As heard on Episode 42 of the PALGN Podcast, complete with written transcript, we recently spoke to Steve Fawkner, CEO of Infinite Interactive about all things Puzzle Quest.
In part two of the interview, we discuss his experience in the industry, his opinions on R18+ ratings and what to expect from future Puzzle Quests. In case you can't grab the entire Episode 43 of the PALGN Podcast, here is a transcript of our interview with Steve.
PALGN: Turning to yourself and Infinite Interactive as well - you've had an extremely varied background. Apparently you've been through medicine, you've been through mining, monorails - how did you end up in the games development industry?
Steve Fawkner: I think I'm a bit slow, it just takes me awhile to figure out what I wanted to do [laughs]. I'd always been writing games, since I was seventeen years old. I wrote my first one when I was seventeen and I think I sold thirty-two copies of it. The way I sold games back then was I'd take them to a games convention on an audio tape and you'd just give them to people to copy as there was this whole huge piracy scene happening and I would leave a message at the end of the game, 'If you like this game please send five dollars to Steve Fawkner at: address.' Thirty-two people actually sent me some money, so I sold my first game when I was seventeen years old.
PALGN: That's excellent.
SF: I've kind of been writing games ever since but it wasn't until, I think it was 1989 ... I'd been doing it part-time up until then - from '83 to '89 - and we did the game Warlords and a friend of mine said, 'Why don't you take it to a publisher and try to get it published like a real game?' I did, I punched the ground, got lots of rejections, just like Puzzle Quest did and finally ended up with a Sydney company called SSG. A great bunch of guys: Roger Keating, Gregor Whiley, Ian Trout taught me everything I knew about the games industry over the years following that. They decided to publish it and it was a very, very big hit and I realised, 'Hang on a minute, you can actually make a living from writing games, what the hell am I doing all this other boring stuff for ... I can go out and have fun writing games all the time.' So I made the jump, left my job and started up Infinite.
PALGN: Excellent. I've got to confess, I never played the original Warlords but I was a big Warlords II fan ... [laughs] I hope you did that as well?
SF: We did, my favourite is actually Warlords III, but our Art Director Steve Ford, who has been with us since back in the Warlords II days, that's his favourite Warlords.
PALGN: You've been involved in the Australian industry for a long time, how have you seen the landscape and focus change over the years?
SF: When I first started there was literally only I think three companies that anyone ever knew of over here. There was Beam Software - Melbourne House, there was SSG in Sydney and there was Micro Forte up in Sydney / Canberra, and a couple of other companies around that have since passed away. It's such a small industry and people in the States didn't realise ... people in Australia didn't realise we were in Australia, we had to actually, I think at one stage we were doing our own distribution, we had to package our games in Australia, ship them to the U.S. and ship them back to Australia again just to get them into Australian stores. So sometime around that time, the early to mid-nineties, it just all kind of took-off and the landscape really changed and more people started getting into the industry, so it was a really exciting time. Every year it keeps getting bigger and bigger and it's fantastic to see.
PALGN: It's crazy to see the growth. Five, six years ago you wouldn't have expected a Puzzle Quest and now it seems like each year it's an Australian studio that's releasing a huge name title.
SF: Yep, we've got some great ones coming out this year too. Infinite aside, games like de Blob coming out from Blue Tongue - THQ here in Melbourne, that's going to be a pretty cool game.
PALGN: So what do you see as the major, most significant issues facing the Australian games development industry today?
SF: I think our biggest one is the skills shortage. You might hear a lot of developers say that the tax incentives are the biggest issue. They're certainly an issue, we should be getting equal tax breaks with the film and TV industry, but if we don't solve our skills issue, it ain't going to make any difference if we've got tax breaks, because we haven't got enough people to do the projects. We attract people from overseas where we can, to try and bolster the numbers and even that, it's just very, very difficult. We're not lighting enough people in the industry, we're not getting enough out of the colleges and getting them in and training them up. Training up juniors can be a tough thing, people are often unproductive for quite awhile...or not fully productive for a year after they get in the industry and margins have been so tight for so long that it's really hard for developers to bring those juniors in and have the time and the training plans to train them up.
As developers we need to just bite the bullet and do that. We've got to work with the tertiary institutions to make sure students are learning the right things and they come out and they're as productive as possible and we've just got to be - management wise - we've got to be a bit better organised in running our projects so we can take some of those junior people on board, because we've got to get more people with skills.
PALGN: It's interesting you say that because some studios like Interzone over in Perth have chosen to follow more of a global development model, semi-outsourcing but also working closely with overseas studios. What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of this approach, especially because you'd say Australia has a very small workforce, with relative skill challenges in certain areas?
SF: Advantages are an obvious one - well there's two advantages really, to globalising with a studio like that. If I open a studio in L.A. there's going to be a much bigger talent pool I can draw from. There's a lot of people churning from company to company, there's just more people finishing degrees, that are qualified as well, even on the junior side, so there's just going to be more talent for me to pick from.
