An Engine By Any Other Name: Interview with RPG Maker Developer zDS

An Engine By Any Other Name: zDS Interview

It’s an inevitability: someone points out that a game you’re interested in has a distinctive look that reveals the engine the game was built in. If you’re lucky, the person is surprised this game was built in a specific engine because it doesn’t look like THOSE types of games. What may have started as a novelty in the early 1990s eventually became an extremely popular low-code or no-code engine. With popular titles like To the Moon, LISA: The Painful, and Omori, RPG Maker has always been a contender in the indie RPG marketplace.

While those popular titles have some mainstream appeal and have seen their day in the sun, the RPG Maker well runs deep. For this reason, I’m beginning a series of interviews with RPG Maker developers and teams working in the engine to shine a light on their projects and discuss misconceptions about the engine. Last year, while preparing to write an RPG Maker primer, I played a game titled A Ghostly Rose by zDS and really enjoyed my time with it. He has two games on Steam and is working on a third titled Kissed By A Star, coined as a turn-based RPG with heavy novel elements. I am very excited to share my interview with zDS.

RPGFan: How would you introduce yourself and the types of games you make?

zDS: Indie game developer dad. Turn-based RPG enthusiast who is obsessed with listening to and making video game music. I make exclusively turn-based RPGs on RPG Maker. I say they tend to be moody experiences focusing around story and/or atmosphere. If you laugh and cry, then I have succeeded.

RPGFan: What are some of your favorite parts about using RPG Maker to create games?

zDS: The main thing is that I can make exactly the type of games I want to make without learning a single bit of programming! I’m so glad I am not obsessed with making something like a platform game because I’d be in some serious hot water.

A Ghostly Rose character on a bridge over a river with woodlands around. It appears to be dawn or dusk.
A Ghostly Rose‘s world manages to be both muted and vibrant.

RPGFan: What do you think is the biggest misconception about RPG Maker and the games developed using it?

zDS: So many!

I have had so many people belittle the efforts I have made on this thing by accusing me of “playing a game” and not “making a game.” I am not sure this is something people still go through, but it is something that stuck with me.

No. We are making games.

Another one I dealt with was “it is almost impossible to make a good RPG Maker game.” Not true. It’s likely the easiest engine to make a good game on, honestly. I have played several good RPG Maker games. The engine does not limit anyone. You can make an amazing game with a good understanding of its limitations. All it takes is good writing, clever level design, and a good understanding of RPG combat if you are making an RPG.

RPGFan: What are some of your favorite RPG Maker games or experiences?

zDS: Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass was a game that legitimately haunted me in all the best ways. Kasey Ozymy also developed it by himself, doing all graphics and music. It was a success story while being so true to itself and its genre. Very inspiring. Made me realize I listened to critics a little too often and might have watered down my experiences more than I should have.

I quite enjoyed all of Sgt’s games, such as Brave Hero Yuusha, Soma Spirits, and Soma Union! I forget I am playing an RPG Maker game. It just feels like its own thing. Each are made with such a love for the genre and do something I try to do: Make turn-based RPGs more accessible without sacrificing what they are.

Last, but not least, The Disrupted Monarchs. It was made by my older brother so I might be a little biased. It was a bizarre and dark game, never dull for a second. There is nothing like it out there. And it did something I feel my games sorely lacked. Every time I beat a boss or made it past an area, it gave me this sense of accomplishment.

Each of these games have their own distinct art and music made for them. The Do It Yourself style really appeals to me.

RPGFan: If money and time weren’t an issue, would you continue to use the RPG Maker engine?

zDS: If I had more time and money, I’d love to have a team of people making more modern-style games with huge scopes. But I like to think I’d still use RPG Maker for solo stuff. It’s an amazing tool for me to have something that is entirely “me.” I don’t have to share anything.

A Ghostly Rose battle screenshot with descriptive text saying "The Devourer has suffered a body injury."
The combat in A Ghostly Rose is engaging, like a puzzle.

RPGFan: It looks like you create all of your own art and compose all of your own music. What advantages/disadvantages are there in being able to make these games entirely on your own?

zDS: Freedom is the main advantage. You can imagine anything and, for better or worse, make it. When I was still dabbling in RTP (RPG Maker’s default assets, for those of you who might not know), I spent a lot of time trying to make a particular atmosphere. But it was like using the wrong puzzle pieces to do so. The same with music. With music, it’s even more important to be my own than art. It is such an important ingredient in the flavor of a game.

There are several disadvantages. Easier to get burnt out. It takes WAY longer to make. Prone to impostor syndrome. Writer’s block can hit you in several different places. It can make a fun hobby become quite overwhelming if you do not pace yourself correctly. But it is absolutely worth it. Knowing how far I have come brings me a great sense of pride. If I keep going, I will only get better. That makes me excited for the future.

