Calis Projects Interview

Calis Projects

Calis Projects is an independent games development company based in Dublin (Ireland) that to date has only produced one title, a JRPG in the Pokémon mould known as ‘ZENFORMS’ or to give it its full title, ‘ZENFORMS: Protectors’. Designed for iOS devices, the game follows an interesting model where it was launched at roughly 15% completion, with players paying a seemingly low price tag and enjoying new segments of the game as they are implemented. We sat down with the creator of ZENFORMS and founder of Calis Projects, known as Neo-Dragon on the Calis Projects forum, to talk to him about ZENFORMS and other projects in the making.

MBU
Firstly, thanks for taking the time out of working on version 1.3 to speak with us today. Could you tell us a little about yourself and Calis Projects for those not in the loop?

CALIS PROJECTS
My name is Stephen McVicker, also known as Neo-Dragon online, and I’m the founder of Calis Projects. Calis Projects is comprised of just myself, but I’ve help from my fiancee when it comes to storyline writing, and amazing artists that I work with on a regular commission basis like Nick Kron, who has designed new ZENFORMS coming in Version 1.3. I think your intro text sums up Calis Projects perfectly.

MBU
What drew you to making a game like ZENFORMS and what are your long-term goals for the title?

CALIS PROJECTS
After having a short run with a company designing iOS apps in the summer of 2009 (after my first year studying game development in College), I knew I wanted to make a game for iOS. I was already making games as a hobby for a couple of years at that stage and at the time was working on a Pokemon fan game known as Pokemon Protectors. I felt Pokemon Protectors was already using it’s own systems and thought it would be interesting to try make my own project using a similar concept. It took me 2 years, but ZENFORMS: Protectors was the result. The long term goals have changed a lot since release as new ideas and inspiration comes to mind. The plan is still to release 0.1+ versions as “major updates”, almost like episodes, all built into one game. 0.0.1+ versions are considered “minor updates” but can add big changes such as Version 1.2.5’s “CP Garden Online” which added an online backend to the game.

For the future of ZENFORMS: Protectors, I want to keep growing it until I get to Version 2.0 (which as of this interview is still about 7 major updates away). I also want to keep improving the online CP Garden with more features and more things to do on a daily basis if you log in.

Ideally, I would like ZENFORMS to just keep getting better as it gets older and more updates. I guess my dream would be for ZENFORMS: Protectors to be a modern monster-catcher/battler RPG with none of the annoying things others are doing (such as timers to make you wait to play, or requirements for premium currency to progress or to receive any decent items/rewards).

It’s also very important to me that ZENFORMS isn’t seen as a “rip off” or “clone” of other RPG games, but people see I’ve spent literally years giving it a soul and charm making it something individual in it’s own right.

ZP 3

ZENFORMS has a sprite based style with many animated elements to the environments.

MBU
Are there any games you’d cite as direct inspiration for the title?

CALIS PROJECTS
Obviously Pokemon games (in particular the GBA era) are a huge design inspiration, but another would be Minecraft and how that game just gets better and better with updates. More content, more things to do.

For added inspiration, I look outside the box of RPG styles and at other types of games that have good systems that can be added to ZENFORMS. A game I’ve been looking at for the last year or so is Destiny (yeah, the online shooter). I like how that gives loot and encourages you to do daily/weekly challenges. This is something I want to add to ZENFORMS in the future (and will be starting that with Daily Quests in the next update) as I feel it adds a new dynamic mixing genres and ideas.

MBU
We were sad to hear that iOS 8 broke ZENFORMS, but you’ve been quite pro-active in getting it back up and running (it is as of now fully functional) what was it like having to deal with a knock like that to development?

CALIS PROJECTS
Horrible! Haha. Let me give you some back story there. ZENFORMS: Protectors started development in 2010 and was released in September of 2012. Back then there was no such thing as 64-bit processors for phones. There are now. They make games and apps run much better if your app takes advantage of it. Without getting too technical, Apple forced developers to support 64-bit at the start of 2015. My game engine, which is custom written using a 2D graphics API called “Cocos2D” as a base. It was using an old version, and would just crash when trying to compile the code. Apple wouldn’t even let you submit an update without this support, which was bad news for me as I had spent about 6 months working on (what I call now) “Old Version 1.3”. This was Version 1.3’s planned content (new storyline, new ZENFORMS, new maps, and more) all built in the old engine and playable. Furthering this, iOS 8 was released and this also broke development. I should be clear, if you download ZENFORMS now, it’s Version 1.2.10, which is the old engine, and it will run fine – even if you are on the latest iOS versions – it’s just developing/compiling to the system broke.

