Steve Fawkner remembered Nick Chester from way before this interview was conducted, when Nick Made himself memorable at Capcom's press event in Las Vegas when he methodically snuck around and named all of the Neopets "Hep C" in Neopets Puzzle Adventure. Yeah, I work for this guy. Can you imagine the crap I get asked to do around the office?
Despite his previous knowledge of Nick Chester's mischief, Steve (CEO of Infinite Interactive) agreed to sit down with us and talk about Puzzle Quest: Galactrix, including how the game has changed and how its stayed the same, what we can expect from the story, and what Drong would look like flying a spaceship.
You want more, don't you? I can't blame you. Hit the jump and get on with it, then.
Nick: I've been playing a near-final version of the game on my debug unit, Steve, and you don't want to know what I've named my characters
Colette: Most of my questions have to do with the comparisons between the original game and Galactrix. I'll admit, when I saw it at E3, I thought "My gosh, this is very different." So considering the success of the original, do you think expanding it to a different formula was necessary to provoke an equal amount of interest in the sequel?
Steve: I do. Because we've done a lot of sequels over the years, and Warlords has generated ten or more sequels on various platforms. One thing I've learned doing sequels is that people want it to be the same, but different. They want to have the same fun they had with the original game, and they don't want it to change too much. It's a really fine line to walk to make the game the same but different, and give that same experience again.
You have to break a few eggs and change a few things. We thought we'd keep the "match 3," but we wanted to change the board and the way you'd collect stuff and use things. But underneath it all, it's all about matching stuff and collecting lots of things to make the matching stuff more fun.
Colette: Sure, sure. That makes sense. I'll admit the "match three" is probably the thing that kept me addicted. But yeah, that's what makes you want to play those rounds over and over. I can see that.
What elements of the first game did you feel didn't work as well as you wanted them to, and wanted to improve upon them for Galactrix?
Steve: The first game was visually a little bit bland. In a game that appeals to casual people, I think it's very important to kind of keep it a 2D feel to the game, because it's still a 2D game. To me, that's actually an intrinsic part of Puzzle Quest, that kind of 2D casual feel to it. For a lot of hardcore people, it was the first time they'd actually played a casual game. Having said that, we wanted to add some more effects, and just kind of pretty the game up. Spend a lot more time looking at the artwork this time and not justtime focusong on the game design. We really were, for a number of years here, a bunch of designers. Because Puzzle Quest has been so successful, we've been able to put a lot more people into our art team, and look after that side of production a bit more. It's been a lot of fun to work with. So visually, that was one area where we wanted to change up some stuff.
Puzzle Quest is a remarkably complete little package. Almost everything contributes to the game in some way. but there were things like rumors, for example, that was a system added on because I saw it in Final Fantasy Tactics and I rather liked it. So I just put some rumors in for flavors. It always irks me in the first Puzzle Quest that you get these rumors but they didn't really do anything.
Colette: That's true.
Steve: You just paid money and read a little badly written text.
Steve: So for Galactrix, we built the rumor mini-game, which is one of the ways you can actually grind to get experience. And we're still giving you little bits of badly written text, but it's actually providing you with some XP at the same time; there's a whole game based around it now.
Another area was story. The Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords' wonderfully generic fantasy excuse for a story ... it's the kind pulp trash that I personally love, because I'm big into fantasy games and I like that kind of stuff. But certainly the Warlords fans over the years, they like seeing Bane come in and get killed again. Poor guy, every time he pops up he takes one on the chin. But this time, we consulted with some writers. Because of time constraints we didn't get the level of polish on the dialogue that we would have liked. That's something we'll be looking at for the next game, whatever that may be. But we do feel the story is a lot more interesting this time around in Galactrix, so we're getting there in baby steps.
