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The 4th And Battery Plan: PopCap Goes Indie... Sort Of

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'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.

4th_unpleasant.jpg
Unpleasant Horse

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.


I was just talking to one of my colleagues earlier today about the 4th & Battery initiative and he brought up that PopCap brings in a lot more money than most other casual game developers. Is this initiative a result of investing some of your money just into the company, just because you can?

MJ: Well, so we have the luxury of being able to do that, and I'm always very careful when we talk about stuff like this at DICE or GDC and whatever. It's like I'm not sitting here saying to other game developers, you know, "You should do this." You know, I'm not sitting here on my high horse saying like, "This is the only way to do it" or "This is actually a great luxury that we have, and it's really privileged for us to be able to do this."

Because the only way that we can do this -- the only reason we can do this -- is because people enjoy our games and pay for them. So it's really like a blessing for us to be able to do this for ourselves.

Jeff Green: And yet ... people can't work on these games all the time. If they're assigned to work on a game that's going through a critical part of its production or development, they need to do that job, because that's the paying gig.

So there are definitely people -- especially high up at PopCap -- that are like "4th & Battery only gets to take up so much time," so it's not like we're just going to start making all free games.

How does it work internally? Can anyone at the company propose an idea and just start developing it? Do they work on it during company time, or are they working on it after hours?

MJ: So it started out -- Unpleasant Horse was one that was a product of the 24-hour Game Jam. A lot of people do this. And they drew the name out of the hat; it was like "Unpleasant Horse In The Sky" or "Flying in the Sky" or something like that. And so you got a randomly generated name, you built your team, you work for 24 hours.

And that game literately was built in 24 hours. There's a couple weeks of polish and Q&A that happen after that. Those two weeks -- the time that it took to polish and put it through Q&A -- that time was negotiated individually into each of those people's managers. So we're not going to derail somebody that's on a critical path on a project in order to get a 4th & Battery game. This is totally, like, third rail. So that's how it worked for that situation.

For Candy Train, it took a lot more time; Sophia and Adam [MacDonnell] really had to work pretty hard on that game. A lot more effort went into that, and they did it all on their own time. And we did this thing called PopCamp, which we do quarterly -- it's a week long, the whole studio shuts down. There's a little bit of a green light process where we have an internal messaging system, people post their concepts up there, and they try to generate interest around their concepts and build teams around those.

So I could have a game idea. I want to have a game about cats that jump up and try to eat birds, right? And I pitched the game, sort of an elementary pitch intro post, and then I go out and try to sell people on it, and get 'em on my side, and then try to find an hour just to find a programmer or whatever -- "Let's make a team, let's do this."

You get your concept up there and then management basically comes through and pretty much green lights all of them. The only time that somebody doesn't usually get approved is when one person puts up two ideas; we'll kind of help somebody go, "Oh, do this one, not that one." It doesn't have to be a video game, it can be a board game. Somebody did a Plants vs. Zombies board game. You can work on a piece of technology if you wanted; if you're really into like particle effects, you could like find some new particle effect engine or something like that.

And then so you get a whole week to work on that, and then at the end of that week there's sort of a party, and everybody plays each other's games. And there's a little, kind of a mock review process, where like three or four of the upper level managers will sit there and give you feedback on your game, and make a recommendation. Like, "Hey, maybe next PopCamp, you guys should work on this some more and take it further," or "Ehh, we don't think this is going anywhere," or whatever.

And you can disagree. If you disagree with them, you have a different idea, you can go and work on it for the next PopCamp and try to do it. But the studio shuts down quarterly, everybody gets to work on their own projects, and then typically one or two cool ideas comes out of that. And then what we'll do after that is, I will get the team together with their managers in a room, we'll sit down and go, "Okay, we want to take this thing to completion."

You know, "What are you working on, what are you working on, what are you working on?" The managers are all there, we get buy-off from everybody. The manager will say, "Hey, I actually need so-and-so to continue to stay focused on whatever they're working on, because they're in the middle of something. But a month from now, they're going to have some free time."