I was put in a bad position. Do I move on from ZENFORMS: Protectors, or do I rewrite the entire game code in a new custom engine using a newer base? If I chose to re-write it, I’d basically be creating a whole new project, and starting at line 0 for the code. But it would mean that once ready, I’d have a new version of the game ready to go. More modern, slight improvements all around and a possibility of porting it to Android and Mac. I went with that option and I’m just finishing up on it now after about 8 months of work.

MBU
ZENFORMS uses a quite special model where consumers buy the game (at a very reasonable price) and play through what has been completed to date and then wait/grind while you work on the next instalment. What’s it been like developing in this method and how has it been received by the players?

CALIS PROJECTS
It’s been fun on my end and hopefully fun for players, although I can understand that waiting 6 months to a year for a major update can be annoying for consumers.
From my side, it’s fun and interesting because as I get better and learn more while making the game, I’m always adding more features and improving the game experience. I feel if you make it clear to players that you’ll focus on the game and it will get better, you’ll get people that will stick around.

I do know of players who deleted the game around Version 1.0 and came back after the major updates dropped for Version 1.1 or 1.2 and noticed big changes and just started a new game.

A problem for myself and players is also the fact that as I add more features, sometimes they just don’t get explained as to what they are since they were not around in the early part of the game (when it’s easy to make tutorials for players). For that, I try my best at keeping players updated on what’s new with Facebook and Blog updates, and I plan on doing more guides for players to help them if they get stuck with something.

MBU
Have you been able to keep to schedule?

CALIS PROJECTS
No! Haha. I shouldn’t laugh there. My developer side is laughing because if you ask pretty much any game developer, schedules and set dates are something of dreams. The reality is that work isn’t easy, especially if you are working by yourself. Personal life, inspiration, writer’s block or even your own motivation can be a big factor in how much work you get done. There have been times were weeks have gone by and I’ve not even wrote a single line of code due to being mentally exhausted or stuck on a problem with the code.

I’m a huge gamer myself, and it’s disappointing when a developer says “it will be ready next month!” and that month comes and goes with nothing. I understand players get annoyed and they have every right to. I just hope that if I do let you down with a date that you know it isn’t intentional and I’m not forcing you to come back to play. Go off, try other games while you wait, try other “pokemon-like” RPGs and then come back to ZENFORMS in a year and see if it’s improved.

ZP 1

The games battle system is optimized for touch-screens to an extremely high standard.

MBU
At what percentage complete would you say the game is at now?

CALIS PROJECTS
I go with what the version is from 1.0 to 2.0. So 1.3 is 30%. That’s unfair for me to say about the game since there is SO much already, but it’s just easier to go by this as I’m promising fans that as long as I can keep submitting updates, I plan on releasing storyline updates in 0.1+ version chunks until I get until 2.0. When I get to 2.0 I’ll consider the game “content complete” which means I’m done, but may still fix bugs or make minor changes here or there, but the game is not getting more content from that point.

MBU
You’ve been dabbling in tool creation for games as well, what exactly is ZENGarden?

CALIS PROJECTS
ZENGarden is the name I give my custom game engine. It’s coded in Objective-C, a language intended mainly for Apple platforms but I’m using a tool to help port it to Android. It’s based on top of Cocos2D which handles basic sprite and scene setup over a low level graphics language called OpenGL.

I created a lot of system functions that are core to making a game such as saving/loading data, downloading/uploading data to a server, playing music, adding shadows to images.and getting colors for tinting text… Lots of little things that all add up. I planned on releasing ZENGarden after Version 1.3 is released, or at least parts of it’s functions for free but I don’t think there is a big enough dev community for Objective-C now that Apple is pushing their new language, Swift, so hard.

I do also have tutorials set up to try and teach people how to use Objective-C and my base project I uploaded to GitHub.

MBU
You’re very active on social media and it feels like the game has your constant attention. Have you found these avenues useful for interacting with players?

CALIS PROJECTS
It’s interesting you say that because I feel I don’t post much and part of that is waiting until after 1.3 is released since all of my media is going to be captured from that version. I do try post once or twice a week. I do a weekly dev blog on my forum so I usually post a link to that with a screenshot of what I worked on for the week.

I’ve found it very useful for interacting with players. I take pride in that I try message back anyone who has a question for me. Even if it takes me a few days, I try get back to everyone….. As long as they are not trolling me, ha. I think if you are an indie dev, or a team with 2 or 3 people, you should always try make time to interact with your players. They are your fan base and support after all. If you have a game with millions of players, I can understand if you can’t make the time.

