Smart Casual - How PopCap conquered casual gaming

Graham Smith

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Following the news that PopCap has been purchased by EA . We've decided to bring you a feature on the mammoth casual games developer that originally ran in PC Gamer UK issue 220.

Sitting on the floor of Benaroya Hall in Seattle, I'm depressed as hell. I've come to the Casual Connect Conference 2010 to hear the makers of casual and social games share their ideas, but in three days of lectures I haven't heard a single idea about games.

Instead they're talking about how designers don't matter. They're talking about how psychological tricks can turn their audience into zombies. They're talking about how to use metrics to better monetise your mum. This isn't just the industry's business men and women talking, either; these are the people who actually make the games. At a point in history when a new and huge mainstream audience is trying computer games for the first time, our ambassadors aren't interested in talking about how to make something fun.

The scene couldn't have been more different three days earlier, just a few blocks away from Benaroya Hall at PopCap's headquarters. They've been playing Risk with their office space for the past ten years, starting with just a couple of desks and expanding through their skyscraper in all directions. They showed me the workmen putting the finishing touches to their most recently conquered floor, where every wall is coated with IdeaPaint. It turns every surface into a whiteboard. Designers, programmers and artists will hole up inside each room for years – as long as it takes to make something great – and will literally cover the walls with game ideas.

Since 2000, PopCap have grown from three guys working from their homes to an employer of hundreds with offices in Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Dublin and Shanghai. Along the way they've made some of the most successful and beloved games on the PC: from Bejeweled to Peggle to Plants vs Zombies.

I came to Seattle not to be depressed, but to speak to the founders and designers of PopCap. Who are they? What makes them tick? How did they get to be so huge, and where are they going? What is the secret behind this very silly company? Like so many great stories, it starts with a game of strip poker.

In 2000, John Vechey, Brian Fiete and Jason Kapalka left their jobs at large online gaming companies to start their own. It wasn't going well. The idea was to create browser games and make money from ads, but the dotcom bubble had burst and their first game was garnering complaints.

The game was Foxy Poker. “This is not in our corporate histories,” admits Jason Kapalka. “We thought, 'We can do this thing, then we can sell it and take the money to do whatever.' But we were still trying to do this advertising stuff where they wouldn't allow nudity, so there was always some object interposed. There's no actual nudity. We did get a lot of complaints because you had to play a long time to get to the final stage of undress, and when you did there were some vases and things.”

If strip poker seems an odd fit for PopCap, keep in mind that their company was called Sexy Action Cool. The name was taken from a Rolling Stone review quote for the movie Desperado: 'Antonio Banderas is the ultimate in sexy action cool.'

PopCap's history is filled with discarded names.

“It was a pretty good strip poker game,” says Jason, “But we found we didn't really have the heart to deal with any of the porn companies because they were just too scummy. We abandoned our short-lived effort to be a company like that.”

Their first success came in the form of their next game: Diamond Mine. Today it's called Bejeweled.

“I'd seen a game that used some similar rulesets to Bejeweled,” says John Vechey. “But there was no animation, no sound effects, and they had very indifferent rules. We simplified it and changed it and then I sent a link out, Brian did a version that was just circles, and then Jason added the gem graphics. So it was three days of boom, boom, boom. And then we had it.”

Is this just another case of a casual game developer making a derivative dollar? Sort of. Bejeweled certainly wasn't the first of its kind, as John admits. The first match-three PC game seems to be Shariki, a 1994 DOS game by a Russian programmer called Eugene Alemzhin. On top of that core concept, Bejeweled added a timer and bonus points, but PopCap's largest contribution was polish. Even in its most basic version, Bejeweled is testament to the human mind's ability to be endlessly entertained by things that tinkle.

Struggling to make their advertising model work in the short-term, they tried to sell Bejeweled outright for $60,000 to EA. EA said it wasn't even really a game. They turned to MSN Games, offering it for $30,000. Microsoft said no.

But they had a different idea. “Microsoft said they would do a licensing fee for $1,500 dollars a month,” says John. “We had two games at the time, we had Bejeweled and our second game, Alchemy. $1,500 a month times two is $3,000 a month. If we get about ten of these we're actually OK, right? And our third game we licensed exclusively for $10,000 a month.”