We put it on the calendar and we lock them in for that time, and go, "Okay, a month from now, six months from now, whatever, you have two weeks that you can finish this game," and then we'll sort of pencil it in for a 4th & Battery release. But there's no road map, there's no master plan of when these things get ready. As they come up, we'll put them out.


It sounds like many of these games are the results of these PopCamp experiments. How did it work out with Candy Train? Because that was something that was just floating around your company for awhile. How did that go from becoming a forgotten project to an approved 4th & Battery title?

MJ: So there's a group of people who are enthusiastic about it. Internally, it's kind of been this running joke, you know? "Candy Train!" There's a guy named Andy who really likes the game, and we have a PopCap basketball team and his jersey says "Andy Train". Stuff like that, just stupid stuff like that. So it's this kind of this part of PopCap history that keeps hanging around.

So as a joke, one of our iPhone developers just did a really, really quick port of the web game to the iPhone, just as a tech demo for himself to see if he could do it.

So that code was sitting there, and then Sophia got interested in it, I think, partially just because she wanted to make an iPad game, but also because there was all this internal momentum behind it, and she knew that if she could get it running people would dig it.

And there's also like, when we took it off the website, people were complaining -- as they tend to do on the internet -- but still, I mean, it seemed like it had some level of interest and fandom out there.

So it all kind of combined, to just drive her towards that one instead of something else; and also it's a really nice fit for the iPad. So I think all those things combined, she just pulled it out of the air and took it and ran with it, and then finished it during PopCamp.

And speaking of charging, why did you guys decide to make these games completely free?

MJ: A big part of that is that we don't plan on updating it or supporting it in any way. I mean, we have several live games. We have Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook, we have Zuma Blitz on Facebook, and these take large teams to maintain them. And even an iPhone game, where you have a sustained release as part of your plan, you need to have that team on that project and they're consistently working on it. This is an ongoing game; this is not like "I worked on it, and I shipped it, and then I'm done," right? So you have to manage that internally as a company.

We can't just have, you know, 20 games out there that we're maintaining in real time, because we're still a small company. So it's all about making sure that we're putting the right people on the right project, that we're tempering the effort from stuff that's definitely generating revenue and considered to be our bread and butter, meat and potatoes kind of stuff. And then this stuff -- really, the currency that we earn on this stuff is mostly internal. Growing and educating people, there's a value to that.

JG: Right, I mean, you said that, really, at the beginning. That monetization is never the goal.If you look at the early proposal that Matt wrote when this was all just theory, there wasn't even one sentence about money.

It was basically about, "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?" Like, "Well, I can't deal with Zuma anymore, so I'm going to go be an indie developer." In this way, we're able to say, "You can do both."

4th_asp1.jpg
Allied Star Police

So it's employee retention?

JG: Kind of, yeah. It's awesome.

MJ: It's also a great recruiting tool. You know people say, "Wow, PopCap's awesome! They do this for their people? I want to work there!" We've literally seen people writing us letters, sending us resumes from out of the blue because of 4th & Battery.

Is it sort of indicative of a shift in sort of PopCap's culture over time?

MJ: No.

JG: The edginess has always been there. I mean, I can say that, just as an outsider who just joined recently. You know there's clearly always been this weird edge at PopCap. I mean Peggle was always... There's always some vaguely kind of weirdness going on there with that game. The humor is in PVZ of course.

But I think here at PopCap there's always kind of this undercurrent of edginess; you can tell that the developers all had this, right? I think this is just a way for some of it to get out that way. But, I mean, look at Candy Train, that's like the anti-edgy, you know?

MJ: Yeah, it's round, spherical... [laughs]

JG: If Candy Train had been our first release, like the dialogue would be all different about 4th & Battery. Unpleasant Horse set this weird precedent.


Was there pressure from high up, when Unpleasant Horse was first introduced, to maybe not release it? It's so different from what PopCap has done before. Was there any internal conflict when that game was released?

MJ: Oh, yeah.

What was that like?