MBU
ZENFORMS is a constantly evolving game. When I first started a patch implemented rewards that you accessed through the games menu, but now daily items are shipped to your in-game home for you to discover. Can you outline some of the features you’ve included in ZENFORMS to date?

CALIS PROJECTS
A big thing that came in a patch around that time was also Passive Stats, stats that increase as you use your ZENFORM in battle. That was a big thing. A lot of people expect “Pokemon”. They want levels, experience bars, and more. ZENFORMS doesn’t do this. You earn Skill Points which you can spend on any ZENFORM to increase the Physical Stats to get stronger and eventually increase your Star Rank (which is kind of like level). Passive Stats boost damage, but don’t control it in the way Physical stats do, but they were a step into the bar growing after battle vibe, ha.

The biggest thing added to the game has been the CP Garden. Completely changed the game. It started with an Online Event system which gave items, but now it’s a full fledged system with user profiles, battling other players teams, and more. 1.3 is going to be crazy for that. It’s adding an exclusive new powerful ZENFORM called “Nebula ZENFORM” into the CP Garden along with Daily Quests, Weekend Giveaways, a monthly battle league, and online storage. I think the first thing you should do when you update to 1.3 is go into the CP Garden, set up your profile, and start doing the Daily Quests. Finishing them will give you the Nebula energy needed to open the portal to battle those Nebula ZENFORM I was talking about. There will be a new Nebula in the portal each week, with about 12 to get on launch.

ZP 2

ZENFORMs change forms through player diligence rather than simply at set levels.

MBU
What can we expect to see in the future?

CALIS PROJECTS
Other than the online stuff, the game is getting a whole new bunch of ZENFORM with the introduction of Que, a brand new Newborn. Each Newborn can branch evolve, has about 44 ZENFORM in it’s “family” and a lot of them can come in different colors.

So more ZENFORM are coming, more storyline and a big thing coming in updates will be more unique side quests that are not just “filler”. Or hopefully not filler anyways. I’m hoping to allow better experiences other than following the main storyline, and also opening the ability to make choices to affect a lot more outcomes.

MBU
All ZENFORMS start from one of the three basic types and evolve based on the player’s treatment and training of them. How many ZENFORMS are there in total?

CALIS PROJECTS
Yeah, so here is a cool thing about ZENFORMS (the creatures). It starts of with 3 Newborns (a 4th is coming in Version 1.3). The Newborns are the babies (literally). I wanted to design the evolution system to match life in a way. So Newborns evolve to Child stage, Child ZENFORMS evolve to Adolescent stage (teens), Adolescent to Adults, and finally Adults to Grand (those cool Nebula I was talking about are Adult stage). Adults and Grand are currently blocked to the player (they will come in an update). All ZENFORM from Newborn-Adolescent are present in the game. Another cool thing is each one can come in 3 color styles, and a 4th is super rare (think of it as a “shiny” from Pokemon). Each color has it’s own Attack Pool to learn attacks from. It’s own Ability pool (each ZENFORM can have 1 of 3 abilities). In code terms, each color of ZENFORM is unique, and would be the same as a different monster in other games… So exact numbers are hard to say- less then 150 at the moment, but will grow once the Adults/Grands are unlocked to the player.

MBU
Apparently ZENFORMS is coming to Apple Watch?

CALIS PROJECTS
No that was an April Fools joke. You can link to it HERE.

MBU
The P-Com is the in-game menu system for ZENFORMS and contains its own mini-game. How did that come about?

CALIS PROJECTS
The P-Com is getting a complete revamp in Version 1.3. I wanted the P-Com to be useful to the player (the journal app, and the upcoming revamp to the Map app), be expandable (more “apps”), and it also pushes the story forward as the P-Com was created by the in game company “ZTR: Labs”.

It basically is supposed to be like the smart phone of the game world. I removed the mini-game for the P-Com revamp but it should come back in an update. I plan on having a few little mini games in that in the future.

MBU
Of all the games features, the most memorable thing about ZENFORMS is its battle system. Not just interesting and touch-based in design but with a dynamic camera that zooms, pans and focuses on key events. Are you proud of your achievements with this?

CALIS PROJECTS
Thank you very much. Fun fact: As of doing this interview, I’m currently remaking the battle system in the new engine. I’m having a lot of fun coding it and getting it set back up. I love the battle system in the game (as a player, and yes, I play my own game). I’m really proud of it and I can tell you this will only get better with updates. The game use static sprites for the ZENFORMS, they don’t animate naturally in the sprite, so I had to get creative with how I moved the images around on screen. In recent updates I have physical attacks actually make the ZENFORM run over and hit the other ZENFORM. They do little jumps, and combining that with particle effects for element attacks, and the camera zooming and panning, it makes battles feel much better than if I didn’t add that little stuff. So yeah, I’m really proud of it, and it’s nice that you enjoy it too.

