Shot of puzzle mode with character stats['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at genre fusion in Puzzle Quest.]

The concept of the video game genre is one which is both a blessing and a curse on the medium. Video game genres categorize and describe games, allowing players to easily guess what games they will like and allowing developers to use a successful and proven formula.

That latter aspect, however, is what makes genres a limiting concept. A genre, in this context, is really just a collection of game design elements: a perspective, a mode of interaction, a game structure, and so on. An individual game might benefit from most of the elements in a genre, but be better suited by a different choice of perspective or gameplay style. However, a designer who blindly follows a genre will miss that fact, and shoehorn her game into a genre just for the sake of fitting the template.

Few games utterly ignore genre. There is, however, a long-standing tradition of genre fusion: taking two or more established genres and combining them into a game that is neither one nor the other. ActRaiser, Sacrifice, and System Shock 2 are among the many excellent games that take this approach.

This allows developers to pick and choose from the design elements of multiple genres without abandoning the benefits of easy recognition by players. Marketing can refer to a game as a "FPS/RPG" and appeal to the fans of both genres. Especially well-done instances of genre fusion can spawn genres themselves; The Legend of Zelda was originally an action/RPG hybrid, but it's now regarded as one of the first examples of the action-adventure genre.

Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords is an excellent example of a game that mixes genres well. Created by Infinite Interactive in 2007, Puzzle Quest combines the color-matching puzzle genre with the RPG genre. As a pure concept, it's appealing: a strategic roleplaying game where battles are fought through a Bejeweled-like puzzle system.

However, what's remarkable about Puzzle Quest is that it actually works. Beyond being a high-concept novelty, Puzzle Quest is a good game. By looking at how it combined genres, one can get a deeper understanding of how to effectively create a genre-bending game.

Shot of mapRune of Mastery

Part of Puzzle Quest's success is due to the skilled execution of both of its genres. The two game modes are sharply divided, with the exploration, questing, and roleplaying aspects serving as the high-level game mode and the puzzle game restricted to the battle system. There's never a point where the player is engaging in both game modes at once, so the experience is never confusing or unfamiliar. Remarkably, each game mode is a solid example of its respective genre.

The RPG mode presents a competent storyline involving the strange surge of undead in the world of Etheria. It helps that the game is set in the established Warlords fantasy universe. The player gains experience, levels up, gains spells and skills, and recruits companions. There's even a strategic aspect of this mode that allows the player to improve citadels and gain benefits from city upgrades. The quest structure is as compelling as many traditional RPGs, with plenty of side quests and optional objectives to pursue.

With the complexity of the RPG mode, it would have been easy to make the puzzle mode nothing more than a copy of Bejeweled match-3 gameplay. However, while the basic concept remains the same, Puzzle Quest adds an additional layer by assigning significance to the different kinds of game tiles. The basic goal is still to make rows of three or more by swapping adjacent tiles, but each type of tile yields a different benefit when matched. The overarching goal for each puzzle battle is to reduce the opponent's hit points to zero before they do the same to the player character, but the mana meters and special tiles mean that there is a strong element of strategy to which tiles the player should match in a given situation.

It's clear from Puzzle Quest's two well-executed game modes that the developers paid close attention to each genre. Instead of focusing on one game style and letting the other suffer, the developers made sure that each game mode is a solid example of its style of gameplay. This is a trap that is easy to fall into when blending game genres; even the classic Deus Ex has a weak FPS aspect to it. Running and shooting in Deus Ex is nowhere near as compelling as it is in, say, Half-Life 2, but both of Puzzle Quest's modes could hold their own against single-genre games.

Shot of all basic tile typesA Perfect Match

The true cleverness of Puzzle Quest's design is how well the two game modes interact. The two modes are separate, but the player's actions in one mode affect the other. In the high-level RPG mode, the player collects equipment, skills, and allies which provide benefits and extra options in the low-level puzzle mode. In puzzle mode, the gold and experience tiles provide no immediate benefit, but they allow the player to buy equipment and level up in RPG mode. This interaction between the two modes is what makes the game a truly dual-genre title, instead of just an RPG bolted to a puzzle game.

The two modes interact so well because of the two specific game genres that the designers chose. The RPG genre already has a convention of a separate battle mode. In an archetypical roleplaying game, the player explores and interacts with characters in one mode, and battles in a separate, turn-based battle mode. RPG battles do not usually allow much freedom of motion or nuance of action, in contract to the often open-ended exploration mode. Because of this, it doesn't feel quite so jarring when the player runs into a skeleton and is suddenly dropped into a puzzle game. Experienced players of RPGs are used to being dropped into a simplified, separate mode of gameplay.

On the other side, puzzle games like Bejeweled often offer a segmented experience, where the gameplay is divided into levels loosely connected by a sequential or narrative structure. Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo orders and structures its Tetris-like puzzle bouts as if the player were progressing through a fighting game, and Magical Drop III has a branching story mode. A version of Puzzle Quest without the RPG mode but with the same story concept is easy to imagine; this method of structuring the puzzle progression suits the puzzle game genre.

Shot of character portraitsThe Missive

In creating Puzzle Quest, the developers did not just pick two random genres and drop them into a blender. They chose two genres that would interact well together, with the puzzle mode serving as the battle "minigame" for the RPG mode, and the RPG mode serving as the narrative and dividing structure for the puzzle mode. The two genres were then linked so that achievements and actions in one mode affected the player's strengths and options in the other mode.

When creating genre-spanning games, developers should follow Puzzle Quest's example. They should choose genres that can interact well with each other, and look at places where the tropes of one genre can be exploited, as with Puzzle Quest's use of puzzle gameplay as a battle system.

Additionally, developers should not fall into the trap of believing that the novelty of genre fusion will make players forgive a shoddy implementation of the individual genres. An FPS/RPG hybrid need not be the best FPS or the best RPG, but it should present each genre in a way that it could at least hold its own against single-genre games. Combining shoddy implementations of two genres does not lead to a single good game, but a sort of shambling Frankenstein's monster. Puzzle Quest, on the other hand, is a true hybrid, taking two well-executed genre games and combining them into an even better whole.

[Gregory Weir is a writer, game developer, and software programmer. He maintains Ludus Novus, a podcast and accompanying blog dedicated to the art of interaction. He can be reached at Gregory.Weir@gmail.com.]