"It didn’t quite pan out. It was kind of like a pachinko-type thing," John Vechey said. "It was kind of forgotten about, but I always felt a big draw towards it. So had Sukhbir."
It’s admittedly not the most noble beginning for a game, but that’s where Peggle’s story gets its start; a model created by programmer Brian Rothstein that had all but faded from consciousness. However, it was a small flame that Vechey and producer Sukhbir Sidhu had been compelled by, and, with Rothstein’s help, ignited one of the most talked about casual games in years.
The base idea for Peggle did come from Japanese parlor game pachinko. But Vechey, who was heavily involved with the prototyping, along with Sidhu and Rothstein, said the three quickly realized why it wasn’t a perfect fit for a casual game. Namely: It wasn’t fun.
"We played a bunch of pachinko games online, but it wasn’t fun to play on a computer," Vechey said. "It’s just not fun."
But the three men found themselves unable to let go of the pachinko concept, they felt that there was some vein of fun there. They just had to know where to dig.
"One of our development things that we do in the prototype phase is that if someone feels passionate about something, we kind of keep moving down it," Vechey said. "It’s not until people lose that passion that we look at the next thing to try."
Adding more control to the game was an easy first step, but the fun beyond that proved to be more hesitant to reveal itself. Unwilling to let go of the idea, the three men rolled up their sleeves and started digging.
Putting the tweaking before the horse
As with any casual game that is hitched on the fun of a singular mechanic, some of the most intricate work came at the front end of the process.
The game went through several different iterations in its first five months, one version where several balls were fired at moving targets, one where they had to be sunk into holes and even one that had Rube Goldberg-esque machinations Vechey compared to board game Mousetrap.
"We played around with a lot of different mechanics," Vechey said. "It wasn’t until Brian did this one that was crosses spinning and your goal was to light them all up. From there, he did one where the spinning ‘X’s disappeared. That started to lead to what eventually became Peggle."
With so many different mechanics surrounding the pachinko theme, the creators were faced with the challenge of separating the wheat from the chaff.
"It was really difficult to say ‘What path should we follow down?’" Vechey said. "Is the fast arcadey game going to be better than the slow-paced version we eventually came up with? Should it unlock a puzzle? Figuring out that kind of stuff was probably the first really difficult part."
Finding the game
"Now that we know that it’s fun to shoot a ball at pegs and have them disappear, what’s the game?"
That was the question that the team had to ask themselves after they cleared some of their first design hurdles. They soon hit upon creating various colors of pegs to modify the player’s score. They liked the idea, but its success was contingent on making the player actually care about the score they had.
"If the score doesn’t really matter, nobody cares about the score," Vechey said. "That’s when we came up with free balls. Everybody understands that, it’s like pinball. Your score matters, because that’s when you get a free ball."
The other key component to making the game as fun as possible was deciding on the physics applied to the ball, how it would bounce around the game board.
"That was constantly being tweaked," Vechey said. "The physics was the toughest part. At the beginning, we thought there was going to be a bunch of balls on the screen at once, so Brian had to rewrite our entire physics engine once we knew what the game would be."
Peggle’s physics had to be just right, as they would arguably control more of the game than the player would. After the player makes that initial click, their job is basically done, and they’re subject to that same suspense pachinko players have known since World War II.
Removing control from the player was not the easiest decision to make, but the team was convinced that it was a good one.
"We definitely knew it was the right choice," Vechey said. "You can see with the flipper power-up, it changes the game when you get a little bit of control. It gives it a certain tension that I don’t think is always necessary."
Vechey said he saw several first-timers attempting to click after their ball had been shot, not believing that they had forsaken control. In fact, he said, it took people beating a level before they really understood the game, a "Eureka" moment that is helped in no small part by one of the most audacious audio-visual rewards in casual game history.
You give me "Fever"
Perhaps the secret to Peggle’s success is in the arduous play-testing, the physics tweaking, the agonizing over structure. But, just maybe, it’s all about "Extreme Fever," a cornucopia of visual effects, pyrotechnics and a generous dollup of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony that accompanies the end of every level.
Surprisingly, it started out as a joke. Sidhu had designed a level where the player had to toggle on the lights of an alien ship. If the difficult goal was accomplished the word "Fever" appeared on the screen, and the 9th blared from the speakers.
It provided a good laugh for the team, but they soon realized an inescapable truth: It was also a lot of fun.
"The more we played it, the more we realized that when you hear that 9th it’s just so gratifying," Vechey said excitedly. "I mean, Beethoven’s Beethoven, and that’s probably the most famous piece. It just feels good. When we got to actually designing Fever it was like ‘What could compete with the 9th?’"
What followed was an explosive escalation, the likes of which has not been seen since the Cold War. First someone piled on flames, then it was rainbows, etc., until the team was left with a slo-mo, bombastic, Technicolor orgy of pixels and, of course, a monitor-rattling "Ode to Joy."
From the spark
The team’s joy in their game is now being shared with players across the world who’ve begun snapping up Peggle by the thousands.
It would likely be hard for a player in the midst of their first "Extreme Fever" mode to imagine the inauspicious beginnings of the game they were playing. One could argue that’s a testament to the work that went into the game, the fine tuning, the perfecting.
But it’s also a testament to that original pachinko model, the ember that lit the fuse "Fever" fireworks and to the men unwilling to let it be extinguished.