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Joystiq Interview: Puzzle Quest, Vicious Cycle's Eric Peterson's 'Holy Grail'

Jason Dobson

On paper, the genre-bending Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords reads like a madman's manifesto, meshing together elements of classic puzzlers like Bejewelled with those more commonly associated with traditional RPGs for an experience that is anything but traditional. Nonetheless, the game proved to be one of 2007's surprise hits, as it tapped into both the casual and hardcore gaming communities like few games before it. It also helps that in the span of just a few months Puzzle Quest has managed to be ported to nearly every platform under the sun, including the game's most recent incarnation for the Wii.

In the wake of this release, we got some face time with Eric Peterson, CEO and president at Vicious Cycle Software -- one of Puzzle Quest's two development partners, about this latest release, the series, and which version, to him at least, represents the definitive Puzzle Quest experience (Hint: It's not the Wii version). More on these topics and more after the jump.

So what's so special about Puzzle Quest on the Wii?

We implemented head-to-head multiplayer as well as optional motion-sensitive controls using the Wii's remote pointer. Also, the latest and greatest gameplay additions and changes like the spell cool downs and the re-balancing of a few of the over-powered abilities that the XBLA version had were included in the Wii and PS2 versions of the game.

So did this version present any significant or unique challenges for the development team?

There wasn't anything dreadfully challenging in bringing the game to the Wii. Working with any platform, you have to get the standards correct to get all the proper approvals; that is par for the course. Eliminating bugs is always something you are doing during production as well. We did have to tie Infinite's code base into our own technology and platform engine, much like we did with the other two versions of the game (the PSP and the PS2), so that was slightly challenging and a bit time consuming.

As far as Wii-specific challenges, redesigning the PC version's mouse input system for use with the Wii remote pointer, implementing a "de-jitter" algorithm, and creating the idea of a hot swap between two pointers and using two pointers on screen at once for head-to-head were the big three.

You mentioned a "de-jitter" algorithm. So the Wii remote's accuracy was a consideration?

Our programmers did their best to reduce the jitter factor. They also didn't want to have the user accidentally click in the wrong location while aiming the remote at the screen. Players have the option of clicking one gem, then clicking the space to move it to, or clicking and dragging, similar to the PC mouse controls. Also, the user can optionally turn off the pointer control and use the controller in a more standard way, similar to the PS2 and PSP versions.

So now that Puzzle Quest is available on next to every platform available, what, to you, is the definitive version?

That is a loaded question [smile]. They are all great of course! Personally, I prefer the PSP version (no surprise there, right?). Because for me, I am an on-the-go type person. It is a great game for when I travel. Every trip I take on a plane, I make sure to bring my copy of Puzzle Quest along for the ride. If I didn't play that version, I think I would go for the PC version.

Puzzle Quest strikes me as a rare sort of game, which is quite popular despite not being part of a large marketing push. Were you taken by surprise by this success?

No, I wasn't taken by surprise at all actually. When we were first approached to be part of the game's development, I had a feeling that there was something special about this game. It combined casual gameplay with some fantasy and RPG elements. I thought this was something that even my wife could enjoy. I actually took the game home, showed it to her and said "give this a try and see what you think." My wife was immediately addicted to the puzzle element and to my surprise she wasn't turned off by the leveling up of characters, the story or the adventure portion of the game. She has always been more of a Bejeweled, Tetris, Brain Age, Sudoko type gamer and never really has been drawn to anything else.

When I saw that she kept on playing it, I thought this could actually be a good cross-over game, one that would reach out to niche/hard core gamers as well as the casual crowd. In many ways that is the Holy Grail in game development, making a game that appeals to all types of gamers.

But does its continued word-of-mouth popularity surprise you at all?

Again, no, it is doing exactly what I had hoped. Like any great game, big or small, hardcore or casual, it is spreading to the masses like wildfire. Great games get played for a long time, they don't fizzle out after a strong start. Puzzle Quest started out as very grass roots, word-of-mouth campaign. Our marketing and PR team at D3 got people playing the game before it ever came out, got people excited about the title and created a great buzz. Once gamers played it, they were hooked.

The game is certainly unique. Puzzle Quest also seems to be one of the few genre hybrids that's both successful and fun. I know I played up through Level 50, and it's still something I break out when I need a quick fix.

I think you hit the nail on the head. It is a genre hybrid. And like I stated earlier, the game appeals to casual and hardcore gamers alike. It is addictive and fun. A great game always leaves you saying, I'll play one more level, just one more level. And Puzzle Quest definitely leaves you feeling that way all the time.

And has the game's success convinced you to participate in making a sequel?

If Infinite Interactive and D3PA want us to be part of further releases, then we would definitely consider it.

Finally, this dovetails nicely into my last question. After having been working with the Puzzle Quest IP for so long now, what's next in Vicious Cycle's your pipeline? Surely the team it itching to create something entirely different for their next project?

Oh, we have a few things up our sleeve. As you know, we just finished Puzzle Quest Wii and PS2, as well as Dead Head Fred on the PSP. We are now in mid-swing on our first next gen game for the Xbox 360 and PS3 and will soon be starting another product for the PS2, Wii and PSP. As some people may or may not know, we have our own engine that we license to other developers called the Vicious Engine and it is important that we internally continue to work on as many platforms as possible to keep our code fresh and up-to-date not only for ourselves but for our clients as well.

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