Interview With Zephyr Games’ Kenneth Johnson

How long has Zephyr Games been in the videogame industry, and how large is the team nowadays? Would you describe Zephyr as primarily a developer or a publisher – or has the line between the two become pretty blurred in your case?

Zephyr Games has been around for almost two years now. We are something of a full service shop for clients, and we do some small work internally, developing our own applications/games and releasing them. The team is one to two producers, and then external artists, programmers, and sound engineers we work with to complete our projects. I would say the line is fairly blurred for us, since it really comes down to meeting the needs of our clients.

It’s surprising to see a strategy game like Kirin Wars come out of a studio known more for children’s games and simple apps until now. Does Kirin Wars reflect a major shift in Zephyr’s goals, or does it fit pretty well into your original vision for the company?

Funny you should mention that. When Zephyr Games was founded, Kirin Wars was our planned first title! Unfortunately we had some bad luck with the first two external developers we worked with on the project, which led to fairly major delays in the release of the game. In the interim we began taking on work with clients, and since much of our team’s background included children’s games it seemed like a natural fit. Now we endeavor to balance between simple games meant for children and a number of more adult games and mechanics that we are working on. Kirin Wars will be the first among those, but we already have a second in the pipeline we’re looking to release later this year as well.

You’ve stated that you’re going for a style that should be familiar to gamers who grew up with the Sega Genesis and SNES — any specific classics you’re channeling here?

Yes, the intent was definitely to reach out to gamers who remember some of the older NES/Genesis/SNES era turn-based games that had a strong emphasis on story from mission to mission. We did a little casting around for the particular mix of mechanics we wanted to go with, and finally settled on one used by a fairly old series called Langrisser in Japan. In the US, one episode of that series launched on the Sega Genesis under the name Warsong. We felt it was a great model in terms of building a storyline and characters over a few missions, as well as providing the user multiple pathways to success.

Looking at it, I would say Kirin Wars feels very similar. It has a few benefits in terms of better graphics, more units, classes, etc. But any fan of the Langrisser series will feel right at home.

We’ve seen battle cutscenes with one-on-one and group versus group formations. How do player and enemy unit structure work, exactly?

The structure is actually identical for both the player and any enemy/neutral units and commanders. Essentially commanders (which include our heroes) are displayed as single characters, both on the map and in combat. Meanwhile, the units a commander recruits and brings into a mission – up to four of a single kind – are displayed on the map as single characters but represented by one to three soldiers in combat. It’s somewhat similar to the Advance Wars display, where the ones in combat are killed off and the unit is represented by less as the overall unit health degrades.

One thing to keep in mind is that death is permanent. “Health” can be restored, but if a unit or commander is reduced to zero then that unit or commander is removed from combat. Units disband and leave the map when the commander leaves, making it possible to overcome difficult odds by killing off the enemy commander first. However, this may cost the player experience in the long run, as the disbanded units do not provide experience like killing them off separately would. Character deaths are permanent, similar to Fire Emblem. So you will want to protect your characters as you build them up!

And what game engine is Zephyr using for Kirin Wars? Considering the game’s lengthy development cycle, has this remained constant throughout or has the team had opportunities to prototype in different game engines before settling on the final?

Actually no pre-existing engine was used for this game. This has been done from scratch (re-done at points due to the aforementioned developer issues) and we feel that we’ve settled on a pretty stable and reusable system. Our intent now is to build on it over time through free patches as well as larger in-app purchases that will expand the story, the missions, and the artwork with new tilesets, locales, etc.