When Brian Fiete, Jason Kapalka and John Vechey started PopCap Games in 2000, they had a simple plan: Design one game a month, which they would then sell to the highest bidder.
It was the early internet era, and advertising-funded websites were the rage. Fiete, Kapalka and Vechey had been working for Total Entertainment Network, which would become Pogo.com. AOL and Microsoft had sites offering free-to-play games. The games were small and simple, built for dial-up modems, intended to drive traffic. They were the first of what would come to be known as casual games.
PopCap’s first game was called Diamond Mine. It was a simple puzzle game in which players moved colored gemstones left, right, up and down to form lines of three or more identical gems. Matched gems disappeared, and the stones above dropped down to fill the holes, new ones flowing in constantly.
The business model of developing and selling games like Diamond Mine had great potential. Then came the dot-com crash.
Chief creative officer Kapalka says that he and his partners weren’t really aware of what was going on. “We weren’t very savvy about the business stuff. We like to think that our ignorance was blissful.”
Blissful and fortuitous. Rather than selling Diamond Mine, the young PopCap had to settle for licensing it. Instead of getting a one-time $50,000 payout, PopCap kept the rights to the puzzle title that would eventually be renamed Bejeweled and go on to become one of the top 10 bestselling videogames of all time.
It’s been inducted into the Computer Gaming World Hall of Fame, after Tetris the only puzzle game to receive the distinction, and in January 2010, Guinness World Records named Bejeweled “The Most Popular Puzzle Game Series of the Century.”
The games have been played by more than 500 million people worldwide, and a company release boasts that 798,000 years of leisure time have been spent playing Bejeweled. That’s equivalent to having 70 people playing the game without stopping since the end of the last ice age.
“I think it’s done something like $500 million in revenue,” says Kapalka. “Some crazy number.”
Not bad for a game created by three guys in the span of a couple of months.
Beyond merely just selling well, Bejeweled also birthed the match-three puzzle game genre. Its popularity is why it’s been copied countless times; Kapalka describes many examples as “mostly just depressing,” though he has no problem when the imitation is done well. Kapalka’s a fan of Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, the match-three-RPG hybrid developed by Infinite Interactive and released by D3Publisher in 2007, and admits that he wishes he’d thought of it, calling it “a really cool idea.”
Cool enough that PopCap co-developed a similar hybrid game with Square Enix. Gyromancer is a downloadable title for PC and Xbox 360 published last fall. “As an experiment, I don’t know if it was completely successful,” says Kapalka, “but it was interesting. What it also proved was that Puzzle Quest was a lot harder to do than it looked.”
Such an interest in experimentation is one reason for PopCap’s success.
Kapalka says the design team conducts numerous experiments when working on new versions of Bejeweled, and not all features get implemented. “Generally we found that some of them will add complexity to the game, but not fun,” he explains. Boulders that can’t be matched, for example, are interesting from a strategic viewpoint, but Kapalka said don’t make the game more enjoyable to play.
Technological advances warrant changes, however, and sequels, especially for popular franchises, are essential for companies to keep revenues flowing.
But Bejeweled‘s popularity is problematic because people don’t want it to change. Kapalka admits that upgrading it has been difficult. “It’s a game that people obviously like in its basic form,” he says. “You want to try and keep updating it … but at the same time you don’t want to wreck it by adding silly things.”
PopCap has tried to avoid what he believes happened with that other popular puzzle game. “Tetris would always have these updates,” Kapalka explains, “and they’d have some new thing, and the new thing would kind of suck,” driving players back to classic mode.
The appearance of Bejeweled Twist in 2008 provided the first evidence that some fans of the franchise wanted the game to stay true to its roots. In Twist, matches are made by rotating groups of gems, not swapping them.
Kapalka says it “turned off a lot of people.” The problem was that the rotational mechanic was a “fairly radical change.” While some players liked the new dynamic, those who expected to be moving gems left, right, up and down were upset. Some felt that they had been tricked and betrayed.
In the future, says Kapalka, if he finds a game mechanic he likes and wants to implement, he won’t be in such a hurry to make it into a Bejeweled title. While he admits that leveraging the familiarity of the franchise is always tempting, sticking the Bejeweled name on just anything only dilutes the brand, and annoys the customers.
“There’s been a few casual games that have done that,” he explains, citing Diner Dash as an example. “It’s got so many variants and sequels. The original game is still good, but there’s been so many middling variations that it’s maybe lost a little bit of its iconic power.”
PopCap recently unveiled Bejeweled 3, the first update to the franchise in two years, and only the fourth sequel. It features graphical and animation updates to bring the game into the high-definition world, and innovations from previous iterations that had already gained fan acceptance.
Bonuses for making matches quickly and the ability to make swaps simultaneously while gems are cascading are features that appeared in Bejeweled Blitz, the Facebook version of the game released in 2008. Lightning mode, in which the objective is to rack up points as time runs out, was inspired by Blitz, which in turn brought it from Twist.
Also derived from Twist is Bejeweled 3‘s Zen mode. It is included because PopCap learned that many people played Bejeweled in order to relax, a revelation that surprised Kapalka.
“A lot of people playing it weren’t playing it like a regular game, and the part they didn’t like was losing,” he explains. “They didn’t care if it was a game or not.” Kapalka decided to accept and embrace that fact.
The version of Zen in Bejeweled 3 allows players to make adjustments to a number of features designed to assist relaxation. The game music can be replaced with ambient sounds, positive affirmations can be displayed on the screen and headphone users can have different frequencies played in each ear. There’s also breathing feedback, audio and visual cues to modulate and regulate a player’s breathing.
It won’t be for everyone, Kapalka admits, but those who do like it will find it interesting. And, hopefully, relaxing.
Bejeweled 3 also includes a few new mini-games, including one that harkens back to Bejewled’s roots.. “When we were testing,” says Kapalka, “we found that a lot of the testers ended up spending half their time playing the Diamond Mine mode once they’d unlocked it.”
PopCap is much different than it was 10 years ago. Now headquartered in a Seattle office, not an apartment, the company has development studios in Chicago, Dublin, San Francisco, Seoul, Shangai and Vancouver. It’s had success with other casual games including Peggle, digital pachinko, and Plants vs. Zombies, tower defense for the masses.
What hasn’t changed is the formula for success: distilling a game down to a particular mechanic. Plants vs. Zombies, for example, was PopCap’s “attempt to take a hardcore genre and make it more approachable,” says Kapalka. “I believe that if I can enjoy a game, then in theory a lot of other people should also be able to enjoy that game.”
The designers at PopCap, he adds, try to identify and remove any barriers that might keep people from playing, like the five-hour tutorials that are part of some of the complicated strategy games Kapalka likes to play in his spare time.
“If you can make it easier and more pleasant to get into the game, then it opens up to a lot more people,” he says, suggesting that it’s possible that PopCap will someday release a casual version of one of those games at some point. “We haven’t necessarily succeeded yet.”
“A lot of our experiments lead to defunct projects,” Kapalka admits. “But we have a big library of experiments that didn’t go anywhere and every once in a while we go back to them. Some of them are just going to be dead.” But one of them, perhaps, is another diamond just waiting to be discovered.
Blaine Kyllo writes on video games, technology and pop culture. He lives in Vancouver.