Colette: Yeah, definitely. Even just from the demo, it looks like it's going to be deeper already. I wanted to ask about one of my favorite characters from Puzzle Quest, which was Drong, the ogre who took a bite out of everything. So what I was wondering is, are characters like him -- with that level of witty humor -- is that something we're going to see in Galactrix, or is it going for a more serious flavor?
Steve: No, no. There's comic relief. I think that in any story that's about epic world domination, there needs to be a bit of comic relief somewhere in there to lighten it up. There's a lititle guy in this called Pest, and he's called Pest for a reason -- he's an absolute pest. He tags along with the hero and just makes a general nuisance of himself, and gets you into a lot of trouble. We've got a Drong there this time called Pest.
There was actually a talk at one stage about actually putting in a little easter egg on the Xbox 360 version where you'd be able to unlock Drong as one of your character portaits, and have him piloting your ship around the universe.
Colette: That would have been incredible!
Steve: Unfortunately, we didn't have enough time to put it in so it was very, very sad. I hope for a title update, so we can sneak it in there one day.
Colette: Poor Drong. That would be very exciting. I don't think I'd be the only person who'd be happy to see him again.
Steve: Drong with a pilots cap on would look really funny.
Nick: With a game like Puzzle Quest, you've already said you tried to make a more compelling and polished story. But you know, with a lot of casual match three games story takes a back seat, if there is one at all. When you're doing testing on these games, are you seeing that people are buying into the story, and that's what's keeping them engaged? Or is it more the gameplay elements? So when doing development, are you spending more or less time on the story because of that?
Steve: You know, I'm a game mechanics designer, that's kind of what I do. I do mechanics and user interface stuff, and visual mechanics on the screen. Because I'm the boss, we tend to spend more time on those things than the story ... I'm painfully aware of that. So we do spend longer on that than everything else, and we do know that.
However, we do test the story as well as the mechanics; we do a lot of focus tests on these things. We've seen that people connect more to the characters than the story. So it's the characters that keep them playing, which is kind of interesting to me. Characters shaped by story, the story shaped by characters -- the two kind of combine. I think that's a very casual response to gaming as well, to be attached to characters.
Nick: I'll admit, there's a lot of time when I'm playing Puzzle Quest where I just kind of want to get back to the action. A lot of the text, I'm skipping and going passed very quickly. Colette, how do you play? Are you into the story as much as you are the gameplay?
Colette: There was a lot of time when I'd just skip through story, for sure. but then there were certain times when there were characters like Drong that I really, really liked, so i'd want to listen to what he had to say. But it wasn't on the same level of depth as an RPG where I'd want to really dig into the character. Like Steve said, it's got that kind of pulpy feeling to it.
Steve: Everybody plays it a little differently, I've noticed. it's kind of nice that you can ignore the story, if you'd like. If you do, little things are popping up on the screen to tell you where to go next. I play World of Warcraft with my wife, and I'll be reading all the dialogue. And she'll be off killing stuff, because she'll just skip the dialogue, because she just wants to get to that stuff. Layers of the onion, I like to think -- you peel back as many as yu're comfortable with.
Colette: Yeah, that's true, and that's a good thing. I was actually curious to ask -- was space always the plan, or did you play with a lot of other ideas before you settled on space?
Steve: No, you know, I've been doing games with dragon, swords, and wizards for 25 years now. I just wanted to do a game with space ships because space ships are really cool. It's as simple as that. It was always going to be a space game, because I've just had enough of dragons. Now that I've got the space ships out of my system, I'm ready to get back to the dragons.
Nick: Someone who works for PopCap, I think it was Jason Kapalka, he said something about how hex shapes turn people off. He said they kind of give off a vibe of science, that they're kind of dirty. Something about it turns people off, and here we are with Galactrix with has hex shapes in it. Do you agree with him? Is that something you've found before making the game?
Steve: It's something that we've found, but nothing something we've necessarily ignored. Jason is the definite master of the casual games. He knows his stuff, and he's 100% right on this. Hexes are a little more hardcore than squares. But, having said that, Puzzle Quest's games are a little more hardcore than your average casual game. So I think us, going to hexes, it's OK.
