“Normal’s not working for us, we need to try crazy” Josh recalls telling his mother at the time.
“Crazy” meant turning Josh’s passion for video games into a job, and he wanted to bring it to his home in Great Falls, Montana. With an idea for a game they wanted to create, Josh and Trevor went out and got a business license and Team Kaizen Games was born.
Those early days were hectic. The family was still learning how to cope with Trevor’s illness and Josh had a day job working at a call center, which he soon quit to work full time on Team Kaizen. Josh developed a pitch for what would eventually become Shattered Soul, their debut title, and through a series of events was able to land a meeting with a major publisher. Per Josh, the meeting was in confidence and he is unable to disclose the name of the publisher. Team Kaizen came out of that meeting with a lot of good advice and a next step: Make a demo.
Josh, Trevor and Cyndi are self-taught game programmers, but began meeting with programming and 3D art students to help build the game. This was the beginnings of the team currently working at Team Kaizen. They also began recruiting team members at industry events such as Sony’s pre-E3 party in 2009. To this day, team members of Team Kaizen Games have day jobs, and work for sweat equity because the work is a project they believe in.
“It...took us almost the entirety of the past 14 years to build the team we have now. It takes time to find people who share your passion for your project and can fill in needed skill gaps, but we’ve got a pretty cool mix now.” says Josh.
Shattered Soul is still in its prototype stage, but its pitch video can be viewed here. The game has landed involvement from Chris Casamassa, four-time karate champion and Scorpion in the Mortal Kombat movie, who will both coach Team Kaizen Games and play a character in Shattered Souls.
In addition to developing video games, Team Kaizen does educational work within the community. It started in 2010, when Sony teamed up with the MacArthur Foundation and the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) to create a competition for people to make educational levels in Media Molecule’s LittleBigPlanet. Team Kaizen Games was one of the top winners and from that experience the team realized there was a disconnect between the gaming industry and the educational game industry.
This caused some stress, Josh says. “We wanted to be a ‘normal’ game studio and make games like Shattered Soul. However, we also saw a need in the educational side, but didn’t want to abandon our ‘normal’ side. Then, we realized, the whole ‘normal’ and educational’ divide was a made up thing, there was no iron-clad law that said we couldn’t have one foot in each world.”
Ultimately, Team Kaizen Games decided to bridge that gap, officially transitioning into an educational game studio. Since then, they have teamed up with Ingenium, a non-profit sister studio dedicated to the intersection of STEAM education, career education, game development and community impact, to teach game design camps using LittleBigPlanet.
This led to the development of their second game, Burst! in 2020, a science-powered music game in which players erupt fireworks, using elements from the Periodic Table to change explosion colors. Burst! Is still in its alpha stage, but a demo is available on Josh’s YouTube channel.
“The STEAM information is presented in a way that helps players make their in-game performance better, and we intentionally veer away from the trope of demanding players drill themselves with these facts to regurgitate them on a digital test,” Josh says. “If you make it that the STEAM content is directly empowering to the player to have even more fun in the game, it’s actually meaningful information to them on a personal level that they’re far more likely to remember.”
After almost a decade of growth, learning and community development, Team Kaizen was selected for Sony’s Road to Greatness, a traveling gaming festival, in 2014. Described as ”E3 on wheels”, Sony brought a bus decked out with top of the line PlayStation equipment so community members all over Great Falls could play and learn about the gaming industry.
Road to Greatness helped signal Team Kaizen Games’ dream to the world and put the educational developer on the map as the first PlayStation-certified game studio in Montana. Josh felt the experience helped to get the Team Kaizen name out there and helped show his community how much of a positive impact gaming can have. To this day, they use the Road to Greatness video as an elevator pitch to show people who they are and what they’re about.
Most recently, Team Kaizen Games applied for a tourism grant from the state of Montana, petitioning to host a fighting game style tournament, dubbed Fists Over the Falls, in Great Falls in 2021. They have two versions of the expo planned in case the pandemic prevents a standard in-person tournament from being held. The COVID-friendly version involves competitors playing from their cars in a parking lot and gameplay projected onto massive outdoor screens, a clever mix of gaming and drive-in entertainment. Team Kaizen Games will find out in early February if they won the grant.
The Hughes family remains the heart of the company after 14 years. They’re in talks with several companies to get Shattered Souls and Burst! fully funded and out to market, and are confident it will happen soon. In the meantime, they are enjoying the hometown celebrity status they’ve built up in Great Falls.
“We were stopped at a red light and a truck full of highschoolers pulled up next to us, eating pizza,” says Josh. “One of them had half a slice in his mouth, saw us, dropped the pizza, and screams, ‘Oh my god, it’s the video game guys!’”
Photo courtesy of Team Kaizen Games