[Attending PopCap's release event for Bejeweled Twist, Gamasutra's Brandon Sheffield looks at the four-year odyssey to create the latest in the massively popular Bejeweled casual game series, the appropriateness of holding a grandiose launch party during the current economic crisis, and why the 'mom test' conquers all.]
has been incredibly important for PopCap over the years. It launched the company to success, and even now the series claims between 30 and 40 percent of the company’s revenue, depending on who you ask. In fact, the franchise has now had 350 million copies downloaded and over 25 million units sold.
And let's not forget that the firm has sprouted majorly in size -- it has a worldwide staff of over 200 people and offices in Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Vancouver, B.C., Dublin and most recently, Shanghai.
The company’s large-scale launch party for Bejeweled Twist
in Seattle, held at the Paul Allen-created Experience Music Project museum, only goes to show how much stock PopCap has in this game.
The evening’s activities, which included a presentation from a "Spanish professor of twistology," (who I happened to see in line for the event, and who had a whisk and an egg beater in his pocket), alongside circus-style hoop artists, food and drink, loads of stations to play the game, as well as the usual hoop-la.
The game, which has just launched for PC download
, took four years to make, and co-founder John Vechey told me that, at one time, there were four programmers and three artists all working on various aspects of the game, which he categorized as "insane" given its straightforwardness.
But what sets PopCap games apart from other casual titles is their attention to detail, and the look and feel. Vechey naturally agrees, and told me, “Three years ago, we could’ve showed you something that looked a lot like this, and had a similar mechanic, but it just lacked a lot of that slickness.”
During the creators' speech, designer Jason Kapalka commented on the long process. "I guess that’s four years," he said, "which I guess means we suck. I don’t know."
Co-founder Brian Fiete corrected him: "It means we iterate on games, and keep working on it until it’s done, it doesn’t mean we suck. We could make it in two nights if we had to." To which John Vechey responded: "Dude, not cool."
The evening was lined with a tinge of guilt on the part of the PopCap crew, for throwing a huge bash during the current world economic crisis.
During the opening remarks, CEO David Roberts said "I do think it’s important to acknowledge the realities of the global economic situation. We planned this event, the launch of our biggest product ever, well before the economy started its recent slide."
"More recently," he added, "we discussed whether we should even talk about those sorts of issues. But I concluded that the need for fun in our lives may never be greater than it will be for the next year or so, and millions and millions of people will find much-needed relief and comfort in our games and Bejeweled Twist
, and we do believe our business is relatively resistant to economic downturns."
As John Vechey said, "You don’t want to be the band on the Titanic."
The core mechanic of Bejeweled Twist
revolves around the idea of rotation -- rather than switching jewels as you did in the previous games, you rotate a group of four gems clockwise in order to get groups of three, or four, or more.
Power-ups appear during the game, and different modes have you completing different challenges. This core gameplay is similar in concept to Hexic
or even more like Super Puzzle Fighter II
’s Z mode, the latter of which none of the founders had played.
The play mechanic really is subtly different, as evidenced by the fellow who played the game next to me stating that the game was "not that much different from their other ones."
He was visually disappointed with the game, but what he failed to note is that in the casual arena, there are one or two game mechanics at max. If you change one of those up, you have a drastically different game for the casual player.
However, some of the over-the-top, borderline psychedelic visuals that appealed to the more 'core' players in Peggle
have been added to the game.
Then I saw the true test. There was an elderly woman of perhaps 70, who was trying to play the game. She couldn’t get her head around the mechanic, and a PopCap employee stepped up to help her.
Her response was: "I don’t want you to tell me, I want the game to tell me!" She spent some time in the tutorial, and then finally got it. After that, she was stopping strangers to show them, and exclaiming, "I did it!"
This is going to be PopCap’s true test. The game is, on the surface, still too simple for the hardcore crowd to immediately latch on to. Yet the play mechanic is just complex enough to give its core audience cause for alarm. But once they figure it out, they’re quite engaged, and in fact feel a real sense of achievement.
Interestingly, the game was much more complex before, with more power-ups, more matching patterns, and the ability to rotate blocks counter-clockwise as well as clockwise. But none of this tested well with users, according to Jason Kapalka. Even the original Bejeweled
had diagonal matching in its original iteration, but this was scrapped in favor of better playability for the casual market -- or the "mom test", as they call it.
The series is clearly still of extremely high importance for the company, and rare is the casual game company that does an AAA game launch for its new product. But PopCap has taken a risk here, by making the game just a little more difficult to wrap one’s head around.
If PopCap is any indication, the casual market is having its boom time. But the economy, fierce competition, and most importantly confused grandmas and housewives will ultimately determine what the future holds for this mainstay casual series.