I mean, a lot of people played Hexic. Jason's wife is a complete Hexic addict, and one of the most casual gamers I've ever met -- straight, square right in the middle of that category. I like to do tests on my mom -- not tests as experiments, but tests as focus tests -- and she had a little bit more trouble coming to grips with the hexes than she ever had with the squares. Thinking in six directions is a little bit harder than people thinking in four. But we see it as a very, very small problem as long as the game eases you into the mechanics and has a lot of good rewards -- I think with our intended audience, hexes are perfectly acceptable.
Nick: When Colette and I first saw Galactrix, the first thing we noticed is that it seemed a bit more complicated than the first game. For us, it's not as big of an issue -- we're more adapted to more hardcore gameplay. It wasn't a huge deal.
Did you find that more people who played Puzzle QUest were more of the hardcore gamers than the casual gamers?
Steve: It's a hard demographic to pin down, because it has a very broad appeal. It didn't get the real casual people, the ones who will never go beyond their Bejewled. They didn't come on board. They just wanted to match the gems and were like "Why do we have to cast these spells? Why do we have to sit through dialogue?" Those people are never going to play those Puzzle Quest games, and I'm OK with that. There's plenty of other people who will play it.
We got the casual people who are maybe one step up from that, who were just looking for a little bit more. And we got a lot of hardcore people who used this as their first indtroduction to casual games, and it was just kind of really cool. These guys had never played Bejeweled before. And now they were all out to play it, because it was wrapped in an RPG.
Nick: Right, you put a dragon in there and everything is OK.
Steve: Right. At the other end of the spectrum, we missed the really hardcore people who won't touch it because it has a casual element. But we got that really big group in the middle which was great. I think they'll cope pretty well with the hexes.
An interesting thing that we saw was that the more casual the player -- because there's two elements in Galactrix -- one is where you're matching hexes, and the other is the new gravity rules -- so when you remove a gem, gems fall in the direction of the last move. So you're refreshing the board from all different directions. What was great that we found was the more hardcore the person was, the faster they'd pick up on the mechanics. So we tried to put the tutorial in there that shows you what happens there. At the very casual end of the spectrum, people like my mother, they don't get how the gems fall in. But, they don't care how the gems fall in. All she knows is you're making matches, gems keep falling, and you keep playing. So the real casual people don't care about that rule, they're just making matches and watching lights go off.
So it's one of those things -- layers of the onion, again -- where people learn a set of rules that they're comfortable with. So as long as the rules aren't stopping them from playing, they're OK with it.
Nick: Are you consideing doing expansions for Galactrix?
Steve: Absolutely would consider it. The Galactrix universe is kind of fun. We've enjoyed creating it, so it would be a lot of fun to do an expansion to that. But there's obviously nothing to announce right now, because the game isn't sitting on shelf right yet.
Nick: Now the original game pretty much came out on everything -- Wii, PlayStation Portable, iPhone, you name it -- is that something we can expect with Galactrix?
Steve: We'd like to see as many people playing Galactrix as possible. So the more platforms it's on, the happier I am, but we don't have anything to announce just yet.
I got more than 60 hours out of the original Puzzle Quest. Do you think I'll get the same amount out of Galactrix?
Steve: Yeah, definitely. To get through the main story in Galactrix I think you're looking at 20, maybe 30 hours if you just did the main story through. There's a bunch of side missions, like in Challenge of the Warlords. Also there are areas where you can mine, trade, and build new ships. It's a lot more of a sandbox deal, this one. There's easily more stuff to do and collect. I can see people playing 90 or 100 hours, including everything.
Colette: Well, there goes the rest of February.
Nick: Yeah, thanks a lot Steve. Now Colette's not going to get any work done.
Steve: Affect global productivity, that was our aim with this game. Plunge the world into a deeper financial crisis.