As heard on Wednesday's PALGN Podcast, we recently caught up with Steve Fawkner, CEO of Infinite Interactive, in an exclusive interview to discuss Puzzle Quest, Puzzle Quest: Galactrix, Neopets Puzzle Adventure and a whole lot more.
For those of you who may have missed the Podcast or are unable to listen to it, here is a full transcript of the interview.
PALGN: Steve, personally I was an absolutely huge fan of Puzzle Quest. I lost absolutely, literally hours in airports and hotel rooms to the game, it was a real case of pick it up once and couldn't put it down again. Did you get a feeling of how popular Puzzle Quest was going to be, during the development process?
Steve Fawkner: Yes, it was one of those games that, very early in development, we knew it was a pretty good game. We knew it was fun, we were all playing it as much as we were working on it. I'd given it to my mother - I've been writing games for 25 years and it was the first game my mother had ever actually taken of mine that she'd liked and played - so we knew it was a pretty sticky kind of game, that once people got their hands on it, they liked to play it a lot.
We didn't realise it would go out and sell quite as fast as it did. It was one of those really wonderfully pleasant surprises you get. We thought it'd be hanging around for maybe a year to two years, you know, just doing good numbers for a couple of years, a nice long, steady seller, but all of a sudden it got out there and everyone went crazy about it, it was absolutely fantastic.
PALGN: Personally, I think it's one of the few examples of a game that really did bridge the gap between the casual and the core markets. Was that intentional or was that emergent design?
SF: With that bridging of the gap, we didn't actually set out to bridge a gap per se, we just kind of do what we usually do and that's set out to write a game that we want to play. As it's turned out, it's been the first casual game that a lot of more hardcore gamers have played and it's been the first hardcore type of RPG that a lot of casual gamers have played. So both groups have kind of experienced something new, which is one of the reasons I think that it just kind of hit the right note.
PALGN: I've got to ask, how did you mother actually find it? [laughs]
SF: How did she find it? She's like the most hardcore Puzzle Quest player you've ever met. She's finished it six times now, including the expansion pack twice, with four different characters. One of them she completely maxed out to level 50 and unlocked everything in the game. So I think she's, well she always has been my biggest fan, but now she really is my biggest fan [laughs].
PALGN: That's actually...that's impressive, I've got to admit though that when I picked up the Wii about two years ago, my mum embarrassingly completely whupped me in boxing, so...[laughs]
SF: [laughs]Well look my mum whupped me in tennis on the Wii too, she's just got this way she gets that fast serve in all the time, I don't know how she does it!
PALGN: There's been quite a few comments about the death threats that you apparently got around Puzzle Quest - what's the story behind them?
SF: I think it may have been blown up a little bit out of proportion. We did get a number of death threats and a bomb threat about the game mainly because people were kind of angry that ... they were angry about all sorts of things. They were angry that there was a bug in the PSP version, they were angry about a bug in the DS version, they were angry because they are just on the Internet and they get angry, yeah I don't know.
We got a few threats through and quite flippantly in an interview with some guys from Gamespot a few months back - I'd written about this in Game Developer, an article in Game Developer last year and it just sort of slid under the radar - but one of the Gamespot guys had seen it and he said, 'Tell me about the death threats,' and I was hopped up on a few macchiatos and I said, 'Ah! Let me tell you about the death threats,' I just started having a bit of fun and of course he popped it on Gamespot and then it sort of went all over the place, Australian newspapers were picking it up. It really was kind of harmless - I don't really think anyone there was actually going to kill me ... well, one guy had written a pretty nasty email, but I think if I'd have said boo to him he probably would have run away.
PALGN: Well I think you're going to go down in the annals of computer game history now as one of the few...
SF:The guy who got death threats over a puzzle game, yeah!
PALGN: Exactly! Now I've got to ask this too, I mean, honestly - does the AI cheat in Puzzle Quest? I've watched it get so many combos when I've struggled to actually chain anything.
SF:I promise you, I give my word, that there is absolutely no cheating. The funny thing is - I'll let you in on a big secret her,e okay - I've written AIs for a lot of games over the years. Puzzle Quest is the first one I've written that doesn't cheat. Every other one cheats, and a few people have figured out that a few of them cheat, many people haven't figured out that they all cheat. They all cheat in various ways, most of them pretty harmless.
