How Steve Fawkner twice tried something unusual and different, struggled to find a publisher, then struck gold.
Steve Fawkner made a game in order to break his Bejeweled addiction. Puzzle Quest, a sleeper hit puzzle/role-playing game hybrid, was the Australian game designer's reaction to the mega-popular PopCap title. But this was hardly the beginning of his career, or even his first success.
Fawkner's been making games for 30 years, watching American contemporaries like Will Wright and Sid Meier go on to incredible heights while himself being considered a game development pioneer in his hometown of Melbourne. His games have topped sales charts, been held up as critical darlings and inspired rabid fans who continue to play their favorite Fawkner titles years after release. Yet he has continuously found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, not quite achieving the notoriety of a Wright or Meier.
It wasn't all easy sailing, either, and his two best-known games — Warlords and Puzzle Quest — both languished for months before they could find a publisher. Nearly two decades apart, the two titles have had a similar path to release — Fawkner iterated on a novel genre-melding concept until he had something great, then one publisher after another turned it down because they didn't know whether it would sell.
Fawkner has gone from sole game creator to worldwide success to studio head working closely with big publishers — twice. And now he's independent again, hoping to strike it big a third time in as many decades.
Quest for the holy grail
Steve Fawkner spent much of his childhood obsessed with games, but not just video games. "I was a crazy board game player," he recalls. "[And] I played a lot of chess." He was four or five years old when he discovered Pong at a local pizza store. But he didn't see it as any different to the board games he'd already embraced.
The store soon got a Space Invaders machine, he says, "and [then the Atari 2600] came out and I got Space Invaders that I could play in my bedroom. I think at that stage my brain kind of realized that computer gaming was different to board gaming."
He liked it, particularly because — unlike most board games — you could play by yourself. "When you didn't have a friend over or it was the evening and there were no friends around and your family was busy, you could break out the Space Invaders machine [instead]."
It wasn't long before Fawkner took to making his own games. "My friend bet me that I couldn't write the Dungeons and Dragons combat system with 1K of memory," he says. "I'd never programmed before, so I just learned the ZX81 [known as Timex Sinclair 1000 in the U.S.] assembly language and kind of threw together something that vaguely approximated Dungeons and Dragons combat rules. That guy still owes me $20."
Fawkner released his first full game, Quest for the Holy Grail, for the Sinclair Spectrum in 1983. "I didn't know about publishing or about how to get a game to the store," he says. "So what I would do is go to a gaming convention and take some copies of Quest for the Holy Grail in a snap-lock bag, with some instructions just printed out."
He gave them away to attendees, free of charge, with a message at the start and end of the game requesting players send $5 to fund the next one. He didn't expect to earn a penny, but Fawkner got 32 checks — earning $160.
Encouraged by this unexpected success, he developed more games, building up a mailing list of people who liked his work. He'd send them games through the mail, and they'd pay another $5 for each title they enjoyed. "It was extremely, extremely primitive, but it was kind of pizza and beer money when I was a teen."
"I owe Alex a huge debt of gratitude for actually finding my game in the garbage and playing it."
Then one day in early 1989 he finished a game that seemed too good to give away, either in snap-lock bags or through snail mail to his small list of previous customers. Warlords combined two games Fawkner had been playing at the time: a strategy video game called Empire, by White Wolf Productions co-founder and former Space Shuttle Program flight designer Mark Baldwin, and a board game by TSR called Dragons of Glory. A turn-based affair, it put you in charge of one or more clans — each possessing heroes and citadels and soldiers — and asked you conquer at least two-thirds of the map.
Fawkner thought maybe he could sell Warlords commercially. "I sent it around to a few publishers," he says, "and just got told no. They weren't interested in a game that was 90 percent finished by someone they'd never heard of." He also sent it to distributors, unaware of the difference between the two. "They certainly weren't interested in something that didn't come shrink-wrapped in a box."
Almost ready to give up, Fawkner chased one last lead: Strategic Studies Group (SSG) in Sydney. "They do strategy games," he remembers a friend saying. "OK, they're tanks and planes and military kind of strategy, but why don't you send it to them?" Fawkner shipped a copy off, and initially heard no response.
