[PopCap's Matt Johnston, senior producer of core IP, and Jeff Green, director of editorial and social media talk about the formation of PopCap's 4th &Battery sub-label, why it's a good idea for the studio, and how they got involved with the Make-A-Wish Foundation for Allied Star Police.]
PopCap is a company that is well-known in the industry for having a wilder streak than is suggested by its dominance of the casual marketplace. That streak has finally found its way out into the world via 4th & Battery, its new boutique sub-label for quirky, unusual projects.
But why in the world was it important to do this? Matt Johnston, senior producer, core IP and Jeff Green, director of editorial and social media explain to Gamasutra how, to some extent, it was a safety valve to stop developers from getting frustrated with their jobs at the company and packing it up to go indie.
"Monetization is never the goal," says Green. "It was basically about like, 'How do we motivate the developers internally, to keep their creative energy going, come up with new ideas, and work on cool things on their own and be jazzed about new ideas when they don't have these other projects due, without getting them to quit to do it?'"
The interview -- which took place prior to Electronic Arts' major acquisition of PopCap -- also goes into some detail on the genesis of 4th & Battery's latest game, Allied Star Police, which turns out is a Make-A-Wish Foundation project -- though, says Green, the company definitely didn't take up the project to "get a pat on the back for being great people."
Why are you guys doing 4th & Battery?
Matt Johnston: So, there are several reasons. One is that it provides this sort of pressure release valve for an entire studio full of people who are constantly working on the next version of Bejeweled, or the next version of Peggle, or whatever.
There's a lot of built up expectation in the marketplace and in our fan base for these games -- these games have huge numbers of people who really love them, and it's a really big responsibility to be working on one of these games, right?
Traditionally, PopCap was known as the company that doesn't release anything until it's ready, and then we work on things until we feel comfortable with them, and we're proud of them, and that can take awhile. So as a way to sort of take some of the heat off, we like having these little shorter projects; they're sort of like our B-sides, or our Pixar shorts, something like that. And somebody can take a little bit of time, work on something on the side, be creative, flex some muscles, and not just constantly be cranking out the next picture.
And another reason we do it is because it's a great way to grow people internally. So we have a programmer by the name of Sophia [Hohing], who wanted to be a game programmer but was working on DRM Wrapper, or our PC and Mac games. She found Candy Train kind of laying around -- it was an old game that used to be available on our website -- and ported it to the iPad in her spare time.
Her boyfriend who is in another part of the company, he wants to be a producer, so he took the producer role, and they both learned how to do those things through making Candy Train. And Sophia is now a game programmer in the studio, so she actually achieved her goal through this 4th & Battery sideline.
Another reason why we do it is because it's a great way for us to interface with the community. So it's a lot easier to have conversation around something like Unpleasant Horse or Candy Train than it is to have conversation around Bejeweled with the community.
You've got millions of people out there playing the game. A, it's just really hard to kind of have a conversation, right? But B, something like Bejeweled attracts so many different people and it's such a broadly appealing game that there are so many different conversations that happen in there.
When we're having interactions with that group of people, it's on so many different levels, whereas with Unpleasant Horse or Candy Train, those developers can just go into a forum or onto a Facebook page or whatever and have a direct conversation with the people that download the game. And it's actually an attainable goal, enough to communicate with them, because there aren't 14 million people out there.
So you're targeting a smaller audience so you can have a more direct connection with them?
MJ: Not deliberately; it just happens to be.
Was that one of your goals when you started the project?
MJ: Yeah. Well, the goal is that if you are an aspiring game designer, programmer, or somebody that works at PopCap, you have an idea, you're allowed to work on it and make this thing that you want to make. You can actually get direct, meaningful feedback from people that's way more useful than it is to just read comments on the idea.
I mean, those are useful, too, right? But we're trying to build some stuff into the website so that we can have like an Unpleasant Horse forum, and people can go up there and they can ask the developers questions, "Why did you guys do this? Why'd you guys do that?" And not only is this great for the people that were involved in the project -- because they can actually learn things about their own craft this way and grow -- but it's great for the people who enjoy the games, because they can learn more about them, too.
And I think it's not a huge group of people, but there is a small group of people out there who actually are interested in the way that PopCap works internally. And so this is a great way for us to show people how that process works, without really giving away any proprietary secrets, or announcing any games that we don't want to announce yet. It's like we can have a conversation about the inner workings of PopCap around these smaller titles, and smaller titles are a great jumping off point for that conversation. So that's a great way to share that information with people.
Like I said, it's sort of our B-sides; we've got a lot of ideas hanging around at PopCap. Because we keep setting the bar higher and higher for ourselves in terms of how polished the games are, how comfortable we are with the games, how proud of the games we are, we don't have the pressure to release a new game every quarter, or whatever.
We just release them when they're done. And I think people appreciate that about PopCap. I think people like to know that we're not going to turn them into beta testers, we're not going to put out a game until we feel it's ready, and I think people agree with that.
But there's a lot of stuff that ends up never coming out because we keep setting that bar higher and higher, and the higher the bar goes, the more stuff doesn't come out, right? So we got a lot of ideas that we've tabled, for one reason or another, that we would like to at least give people a chance to play. And the reason why it's 4th & Battery, and not PopCap. It's because people have certain expectations when we do a PopCap game.
And so what we like is 4th & Battery takes kind of the heat off, and we just say, "Just expect it to be different." Each game is going to be different; each game has its own set of goals, at least internally, for us. It's like, this is a game that we want to put out because we feel it's fun, and it never came out for whatever reason, so we'll put that one out and share it with people. That's the goal. Or help Sophia grow, as in grow our staff and grow our people; that's the reason this came out.
So the 4th & Battery effort really has a lot of sort of benefits to PopCap, but the one thing that really is not a goal for 4th & Battery is to generate revenue. It's all of these other things; it's really like nurturing our culture, nurturing our people, an educational platform for us, it's part of our plans to grow people, and allowing us to share these games with people that they would've never been able to play in other ways.