I’ve been playing a lot of Puzzle Quest recently, and I have been very impressed with how a fairly simple RPG layer can turn Bejeweled – which has always been, for me, a fairly forgettable casual game – into a very addictive experience. Adding a layer of level grinding… er, advancing… to the basic match-3 gameplay transforms two things which are uninspiring in isolation into a very compelling package. Further, the puzzle game itself becomes significantly more interesting when there is a level of competition – knowing that matching these reds gems prevents my opponent from matching those attack skulls transforms the gameplay from mindless pattern matching into a very interesting tactical contest. The interesting thing is that Bejeweled always had look-ahead gameplay to encourage combos and whatnot, but it always felt lifeless to me when I was only competing for some abstract concept like score.
There is one further design choice of note in Puzzle Quest which deserves mention – there is no save system. Of course, the game maintains your information over multiple sessions (this is an RPG, after all), but you never actually have to tell your DS to “Save the Game.” The whole save process occurs automatically in the background every time something important happens (like fighting a battle or discovering a spell or buying an item). I was kind of weirded out the first time I wanted to turn off my DS while playing PQ, but I didn’t see a save option, so I just hoped for the best and shut down. The reason they can get away with this is that nothing bad can ever happen to you! You can never lose an item or fail a mission or miss an opportunity. At no time would you ever wish to go back to an “old save.” Because the game gives you experience and gold even when you lose battles – and you always have a chance to try again – you will eventually get the loot or level that you want.
This is not a simple innovation as there are important trade-offs to consider – for one, player-controlled save systems encourage experimentation. Players enjoy being able to try something wacky (“What happens if I declare war on Gandhi?”) because they can simply go back to an earlier version of the game. The designers might have learned from MMOs like WoW which, of course, have no player-controlled save systems either. Being single-player, they had the freedom to remove the death penalty altogether, which puts the player experimentation back into the game. For Puzzle Quest, the designers must have made it a point at the beginning of the project to take all design options which could permanently hurt the player off the table – even extending to such RPG standards as single-use equipment!
The lack of a save system is a big win for Puzzle Quest because it increases the game’s accessibility. A large part of the game’s potential audience – the Bejeweled crowd – has never played an RPG in their lives, which means they have never saved a game either. It’s just one more hoop that new players have to learn – unless, of course, you can figure out a way to remove the hoop altogether…