"Six weeks later, I got a phone call," he recalls. SSG co-founder Ian Trout confessed that his company had thrown the game out because it had knights and dragons in it, but they gave it another look after his son, Alex Shore, found the Warlords disk and dug in. "I owe Alex a huge debt of gratitude for actually finding my game in the garbage and playing it," Fawkner says. "Because SSG published it. It reviewed really well, sold I think tens or hundreds of thousands of units and did very nicely."
He left a full-time job as a 3-D CAD programmer at mining company BHP Billiton to continue the Warlords series, but it was isolating being more than 500 miles away from his new colleagues at SSG. "I was basically locked in my house every day just coding," Fawkner says. "My only contact was with people via the phone."
It didn't help that Australia's game industry was heavily splintered at the time. Fawkner "worshipped" the games of The Hobbit developer Melbourne House, but it wasn't until the mid-'90s that he discovered they were based five minutes down the road from where he worked. "You would think that, being a half intelligent dude, I would actually figure that out," he says. "But it never occurred to me. I figured they were named after Lord Melbourne, who lived in London, or something like that."
There was no shortage of people offering ideas for the next Warlords game, though. "Email wasn't the pervasive thing that it is now, so people would write letters to us asking when we're going to do our next game," Fawkner says. "We would get these four or five page letters, sometimes typed, sometimes handwritten, from people who just had suggestions for things they wanted to put into the game.
"I think that and not the fact that it sold so many units blew me away. The fact that people would take so long to write a letter about a game. I've never done that. Even though I love games, I've never written a letter to the creators of a game."
Sometimes he wrote back, but mostly Fawkner and the team at SSG — who helped again with development — tried to implement most of their ideas into the sequel, Warlords 2. They shouldn't have. "We ended up with this huge, gargantuan mess of features," he says. You could set forests alight and they would burn in different directions according to the wind, causing grass fires or even burning down cities. "We had a dinosaur that kind of wandered around randomly eating troops on the map. Crazy shit like that," he says.
"We would get these four or five page letters, sometimes typed, sometimes handwritten, from people who just had suggestions for things they wanted to put into the game."
"It was bizarre. It was fun to write and fun to interact with fans that way. [But] we ended up throwing it out."
Warlords 2 finally did emerge in 1993, with a map editor that players used re-create all their favorite fantasy worlds as the killer feature, and a third game followed in 1997. Then Fawkner moved to a new challenge — a real-time strategy game with heroes and RPG elements called Warlords: Battlecry. "We'd been working on the same kind of game for 10 years," he says. "So to now work on something that was still a strategy game, but real-time, required a lot of new techniques, and a lot more animation and art. It was fantastic fun, and we could grow the team a little bit to work on it because the budget was a bit bigger."
The Battlecry success gave Fawkner the impetus to break away from SSG and form his own independent studio, Infinite Interactive, in 2003. Warlords 4, meanwhile, was left in the hands of a team at SSG, where it floundered. "There was a good game there," Fawkner says. But it wasn't in the proper fantasy vein of the series. "It was just a military strategy game with dragons." Ubisoft, the publisher, wasn't happy. Fawkner and his team at Infinite Interactive were called in to reboot it from scratch. In six months.
"We had a lot of art assets left over from SSG's attempt at the game," Fawkner recalls. "But six months to write a complete codebase kind of meant we couldn't polish the features to the degree that we'd like." They got it done, and he was proud of the effort, but the rush job showed through in features that should have been cut and design choices that should have been overhauled or fleshed out further.
Warlords 4 got middling reviews, averaging a score in the low 70s despite praise from sites GameSpot and IGN. "We weren't happy with that," Fawkner says. "Most of my games are sitting around 85. I feel like I've let people down."
This coincided with a transition in the market that saw budgets shrink dramatically on the traditional PC strategy that was Infinite's bread and butter, and the dip in the now 20-person studio's quality of output wasn't helping matters. So after finishing Warlords: Battlecry 3 in 2004, the team decided to suck it up and spend a couple of years refocusing on handheld and console. "From 2005 to 2007 we didn't release a game," Fawkner says. "We were just redeveloping our tech, and we shrank the team down to three people."