To me it's all about making sure that the player has fun, rather than worrying too much about cheating. If it cheats a lot players aren't going to have fun, sure, so we cheat them a little bit to make the experience better. Puzzle Quest? I wrote the AI in one afternoon, it took me two hours - honestly, these days when I write code I'm too lazy to make the game cheat - it would have been so much harder to make the game cheat, but it's a simple little AI. I really should publish it online and show people, but then they'd think I was publishing some fake code I think. It's literally, the AI is about 50 or 60 lines, dead simple, doesn't cheat, it's just pure luck and I think it's just human psychology that people naturally think it's cheating.
PALGN: Excellent, that's actually really fascinating - you've completely blown away all my misapprehensions. So what did you learn through developing Puzzle Quest, I mean from an organisational perspective, when you were doing it, you were dealing with quite a few platforms by most standards at the time - new platforms I should say at the same time - you were working on both the DS and the PSP, which I think you had experience with neither, what was that like?
SF: We'd been a PC developer right throughout the 1990s, and even in the last...up to 2004, 2005 so we'd done a little bit of PS2 work in there and we'd worked on a bunch of platforms back in the early 90s as well, but it was something new to us and we knew we couldn't get the DS, PSP versions done by ourselves. It was a matter of finding a publishing partner who wanted to work with us and create those versions, help us outsource them, help us put the right people onto them. We did that with D3 publisher, absolutely fantastic, and they hooked us up with 1st Playable and Vicious Cycle, the companies who came up with the ports for DS and PSP, and we handled the port to Xbox 360, so that was really what we needed to get it out there on those platforms.
Interestingly this year, for us it's been about building our own tech with Puzzle Quest: Galactrix and Neopets Puzzle Adventure and Puzzle Kingdoms, we've been building our own techs for those games, but with Puzzle Quest it was mainly about getting a successful game out there and being known as developers who can do more than just PC games.
PALGN: You mention publishers, how did you find it dealing with so many publishers who liked the game but just wouldn't pick it up in the end?
SF: I've always found that we get about one successful pitch out of twenty. You make a lot of pitches for a very small result, when get a result it's great, you get a year's work out of it. So it didn't surprise me, it was kind of frustrating that you'd take the game out there, show it to them and they'd take a look and go, 'Yeah we like it but we can't figure out what it would sell so we can't publish it sorry,' and yet you understand that too. When you've been in the business long enough you know that they're risking their money to put the game out there and if they can't tell what they're gonna make back, sure they're going to go onto something they can tell what it's going to make for them.
So I understand where they're coming from, it's just a matter of finding the right group that actually believes in it as a product and has understood the product and working with them to get it out there. It was...nothing surprising I guess I'd say, and you develop a very thick skin after you've been pitching games for twenty-odd years.
PALGN: So moving onto the future, you've got Puzzle Quest: Galactrix coming out reasonably soon. If people already own Puzzle Quest, what's going to make them go out and buy this, why would they buy another RPG puzzler?
SF: Oh this is an improvement in every single way, I honestly believe ... it's a Puzzle Quest game - it's still got a core match-3 mechanics in there - but everything else about it we've tried to take stuff we've learnt from Puzzle Quest and apply it to Galactrix, and make Galactrix just a little bit better. It's a bigger, better story, it's more interesting mini-games, more interesting items and spells. A lot of stuff is very similar, but it's just got a little unique twist to it, little improvements to everything. I think it's just a really, to me it's just kind of like, the perfect sequel, it's a...you can tell it comes from Puzzle Quest, but it's not, it's not just Puzzle Quest with more stuff.
PALGN: Okay. In the product blurb it mentions strategy elements as well, can you comment on exactly what you mean by that?
SF: A little bit like the first one, there's a lot of strategy in not just how you build your character, but which ships you collect in the game, and which ships you put in your current fleet as you're travelling around the galaxy. And how you outfit those ships, the routes you pick too, the routes you take across the galaxy are very important. Which systems you travel through and who owns those systems and your relationships with characters in those systems and also the things you can find in those systems. Perhaps you can figure out optimal routes for going around mining asteroids, collecting stuff from asteroids, and delivering that to stations where you get a good price for it. It's a really big game, it's not just the story - there's a whole little sandbox you can play in there, where you can just go around mining, you can be a pirate, getting other ships and taking their stuff, or going around just constructing stuff and selling it if you like to play more of a crafting kind of role ...
PALGN: That actually sounds really good, I think one of the things that Puzzle Quest missed out on was more that while you explored the world, it didn't seem to have much of an impact on the gameplay, so it sounds good. A question I've got though, planned platforms for Galactrix include the PC, the 360 and the DS, why the decision not to go with PSP?
