This generation, one of the standout surprise hits was Puzzle Quest, which blended casual puzzle game mechanics with an RPG theme and in doing so came up with something that appealed to a wide audience -- addicted them, in fact.
However, its sequel, Puzzle Quest: Galactrix wasn't quite as well loved. The game had a complicated design and, on the Nintendo DS, major interface issues.
Here, Steve Fawkner, president of Puzzle Quest developers Infinite Interactive, discusses the lessons the team learned from the contrast between the successes of the first two games, and how that has played out in the decisions made with the upcoming Puzzle Quest 2 -- in terms of how gameplay design, UI, and technical improvements are considered.
I just played a bit of Puzzle Quest 2, and was reminded of the balance of luck versus skill in these games. For example, I got a crazy chain off a random jewel drop, but so could the enemy.
When the player gets that kind of bonus, they feel great. It's awesome. But when it starts to happen too much on the enemy side, they feel like the game is stacked against them -- even if it really is random or luck-based.
Steve Fawkner: And it is indeed random and luck-based. There's no cheating going on in the game. But it wasn't in the first one, or Galactrix either, although it quite often feels that way.
I think one of the challenges as a designer, and something you want to actually try to do, is you want to have the games just frustrating enough the player wants to keep playing it. I feel we actually hit that with Puzzle Quest. People kind of feel cheated, but not cheated so badly they want to ragequit. They feel cheated, and they want to get back at it. If you can get that, you've got a very, very addictive game.
So you actually don't mind the potential for a bit of frustration there?
SF: No. I think a little bit of frustration is actually a good thing, provided it doesn't make the player want to quit. It makes the player want to keep playing and win. I feel that in Puzzle Quest the players generally right from the start have enough hit points and enough life points that, even though they might have a string of bad luck, with a little bit of good play following that, they get back in to the game and ultimately win.
Puzzle Quest 2
Have you played Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes?
SF: I haven't played that yet. No, unfortunately.
It's a player versus player, or player versus AI player puzzle game. It's similar to PQ, except it's got a different mechanic. What they do for randomization is they will drop a random number of units into your well, but they will never set it up for an instant combo. What is the appeal of doing one versus the other?
SF: Well, we actually experimented a little bit early in development with this game, with what I'd call anti-cheating. Which was actually rigging the drops so that those large cascades didn't happen. The game actually loses a little bit of its charm, we felt, when we looked at that. We could turn it on just for the AI, or we could turn it off for both the AI and the human.
It's obviously something we want to leave on for the human. Because when the human gets that, it's awesome. It's one of those things that makes your day. We felt it detracted a little bit from the game when the AI couldn't do it too. You remember those fights where you've had a bad run of luck, and then you come back from behind? That's a really exciting, memorable fight. So we wanted to keep that.
When there's player versus player, how does that change how you have to design the battles? Because it's one thing for a huge chain to come down versus an AI opponent, but it's even more horrifying if it happens with a person you know is going to beat you.
SF: Yes, it is. And there's a number of things to think about with player versus player. The first one is that adding in balance to a PVE -- player versus environment -- is great. Because as the player discovers that imbalance, they enjoy exploiting it. If you put in too much imbalance into the environment, like in PVP, nobody enjoys getting their butt whipped by someone who's bet on the imbalances.
So the imbalances still have to be there, because you need a player to reach where he can't beat the other player, whether you're talking about a turn-based strategy RTS or one of these puzzle games.
I believe that some imbalances just need to be a lot smaller and there have to be good counters for the imbalances. And so it just means a lot more design time that we need to put in, that we know we have to put in just to balance things.
But there's that second issue where we have to cater to the fact that a player just may want to sit down and play with a friend. We've got something like that on Xbox, the XBLA version of Puzzle Quest 2.
We've got a tournament mode we can put in anywhere, where the players can just sit down with a friend and play with a bunch of monsters versus their friend. Just whose goblin is better -- "Is my goblin better than your goblin?" And you can show who's the better player.
We tried to build that into Galactrix as well, where one player could choose a ship and the next player could choose any enemy ship to fight it with. That meant that a player could sit down who was brand new to the game and could play against his friend and they could build their own handicapping in there.
It's important to give players choices, I think. Set that stuff up. But if you've got a ranked online system like XBLA, it's really important to have some kind of matching system going on there. So it's not the guy with the level 50, unbeatable ship, that goes out there and wins every battle, or the level 50, unbeatable hero with the broken spell system. The only way to combat that is throwing a ton of design work at the game.