ZP 4

The in-game menu works as a hub for all kinds of features and has its own in-game explanation.

MBU
Have you had to cut anything because you simply couldn’t get it to work?

CALIS PROJECTS
Great question. I think the biggest thing cut is real time multiplayer. I’ve shown off demos on the YouTube page for an online world (found HERE). This is being done in the new engine, the code is still there, but it’s cut for the players. I’d love to try polish things and see if I can take what I showed in that video to another level.

Live battles are something that I’ve not really tried to code but I’m going to at some point give it a go and see if it will make release. Live battle means you can battle another player in real time. Currently the game uses “Echo Battles” which allow you to battle other players by downloading their team, but the team is controlled by the game AI.

MBU
Do you plan to implement a ‘run’ button into the new build to make navigating areas faster?

CALIS PROJECTS
There is a run button. A lot of people don’t know this. If you press in the center of the DPad, there is a circle button. That is a toggle to increase the player’s movement speed to walking speed.

As far as going faster, I’m not planning a bike or anything yet, but there is an all new Fast Travel teleport system coming in Version 1.3 too. Keep an eye out for the Doctor Who/English style phone boxes. They will be new objects on the map. They will appear after a certain point in the story of 1.3 (you’ll know when). Activating them will let you teleport between any active one for a small Alt fee.

MBU
What advice would you give to new players?

CALIS PROJECTS
I always get asked on the best way to get a strong team. My advice here would be to evolve as early as you can. Players control when a ZENFORM evolves from the ZENFORM menu, tapping the ZENFORM and looking for that evolve button. It costs SP (Skill Points) but do a few battles to grind away for it. Evolving will boost your damage calculations (give extra damage, reducing incoming damage) without needing to change Physical stats. From there, speaking of Physical stats, you can put it all into one stat if you want, but don’t. Try increase your stats as even as possible. High Defense will make sure you can take damage, while high Speed will make sure you attack first. Don’t just focus on increasing Attack. That’s a mistake.

MBU
What advice would you give to budding developers?

CALIS PROJECTS
Any time is as good as any to get into developing. Figure out what area your strength is. Is it art, programming or something else. From here get a game engine like Unity or Game Maker or look into using a tool that will play to your advantage. If you do programming like I did, “simply type making a game using _______” into Google (replacing those underscores with the programming language you know). See what pops up.

From here, do tutorials. Learn how to add an image or 3D model to the screen. Learn how to move it using input. Learn how to play sound effects or trigger events. And just keep learning. You’ll get there. Don’t worry about people telling you “learn how to make a simple game first”. I didn’t, my first commercial game was an RPG. Learn how to do what you need to do (load a map, load a character on that map, play background music).

MBU
If you could say anything to ZENFORMS fanbase, what would it be?

CALIS PROJECTS
If you are already part of the fanbase, I just need to say a huge thanks. I’m glad you are a fan, and I know you already know big stuff is on the way. I literally couldn’t do it without the support of the people I have.

If you are interested in ZENFORMS but are not a player, keep an eye out for Version 1.3 news. 1.3 is a massive update to iOS but will be bringing the game to Android for the first time (it may be titled Version 1.0 on Android on release, but then I’ll sync the numbers up across devices since they will be the same). When 1.3 comes out, give it a download. It does cost money, but it’s less than the price of lunch for a day. Less than the cost of your fav energy drink or coffee from a cafe. It will be worth it. You’ll get something from playing it. You might be surprised how different ZENFORMS: Protectors is compared to other mobile RPGs, even other pokemon-like games.

You know what is cool about ZENFORMS. I said it above and I’ll say it again. There are no timers. You won’t be playing for 5 minutes then have to wait an hour to progress. No huge UI buttons with Plus symbols over the game world looking for you to pay to add some currency. You are getting a game that isn’t trying to trick you for more cash after your purchase. If you buy ZENFORMS, you are getting an RPG that will give you a fun gameplay experience and not expect anything back from you. Not to mention that assuming no more weird rules come up and I can keep sending updates to Apple/Google, I plan to keep working on them.

Thanks for the interview. Hope you enjoyed reading it.

MBU
Thanks again for your time today. If readers are interested in checking out Calis Projects for themselves they can find the official website HERE and ZENFORMS own webpage HERE.

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