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The schism between casual and hardcore gamers is fun to watch. The hardcore crowd takes every opportunity to proclaim loudly and long that it’s above the concerns of the casual rabble, while the casuals pretend that they don’t even notice and continue to insist that they’re not actually gamers at all. Both sides seem intent upon maintaining those distinctions, yet the lines are becoming increasingly blurred in the games themselves. What really sets Diablo apart from Fate? Is a man who sinks the equivalent of 90 uninterrupted days into “beating” Bejeweled not worthy of our respect? And what happens when a “bubble pop” game featuring cute little birdies forces players to let those birdies suffer a horrible death while they duke it out for the top spot and bragging rights against gamers all over the world?

What happens is Beakiez, a new game being developed by a far-flung team calling itself opGames. On the surface, it looks like a fairly conventional casual game, a kid-friendly endeavor in which a cartoon lizard pops brightly-colored bubbles in order to free the helpless beakiez trapped inside. Scratch the surface, though, and you’ll find something a wee bit darker underneath.

“I pushed to make it so that when the little baby beakiez run out of air in the bubbles, they croak and their stiff bodies lay still in the bubble until you pop it, which then yields a puff of feathers,” explained Dave Taylor, the game’s producer. That’s right, those darling wee beakiez are trapped without oxygen, and if you don’t get to them in time – a very short amount of time, in some cases – they die. They don’t just fall over, or go to sleep, or disappear, they die.

How did such an upbeat, primary-colored game end up with that kind of grim streak? Before he became involved with Beakiez, the aforementioned Mr. Taylor, in case the name didn’t ring any bells, made his bones as one of the programmers on the original Doom games and the producer of the mid-90s side-scroller Abuse. And while you won’t find any shotguns or undead space marines in this project, his sensibilities nonetheless shine through.

Beakiez was already adorable when I came on board last year,” he said. “I am definitely into dark, violent games, but I find these days I also enjoy designing funny and twisted games. I pushed on the team to make it so that when Mealie eats the fruit, he gets gas, and then he farts more bubbles.”

Did I mention that part? All these popping bubbles are actually fart bubbles. Lizard fart bubbles, to be precise. That may or may not be cute, depending on how you feel about that sort of thing, but it is the lynchpin for the mechanic that makes the game so interesting: Mealie – that’s the lizard – has to eat to get through the game, but time spent eating is also time spent letting beakiez die.

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“Watching people freak out about letting the baby beakiez die is, of course, enormously entertaining. They will merrily run out of bubbles and thus lose the game in a desperate attempt to save the suffocating beakiez. It’s so compelling to some players that we’ve had to emphasize the importance of getting fruit and de-emphasize the attention on the beakiez,” Taylor said. “The trick, of course, is to resist your urges and focus on the fruit and only go for beakiez once you’ve mastered that.”

Once you’ve learned to live with your complicity in the Beakiez bloodbath (and believe me, it’s tough), beating the game’s levels gets a whole lot easier. Beating the rest of the world, on the other hand, is a different matter. Croaking beakiez notwithstanding, that’s the game’s big seller: Every time it starts, it connects to an external server and grabs an updated list of scores and rankings for the top 100 Beakiez players in the world. Taylor says the competition is fierce.

“The game is completely cute, but it’s utterly hardcore and competitive,” he said. “Definitely a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s much more competitive than Abuse and you have to be lots more savvy about physics than required by Doom and Quake. There are a lot of different strategies to get the highest score. They include bonuses for conserving bubbles, time completion bonus, a bonus for saving beakiez, for releasing multiple fruit at once, for connecting groups of bubbles, for dropping one group into another, for high-speed mid-air bubble collisions (particularly tricky and rewarding), for unbroken popping sequences, and more.”

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” he added. “We have some bad-asses playing.”

Ironically, that ability to compete with the rest of the world, which provides the game with so much of its appeal, may also be its Achilles heel. Online game portals like Big Fish and GameHouse say they like Beakiez but won’t publish it because of policies against external server connections. Taylor thinks it would be “perfect for WiiWare,” but Nintendo refuses to give opGames a developer license because the five-man team doesn’t have a physical office; they all work remotely from locations in California, Colorado, Oklahoma and even Australia.

Even Steam, that great bastion of indie studio love, turned them down without explanation. Taylor said that rejection was a “crushing blow,” because Steam is the only portal they know of that doesn’t have a problem with external server connections. What it does have a problem with, apparently, are “bubble pop” games.

“I tried a few friends at Valve to see if it could be reconsidered, including a couple emails to Gabe. No response,” he said. “I asked a friend familiar with Steam, and he said they don’t like ‘bubble pop’ games. Might explain the scarcity of them on Steam, but I could find no public policy against them. We’ve tried to differentiate it from the crowd by making it hardcore competitive, which I think is part of what made Puzzle Bobble a classic in the arcade and which I think would make for a personality match with Steam players, but that doesn’t seem to have persuaded.”

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Conventional publishers are out, too. “If we approached publishers, we might get offers to fund at the expense of our IP and creative control, which isn’t something we’re willing to compromise on,” he continued. “I approached publishers not too long ago with a really accomplished and successful game designer and IP, and we still got tons of pressure to assign IP ownership and creative control, forcing us to raise angel funding instead, which is also no walk in the park to close. So I don’t have any illusions about what would be required of us if we were offered publisher funding for Beakiez.”

That leaves the team working furiously on the new “Blue Sky” patch, which will include some gameplay refinements and “an overhaul of the presentation,” and hoping that it will be enough to put the game over the top. “This isn’t an ordinary patch for us. The stakes are really high, and you caught us at a fairly dramatic moment,” Taylor said. “We’ve gone deep into debt, and things are rough right now. If we can’t turn this into sales, then the game may stall out.”

opGames hopes to have the Blue Sky patch out by June 16 and based on this GameTrailers preview, it’s a significant visual upgrade to the game. Meanwhile, work on three more “zones” is also underway and Taylor said that for the future, he hopes to see features like a playback option and greater Facebook integration added to the game, and, of course, a move to other platforms like Android, WiiWare and, dare to dream, the 360 and PS3. “These are all just ideas for now, though,” he said. “There are a million things to polish and work on.”

For now, opGames is distributing a demo version of the game through the website at Beakiez.com, where gamers can also purchase the full version through PayPal. I’ve played it and although it’s an “alpha” build, it was nonetheless quite impressive – once I was able to accept that it wasn’t quite as simple as I thought and that despite my best efforts, I was going to end up with a whole lot of beakies blood on my hands. It’s an unusually hardcore approach for a game that belongs to such an eternally-cheery genre. I think I like it.

Andy Chalk does his best to save the little Beakiez, but it’s just never enough.

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