About Last Night ...

About Last Night ...
Playable By Everybody: PopCap Branches Out

Shannon Drake | 20 Mar 2007 12:01
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PopCap Games built an empire on a legion of casual gamers, feeding simple but addictive titles like Zuma and Bejeweled to a nation of people looking for something easy and fun to play. Their recent release of Bookworm Adventures Deluxe came as a surprise: A $700,000 budget, and two and a half years of work is the kind of heavy lifting PopCap usually shies away from. Bookworm Adventures Deluxe combined an impressively-polished homage to RPGs with the clickability and fun of PopCap's own Bookworm seemed to indicate a new sort of direction for the company.

Jason Kapalka is "one of the three co-founders of PopCap (along with Brian Fiete and John Vechey), and the Creative Director of the company, which means I oversee the design of all the games to make sure they're up to PopCap standards." He says Bookworm Adventures Deluxe didn't start out as the epic project it wound up becoming. Putting all that effort into a single game "wasn't entirely a conscious choice," he said. "As with most of our games, Bookworm Adventures started as a rough prototype - originally called Spellcraft - which featured more traditional wizards and monsters, along with the spelling mechanic." After completing some initial work on the game, the team decided, "maybe it would be fun to put Lex from Bookworm into the game, at which point, it really seemed to gel." However, turning their game into an epic RPG required something they hadn't considered: "a lot of content. Lots of monsters, lots of levels, lots of 'stuff,' and that's what ended up consuming so much time for us."

PopCap isn't used to epic-level development, he said. They usually work with small teams, "one programmer, one artist, one game designer, and BAD was pretty much along those lines, with a couple extra artists on contract, which is why it took so long." He called the $700,000 figure "a little approximate," saying, "We don't really keep track of game budgets in that way, usually." PopCap usually doesn't "have big teams working on games in the traditional game-company fashion." Usually, they go with a different model, using "a lot of smaller teams working on a bunch of games simultaneously. We spend a lot of time prototyping and testing, and throw out quite a few games if they're not fun enough, so that kind of 'R&D' does add up, in terms of costs. We hope it's worthwhile, in that we want PopCap to have a reputation for only releasing really good titles." With that said, Bookworm Adventures Deluxe is "the largest game we've released to date, and I think it does represent a higher bar for polish and content than we've previously had, so the challenge now is to make sure that all our future titles live up to and surpass the bar."

The game itself was a small team effort, but it quickly became a labor of love. "I put together the original spec for the game," Jason said, "but fairly early on in development, it became a labor of love for a couple other people, who really made the game [what] it is today: Tysen Henderson, who was the producer and artist, and Jeff Weinstein, the programmer." BAD shows a real love for RPGs and the tropes of the genre, as might be expected from a group of people Jason describes as "pretty big fans of obscure RPGs, and even more obscure/convoluted games. ... So, yes, a lot of the stuff in BAD is an homage to more traditional roleplaying games. We just wanted to make sure it retained an ease of use and accessibility and didn't slide off into obscurity and excess complexity, so a great deal of effort went into making sure all the more complex RPG mechanics were introduced very gradually."

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