While this was going on, he got hooked on a simple match-3 puzzle game that would determine his fate for the remainder of the decade.
"I like to work late at night," Fawkner says. "I'd roll into the office about 11 o'clock and I'd play a game of Bejeweled to just get my brain churning over. And that game of Bejeweled started becoming two games of Bejeweled, and three games of Bejeweled.
"There was one evening where I rolled into the office and I think I played Bejeweled until around 4 a.m., then went home. I thought this has got to stop. The only way it's going to stop is if I write a game like Bejeweled."
So he did. Then he thought it'd be fun to mix in elements of Magic: The Gathering, a fantasy role-playing card game, and soon after decided to build a story mode based on Final Fantasy Tactics. "I smooshed all those things together and Puzzle Quest came out," he recalls. "It was one of the very unusual cases where it came out first time."
But finding a publisher to put up the money for him to finish the game and get it to market proved less straightforward. "Every publisher looked at that game and went, 'This is really weird. I don't know how many [units] it's going to sell. If we don't know how many it's going to sell, we don't know what budget to give you. So we can't do the game.'"
It wasn't quite a carbon copy of his troubles getting Warlords out. He wasn't some unknown nobody; Fawkner had a nearly 20-year pedigree of successful PC games, a long list of American contacts and an agent to help seal the deal. But Puzzle Quest languished for 18 months before Japanese budget-games publisher D3 took it on.
"It was so weird," Fawkner recalls. "D3 didn't know what budget to give it, either. We were doing it for kind of pizza money, really." His tiny team, which had continued developing Puzzle Quest during this long search for a publisher, took a few months with what little budget they had to polish and perfect the mechanics, and to finish off the Nintendo DS version. Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords released in North America on Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable on March 20, 2007. D3 shipped 40,000 units out to retailers. They sold out within a week or two.
"I shudder to think how many copies on DS we might have sold if we hadn't struck that sell-out in the middle."
The popular Penny Arcade web comic had posted twice about the DS version in three days — once on how hard it was to find, then again on how much characters Gabe and Tycho liked it. Already hard to find because of the relatively small shipment, Puzzle Quest became nearly impossible to buy as word of mouth demand rapidly spread around the internet. D3 scrambled to ship more. "The problem," Fawkner says, "was that, at the time, Nintendo had this massive lead time with creating cartridges, so it was another five [or] six weeks before more cartridges could be shipped out to the market.
"I shudder to think how many copies on DS we might have sold if we hadn't struck that sell-out in the middle. People told me, 'I walked into the store with $40 to buy your game — $30 at the US price point — and it wasn't there, so I bought something else.' I hate that."
The weird match-3/RPG-hybrid game that couldn't find a publisher was a hit, and Infinite quickly ballooned from three to 40 (and then nearly 70) employees as ports followed on PC, Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation 2, Nintendo Wii, PlayStation 3 and iPhone.
Fawkner says he's not surprised it was successful, but the magnitude of Puzzle Quest's success — that it would be loved by millions of people around the world — "was kind of staggering."
He's had some time to think about what makes it popular. "Our brains are hardwired to match patterns," Fawkner says. It dates back to the hunter-gatherer days, when picking the right berries or spotting a predator in the distance could be the difference between life and death. "We've been rewarded for matching patterns. So our brain kind of rewards us every time we can see a pattern and we can acknowledge that," he continues, "and that turns into fun. That's kind of my theory of fun — that it's all about seeing and reacting to patterns and then receiving rewards for doing that.
"What Puzzle Quest did was it took that nice pattern-matching thing that Bejeweled had done, which is super rewarding — and Bejeweled is way more popular than Puzzle Quest ever will be — but it added a level of game-y-ness to it, which was the RPG stuff."
That appealed to core gaming audiences, introducing many of them to the addictive fun that casual players already knew from Bejeweled. "It was a nice situation to find ourselves in — the guys who introduced match-3 into the core audiences rather than the casual audiences," Fawkner says.
