Steve Fawkner On Improving A Classic

Last week, you asked Steve Fawkner some questions, and he was happy to oblige. In Part 2 of our interview, the CEO of Melbourne's Infinite Interactive talks about walking the line between novelty and nostalgia in sequels, and lessons learned from Galactrix.

It's no secret Galactrix didn't stack up to its predecessor in terms of sales. Yet in many ways, it furthered Puzzle Quest's winning gem-matching formula. The gems' different shapes, different ways for them to fall in, and ship modules that could play with the board's gravity all increased the strategy. So what went wrong?

Why do you think Galactrix didn’t do as well as Puzzle Quest?

We kind of put that down to a couple of things. Firstly, the move to a sci-fi setting. I think sci-fi, for a game of that sort, doesn’t have the same broad appeal that a fantasy setting did.

Secondly, the kind of mechanics behind the game were a little harder to grasp. For casuals, and even some of the hardcore folks, didn’t grasp those mechanics as quickly as they should’ve done.

And there were a couple of design flaws in the game. I call them design flaws, it won’t make me popular with the publishers (laughs). Where the reward for certain actions in the game wasn’t commensurate with the level of effort. So you’d have to hack your way through a lot of these jumpgates to get to a new star systems... there just wasn’t enough in the new star systems to do to warrant the hacking game to get in every time.

That was one of those things where you realise you can get too close to a game you’re working on. And we got a little too close to that one, where we got so good at the hacking game, we’d just blow through them very quickly, and we kind of enjoyed them. We didn’t do enough market research and focus group testing to realise people were actually going to have more trouble with that than we thought.

So really good lessons learned from Galactrix. We learned more from the mistakes on Galactrix than all the things we did right in Puzzle Quest.

Ignoring the flaws and market performance, was it a game you were proud of?

Very much so. I’ve been writing fantasy games since 1993, and I desperately wanted to do a game with spaceships in it. So that kind of got the spaceships out of my system. For the people who did buy it and play it through, they did enjoy it, it just wasn’t as many people as Puzzle Quest.

I don’t like to just trot out the same thing for a sequel. I really think it’s a terrible waste of an opportunity as a designer if you’re given a title that’ll potentially be successful and you just do the same thing someone’s done before.

What was the hardest part of making a sequel to a breakaway hit like Puzzle Quest, and what lessons from Galactrix did you bring into PQ2?

The hardest thing with any sequel - and we’ve done a lot of sequels here, over the years, because we’ve done the Warlords games, there were about 10 games in that series, more than Battlecry. One of the hardest things with sequels is you find you’ve got this huge expectation from fans of the game. PQ was a very big hit, and lots of people bought it and played it, and they were all waiting for to be as excited about Galactrix as they were about that first game. They wanted the same sense of novelty. But they also wanted it to be familiar. So you’ve got this challenge; you’ve got to provide ppl with something new, but also leave them with that familiar feeling so they don’t have to learn it all over again. That’s a real difficult thing to do.

What we learned was, innovation for innovation's sake is not a good thing. We innovated a lot, we enjoyed ourselves innovating a lot, and a lot of people certainly enjoyed the game. But we just went too far. So the lesson we learned was small steps. We introduced a few things over a successful formula, don’t go changing everything about the game.

What small steps have you taken in Puzzle Quest 2?

In PQ2, we’re going back to the grids but now we’ve got different grid sizes. We’ve got some new gem types that fall in, we’ve got rid of experience and gold gems. The truth is, they were probably the least popular gems in the game, no one bothered collecting gold or XP because they didn’t help you kill the monster. We wanted to make sure every gem in the game helped you fight.

We’ve put an extra colour of mana and an action gem that allows you to activate weapons. That’s a good amount of innovation for us. Just a couple of little things, that people are instantly familiar with. But something new to tinker around with. The action gems are a new way to damage your enemies, which is a lot of fun.

The other thing is, with 5 colours of mana it lets us apply what’s called in the design world, the rule of 5. It’s something they use in Magic: The Gathering for example. You’ll find a lot of good systems use 5 things. Where each thing in the 5 is good against 2 others, and weak against 2 others. Like they’re going rock, paper, scissors, lizards, spock. Perfect example of a rule of 5.

Now we can apply that and that makes the design all the stronger I feel.

How much of a priority is getting the multiplayer right in a Puzzle Quest game, which I imagine is a game where singleplayer has to come first?

Singleplayer is a priority for a lot of time during development, because we know 80-90% of people will just play the singleplayer alone. Puzzle Quest 1 had multiplayer in it, but it had a lot of imbalances in the spells.

Imbalances are great fun in singleplayer, because you can find things and exploit them, and it’s actually quite fun finding those imbalances. Things where you can lock a player down for a number of turns. In multiplayer, that just turns into griefing. And nobody likes to be griefed, and lose the game without having performed a turn in the game.

So we actually spent two months of this project, once we had all the spells and items in the game working to our satisfaction, just playing multiplayer games, and tweaking everything so every class in the game had two or three possible builds that were optimal, and each of those builds had a reasonable chance against the other classes. And no spells were able to lock a player down and take a player out of the game before they had a chance to play.

The way you balance that sort of thing is just putting hours into it, you’ve got to have people with that sort of mindset who’ll try to create the ultimate build, the min/maxers out there. You’ve gotta put those people on it and give them enough hours to figure that stuff out. I’m a bit of a min/maxer myself, I like to power game. I like to power game in my MMOs, actually. And we’ve got a few of those people in the office, and we kind of just sat with those people for like two months, just looking for those builds and eliminating the spells that did it.

Do you look for that sort of competitiveness in the QA role? One reader wants to know if there are QA positions available.

The QA thing first of all, we have a small core of QA people here full-time, other people we tend to bring in on a contract basis. We’ll bring in 4-8 contract QA people to test our stuff. Now primarily, we’re looking for people who can do everything from spot minor discrepancies in the game to find spelling mistakes - it’s an absolute bonus if they’re also very very good gamers and can figure out imbalances. Mostly we leave that stuff to our designers, who are all pretty good at spotting those things. But as a QA person, that’s a big plus.


    LOL Rock paper scissors lizards spock! Someone's obviously a fan of The Big Bang Theory!

    great insight to the minds of the makers, but ffs... HURRY UP and release the PC version already!!! I'm sick of playing on my DS!!

    Playing through PQ2 at the moment and although I don't ever pay much attention to the story, the dungeon crawling is far more interesting rather than an overview map, and I like the visual change ups, eg. treasure or bashing down doors etc. Keeps things fresh. The music is also well done, subtle but empowering (if that makes any sense). Proud to see an Aussie Dev churning out games of this quality, keep it up!

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