Second one is proximity to the publishers that you're dealing with. For example, one of our publishers just remarked to us the other day, 'It would be really easy if I could just drop into your studio to show you this' and that's a constant thought in their minds when they're signing up big deals with us. 'Do we do the big deal with the Australian company, or this other company that is just down the road?' And that's kind of a no-brainer in most cases, we miss out on things because we're not close enough to them.
The downside is ... well I'm just a nationalistic son of a bitch really and I love Australia and I want to make good companies in Australia, I want Australia to be seen as the place where they can come and say, 'Well we'll get Australian companies to do it because they do really great games or really great original IP or really great whatever.' The upside for me is, like I said, I'm just an 'Aussie, Aussie, Aussie' kind of guy.
PALGN: I could get a bit philosophical, and there's good arguments for economies of agglomeration, and even if you look at Michael Porter and the like around competitive advantages, there's good reasons I think to maintain a local industry, but that's probably more my opinion so I probably shouldn't talk about it [laughs]. Speaking of economics though, most people probably don't realise it, but at one of the developers' conferences you said that you considered Puzzle Quest a project you had to start to get yourself out of trouble after a significant period of poor decisions and low-selling games. How did you get yourself in that position? What did you learn from that?
SF: I think once again it comes back to me being a bit slow. You'd think that after twenty odd years in the industry, or twenty-one years in the industry, I would have known a bit better and I think the problem was, I'd been around awhile, started my own company ... we attached ourselves to SSG for a number of years and kind of ran with their Melbourne office. I thought I'd learned a lot of stuff, we went out by ourselves, I figured I knew everything and I did a couple of dumb things, which was to tie ourselves too closely to one publisher, and you do that at the expense of relationships with other publishers. If you tie yourself too closely to one publisher with more than one game you open yourself up to exploitation by people at that publisher. If they want to stop paying you to force you to do something they can do it.
I simply made those mistakes, and we'd just been building up to around about twenty people and we had to downsize to three or four people. It was painful - a lot of those people were my friends, and I absolutely hated having to come out and tell them all, 'Hey guys you're all...this is over, you gotta go your separate ways and we're gonna try and rebuild.'
PALGN: Geeze, that would have been hard.
SF: It's a shocking thing to have to do, I never want to do that again. Now I learned a couple of hard lessons from that, about good sizes for teams, good number of projects to be done, maintenance of relationships with multiple publishers to make sure there's always more options to go to, whenever things dry up, as invariably they do. If you're dealing with a publisher, quite often the people there will just move on and a new bunch of people will come in and you've got a bunch of pre-existing relationships and they want to give those people jobs. They don't want to give you a job, even though you're dealing with publisher X. It's not publisher X you're dealing with anymore, it's individuals who make the business decisions and that was a really important thing to learn. Fortunately, we learnt it and didn't completely vanish off the face of the earth doing so.
PALGN: And look at you today, now. On a happier, more positive note, you've said previously that you don't consider graphics to be an important part of games design. Paraphrasing heavily you've said that they are a necessary component for a commercially successful game but they're also independent to design you believe. With the amount of money a lot of studios are sinking into graphics engines and optimising, and spectral mapping and all of those weird and wonderful things, do you think it's a core truth for good design, or do you think it varies from game to game?
SF: To me, if you can't design a game that's fun to play, in four colours, you know in 200 by 100 graphic mode, then...design for a game has to kind of be fun in that there has to be something inherently fun about the game. It's a bit like the latest action movie, that stuff, if you want to be the blockbuster hit game, you've got to have it in there. Puzzle Quest was never going to be a blockbuster hit, it was a big hit and a very popular game, but kind of in the same way a European art house movie was a very popular thing, or your Chinese wire movie is a very popular thing. It's popular in it's niche...
PALGN: I can see a Shaolin Soccer and Puzzle Quest.
SF: [Laughs] You never know where we could go next! But I still think good design can just be prototyped with boxes and a small number of colours. If there's something appealing about game design it'll be appealing no matter how you represent it.
PALGN: Speaking of design, how is the Good Game Infinite Interactive project coming along?
SF: That's a lot of fun! We get to do a game that we ... probably wouldn't have come on their radar. We tend to stick to knights and dragons and wizards, and when we don't, we've generally got spaceships shooting each other. So doing a game that's set in an office, with people stabbing each other in the eye with letter-openers and hitting each other on the head with cricket bats, is kind of a nice change of pace for us. The stuff has worked pretty well, some of the guys have come up with some pretty fantastic suggestions, not the least of which is the game itself Office Wars, it's just a really cool idea. Imagine how much fun it could be to get this thing in your office, or wherever you work and to customise all the people in the game with the names of the people you're working with and muck around in your office just playing this thing where you're trying to complete tasks faster than they are. I really think it could be quite a viral game that virtually goes around offices all over the world.
PALGN: That's pretty cool, do we have a release date? Or an approximate, is it going to coincide with the end of the Good Game season?