MJ: So, it wasn't like we were getting pressure from upper management or anything like that. In fact, our CEO was not as concerned about that, as he was about what the branding was going to be like. And we had a lot of conversations about, "Do we call it PopCap?" PopCap Labs was one of the brand ideas that we had. Clearly tied to PopCap.

And it was 4th & Battery, which was like, if you want to go down the other road of completely trying to obfuscate the fact. But everybody knows that it's PopCap.

In fact, one of the early concepts was like we're going to pretend like it wasn't us. We had a whole fiction built, and even made a whole website with fictional blog posts from fictional people.

That's amazing.

JG: Yeah, and it was really fun to do. The two of us were all into it. Like we had these two fake developers who were making these games.

MJ: And yeah, it was going down that road. And then, it was our CEO. He was just like, "Hey, you know, if you do this, you're not going to get any of the cross-promotional benefits of being tied to PopCap. And you're going to get all the worst. Like, if there is blowback on Unpleasant Horse, and if people do get upset about it, they're going to know it's PopCap anyway. They're going to find out. So it really doesn't serve any purpose."

And that was like the incredible wisdom that, like, once we heard that we were like, "Duh!"

JG: I know, but we were like, we had registered with the name off in the Cayman Islands. Seriously, so that people wouldn't link it back to PopCap. Yeah, we were serious about hiding it. But yeah, the CEO just was like, "Why are you guys doing that?" It was kind of an unpleasant conversation, but it really sort of turned us around and we were like, "Yeah, okay!" So we just decided we would own it.

MJ: And what ended up happening was we had all these conversations about, "Should it be PopCap? Should it not be PopCap? What if grandma types 'PopCap' into Google and finds Unpleasant Horse, doesn't play it first, gives it to the kid, the kid starts crying, and she looks at it, blood everywhere?" Like, we had all these nightmare scenarios we looked at.

But we actually are very concerned about it; I mean, we spent a lot of time establishing PopCap as a brand, people have great expectations for what they're going to get when they buy a PopCap game. But we don't want to muscle that out, right?

And plus, it's not within our character. We truly make the games we want to make. I left Microsoft to come work at PopCap because I wanted to make these games, not the games that I was making over there. So nobody wanted to screw it up. We were all very, very heavily conscious of it. Unpleasant Horse comes out, not a word. Nobody said anything. I was fantasizing about, "Now, what if PETA pickets our office?" or something. Nobody said anything!

JG: We were all ready for so much controversy, and it just did not happen. Nothing. Well, it was really cartoony, I mean, that was the thing. It was like, people would read the articles and then they would see the game and were like, "... What?" There was a disconnect.

If it had come from some other company, like a hardcore game company, nobody would've blinked. It was just because it was us.

MJ: And the press ran with it with it, too. We issued one press release and it was like, "It might be where we put edgier ideas that don't fit with the PopCap brand, or it might be a place where we do things that don't necessarily match with the character of the PopCap traditional view of things."

And people took that and extrapolated it so far, and then when Unpleasant Horse was coming out, everybody was just like, "This is going to be this crazy, super violent adult game." Like, "This is PopCap's adult label," and all that stuff. And we were just sitting there like going, "Candy Train's next…?"

Do you have, internally, a general road map of how often you want to put out titles under this label?

MJ: My own personal goal is, like, one a quarter would be nice. But there's no pressure to release anything. Candy Train and Unpleasant Horse came out relatively close to each other. And we've got a new game...

JG: The only pressure is to have some momentum. Like, let's not forget about it; let's always have the one thing that we know is coming, so it's just an active label.


Tell us about Allied Star Police, your next game.

MJ: Our preface is saying that the important part of this story is not how we met this kid, but that we met this kid.

JG: So he came to us through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. We're really sensitive to [the fact that] we want to promote his game and help him get recognition for the great work that he did on this.

But what we don't want to do is come off as looking like we're trying to exploit him or like, you know, get a pat on the back for being great people, for helping…

Oh, because of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

MJ: Yeah, he's sick, and he's like nine years old. So anyway -- that's not the important part of the story. The important part of the story is this incredible nine year old kid came into our office through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

He had the PopCap all-stars sitting at the table -- this big conference room -- and he threw up his PowerPoint presentation. And he took about 25 minutes of our time, and explained to us every single detail of his game design, which was Allied Star Police.

