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Playable By Everybody: PopCap Branches Out

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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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While some were surprised to see the PopCap crew trying out a different genre, the company itself doesn’t “see Bookworm Adventures as a departure from our core mission at all, really.” He says they’ve “always been more interested in trying out different things, [rather] than in just milking a formula to death. We’ve only done one sequel so far, after all [Bejeweled 2], where we could have probably been pumping out Zuma 5 by now. Our earlier shoot-em-up game, Heavy Weapon, is certainly more of a ‘serious’ game than BAD, I think, in that it’s definitely aimed more at a traditional audience for violent games.”

Right around the time of the interview, I’d noticed PopCap games popping up on Steam – one of the homes for that traditional audience for violent games. He says they’d worked with “lots of portals and publishers, like Real Arcade, MSN Games, Yahoo Games, Shockwave and so on, so doing something with Steam seemed like a logical extension.” He adds, “The interesting thing here is seeing the overlap between supposedly hardcore gamers – the Half-Life 2 crowd – and the ‘casual’ space, which you’re also seeing on Xbox Live Arcade, where you have people who bought a $400 game system using it to play Bejeweled or Zuma.” For all that’s made of the hardcore-casual divide, he thinks “there are fewer differences between these two crowds than people think. They’ve both just gotten used to different channels for getting their games. If you’re a hardcore console gamer, well, until recently, there simply was no way you could find even a light puzzle game for your system.”

Something else PopCap is trying is an open-source toolkit, offered freely as part of the PopCap Developer Program, intended to make it easier for aspiring developers to make games. I asked him if this was a blue-sky thing, or simply another avenue to look to for submissions. “Honestly, we’re not very aggressive about publishing other people’s games,” he says. “The Developer Program is not at all about luring people in. Brian Fiete, our CTO and the author of the PopCap framework, just wanted to make these tools available to new developers.”

The framework would give them “a leg up in getting started, so they might focus on creating cool new games, and not on refining technical stuff and chasing bugs.” While he acknowledges it helps PopCap, he says that help is indirect, “by hopefully raising the quality bar for the whole casual games industry.” Not all developers believe in their benign intentions, he says. “A fair number of developers are still suspicious of this and can’t believe the PopCap framework doesn’t have some sneaky catch built in, whereby they’ll be beholden to us, or we’ll have the rights to seize their game or something. But it really is pretty much free to use, with no obligations.”

Aspiring developers should note, though: “We very rarely look at a submission if it’s just in the idea stage. Ideas are a dime a dozen, really, and it’s very hard to be able to tell if something in this vein will be fun, just by looking at a proposal. Try writing up a description of Tetris or Bejeweled, and show it to someone not familiar with the game. It’s just incomprehensible.” However, once games have reached the prototype stage, they’re quite willing to look. “A number of our games are co-development efforts we’ve done with external people that started at this stage. Insaniquarium and Chuzzle, for instance. These were games that an external developer had gotten to a playable stage, which we thought we could help refine and polish, and then publish and market. It has to be something pretty amazing for us to pick [it] up, though, at least in potential. We’re not likely to publish something that’s just a derivative of one of our own titles.”

PopCap’s goal, in their own games and the ones they get from others, is to make games “playable by everybody, from my mom to an oil rig welder to traditional videogamers. We can’t guarantee that everybody will like every game, but we want to minimize all the hurdles that prevent people from enjoying a title, [like] nasty interfaces, high difficulty curves, unintuitive gameplay and so on.” He describes the ideal PopCap game as “timeless or evergreen, like Monopoly or Tetris. It should be just as fun and playable five years from now as it is today.”

As for the company itself, they’re “doing [their] best to make [their] games as universally available as possible, from the web to PC retail, to cell phones, to Xboxes and so on. So, that’s one angle for PopCap, expanding in different formats and channels.” When it comes to new games, Bookworm Adventures Deluxe is only the beginning of their dabbling. “We’re definitely experimenting with some unusual new genres that aren’t usually thought of as ‘casual.’ At the same time, we’re continuing with more traditional puzzle games.” He’s unwilling to give out hints, saying it’s all “very hush-hush right now.” But in the next couple of years, “you’ll be seeing some really strange things from us.” He won’t predict their success or failure, he says, “but it should be interesting either way!”

[em]Shannon Drake is a Contributing Editor for The Escapist and changed his name when he became a citizen. It used to be Merkw

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