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Ten Years Of PopCap: The Interview


May 28, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 6 Next
 

So taking you a little bit past Bejeweled, then, did you have another immediate hit, or did you have a couple failed experiments after that?

BF: We had a couple of okay things. We had things like Atomica, which wasn't that good, and Big Money, which was a little bit of a disappointment. But then we started getting into things -- we did Bookworm after that, and that did pretty well for us; not to the level of Bejeweled. Then we got into Zuma, and I think Zuma changed the way we looked at our business because that was one of the first games that was a slightly cross-over game, that had kind of a hardcore appeal to it as well as being attractive for casual [audiences].

JK: One thing that certainly stands out now is that pretty much all of our early games that went on to be big hits -- I can clearly remember every one of them having somebody who had stood up before and said, "There's no way this thing is gonna sell."

I remember someone saying that about Bookworm because they said, "You know, word games just don't sell. They never sell." I remember someone saying that about Zuma because they said, "This thing's like an action arcade game. That's not gonna sell."

And I remember someone saying that about Bejeweled; they said, "There's no skill here! That's not even a game. It's not gonna sell." And yeah, I think Plants vs. Zombies, someone said something to that effect: "This is too weird; it's too hardcore."

BF: "It's like a strategy game."

JK: Yeah. So if someone says it's not gonna sell, that's probably a good sign.

BF: But a lot of our initiatives are kind of not obvious. The Facebook game didn't quite have the momentum behind it [that] it would have [had] if we knew how big of a hit Bejeweled Blitz was going to be on Facebook. It was kind of more of an experiment; it had to be forced.

JK: Yeah. I guess that the thing about PopCap is that the composition of the company's management is still controlled by the three founders, so we've never really become a marketing- or business-driven company. In general, we're not ignorant of these things, but the usual way that things get done is that the studio says, "We're making this game. Hey, you business and marketing guys -- figure out how to sell it."

Rather than the opposite way around where the business guys might like it if they could say, "Hey, this kind of genre is very popular; make a game in this genre because our research says it will do well." But by and large, we don't usually work that way.

When we like a game, it's usually a pretty good indicator that other people will enjoy it. Sometimes that stuff's a better way to look at a game rather than worrying about sort of demographics and focus groups and all that sort of thing.

When you're developing a game -- when you're coming up with the concepts, anyway -- who are you thinking of? Are you making games for yourselves, or are you thinking of your primary demographic?

JK: Well, the truth is that... We get asked this question once in awhile, and it's kind of a strange thing. With few exceptions, I don't think we do think of a demographic in particular when we're making the games because one thing that's become clear is that we really don't have one demographic.

We have demographics for certain types of games on certain platforms; so if you looked at the people who are downloading Bejeweled off of our PopCap.com website, now that is a demographic that you can look at and is probably largely female and largely over 35. The demographic that is buying games on the iPhone or the demographic that is buying Plants vs. Zombies on Xbox Live or something like that...

BF: Well, theoretically we design games to not exclude anyone; to appeal to everyone. We don't target anything; we try to avoid targeting things.

JK: Yeah, I kind of think about it the way that Pixar I think targets their films. They're not really making movies for kids or for adults, but obviously their movies are designed to be enjoyed by people on a very broad range.

BF: I think it's a useful mental exercise to envision what you think some of the corners of market are and how they'll react to something. If I'm pushing in something, I think of maybe the hardcore user -- when he sees this, is this going to be ridiculous? Is this going to be talking down to him? It's just not going to be fun or not challenging enough? And then again, if my mom sees this, how's she going to react?

JK: Once a game is underway, we think about that stuff. I remember, for Plants vs. Zombies, there was a lot of talk about -- balancing the difficulty curve was tricky because it was very hard to get it so that it was both challenging to people that played a lot of real-time strategy games and tower defense games and still not overwhelming for the casual player who'd never seen anything like that.

I know George [Fan] tried a lot of different things with that, and I don't think we were ever 100 percent sure. It was kind of a slow wrap-up. I think ultimately we decided that people who were a bit more hardcore would have a bit more patience for the game rather than risk confusing or intimidating players who were new to that.

BF: Taking things too slow is okay as long as the core gameplay itself is fun enough when it's easy. Plants vs. Zombies is just fun even if you have a super-simple level. Having these peashooters shooting at zombies and watching them fall over is fun.

JK: Yeah. We try to think about the demographics once we have the game going and try to remove obstacles and problems that people would face, but I don't think we ever sit back and say, "Let's make a game for 45-year-old women" or "18-year-old guys."


Peggle

Does that approach of trying to make the games universal come natural to you guys, or is that a challenge?

BF: It's frickin' hard! (Laughs) That's why you can look at one of our games and say, "Eh; this game is pretty simple. Why would this take a year to make or two years to make?" It's because it's really, really hard to design games that way.

It's so easy to come up with a prototype for something -- like the prototype for Peggle didn't take that much time at all, but getting exactly polished right so the game communicates properly and it flows properly and it's the experience we want it to be; that's something that's much harder. I think all of those elements are important to being accessible to people; having the game flow and feel exactly right is important to the way that you're able to understand the game rules.

JK: Well, simplicity is hard. Go and ask Pajitnov how much luck he's had trying to reproduce Tetris for 25 years. It's quite difficult to create simple games that are still fun. It's certainly not easy to do that.

When did PopCap start expanding into other platforms?

BF: We were early in the Xbox Live experience on the original Xbox, which did almost nothing but primed us to go big with Xbox Live on the Xbox 360, which was a much bigger deal. That's where things have really taken off.

JK: Yeah. I think, philosophically, we were always very interested in doing other platforms. I remember we did discuss some strategy; there were other companies who were doing a different approach to casual games, and we decided early on that we didn't want to take the shotgun approach of having a thousand games a year, or whatever, and just try to put out as much as you can. We felt we were going to try and have a smaller number but high quality titles.

But what that would mean was we would make sure we took all those titles to as many platforms as possible so that a game like Bejeweled or Zuma or Peggle or whatever would end up being available on every platform that it made sense to put it on. So part of our strategy was to do it that way rather than just to publish this huge volume of stuff. Big Fish Games is an example of that other strategy, and it's worked well enough for them; so I can't say that that's a bad strategy. We just didn't feel it was the right way for us to go.


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