The Japanese obsession with pachinko, pinball’s curious and seemingly ruleless cousin, seems inexplicable to most westerners. A tourist’s curiosity, these bright, clattering machines are inscrutably foreign in both form and function, sharing few of the rules, risks and rewards of traditional videogames. The same could perhaps be said of Peggle, a game that also sees its players’ success or failure resting on a curious balance of chance and design.
It’s not an unfair comparison, as the game’s producer and PopCap studio director, Sukhbir Sidhu, admits: “I played an imported pachinko game back in the late 1990s and became very addicted. Following this I wanted to try and create a videogame based upon similar principals that elicited similar emotions. But pachinko is purely luck-based and so it doesn’t translate well to a PC-based videogame. As a result the idea got pushed to the back of my mind. It wasn’t until I came to PopCap and saw that one of the coders, Brian Rothstein, had created a 2D physics engine that was perfect for this style of game, that the vision was rekindled.”
For the first five months of development Sidhu and Rothstein worked alone on the game. Later in the project’s two-year lifespan, lead artist Walter Wilson, background artist Marcia Broderick and finally a second coder, Eric Tams, bolstered the team.
The game clearly benefited from PopCap’s studio policy of loose deadlines and emergent development, as company co-founder John Vechey explains: “PopCap doesn’t believe in releasing a game until it’s ready. And if it’s never deemed ‘ready’, then it’s never released. The loose deadlines are necessary to maintain our quality bar. And while this may sound like a wonderful world of idyllic pan-flute- playing fairies, it’s actually much harder to make games without deadlines. You’re constantly second-guessing the choices, trying to add more features – and you never really feel like it’s done.”
Sidhu had previously worked on internal PopCap titles Astropop, Insaniquarium and Typer Shark as well as having design input on a raft of titles the company published. With encouragement from Vechey, Sidhu began working on a game design that combined elements of pachinko with those of classic Atari title Breakout. “There were obviously a lot of directions the game could have gone,” says Sidhu, “so the biggest initial challenge was narrowing it down to a simple, compelling and fun mechanic. It took a while, but we were prepared for that.
“Initially all of the levels we created were either too fast-paced – using the typical non-stop ball shooting that you would see in pachinko – or too demanding. So we started simplifying. Brian made a level that had 100 rotating crosses, which all had to be hit with the ball and cleared. This seemed to be the right direction – it was a lot of fun, addictive and replayable but was ultimately still too frustrating. Over the following weeks or so this idea was distilled down to a field of static round pegs. This allowed for a more predictable bounce which worked so well we finally decided to just use a subset of randomly selected orange target pegs in amongst all of the others to help balance levels and ease some of the frustration of getting the last peg.”