And Allied Star Police was designed as a first person shooter. He had the economy figured out, he had the balancing figured out, he had all the characters, he had the fiction already written, he had everything! The vehicle units. Like, he had everything totally figured out and went through it all, and we all totally completely understood the game. And it was crazy! Great kid, he's funny and stuff.

And so we're like, "Okay, well, we can't make a first person shooter in a week, so we're going to do it over PopCamp. So we'll try and tweak the game a little bit, tweak the design a little bit into something that we can actually make." And he was super amenable to that, and totally responded well to that. So we're like, "Okay."

Well, we went through that week and he came back; he gave us a presentation when he came back on Thursday, he was really excited about it and we went, "You know what? This needs another week. Let's work on it for a little more." And at this time we're getting to know him, he's getting to know us. He's kind of become this fixture at PopCap. And we work on it a second week, and he comes in a couple times. He's bossing us around, and playing the game, and telling us like, "No! Not that way!"

And so we get to the end of the second week, and we're all playing it, and we're like, "This is actually a pretty great game!" And so the two guys who ended up carrying it over the finish line had some time -- they'd just come off another project -- and so we ended up taking another two and a half months finishing the game. So this game has had more work done on it than any other 4th & Battery game.

4th_asp2.jpg

Did this kid teach himself game design before pitching the game? Because most nine year old kids don't know anything about how games work.

JG: You'll have to ask him.

Okay. (laughs)

MJ: Because he came in with all the set pieces ready to go, and totally understood what was going on. And so what was crazy was we made this game, and we had a game release party for him where he made T-shirts, and he brought all his friends in, and we ordered pizza, and all this stuff. He ordered a limo.

And we gave him the game, we gave him an iPad with the game on it, it was handed to him. And he sat down and he instantly started playing the game. And the game... For us it was very, very meaningful to see the fact that we translated his design so well that he could actually just sit down and start playing the game immediately. He knew exactly what to do, and he was telling his friends like, "Oh, that's this guy, that's this guy. No, you need to do this, you need to do that." He just played the game naturally from day one, so we felt good about that.

Have you guys ever considered bringing 4th & Battery games to platforms other than iOS?

MJ: We will eventually! It's actually our usual sort of platform philosophy, which is, we're going to make the game for the platform that makes the most sense. We're not there going, "We need to be on the iPhone because that's where X, Y, and Z is happening," or whatever. It's just like, "This game really feels good on the iPhone; let's put it on the iPhone." "I can really imagine this game working on a touch screen interface, let's make it on the iPad. Let's try it first and see if it works, and then if it works let's make it really work, and then let's put it out."

PVZ XBLA was a project that I worked on, and the first thing I did was get those guys to figure out the control scheme, because that was a big question; like, "Is this even going to work?" And it wasn't like, "make it work", it was like "let's see if it works, and if it doesn't work we're not going to do it." And we actually took a long time trying to get it to work, so...

Would you ever consider designing a game that wouldn't take advantage of a touchscreen? Now that these platforms are so pervasive.

MJ: It seems like you'd have to have your head in the sand to at least not consider.

And so the unannounced game that I'm not going to tell you about, but I'm working on it right now... the way that I'm directing the team is, we have a lead platform, but we're actually going to do something pretty different, which is we're going to build our game to be as accepting of the main, dominant input mechanisms out there. So we're going to build our game for platform A as the lead platform, but we're also going to build our game so that it also considers platform B, and that the adaptation process is a little bit more smooth, and it's not as work-intensive.

Because if you consider it up front, if you design the game with that in mind, you can actually close the gap with the release window; you can get things out to people sooner. Because a lot of people complain because they're like, "Where's PVZ on platform X and when do I get it?" And we don't want people to feel that way, right? We want everybody happy -- it makes business sense for us, and it makes good sense for us, just in terms of getting people what they want. So we're trying to make that a little bit easier for us, so we can get more games out to these people.

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