Well, we have reached the end of our journey through the Hexcells universe. But before I wrap up the series with my own final thoughts, I have something special for you. About 3/4 of the way through creation of the Hexcells Plus and Infinite guides, I got the idea of asking creator Matthew Brown if he might be open to an E-mail interview, so that we might be able to get a glimpse into the the thought processes involved with making the games. Much to my surprise and delight, he agreed, and I have it available for all of you. I thought this would be a great way to conclude this series of strategy guides. I want to thank Matthew for taking the time out to do this, and I hope you all enjoy it.
1. How did the idea for Hexcells come about?
After completing my first game, which had a long and messy development, I wanted to try a smaller and more focused project. I thought a logic puzzle game would be a good fit for this, and being a big fan of Picross I wanted to try something in that style. I tried to emulate some of the logic and thinking that goes into solving a Picross, but in a new format and style.
2. Approximately how long did it take you to complete each game?
Hexcells was roughly 5 months, Plus was around 3 and Infinite was about 7.
3. When you created the first game, did you always know that you wanted it to be a trilogy, or did that decision come about after watching the reception of the original?
No, it was only planned as a single game, but it had such a great reception that I immediately started work on a follow up - intended as an advanced set of levels for people who had played the first. After Hexcells Plus I moved on to working on a brand new game but again the reaction was so positive and people were keen for more, so I went back to make one final game in the series.
4. As I mentioned in my original E-mail to you, I first learned of Hexcells from Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s initial coverage. As far as I’ve seen, there are still no other games journalism outlets covering the series. What is your reaction to this? Did you personally contact any other games journalism outlets to try and garner more coverage of the games?
With the first game I made a big effort and tried contacting a lot of different places, but RPS was one of only a handful of sites who were interested in the game. With the subsequent games I didn’t really do any promotion because I figured if the sites weren’t interested in the original game they probably wouldn’t be interested in the sequels. I think it didn’t get a lot of coverage because at first glance it looks a lot like Minesweeper and so didn’t really stand out.
5. I have heard Hexcells likened to be a sort of spiritual successor to the old game Minesweeper. Do you feel that this is a fair comparison?
The 2 games do share the same basic mechanic and a similar look but I think the logical steps a player goes through when solving them are quite different. I’ve never really played much Minsweeper because of it’s lack of logical solving, so it wasn’t really an inspiration for the game.
6. Hexcells is a very simple game to play, with a very simple, even minimalist, interface: Just the board, the two progress counters, and the music. Did you consider making the games more complicated? Was there a particular atmosphere you had in mind for players?
Minimalism was definitely a theme of the game. I tried wherever possible to cut additional rules, mechanics and UI stuff and only make things as complicated as they needed to be. I think a sign of a good puzzle game is when it is able to produce many interesting puzzles from few mechanics, and only introduces new rules when all possible combinations have been exhausted.
7. What do you want players to feel when they play Hexcells, especially for the first time?
I wanted it to be a relaxing experience. I think the process of solving a puzzle can be very satisfying and calming, so I tried to emphasize that in the music and visuals as well.
8. In terms of difficulty, I found Hexcells Plus to be, overall, the most difficult of the trilogy, mainly because the difficulty seems to spike much more quickly than in the original and even in Hexcells Infinite. Was this intentional? How did the overall difficulty curve come about for each game, and for the trilogy as a whole?
Yes, Hexcells Plus was a reaction to the most common complaint about the first game, that it was too short and too easy. I think with Infinite I realised I may have over-done it and tried to make the ramp up in difficulty less sudden.
The difficulty across the puzzles in each game is structured like a sawtooth wave that increases with each level set. So the last level of the previous set is harder than the first level of the next set. This gives a nice escalation but also gives the player a rest after a particularly hard puzzle, before building back up again.
9. One of my favorite puzzles from a design perspective is Puzzle 6-3 of the original. I really liked the idea of having large, concentric hexagons comprised of the individual smaller hexes. What are some of your favorite puzzles from both a design and a player’s perspective?
I really enjoyed designing levels where I placed a restraint on myself, such as making a complex puzzle using only column numbers etc. My favourites of these are the smaller puzzles in Infinite like 6-3. They’re very concentrated puzzles where every step is a mini-puzzle and every piece is there for a reason. They are quite fatiguing for the player so you have to space them apart, but I think they are the most fun to solve as well.
10. One of the more unusual aspects of Hexcells, compared to a lot of other puzzlers I’ve personally played, is that all of the puzzles truly can be solved using logic alone. Was it always a goal to ensure that players who took the time to learn the game could win without ever having to guess?
This always surprises me when people say this. I don’t consider anything that requires guessing to really be a puzzle, and I don’t play any games like that. So there was never any question, the game always had to be 100% logic driven.
11. How would you describe the overall response to the series by the gaming community?
It’s been incredible! I’ve received a lot of emails from people who really loved the series and the games have a lot of really positive reviews on Steam.
12. As of this writing, the original Hexcells has almost 1,000 user reviews on Steam. How do you feel that the games’ availability on the Steam platform has helped or hurt you in terms of exposure?
