin, Steam and Epic Games Store