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GDC Europe: PopCap's Kapalka talks  Bejeweled Blitz  Origins, Calls Social Games 'A Bit Evil'

GDC Europe: PopCap's Kapalka talks Bejeweled Blitz Origins, Calls Social Games 'A Bit Evil'

August 18, 2010 | By Brandon Sheffield

August 18, 2010 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC

Bejeweled Blitz is one of two top-20 Facebook games that didn't take a huge dive after the much-discussed "nerfing" of some of the viral aspects of wall posts for the service. This is primarily because the game was developed without monetization and viral aspects in mind, PopCap creative director Jason Kapalka explains.

In the beginning, PopCap knew it wanted to make a Facebook game, but "Unfortunately there was not a single flash developer in the entire company," PopCap creative director Jason Kapalka said, addressing a crowd at GDC Europe. "The second problem was that at that time nobody actually liked Facebook games." When the game was being created, in 2008, most games on the service were still of the vampires or werewolf "biting" variety.

So the team took stock of what they had. They had a half-finished Bejeweled 2 port from an external company that went bankrupt, and one guy in customer support who had taught himself Flash in his spare time. They also knew they didn't want to do a straight port of Bejeweled. Other casual companies at the time had done straight demo ports, which would lead the user to buy a product elsewhere, and didn't really take advantage of Facebook in any way.

Building An Early Facebook Game

"The first thing was the realization that it had to be a short game," said Kapalka. Initially they put a five minute timer on the game, allowing you to score points within that time limit. "That turned out to be quite long, and pretty boring," he admitted. They tried 4 minutes, then 3, then two. Then at one point when searching for bugs, they turned the limit down to 10 seconds, and discovered people liked playing a 10 second game more than a 2 minute game - so they went with 1 minute, which seemed to be the perfect match.

But it was too skill-based at the time, and good players could always beat more casual ones. To fix that, the team added some randomizing elements, such as multiplier gems, which randomly show up and increase a player's score dramatically. But they wanted to reward skill as well, so they put in a speed bonus for those who could compete faster.

Additionally, the team made it so their tournament boards reset every week. "We found that having a single leaderboard was an important thing, he said, and as far as resetting, in two weeks players would not play again if they got a good score. Once per week works much better. "We tend to see a huge surge in players on those Tuesdays [when the game resets] when people come in and try to set their scores for the week," he said.

The team also implemented a team score, to invite their friends to compete in a group. Team scorers could win a prize in various competitions, but many players were skeptical that PopCap could be giving something away for free when the game wasn't even monetized yet.

"It's actually unclear whether this has increased the popularity," admitted Kapalka. For example, PopCap did a competition with Mazda to win a car, and expected an increase in players due to that. Curiously, numbers remained the same. "There are people who say this was critical to the success of the project, but honestly we don't have the data to support that idea."

The game was released in December 2008, but with no monetization plans at launch. PopCap later implemented the ability to buy special powers in-game. "You can earn the coins by playing," he says, "but you'll never really earn enough to get as many boosts as you want." While the company is continuing to consider its monetization options, "to be honest our efforts to do that are pretty minimal compared to other companies," said Kapalka.

Other Platforms

Bejeweled 2 was popular on the iPhone, but started to falter by 2009. So the team figured they should work Bejeweled Blitz in somewhere to revitalize the brand on that platform. They decided to add a Blitz mode to the original game, rather than making a new stand-alone Bejeweled game for the iPhone, so as not to fracture the audience. But the question became, should they, and could they sync the game with the Facebook version?

De-synced Mafia Wars wasn't successful on the iPhone because you couldn't bring your character over, so "we figured we had to sync up the leaderboards, at least," concluded Kapalka. Because of Apple's approvals process, you can't sync other elements too easily, because you can't predict when it's going to launch, so they kept features separate.

One issue that cropped up was the adjustment of scoring across platforms, when players are competing for the same scores using different interfaces. "We did a lot of tests to see if one was easier, and it turned out that the iPhone one was a little easier." They tweaked this, but it's still not totally the same.

With the addition of the Blitz mode, Bejeweled 2 went back into top 10, and now boasts total sales in the 4 million range. After this they decided to add a third platform, making a PC downloadable version. This was even tougher to integrate, as Facebook has no integrated Win32 API, meaning the team had to build a custom web browser in the client, based on Chromium, in order to integrate features and leaderboards. This approach "has some minor drawbacks if Facebook makes some changes to their systems," he says, since that makes the whole thing completely break.

Standard portals were reluctant to carry the PC version, he says. "They didn't like the idea of a connected game where players were able to connect to not only Facebook, but also PopCap. There's some truth to that concern, but I think it's inevitable," he added. "Portals are going to have to get used to the idea or get left behind."

Social Games Are Evil

"We learned that social games are quite different from standard games," he says. "Social games are kind of evil right now. People that are complaining have a valid point. Viral feeds that are really kind of critical, are a big generator of noise. There's no way around it."

"If you were doing something on your mobile phone, and you had a thing where you sent a text message to everyone in your phonebook about your mafia or your cow, you'd very quickly have fewer friends," he says, saying that viral feeds are a perversion of the intended use of the channel. "They're trying to find any way to trick you into posting something on your wall that's not really even of interest to you, let alone your friends."

"A large part of the social game industry is about finding loopholes in the system," rather than making fun games, says Kapalka. This made PopCap really uncomfortable. "We found that was quite disturbing, and we had to kind of get over that as we were making it."

Kapalka says PopCap can't claim to be completely non-evil, but they came up with some golden rules:

1. Make games that are fun to play. "It seems obvious, but often social games are starting from another point, like a monetization trick." Their games have to not be excuses for spam, not be built around monetization, not designed to irritate or shame people (a la the idea of FarmVille's crops withering), and not simple copies of others' hits.

2. If you find a game fun, other people will too (probably). "If you don't think it's fun, why are you even making games in the first place?" Kapalka poses.

3. If people have fun with a game, viral mechanics are a natural outgrowth. As a subrule regarding feeds, the team asks itself: "Would I post this to my own wall? If I did, would people unfriend me? Is it just a way to spam my pals?"

4. Of people enjoy a game, you will probably find a way to make money from it. "In our case, it's definitely worked," he said.

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