Licensing instead of selling the game outright meant that they weren't losing complete control. While Diamond Mine appeared on the MSN Games portal, they could also put it on their own site. The founders realised they needed a more public face, and that meant a company name that better matched their intended audience. They settled on the lid to a bottle of soda: a pop cap. PopCap was officially born.

“We ended up not being a great business, but for three guys it was OK. But then Bejeweled experienced disproportionate success to any money we were making, I think it was getting 50-60,000 peak users during the day. A lot of people were playing it, and it took a while for us to find the financial success behind that.”

They found it by offering a premium version of the game. You could play Bejeweled for free at any number of online portals – you still can, even sometimes still named Diamond Mine – but if you liked it, you could grab a downloadable version. After an hour's trial, you could pay $20 to unlock it.

“Now we were making $30-40,000 a month just from that one downloadable version on our website,” says John. It provided stability for the company.

Rather than trying to build on that stability and grow the company, the founders were more concerned with having and making fun.

“Brian and I moved to Argentina for a couple months,” says John. “We were making money and we wanted to learn Spanish, and they had good steak and wine and we could work there.” At the time, PopCap still didn't have an office. The three of them worked from home.

“We were having fun. We were making games. We'd spend four days playing Counter-Strike,” says John. “Well, Brian and I would spend four days playing Counter-Strike and lie to Jason. We'd tell him what we were working on was really hard. He didn't understand technology at the time.”

Given such humble origins, it's important to put the game's success into perspective. Bejeweled has now sold over 25 million copies, and the series as a whole – which includes Bejeweled 2, Bejeweled Twist and Bejeweled Blitz – has sold over 50 million. It is a gaming juggernaut.

When their first office opened in 2002, they focused on hiring artists and other game designers. “We didn't want to be anything more than a game developer. That was really the focus,” says John. They contracted George Fan – who would later make Plants vs Zombies – as employee number five. Sukhbir Sidhu, the designer of Peggle, was employee number eight.

“The first conversation I had with Jason when I talked about coming to work for PopCap, we talked about the kinds of games they wanted to make,” says Sukhbir. “I actually mentioned pachinko at that time.”

Pachinko is a Japanese sensation. The player fires a ball up into the machine as in pinball, and the ball then cascades back down, striking dozens of small pegs as it falls. There are no flippers to send it back up, but if it falls in certain pockets at the bottom, it triggers a jackpot that drops more balls. The balls that are won are then exchanged for tokens that can be traded for prizes.

Sukhbir had played a Godzilla pachinko machine that Jason had in his apartment in San Francisco. “It was really mesmerising and I couldn't believe how fun it was. That experience always stayed with me,” says Sukhbir.

“The problem was it was all luck. The fun in pachinko is the gambling aspect of it – the thrill of it – even though it's mesmerising it's hard to get that same feeling in a game.”

Real development didn't begin until 2004, when a coder at PopCap named Brian Rothstein developed a simple 2D physics engine. The talk quickly turned back to pachinko. Sukhbir thought that if they merged it with pinball or billiards, they could mix luck with skill.

“Brian created an editor that allowed us to create any kind of game like that. It was a 2D physics editor with bouncy ball physics, and we could put all sorts of objects in the game – we could put flippers there, we could do the shooter. So we ended up spending about three or four months prototyping different game ideas that were very pachinko-like, or very pinball like, or in-between. We were trying to find something that was fun, accessible, and simple."

Experimentation is key to everything PopCap do. For those first months, it was just Sukhbir and Brian working on the game – though John Vechey contributed a couple of prototypes. They'd try out some ideas, invite the entire company to play it, solicit feedback, and then iterate. I've yet to find another casual game developer that works that way.

“Jason was at Pogo.com and felt they weren't making very good games because they were very structure oriented,” says John. “At Pogo to this day a game designer can do a prototype, but once they get a prototype they have to write a design doc that has every element and game design choice already made. Then a programmer programs it, and then the artist does the art.”

By comparison, Peggle was in a constant state of flux. “We got to a point where it was fun, but it was overly twitchy,” says Sukhbir. After that, “we stepped back and simplified it and had some spinning crosses instead of pegs. but it was impossible to anticipate where the ball was going to bounce.” And then, “We changed it to pegs, but it was always super frustrating.” Finally, “What if it was just 25 pegs you had to hit? I wonder if that would be fun.”