SF: It is, we're going to try and have a prototype out towards the end of the year.
PALGN: Excellent. Now the R18+ issue, changing tack a little bit, the R18 issue is a major one, or seems to be a pretty major one at the moment. Lots of different people weighing in on the fact that Australia doesn't have an R18+ rating for games. Rumour has it that you had issues with the OFLC around releasing Puzzle Quest in Australia which is a bit bizarre, but that could be a rumour. Is there any truth to the rumour and secondly how important do you thing an R18+ rating really is for games in Australia in the grand scheme of things?
SF: The OFLC problem was actually nothing more than it taking awhile to pass through OFLC hands and get onto Australian shelves. Part of the problem wasn't OFLC's deal, it was actually just the deal that the damn thing had sold-out in the U.S. and we couldn't get any copies out here. Honestly I didn't even get a copy of the final printed game on my desk for about a month after release, it just didn't turn up because every single box went to the stores in the U.S. and there was such demand for them, we went through our first print run in one week, we went through our next print run in the few weeks after that, so it was kind of crazy. So that slow delivery coupled with it taking a little while to get through OFLC's hands is actually what delayed the game. There was actually no problem with rating it at all, it came out here as a G rating, and that was pretty fair, a pretty fair rating for a game about messing around with trolls by matching gems on a board, I think that's all good [laughs].
The whole R18+ thing, honestly I'm a bit embarrassed about us not having an R18+ rating, and we keep banning these games. I talk to the blokes over in the States we deal with and they always have a bit of a chuckle about it, like we're a bit backward. I think we are in that respect, we need an R18+ rating and we're not going to get it until we educate politicians and people involved. Exactly what it's all about, it's nothing to do with just banning violent games, it's about educating people about the content of a game, there are any numbers of games released here with a mature rating that are probably better off in an R rating to be honest, and it seems to me sometimes the ones with the R ratings have been singled out for one very, very minor detail. Fallout 3, the whole deal with the drug use in Fallout 3 is only technically different to the drug use in Bioshock. It just makes no sense to me at all.
PALGN: It's a bit bizarre that by our ratings system it's okay to have truly quite excessive gore and violence in games like Ninja Gaiden 2 but then the second you start talking about drugs which are actually available for sale in controlled conditions, it's not allowed anymore, it's just bizarre. My timing could be off on this, but I think it was last Christmas you had great fun with Guitar Hero ...
SF: I certainly did!
PALGN: Is there any chance of a Puzzle Quest guitar legend edition that uses the On Tour peripheral or anything like that?
SF: You know Puzzle Quest came out because I got obsessed with Bejeweled and I've always loved RPGs. So the fact that I've been obsessed with a rhythm game...is probably a fairly good indication that at some stage I'm gonna want to do a rhythm game.
PALGN: Excellent, I'm actually seriously looking forward to it. More seriously though, where would you like to take the genre more generically? Say it's a rhythm game, but basically you've taken PopCast staples and absolutely gazumped them in terms of the casual market, in my opinion, and I think in a lot of core gamers' opinions. Where do you see the future, where would you like to take casual games?
SF: I just really want to see more hardcore gamers playing casual games, because casual games are beautiful, elegant design and as hardcore gamers I think we can sometimes get caught up in just playing the next big thing, or the next big flashy thing and we're not exposed to beautiful designs, we're exposed to flashier graphics. The appeal comes back to the graphics-design thing for me and I didn't realise until I started dealing more with the casual side, just how much I'd missed good game design, I just wasn't seeing enough of it in the latest biggest games coming out. My aim is really to make beautiful little games here for a few years now and have as many people play them as possible.
PALGN: Sounds like a good goal to me, that works. There's been bits and pieces about a Warlords online game?
SF: It's actually opened up on our website, you can jump on and have a bit of a play. It was something we did just for free for fans of the Warlords series, because we haven't done a real Warlords game for so long, a real Warlords strategy game. So we just put it on there. Part of it was about paying back our fans and part of it was about having a bit of spare time last year for our web guy and we wanted to do something that was interesting, a way for him to learn some flash stuff. So we opened it up and it was actually pretty popular. Our servers went down the weekend we opened it because there was just so many people jumping on and there's still quite a few people jumping on and playing, so it's a very simple little game, it's no more than just a simple little puzzle game. You can just play some puzzles, get some gold, use the gold to buy some troops and conquer some provenances on a world map. It's a little bit broken in parts honestly. Because it's a free game we don't generate any revenue from it, we haven't had the chance to go and fix it yet, so I warn anybody that's going along to take a look, don't expect great things, it's kind of a fun little diversion. Having said that, there's still twenty to thirty thousand people jumping on and playing it everyday.
PALGN: Excellent. I think that probably takes us to about as much time as we've got. Thank you so much for your time Steve, it's been absolutely fascinating.
SF: Sure, happy to have joined you and talked about stuff.
PALGN would like to again thank Steve for being so generous with his time in giving this extended interview.