Interview: Puzzle Quest Lead Designer Steve Fawkner
We ask about PSP bugs, Xbox Live Online Play, and what's next for Infinity Interactive (plus more...)
Modojo has not yet lost the Puzzle Quest fever, so we put some questions to Infinite Interactive CEO and PQ Lead Designer Steve Fawkner. Read on to find out the latest on the XBLA port, details on the development process, and the final word on that damned cheating AI...
Modojo: Puzzle Quest is a HUGE departure from the Warlord's series of real time strategy and "western" artwork. What was the genesis of this concept, and who did it come from?
Steve Fawkner: Puzzle Quest was originally developed with the traditional Warlords western-style artwork. Once our partnership was established with D3, we discussed with them exactly how we could maximize the appeal of the game. It was decided that a slight anime feel would broaden our audience. After quite a few passes, trying to get the style we all wanted, we found that Vicious Cycle (who did the PSP version) were able to provide the very attractive artwork that you see in the final version. Really, it turned out better than I could ever have anticipated.
Mo: Can you explain how the game development duties were broken down? Did the entire design come from II, with the DS and PSP coding handled entirely by third parties? Was it a back-and-forth process?
SF: The original version of the game was created by Infinite. It was a complete and playable game when D3 saw it for the first time, except that it was missing about 75% of the story, characters and enemies.
Over the next 12 months, Infinite finished the game design & story on a "master" version of the game, while 1st Playable did the DS code and Vicious Cycle did the PSP code.
During that time, and all through the lengthy QA process that you get on any RPG, I think all the teams contributed the final touches to the design that make it such a pleasure to play.
Mo: Everyone thinks the game they're designing is a masterpiece, but be honest with us - were you surprised by the game's critical reception? Or did you always feel confident you had a sleeper hit on your hands?
SF: I have a favorite saying: "Good Games Sell." We knew that Puzzle Quest was a heck of a lot of fun to play, because we were all playing it daily (and often nightly much to the frustration of our families), so we figured it would do reasonably well, but exactly how well is often a matter for the Gaming Gods to decide. Sometimes it's a matter of timing; sometimes it's just a matter of dumb luck.
Regardless, we have been pleasantly surprised at how well and quickly it has been accepted by the public and the press - word really does spread around the Internet like wildfire these days.
Mo: Do you have any early data beyond anecdotes regarding Puzzle Quest sell-through? The game has gotten extremely hard to find.
SF: If you think it was hard to find in the USA, you should have tried getting a copy in Australia! We had to install extra locks on Infinite's office doors to keep out the torch-waving villagers demanding more copies!
In actuality, the game should be widely available in most locations at this time. It's against D3Publisher of America's company policy to release sales numbers, but the sell-through has been quite astounding even in comparison to the previous Warlords games that we've done.
Mo: Any word on a reprint? Can PQ fans expect to be able to walk into GameStop and pick up a copy someday?
SF: Reprints are well under way as we speak. In North America and most other locations, there should be plenty of copies of the game available now for anyone with a Puzzle Quest craving.
Mo: A few bugs of varying severity have been discovered in the PSP release. Is it possible that they could be fixed in future editions of the title, or via a memory stick-loaded patch?
SF: D3 is investigating a variety of options as to how best to resolve the issues. We all care about our gamers and will do what we can to provide the best possible gaming experience.
Mo: Some PQ players are adamant that the AI "cheats" by knowing what pieces will fall from the top of the board. We've found these falls benefit the player as often as the AI, but some owners are insistent. Can you confirm/deny, and possibly walk us through the AI's decision-making process when it examines potential matches?
SF: The AI definitely does NOT cheat. I actually scripted all the AI for the game, so I am 100% certain it doesn't cheat, and as I mentioned in a post on our Forums, I'm far too lazy to make the it cheat anyway - if I'd wanted to make the game harder I would have just given the enemies more Life Points!
The AI has a very simple decision-making process... it looks around the board at all available moves and gives each one a score between 0-100 based only on what it would give immediately (it doesn't look ahead at all). It then looks at all its available spells and gives each one a score between 0-100 based on how useful they would be. Finally it picks the move with the best score. On "Hard" difficulty it always picks the best one, On "Normal" it picks one of the top 10%, and on "Easy" it picks one of the top 50%.
One interesting thing the AI does is to bias its scores slightly higher towards the bottom of the board, because matching lower down tends to give more possibilities for cascades.
Mo: Could you see casual type time killers married with addictive and involving RPG elements becoming a more popular game type? Minesweeper: Mine Layer's Revenge? Diner Dash Destiny? Forgotten Heroes: Poker Chips of Power?
SF: Yes indeed, though I might draw the line at "Poker Chips of Power." I think we're just opening up a huge potential market here, and the great thing is that this is a genre of games that I really love, so I'm going to thoroughly enjoy making some more of these Puzzle/Hybrids for everybody to play.
Mo: Will we see Puzzle Quest released on consoles, or maybe a downloadable service such as Xbox Live Arcade? Online play & downloadable quest packs could be this formula's Killer App... [Note: Q&A was conducted before PQ's XBLA announcement]
SF: Xbox 360 Live Arcade was just recently announced. I've been playing it here in our office and the online play is to die for (not to mention the achievements).
As for other platforms, once again I have to cast the "Silence 15' radius" spell and refer you to D3PA for any future announcements.
Mo: We've seen that Galactix is on the horizon, with a similar playing system revolving around a space opera-like theme. But the early screens paint a mixed picture. Is the base puzzle a similar "match 3" mechanic? What else can you tell us about the project?
SF: Galactrix is actually based off of the Collapse style of gameplay, which is definitely related to match-3, but has quite a different style to it. With Galactrix we're after a much more visceral and hectic feeling for the player, so most of the puzzle games in it have a certain real-time element to them.
We want to ensure that Galactrix feels like a great game in its own right, not just a sci-fi clone of Puzzle Quest.
Mo: We're sure there were many outside doubters along the way - is there anything you'd like to rub in their faces now? We won't hold it against you.
SF: Actually, no. I think the only people who doubted it were the ones who didn't play it. Generally, once we convinced them to give it a try, they were hooked.
But the truth is that Puzzle Quest is a little different, and that's always going to be a bit of a risk to publish. We are just very glad that we fell in with D3PA along the way. It's fantastic that a publisher like D3PA will take a slightly offbeat title and give it the care and attention it deserves to get it on the shelves and give gamers a new and exciting experience.