Puzzle Quest DS
With success came complications. Infinite Interactive struggled to adapt to the rapid growth its latest success triggered. Several Puzzle Quest sequels and spin-offs followed, but Fawkner's policy of trying to add something new and novel to every game backfired.
"I think we made a lot of mistakes there," Fawkner admits. "We were trying to be a little too clever sometimes. With Galactrix, we thought we've always wanted to do a sci-fi game. Oh, what looks sci-fi? Hex grids. Let's make a hex gem-matching game. And hex just scares some people off — they think hardcore military board game, or something like that."
Somewhere in the post-Puzzle Quest hiring blitz, Infinite lost its way. "When you've got 70 mouths to feed in a studio and you're working on a project that's got 10 people and it's got deadlines," says Fawkner, "it's really really easy to fall into a trap of just going 'that feature will do. It will meet a deadline; let's get onto the next thing. We've got to ship the game.'"
Fawkner seems at his best when he can concentrate on iterating through ideas until he nails the perfect design. Where people like Will Wright, Sid Meier and Fawkner's friends at League of Legends developer Riot Games have consistently managed to scale their vision up to triple-A production, Fawkner's big successes have all come when he's had a small, agile team that can take its time to explore and tweak new designs. This makes his decision to merge with Flight Control and Real Racing developer Firemint in 2011 in a short-lived kind of shared labor agreement all the more strange in retrospect.
"it's really really easy to fall into a trap of just going 'that feature will do. It will meet a deadline.'"
Electronic Arts swooped in and acquired Firemint in May 2011 — rebranding it Firemonkeys a year later in a merger with EA subsidiary Iron Monkey.
This left Infinite "in a kind of limbo," Fawkner says, because Firemint never acquired the Puzzle Quest developer. "We became part of Electronic Arts as employees, but Infinite still existed as a separate entity. It was a little confusing for everybody, I think."
Fawkner took the opportunity to learn about how a big company works, but he soon felt a hunger to be making games his own way again. He announced in July 2012 that he'd left EA, and Infinite Interactive was officially independent again.
Steve Fawkner is, in his own words, "a guy who made games that sucked until he got a hit, who then made more games until he got another hit." Whether he can strike gold a third time remains to be seen after six years of struggling and largely failing to design a worthy Puzzle Quest successor, but he's hopeful.
In many ways, Fawkner's journey echoes that of the games industry. He started small, independent, self-publishing with disks in a snap-lock bag at conventions, then took on progressively larger teams in a race to make each sequel bigger and better than the last. In the mid-2000s, he took stock and pivoted to mobile and console, where innovation again beget rapid growth, consolidation and a series of rushed sequels.
Now he's gone small again. Infinite Interactive has just four employees, which is well suited to his approach. "I don't want to be the guy out on the cutting edge there," he says, "who's taking risks with technology. I'd rather risk design features than risk technology."
"I want to play some awesome stuff, learn from it and then make another game really awesome after that."
He's better equipped now than ever to execute on that risk. After 30 years making games, Fawkner has just about nailed down his process, an experience-oriented approach that involves repeated mock-ups, mindmaps and iterations on a design before a single line of code is written. This is key, Fawkner says, because "ideas are such a small part of the final game, and execution is so much."
"The biggest thing I've learned over the last 20 to 30 years is that execution — the ability to execute on an idea and produce a final polished product comes from experience. ... You come in, learn how to make a game for 10 years, then you get to be the 10-year overnight success and realize your idea."
Fawkner's new idea is "to do for strategy games what Puzzle Quest did for RPGs." Gems of War will fuse Warlords-esque strategy elements around a puzzle core, and he hopes it'll be out next year. After that, he's not sure.
He likens himself to a football player, his eyes trained not on silverware at the end of the season but on getting through the next match with a good result. Even after 30 years of making games, he's still ready and willing to learn and be humbled by somebody else's work.
"I want to play some awesome stuff," he says, "learn from it and then make another game really awesome after that. And keep doing that until I die, I guess."
Images: Strategic Studies Group, D3 Publisher
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan