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Popcap Are The kings of casual gaming. Their flagship game, Bejeweled, has been bought by over five million people, and played for free online by untold millions more, making it more popular than life itself (or at least, about as popular as Half-Life 2). Their PC offerings are slick, intuitive, generally not very original, but queerly compelling. Despite their popularity and strong sales, we never really took PopCap games too seriously - that is, until Peggle.
Just original enough to make it stand out from the crowd, and so finely tuned as to demand a begrudging nod of respect from even non-casual gamers, Peggle Deluxe has kept us late after work, and even put back the development of The Orange Box, perhaps to include the last-minute Half-Life-themed extension, Peggle Extreme. We talked to Eric Tams, Peggle's senior engineer, and Sukhbir Sidhu, studio VP of PopCap, about the little game that briefly paralysed an industry...
Sidhu: "We originally had the idea that we wanted to make a pachinko game, but as pachinko is purely luck-based, it doesn't make for a good game unless you have the gambling element to make it interesting. Still, we wanted something that had elements of pachinko, or even pinball. Even then, though, pinball was a little too skill-based in some ways, and doesn't lend itself to compulsive PC play."
Addiction And Excuses
Sidhu: "It's actually funny - I have a friend that works over at Valve, and he said that they actually delayed the shipping of The Orange Box by a whole week because of Peggle. They've got a couple of people over there who've got all three trophies. I've done everything in the game at some point, but I was working on development, so I'd lose my profile, stuff like that."
Tams: "Same here, over the course of two years, we did all the challenges and cleared everything, but never in one build. It is possible - it's not easy, but it's perfectly possible."
They Never Made It
Tams: "Our lead art guy had a huge amount to do with the characterisation of the Peggle Masters - we all had these ideas of what we wanted the characters to be, but he's the guy who brought them to life. Renfield, though, was originally meant to be a ghost It was still going to be Spooky Ball, but he wasn't a pumpkin, he was going to be this ghost So he was just this white sheet with holes in it, and we realised that he just looked like a Klansman. We thought that that wasn't what we really wanted, so we ended up replacing him with a pumpkin."
All Jokes Are A Little Bit Serious
Tams: "A lot of our stuff at the beginning, in the prototype stage, were just jokes, but people seemed to like them, and they ended up making it through. For example, the way the camera dramatically zooms in when you're about to hit the last peg - we were thinking, 'how can we make ending a level more exciting?' The zooming-in idea seemed almost ridiculous at first, but we gave it a try. Then we thought maybe we'd gone too far, so we took it out again. After playing it for a while, we realised we really missed the zoom. It took a lot of tweaking to get all these effects to work well together."
Ode To Joy
Sidhu: "When we were prototyping for the first few months, we had the ability to just put in any file we wanted to go with Extreme Fever. I had Ride Of The Valkyries for a while. And then Ace (designer Brian Rothstein), who's a really good pianist, and really into Beethoven, put in Ode To Joy, and it worked so well that it survived the whole development. All these things we put in as a joke - we never really thought it'd be there at the end; but when we saw peoples' reactions to winning a level - throwing their hands in the air - we had to keep it, so we ended up licensing it."
Tams: "Ode To Joy sent us down the road of having a lot of over-the-top rewards. All the effects, and the whole pace of the game - the zoom-in, the drum-roll - it's just the absurdly over-the-top celebration of victory. It makes the game a lot more pleasurable. It's funny - such a simple game, but without these things it'd be so radically different."
My Little Pony
Sidhu: "My favourite character is Bjorn the Unicorn - with his Super Guide, you can really set up a few of the long shots and super long shots. There's nothing as satisfying as planning out a shot, and being able to execute it, and Bjorn is the only character where you can get these spectacular shots with the computer stepping in.
Tams: "Bjorn is my favourite character too. He's the default character, so whenever we were testing a level, he's the first character that comes up, so we ended up playing a lot with him. It sort of depends on the mode, though - in a duel mode, I'd probably go for Splork's Space Blast, or even Warren's Lucky Spin. Everyone has characters they absolutely despise, and insist are useless, but other people will be adamant that they're awesome."
Sidhu: "Right now, we're not working on a Peggle 2, but Peggle is still doing really well. We're developing it for a couple of other high-profile platforms in the next six months or so, and one of those will feature multiplayer. There are no plans for a PC multiplayer at the moment. We have started working on an expansion for Peggle, though - called Peggle Nights, named after Baywatch Nights. It's basically the same rules and characters, but with around 65 new levels, and at least 75 new challenges. It shows the dreams of each character - their dream job, their dream locations, it should be funny."
Sidhu: "For a while, I didn't like using Renfield's Spooky Ball. Every time I got it, the ball would just fall through and only hit a couple of pegs, or no pegs. But weirdly, other people swore by it. Eric ended up tweaking the power-up a bit so that now, when the ball wraps around, you're guaranteed to hit at least one peg." Tams: "Not quite guaranteed, but you'll notice it veers towards a grouping of pegs now, whereas before it'd just fall through. Lucky Spin is another one that people feel is too random, but I love it - mostly because it is random. And Master Wu is another one - he has an awesome power-up - sometimes he's a little too powerful, perhaps. Kat Tut has a really under-appreciated power-up, because he can really help you get those extra balls." Tams: "Claude is a weird one. He's tricky to use, and his power-up is only suited to a couple of the levels." Sidhu: "Playing Peggle for so long, I wasn't used to doing anything interactive after I launched the ball. I'd just get so caught up in the shot, and then suddenly I'd realise that the ball had just gone past my flippers. And I'd think 'oh, wait, I should be clicking my mouse again now'." Tams: "Claude is a bit of a Peggle anomaly, but it's all about variety. None of the characters fit together logically, really. That's not what Peggle is."
Lights and sounds and magic, that's what Peggle is made of. We've described it to ourselves in many different ways -that wondrous bastard child of bagatelle and pachinko, the senile pinball bitch from the planes of insanity, upsidedown crazy Breakout with gravity. Whatever description you use though, it's captivated us to an embarrassing degree, strengthening its grip with every Ultra Extreme Fever shot.
If I were to start plainly laying out Peggle's mechanics in front of you, you would think us quite mad for becoming hopelessly entangled in it The game tosses you the task of clearing each level of orange pegs by launching balls from your lofty cannon. Each level is comprised of a screen filled with patterns and designs of pegs - blue ones are the point-swilling fodder, pink ones are point multipliers and green ones activate your current character's special power.
A critical ounce of skill is involved in the initial aiming of your shot whether it's to nail that crucial pink peg or bank shot off a blue, but after the second bounce things are entirely in the hands of luck. This is where Peggle amazes, because in your head, everything that's happening has been directly caused by your sheer talent Each peg lights up as it's hit with satisfying pings' increasing in tone. Hit the glorious 25,000 points barrier and your Fever Meter starts to flash, and subsequent peg hits resonate with booming PONG!' noises. Hit 75,000 and it literally sounds like god screaming in a wind tunnel.
That's Liquid Peggle
As your ball approaches the final orange peg, time slows down and the camera pans in close to the action. A drum rolls, ramping up the tension for that split-second before the final peg is struck. Fireworks scream and a roaring choir belt out Ode To Joy as your ball turns into a rainbow-trail generating orb. Buckets rise from the bottom of the screen, offering a final resting place for your ball, and a nice bonus should it fall in the right one.
It's stupid, flashy fun, and you'll become so thoroughly absorbed that you'll punch the air victoriously, congratulating yourself for clicking in the right place and watching a ball bounce around the screen. Reviewing the thing is our first step towards rehabilitation.