RPGFan: It took me about 10-12 hours to complete A Ghostly Rose. About how long did it take to develop?

zDS: A little over two years, I believe. After I had finished my prior game, Cope Island: Adrift, I more or less took a break for a few months or so. It took me about six months to build the game’s skeleton, such as graphic style, battle mechanics, and even the UI. I took a little time to let the game breathe a bit before I started making the actual game.

Once I deemed the skeleton finished, the game came about rather fast. Real-life changes halted the progress a bit, such as my wife becoming pregnant and then actually having the kid! I developed a lot of the game while my infant at the time was napping. Sometimes even on me.

All in all, I am quite proud about how fast I managed to get this game finished while going through all that.

RPGFan: Three Ghostly Roses is the precursor to A Ghostly Rose. Do you consider Three Ghostly Roses more of a prequel or the first version of an iterative design?

zDS: I see them as different games. Three Ghostly Roses is the NES game. A Ghostly Rose is the SNES sequel, but it’s more or less the same experience retold. Like Zelda 1 to A Link to the Past. Or Metroid 1 to Super Metroid. The difference in mine is A Ghostly Rose is an entirely different story and world at the same time. It also doesn’t make Three Ghostly Roses obsolete. It was a story I tried to tell since roughly 2013. With A Ghostly Rose, I felt I finally told it the way that satisfied me.

A Screenshot from the RPG Maker game Kissed By A Star, with a Blue Jay train riding along.
zDS has promised us a lazy passenger train ride.

RPGFan: Kissed By A Star is a party-based RPG, whereas your previous projects have had solo protagonists. What went into the decision to branch out into a party-based game?

zDS: I had first attempted the Ghostly Rose story in 2013. Ever since then, I have been cursed with making solo-character RPGs. Every time I finished one, I would tell myself, “Never again!” Then for whatever reason, the next project would end up having only one character. I kept finding new ways to make it work implementing lessons I learned. It was always VERY difficult. So many obstacles. During the development of these games, I always had my “big game” in development alongside. Mostly in my head. These games would always have several characters.

There is a graveyard of my “big ones.” Each one of them hurt to let go, but I outgrew them. Kissed By A Star was the big one I thought of in my head during the development of A Ghostly Rose. This time, I refused to let this one join the graveyard. It was just time for me to go all out.

I am more than ready to leave the solo character style behind at this point, haha.

RPGFan: A Ghostly Rose was an incredible ride with a very strong identity. The game is both moody, as you describe, surreal, and somewhat humorous. What inspired you to make such a game?

zDS: Thank you for the kind words!

EarthBound and the Mother series as a whole shaped me as a person. All of my favorite stories mix humor in their dark situations. I’m also the goofiest person you’d ever meet, but I’m also quite gloomy and love sad stories/music.

A Ghostly Rose is a very dark story, but I didn’t want it to be completely bleak and depressing. I wanted you to punch things and beat up monsters, then have the more emotionally vulnerable moments punch you back.

There were a few dreams I had during the beginning of the development that I really wanted to recreate. That honestly was a factor that kept me going. A Ghostly Rose is like a sandcastle built from the complex emotions and experiences I was going through at the time. I wanted it to cut rather close to my heart and have fun doing so.

RPGFan: Do you have a parting message for our readers or a release window tease for Kissed By A Star?

zDS: For now, there is no window. Maybe in 2024 I will release a meaty demo, but nothing concrete yet! It is going well, though. About four hours of gameplay done.

A Screenshot from the RPG Maker game Kissed By A Star
No doubt the combat will be intriguing in Kissed By A Star.

I want to thank zDS for taking the time to speak with me about his experience developing games in the RPG Maker engine.

If you’re interested in following development on Kissed By A Star you can follow zDS on Twitter, follow the thread, or follow development on

You can find A Ghostly Rose and Cope Island: Adrift on Steam.

I know I’m greatly anticipating Kissed By A Star and am keeping an eye on his page for updates. I hope you enjoyed this interview and remember that the content within the game is far more important than the engine it was used to develop. Stay engine neutral, and remember to never stop exploring your love of games.

Nick Mangiaracina

Nick Mangiaracina

Nick slept through most of high school because he needed to maintain heavy raiding hours in EverQuest. Since then he's been spending most of his time playing and writing about video games, specifically RPGs. He loves learning about RPGs he's never heard of and spends a fair amount of time lurking in indie spaces for emerging small-team indie RPGs. He also has a tri-color corgi named Felix.