Interview with Solitaire Blitz producer Jason Mai

The first time I ever played Solitaire Blitz was back in 2011, when it was still largely a working prototype called “Pearl Diver.” Jason Mai, the game’s creator, and a Senior Producer at PopCap, presented the game at one of our periodic, internal “PopCamps,” in which informal, makeshift groups of PopCap employees spend a week brainstorming and banging out new game ideas and then present them to the company. The game that became Solitaire Blitz was addictive right from the start. Even before it had anything resembling the polish it now has, I sat at my desk for far too long playing it over and over, as did half the company. That’s how we knew we had to release it as a PopCap game. We were all addicted.

Solitaire Blitz came out for Facebook this past March. Many of you liked it, and that made us happy. This past month, we released a major update to the game, called “Lost Treasures,” that added a whole bunch of new features and game mechanics. I recently sat down with Jason to ask him a few questions about the update, and to help clarify a few things that players have been asking.

Jeff: Can you describe the most important new features in Lost Treasures?
Jason: Our plan for Lost Treasures was “Same game, more reasons to play!” So the most important feature is that it’s still solitaire – it’s exactly the same competitive 60-second solitaire game at the core. What’s new is that players can now visit islands and locations throughout the Caribbean while diving for special treasures on “quests”. We’ve always had an extensive backstory for the game, and now with Lost Treasures, it’s finally coming out in the form of mini-adventures and fun collections.

Jeff: What, if anything, has been removed from the original game?
Jason: Well, let’s see… by the numbers, players actually get MORE silver and earn decks FASTER now than they did before. Plus we’ve added hundreds of new treasures, multiple new dive locations with different moods and backgrounds, and some new boosts. Of course Otis is still there, in all his funny costumes. Scoring is the same. And everyone’s stats, decks, streaks and balances carry over. So it’s almost entirely additive. The only thing we’ve simplified is the “level up” system. It was pretty complicated before – you made long runs, which caused fish to appear, which counted as XP, which accumulated until you passed the next level threshold, when we’d give you one of our 10 monthly decks, unless you already had them all, in which case you got silver. Crazy! Now it’s much simpler. Most of the quests reward you with decks. Just finish a quest, and you get a deck. No more counting fish.

Jeff: Are the leaderboards staying the same? Does anything change in the way these are handled/presented?

Jason: The same! Weekly competition for high score is one of the hallmarks of Blitz games, and ours will stay the same. No matter where you dive, no matter what quest you’re working on, the leaderboard works just as before. Although the islands look and feel different, the game rules are the same, so everyone’s score is comparable no matter where they’re playing on the map. And now in addition to competing for score, there’s a bit of race to see who among your friends is further along the island chain.

Jeff: What’s the most important thing the Quests add to the game? What was the thinking behind adding these?
Jason: From the beginning — literally from the first storyboards and sketches of the game — we’ve wanted to let players travel from place to place and collect different treasures. We’re finally there. Quests give players a reason to collect all this treasure beyond merely the silver value. Plus the sequential nature of quests, and the way they’re grouped by island, lets players set some mid-term and long-term goals for themselves. Finally, the quests and locations give players a lot more variety and entertainment as they continue to play the game they already love. My favorite part about the whole thing is the way we’ve blended historical facts and real-world locations with handy recipes, goofy stories, dramatic audio and humorous characters in our quests. There are so many fascinating tales about the sea: castaways, shipwrecks, lost cargo, marine biology, pirates, naval battles, colonial antiques, vacation resorts, magical myths and legends. I love it! But you know, I don’t have time to read all that. I just want to play solitaire and look at pretty things. So… done!

Jeff: When will we meet new characters? And how often will we meet new characters?
Jason: Right now! Starting with your first hand of solitaire in Lost Treasures, you’ll be introduced to Jacques, the most interesting and well-traveled starfish in the world. From then on, each quest is introduced by one of the characters in a little vignette, and over time you’ll get to know each one of them a little better. The characters have unique personalities, enacted by some of the best Hollywood voice talent, complete with backstories, relationships, hopes, dreams and story arcs. But don’t worry, they’re not screen hogs. They rarely deliver more than one line at a time. They want you to play solitaire.

Jeff: Do you have a favorite character?
Jason: As every parent knows, you can’t pick a favorite. Each and every character is special. I love Jacques’ voice, Eduardo’s attitude, and Sophie’s naiveté. I love Pearl’s positivity, Hercules’ charm, and Sally’s playfulness. I love Cuddles’ enthusiasm and Noodles’ earnestness. But yeah, Jacques is my favorite.

Jeff: Noodles is missing a tentacle and has a hook in its place. Do you feel he has an unfair advantage?
Jason: You know, things sure have a tendency to go wrong whenever Noodles is involved. I’m sure that his missing tentacle is the result of some failed attempt at a new hobby. Circular saw? Chef’s knife? Paper cut? He does have 7 tentacles left, though, which is a perfect match for the 7 stacks of cards in Solitaire Blitz. If only he were any good at it…

Jeff: Are there more islands yet to come?
Jason: Of course! There’s a world full of islands and a million stories to tell. I think we’ll wait and see how many players make it to the end of the first set of locations, and how quickly, before we decide on a release rate. It’s sort of like producing shows for a TV season now. We have our cast of characters, we’ve laid out the plot lines, and we know roughly where the boat is going. Now we need to produce episode after episode, for as many seasons as we stay on the air!

Jeff: All time high score?
Jason: Well it’s not entirely fair, because I have access to some experimental boosts that are still in Research & Development, but with those I got 1,279,750. My highest legitimate score was 953,400 in May of 2012 using the Mine, Bonus Fish and Key Magnet. I’m pretty proud of it. But it’s the destiny of every game designer to be beaten at their own game, and I can testify that most of the engineers on our team have topped mine. A “good score” around the studio here is about a million points. Sheesh!

Apparently I need to do less blogging and more Solitaire Blitz playing. Thanks Jason!

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