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Steve Fawkner Talks About "Warlords-Online", Oz Games Development

sfawkner.jpgAt Game Connect in November last year, Infinite Interactive CEO and Puzzle Quest designer Steve Fawkner mentioned that the developer was working on a free, web-based game.

We recently caught up Steve and asked if he could provide us with an update on how the game was going:

In this game, codenamed Warlords-Online for the moment, you create a Warlord character and play puzzles to gain gold. You then use that gold to help your character conquer the World of Etheria. All this takes place in an internet environment where other Warlords are trying to help their chosen races conquer the world too.

Fawkner says it’s a present to everyone who’s supported Puzzle Quest and the Warlords series of games over the years. I have to say – it’s a tasty sounding gift.

We also asked him a bunch of questions regarding Puzzle Quest, the Australian games development scene and balancing hardcore and casual gameplay.

Hit the jump to read the interview!Kotaku AU: How did you get started in the industry? Do you have any specialties (design, coding, etc?)
Steve Fawkner: I wrote my first game back in 1983 when I was 17 years old. Back in the 80s you did everything in the game: coding, design, art, sound and QA!

However, as I moved through the industry over the next 10 years, I specialised in design, even though I frequently found myself doing a lot of coding and even a fair amount of artwork. Today, 90% of my work on a game is all design. I don’t get much time to write code any more, which makes me sad.

Kotaku AU: What are the advantages of doing games development in Australia? The disadvantages?
Steve Fawkner: Australia is a great place to make games. Our industry has a real culture about it that is quite distinct from the USA and Europe. We work hard, we work smart, we are creative and we form great teams.

We are uniquely situated between the USA, Europe and Asia. Our origins and allegiances are split between those 3 major markets and nobody else in the world (except our Kiwi friends) can say that. I’m very optimistic about what we can achieve here.

Disadvantages? Well, although we are close to our major markets culturally, we are a long way geographically. I think that distance makes it sometimes a little harder for us to form and maintain the relationships that we need to survive. But that’s a problem with an easy solution – we just need to work harder sustaining our relationships.

Kotaku AU: Have you ever thought of packing up shop and moving the studio elsewhere? Where do you think you’d go?
Steve Fawkner: It has honestly never occurred to me. I’m Melbourne born and bred and I love this town. Occasionally, in winter, like all Victorians, I think it might be nice to live in Queensland, but then again we’re two hours from the ski fields here in Melbourne, so that more than makes up for the colder weather.

Kotaku AU: How did you come up with the idea for Puzzle Quest? Did you intentionally set out to create a game that mixed hardcore and casual elements?
Steve Fawkner: I love Bejeweled and I love RPGs. It seemed kind of natural to experiment and put them together. I was really making the game for myself though – I wasn’t aiming at a particular audience. I find that I do my best work when I’m creating something just because I want to play it.

Kotaku AU: How hard is it to find the balance between hardcore and casual? What “warning signs” should a developer look out for?
Steve Fawkner: We never gave much thought to the hardcore/casual divide until we had a playable version of Puzzle Quest. Once we realised that we had a game that could bridge this gap though, we did quite a lot of useability and focus testing with different groups. That testing will soon tell you whether you’re hitting the mark for a game with broad appeal. If you can’t afford a formal test of this type, make sure your friends and family – especially the ones of the non-gaming variety – enjoy the game.

Kotaku AU: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt from Puzzle Quest?
Steve Fawkner: The biggest lesson for me from Puzzle Quest is that design can still win out over graphics. Ideally you want to produce a game that has both, but Puzzle Quest is a graphically simple game, and it’s still been quite successful. That’s very heartening for a designer to see.

Kotaku AU: Of the platforms you’ve developed for, which do you feel is the easiest to work with? The hardest?
Steve Fawkner: PC will always be the easiest platform to work on, because the tools and development pipeline are the easiest to manage. Of the console platforms, Xbox 360 is an absolute delight to develop on because of its similarities to PC. The hardest would certainly be the Nintendo DS – it’s a great platform with great games – but its difficulties stem from the fact that it is very low-spec machine and a lot of compromises have to be made to get a game to work.

Kotaku AU: Of the platforms you’ve developed for, which do you feel is the best for small/new developers to start on?
Steve Fawkner: We still prototype and do our main development on PC, then port to all other platforms. It’s by far the easiest way. I would recommend small/new developers do the same – a PC prototype is a great thing to have. For the console platforms though, small/new developers should try to get onto the Xbox 360 Live Arcade. The games are a manageable size and the platform is very close to the PC that they’re probably familiar with. Wii Ware and PSN would be my equal second choices.

Kotaku AU: Do you believe Australia provides enough opportunities for game developers? How mature do you feel the industry is in the country?
Steve Fawkner: Overall, we have some great mid-to-large-sized studios in Australia. I haven’t seen many good graduates who can’t get a job here, and experienced developers are in high demand. We also have good support from our governments, both state and federal. So for programmers, designers and artists I think we have plenty of opportunity.

There are whole areas of the industry in Australia that are under-developed though. Due to the lack of publishers, we miss out on much of the business side of the cycle. QA, production, marketing and business development are really only represented in the larger studios – it’s very difficult to find those people here because there is no fertile ground to grow them.

Kotaku AU: What is your opinion of MMOs? Do you think the genre is a good place for a new/small developer to start?
Steve Fawkner: I love MMOs – I have suffered unhealthy addictions to most of the major ones at one time or another. But I think they are absolutely the wrong place for a small developer to start unless they are doing something very conservative that is largely web-based.

MMOs have so many requirements that are mixtures of technical issues, design problems, and logistical nightmares – I think a studio should really have one or more successful releases in their portfolio before they get this ambitious.

Kotaku AU: At Game Connect last year, you mentioned that Infinite was working on a free web-based game to tie in with Puzzle Quest and the developer’s future titles. I don’t suppose you could provide some more information regarding this project and what stage it’s at right now?

Steve Fawkner: We have a free web-based game in development – mainly as a thank-you to all of the fans who’ve been so good to us with both Puzzle Quest and Warlords over the years.

It is planned that it will eventually link to Puzzle Quest, as well as to a number of older Warlords games.

The initial version will be stand-alone, however the link to Puzzle Quest will be provided a little later.

In this game, codenamed Warlords-Online for the moment, you create a Warlord character and play Puzzles to gain gold. You then use that gold to help your character conquer the World of Etheria. All this takes place in an internet environment where other Warlords are trying to help their chosen races conquer the world too. It’s a simple game, but quite a lot of fun, especially if you enjoy a bit of casual puzzle gameplay mixed with a bit of world domination.

Kotaku AU: Can you confirm whether Puzzle Quest will be coming out on PS3 and Mac and if so, are tentative release dates available?
Steve Fawkner: We haven’t made any official announcements about this yet, but with Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords being so successful on six platforms already, we are still evaluating how we can bring the game to a wider audience.

Kotaku AU: What games are you playing now?
Steve Fawkner: I’m just getting over a Guitar Hero III addiction. I’m playing Akkadian Warriors from Xbox 360 Live Arcade quite a bit. I’m also still battling my way through Gears of War on Xbox 360. On DS, I’m playing Pokemon Diamond when I’m travelling.

Kotaku AU: Other than your own titles, what games are you looking forward to in the next 12 months?
Steve Fawkner: I’m waiting to see Dark Sector, Age of Conan and Warhammer Online, and of course anything that Popcap might release!

Thanks for your time Steve. I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say we’re looking forward to seeing what Infinite Interactive comes out with next.