It’s helped enormously. Before releasing on Steam the only way people had heard of the game was through RPS, but releasing on Steam exposed the games to a vast new audience. In the first few days on Steam the games sold more than they had in all the months I’d been selling them through my website.
13. Some of the puzzle solutions are incredibly involved and intricate. When you were designing some of those levels, was there ever a point where you got turned around in the design or even stumped yourself during playtesting?
Absolutely. Even coming back to play a puzzle a few hours after I’d finished designing it I was essentially playing the puzzle from scratch. I think there’s just too much information to hold in your head at once, and even if you have a vague idea about how the puzzle is laid out, it misleads you more often than it helps . There were more than a few times in play testing where I was convinced there was a fault in the puzzle and I’d have to go back and change it only to discover I’d missed something.
14. What are some common criticisms that you may have received about the Hexcells games?
I think the level generator in infinite is the main one. It is only able to produce puzzles of low to moderate complexity due to limitations in the AI solver I use to check that the generated puzzle is solvable. As most people complete the campaign first and then try the random levels, they are often a disappointment.
15. What are your favorite memories about designing the games?
I think the first time the prototype yielded a complex interesting puzzle was really exciting. I messed around with a few different prototypes (originally the pieces were all triangular!) but at that moment I knew I was onto something interesting. The RPS review of the first game was a big deal as well. I’d been reading the site for years so to see a review of something I’d made on there was really special.
16. One feature of Hexcells Infinite that I know is appreciated by players–and that I personally utilized in the course of writing the strategy guide–is the ability to save your progress. Do you think this is something you might ultimately adapt to the first two games?
I’ve thought about it, and it would be nice to have parity across all 3 games. It would require a bit of re-engineering in how the levels are stored in the older games and I would also need to swap over to the new save file format introduced in Infinite, without losing anyone’s existing save data. If enough people were interested it’s something I could do, but unfortunately it’s not trivial.
17. Hexcells Infinite is the end of the trilogy, but the Random Puzzle Generator and ability to load custom levels ensures that the Hexcells experience can live on. Did you always have in mind to do something like that for Infinite, or is it something which came about later in the development process?
Yes, after Hexcells Plus it was clear that people’s appetite for Hexcells puzzles was far greater than the rate I could produce them at, so I set about designing a new game with the puzzle generator being the focus from the start. Custom levels were not in the game’s original release and were entirely the creation of 2 fans of the game on the Steam forums (BlaXpirit + sekti), I just added support for their levels at my end. If anyone has not tried any custom levels yet there are some great puzzles on the reddit ( http://www.reddit.com/r/hexcellslevels/ ).
18. Do you think you would ever do another entry for the Hexcells series down the road if the community encouraged it?
Probably not. I think I exhausted all the ideas for Hexcells puzzles that I have, and don’t want to end up re-treading the same ground. Also adding more rules or mechanics to the game would get away from the idea of minimalism at the game’s core. I’d rather take what worked from Hexcells and start fresh with a whole new puzzle game in the future.
19. I know that Hexcells isn’t the only game/series you have worked on. Admittedly, I need to check out your other works, as well, LOL. What else can we expect from you in the future?
Outside of puzzle games I’ve also worked on 2 music based games. I have background in Music and am interested in how audio can synchronise with gameplay (there’s even a little bit of that in Hexcells). I’m currently working on a music game called Sound Shift which is a sort of endless runner with obstacles created by the player’s music. After that is complete I’d quite like to have a go at a new puzzle game.
20. When you aren’t designing games yourself, what types of games do you like to play? What are some of your personal favorites?
I play all sorts of games, at the moment I’m hooked on Bloodborne. Some of my favourites include Super Metroid, Resident Evil 4, Portal, wip3out , Shadow of the Colossus, Rez and of course Picross!
21. And finally, is there a message that you would like to pass along to your fans and supporters?
I’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who supported the games, sent me kind messages and recommended the games to friends. Because the games didn’t get much press coverage a lot of their success is due to word of mouth and user reviews etc, so I really appreciate it.
After I submitted the original interview, I sent him a follow-up question regarding the possibility of porting Hexcells to mobile devices, either as a straight-up conversion or perhaps as a compilation of some sort. Here’s what Brown said:
“I briefly looked into doing mobile versions but could never solve the problem of how to fit them on the screen. If they were left the size they are now you would need to add in some sort of screen scrolling function, but I’ve always disliked scrolling in these kinds of games and think all the information needs to be visible at once. If you scale everything down too much you can no longer accurately tap on the correct hex. All the solutions I could come up with to these problems seemed in-elegant and added too much complexity, so in the end I decided not do a mobile release.”
While I think it’s a shame that we probably won’t see Hexcells on portable devices, Brown’s reasons make sense. It’s easier to work a complex puzzle when you can pore over the entire board without having to scroll around. Still, I hope it someday becomes feasible as this type of game seems like a natural fit for such devices–but only if it can be done well.
I am greatly appreciative to Matthew Brown for taking time out to grant me this interview. It really meant a lot to me to let me include his thoughts in this final guide of the trilogy. It’s a great send-off to the series.