It was. Peggle finally took form after “about 300 variants.”

Four months in, with the concept now finished, they did the obvious thing: they spent another three years working on it. While they had their idea and it was fun, what they didn't have was a theme. They had unicorn artwork on the main menu, and Ode To Joy played when you won a game, but obviously these were just placeholders. Keeping those things in would just be silly. What the game really needed was a Thor theme. And to be called Thunderball.

The idea was to mimic the artwork of pinball tables with Norse gods, oak wood, and fire. “50 levels of frost giants,” says Sukhbir.

Eventually they realised the charm of the original placeholder art. The design ethos became to “embrace the randomness.” The unicorn and rainbows stayed. They added a cast of other, equally bizarre characters. When the name Thunderball no longer fit, they changed it. To Pego.

PopCap's history is filled with discarded names.

It was released as Peggle in 2007 after a development process almost entirely undertaken by a team of three, and found success with both casual game players and some of the hardcore. The latter came in part because of Peggle Extreme, where you cleared levels decorated with images of Half-Life characters. It was bundled on Steam alongside Half-Life 2: Episode Two, Portal and Team Fortress 2.

“We were worried when we did the Half-Life thing, because nobody really knew how these Orange Box buyers were going to respond,” says Jason. “Some of the comments we got afterwards were, 'This is the gayest game I have ever seen, yet I cannot stop playing it.'”

“If you look at Peggle the wrong way it looks like something that's been designed by a gang of idiots for their idea of a five-year-old.”

If Peggle softened up traditional gamers, it was Plants vs Zombies that made them completely fall in love with PopCap.

The company's fifth employee, George Fan, was hired as a freelancer to make a downloadable version of his game Insaniquarium, in which you feed fish and protect them from attacking aliens. He worked on it for PopCap at night and spent his days programming Diablo III for Blizzard. “I don't suggest that anyone does programming during the day and then go home and do programming more during the night,” says George. “It's just too much using the same part of the brain. And the same part of the wrists. My wrists got really, really messed up that year.”

When Insaniquarium was complete, PopCap convinced him to join fulltime. What became Plants vs Zombies started as Insaniquarium 2. “I'm not the type who just wants to do the same game again,” George explains, “so for Insaniquarium 2, I was kind of thinking that it would be, instead of a one-fish-tank game, it would be twice the fish tank.” A double-decker fish tank.

“I don't know why that makes sense. The aliens would enter the top fish tank in hordes and they would attack your top fish, and if they broke through that they would get to your bottom fish tank. When they ate all your fish in the bottom fish tank the game would be over. The top fish tank was going to be defensive fish and depth charges, and the bottom tank was going to be the resource generator tank.”

It wasn't Plants vs Zombies, but it's not far away. Imagine that fish tank turned on its side.

It's only after returning home, when I'm speaking to George on the phone, that it becomes clear why PopCap are the casual game developers we care about. It's because they act like the very best of the traditional developers we're used to. By working at Blizzard and PopCap, George has experienced both.

“I worked at two companies that let people take as long as they wanted to make their games,” he says, with the key difference being that the smaller teams of casual game development allow for greater experimentation. “I don't think I'd be satisfied making games that everyone has played before. I think my job is to try to come up with some new experience for people to play. That happens in the hardcore industry, but it's a tougher framework.”

But maybe still not as tough as working at other casual developers. “I think when you do metrics, they're helpful, but I don't think you can rely on them,” says George. “A lot of times they'll use the metrics and they'll keep the game mechanics that help them do the best business rather than the game mechanics that create the most fun experience.”

At his keynote speech at this year's Penny Arcade Expo conference – an orgy of gaming love held at the same Benaroya Hall that houses Casual Connect – Deus Ex designer Warren Spector urged the gathering hardcore not to look down on casual game players.

He's right. It's not casual game players that we should be condemning, or the idea of approachable gaming experiences we can play at Facebook. It's the companies making these games. Most of them are not worthy of our attention or care. PopCap are.

George puts it best: “I think that the reason people want to keep playing should be that they're having a good time doing so. I think that's the slope you go down as you start designing by metric: you might lose what's truly fun about videogames.”

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