Why do you both think that PopCap has managed not to fall into this trap where you need to be making games you don't necessarily believe in to appease the market?
BF: I think because we're stubborn -- that would be the primary reason. I think that we just can't stomach the thought of doing things that we don't believe; that's just so core to our culture. I think we'd suffer greatly before we kind of decided to do something that we didn't think was the right thing creatively.
JK: I think we're not very good businessmen...
BF: Yeah, we're a development company; we're not a money company. I think that we've just been really lucky that the strategy we have of kind of remaining true to our game roots has really given us good cred in the hardcore market and made our games feel honest.
That works for us financially. If it came down to it, I think we would rather sacrifice money than sacrifice that ideal.
JK: Well, I guess that we'll just have to see. If we told Brian that, next month, he gets no money because we ran out, then we might start changing some of our tune.
But I think we've been able to keep a good balance of being aware of financial constraints -- we don't just completely ignore that -- and do whatever we feel like doing regardless of whether anyone will like it. I think we can balance that so that we're not just a bunch of crazy hippies making art games.
BF: One of the things that makes the games satisfying for us is them being popular and having a very large crowd, and trying to spread casual gaming to everyone, kind of the same way that everyone likes movies. We're not going to do some game based on trying to tell a love story through casual games because we think that artistic message is important; we're never going to do anything like that.
Do either of you still have these sort of possibly secret aspirations to make games that maybe wouldn't work at PopCap?
BF & JK: Well, yeah.
BF: We have to battle ourselves down a lot. I think that the core genre of games that we find very satisfying, that we'd love to work on, would be the dungeon adventure or action genres. Or there's a lot of puzzle games that -- as a programmer and a very logical person -- that I find very fun to work on. But we know that they're just not as accessible to most people.
JK: I like all sorts of hardcore roguelike games and really complex strategy and war games. Yeah, I'd be tempted to make something like that.
BF: Yeah, I had a personal project for awhile where I was trying to make a turn-based strategy game into a casual game. It was really, really hard and didn't end up working out. But I think that's kind of something we see as our mission: taking genres and types of games that we really enjoy that we don't have a clear way of making accessible and finding a way to boil those down to their core essences and make that an accessible thing for people.
Even at that point, I think half of the company is going to look at it and say, "That isn't going to be successful; that doesn't follow our other game design mantras that we've come up with over the last ten years of our development. But we'll do our best, and we'll put 'em out there; maybe they'll be successful and change the way we look at games again."
Plants vs. Zombies
That's even more interesting! (Laughs) It did leave me questioning, though, if you guys have experimented with other traditionally liked gameplay mechanics that might work for everybody. Have you ever tried, you know, like a story-based RPG? Have you ever found that any genres just do not work for everybody?
BF: Well, we famously have an RPG that we were working on called PopQuest. We started working on that one back in 2003 or somewhere around there, but yeah, it ended up being a little more complex than it should have been, although lots of people in the company would love to revisit that one and find a way to make that work out.
JK: Intermittently, we try and resurrect a game like that, or take a shot at doing an RPG or something of that nature, so. We have a few weird and odd internal experiments that... Sometimes games start off as little personal projects.
There are some guys who are effectively doing a remake of Star Control 2 as a side project, just because they like playing the battle mode with these two players in a spaceship battling with each other. That's still kicking around somewhere in the depths of the company. Is it ever going to go anywhere? I'm not sure about that.
I like Star Control 2, but they're fooling around; it certainly wasn't ready to become accessible to a broader audience or anything like that. Could it at some point? Yeah, it's possible. I would think that was pretty cool if we could manage it.
BF: We have all sorts of action things. There's a game called Eggs -- actually, maybe I shouldn't say their names since it's not copyrighted -- but there's a kung-fu game with eggs in it. You kind of go around punching other eggs, and it's supposed to have some action-RPG story elements to it. That was being prototyped for awhile.
It doesn't sound like you've completely given up on any genre. You haven't been banging your heads into the wall, screaming, "It's impossible!"
JK: Well, the fact that it hasn't worked out yet doesn't mean it won't work out in the future. I mean, Plants vs. Zombies took a long time to develop, so it might take awhile to figure out how to get around and to get at the content for an RPG or an RTS that works for us. But yeah, I don't think we think that any of those are impossible.
How often are you guys prototyping? What's the ratio of prototyped-to-released games for PopCap?
JK: It's pretty hard to say, actually. People have used all sorts of different numbers to try and get an idea about it, but it's kind of an odd thing because it's hard to say where a prototype really begins and ends. By some definition, Peggle had dozens and dozens of prototypes that were involved before it took shape.
BF: Prototypes come in all different forms, too. Recently, we had a 24-hour game design challenge for anyone at the company that wanted to participate, and we had at least ten games come out of there. A few of them could be concepts that could be turned into a real game.
JK: I would say that, if you looked to the total catalog of released games versus the total number of games that are kind of lying around in some form, whether it's from a rough design spec to a cheesy prototype to something that's almost professional-looking, I'd guess that there's at least three times as many prototypes.
BF: Yeah. I was thinking 4-to-1, or somewhere around there.
JK: I think in that ballpark. How many released games do we have? Forty? Fifty? Yeah, so it's somewhere in the ballpark of probably a couple hundred of these prototypes that would be discovered in the dungeon if to dig through it.
It almost sounds unstructured, like people are just making games on their free time. Is that kind of how it is?
BF: Yeah -- I think it's hard to structure a great concept. If somebody has inspiration for something, then we encourage them to follow that idea even if they're already working on some other thing.
Eventually we have ten percent time, where employees are encouraged to spend 10 percent of their time working on something totally unrelated to their actual full-time project. Some stuff comes out of there; some stuff comes out of copy room discussions or discussions over lunch: "Hey, have you played this new game?" "That's awesome; let's do something like this." And the seed of an idea that comes up. It's really more about inspiration striking and giving the employees the tools and the freedom to be able to follow the path when it happens.