SF: It's not so much a decision not to go with PSP, it's a decision to go for DS, 360 and PC. I know that's semantics, but it just means they're the platforms we want to hit first for this game. If the game does well, I would love it to be on as many platforms as possible, but we're still a smallish company at Infinite. We have limited time and bandwidth and we've decided that's where we'll start and if we can make it as good a game as Puzzle Quest was, which we believe we can, then we'd like to see it on other platforms later.
PALGN: Okay, now you mentioned just before that the AI in Puzzle Quest was written in about two to three hours, is the AI in Galactrix going to be same, or have you extended it in anyway?
SF: Interestingly, one of the things we've thought of doing with the Galactrix AI, or actually the Galactrix random generator that generates the gems that fall onto the board, is kind of a reverse cheating, where it actually looks ahead if it's the computer player's move and says, 'Hang on this turn's looking like it's getting a bit lucky,' and actually changing around what drops for the player. I shouldn't be giving secrets like that away I guess, but the reason is, it's kind of a reverse cheating, it's anti-cheating, because we learned from Puzzle Quest that people felt that the computer was just too lucky and it was one of the things that made some people quit the game.
PALGN: That's excellent. So okay, with Neopets Puzzle Adventure, how did your relationship with Nickelodeon and Neopets come about? That's quite an interesting direction, quite a large thing actually, given the size of Neopets.
SF: Yeah you know, Neopets is an absolutely huge thing, I didn't realise how huge until I actually looked at it. Capcom - we have known a lot of the guys at Capcom for quite awhile - their agent, Ed Daly ... who looks after all of their deals in the U.S, he knows the guys at Capcom pretty well. They were looking to do a Neopets game with Nickelodeon, and they were all big Puzzle Quest fans, so they approached us and said, 'You guys interested in doing kind of a Puzzle Quest-ishy Neopets game?' and I took it back to the studio and said to the guys, 'Hey guys are we interested in doing this?' because I like to run it past the people here first. I was surprised how many people in the studio actually played Neopets, it was a bit of a shock to me actually...
PALGN: It's like Pokemon, no one really wants to admit it...
SF: It's a secret little guilty pleasure and they said, 'Yeah yeah, absolutely it'd be fantastic,' and we had a really good team of very keen people, so we went back and said 'Yeah absolutely we'd love to do the game.'
PALGN: Excellent, so what can you tell us about the upcoming game?
SF: Well it's a little bit in the Puzzle Quest style of game, there's a central game mechanic which is based on Reversi, you know that old game with the black and white pieces where everyone ... it's a lovely simple game. I mean no one's touched this thing for 2000 years I think since they invented it. It's got one rule, and one goal and the one rule is that whenever I place a piece - if I'm playing white I place a white piece - it flips any enemy pieces between two of my white pieces, the one I've just placed, and the goal is to have the most pieces on the board at the end of the game.
So, it's a really simple game and we're giving it the full Infinite Interactive Puzzle Quest treatment, sort of adding spells and adding special squares to the board and changing the board shape, a whole bunch of stuff, that's the central game mechanic. There's also a bunch of little mini-games, because you want to be true to Neopets and Neopets is a site all about mini-games, we wanted to add six little mini-games to that as well. You can play to perform various actions in the world and they're all completely independent of that main Reversi game. Apart from that, honestly, it is a lovely looking, great fun game to play. It is certainly targeted at a younger audience primarily, because of the Neopets licence, but there is no reason why anyone who enjoyed Puzzle Questcouldn't pick this thing up and play it.
PALGN: I've always missed Reversi from back when Microsoft dropped it from the Windows line. Neopets has a massive online presence - how strongly, if any at all, is there going to be online multi-player? Is there going to be any website integration with the main Neopets site, can you comment on that?
SF:There will be some unlockable codes. Players of the DS, or the PC or the Wii version or through versions separate, can unlock a bunch of codes they can take to the Neopets website and unlock unique items for the Neopets characters, so there's some integration there which is really good. PC has online multi-player so you can take your Neopet and try it out against someone else's Neopet to see who's the champion. DS and Wii are local multiplayer only. There's some, because of the younger audience, there's some net security issues there, that needs to be addressed. Unfortunately we didn't get everything onto the full multi-player treatment.
Stay tuned for the second part of the interview with Steve Fawkner coming to the PALGN Podcast this week. As usual a full transcript of the interview will be available next Sunday.
PALGN would especially like to thank Steve for giving up his time for the interview.