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RPS Interview: PopCap on Casual, Peggle & Valve

I don't need to do the maths to know that the game that's been mentioned more times than any other on Rock, Paper, Shotgun is Peggle. While the gleeful pachinko riff might be our obsession, for casual gaming luminaries PopCap, it's just one more horse [unicorn, surely - Ungulate Ed] in an already unbelievably successful stable. Riding a wave of cult credibility in the wake of Peggle's strong association with The Orange Box, clearly this developer/publisher was someone we should chat to.

Below, PopCap co-founder and Chief Creative Officer Jason Kapalka offers a few insights into this quiet gaming giant - including their relationship with Valve Software, their approach to humour, the future of casual gaming, what to expect from upcoming sequel Peggle Nights and how they're not, in fact, slathering, extreme-right warmongers.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun - Who do you see the casual gaming audience as being?
Jason Kapalka - Everyone is a potential player of PopCap games. We strive to make games that appeal to everyone and anyone - from mothers to their renowned nemesis’, hardcore gamers. PopCap research shows that casual games naturally skew towards an older (89% of players are aged 30+), female (76% are female) audience but those are just the people who buy the games on the PC. Many of our games are on Xbox Live Arcade, for example, and are doing well with traditional gamers - while PopCap’s mobile games do very well with younger gamers.

Our mission at PopCap is to be innovators of casual games on as many platforms as possible to make our games as accessible to this audience of ‘everyone’ as possible. As we discover new genres of casual games and make these playable on new platforms, the PopCap audience likewise continues to expand and diversify.

RPS- Did you ever expect to have the sort of cult reputation you do now, post-Peggle and the Valve association? Or was the plan originally to make successful games for the more traditional casual audience?
JK - The Valve/Peggle Extreme thing was kind of a weird experiment for us, in that it fell way outside of our traditional demographic. A lot of people inside PopCap weren’t too sure about it, and even the people who supported it were kind of worried about the reception Peggle might get from the Steam crowd… what with the unicorns and all. So we were pleasantly surprised that the response was almost universally positive. Actually, Peggle has had a weird crossover success with the hardcore crowd in general…the guys at PC Gamer and Games for Windows really covered it a lot. So that was a bit unusual… in general, the casual games industry expects to be ignored—at best—by the hardcore guys. The fact that we’re getting more attention and even affection from them now is really cool.

It does go back to our goal of making games for everyone, though. There’s no reason someone who plays Team Fortress can’t also play Bejeweled or Peggle; these divisions between hardcore and casual are largely arbitrary.

RPS- Where did the relationship with Valve spring from? What is it like working with them?
JK - One of our Developers, Eric Tams, had friends at Valve and heard Peggle was all the rage at their office. We even got a few emails from Valve staffers pleading for tips on beating some of the more difficult challenges. At the same time, we were hearing other anecdotal evidence that while there were a lot of hardcore gamers getting into Peggle - there were plenty who said they’d never be caught dead playing a game with unicorns and rainbows. Valve had been a great partner for PopCap and they had done a lot to promote Peggle on Steam, just because they liked the game. We thought that was cool, and really believed that if hardcore gamers could get over the ‘unicorns and rainbows’ hurdle and actually play the game, many would enjoy it. The theme had always been tongue-in-cheek for us anyway, though obviously doesn’t come across that way to everyone.

We proposed the idea of a special free version for Steam players only, using our characters in Half-Life 2 themed backdrops, figuring no one could resist a game with a machine gun toting unicorn. Valve loved the idea. They were completely awesome to work with, they gave us tons of art and sound assets, free artist time, and really helped get Peggle in front of many players who would never have played it otherwise. Sales of Peggle on Steam have been tremendous ever since we released the Extreme demo.

RPS - How has your methodology of making casual games changed over the years?
JK - We’re always learning new things about how players interact with our games, and trying to incorporate that back into the next title. We’ve learned a lot from our old titles about what kinds of mechanics work and which don’t… for instance, really cerebral puzzlers that you can only solve a certain way, and that you can’t really replay, are just not as popular as infinitely replayable mechanics that don’t require a ton of deep thought.

RPS - Which was actually more successful: Peggle or Bejeweled?
JK - In monetary terms, Bejeweled is certainly still our flagship, having been around for more than 5 years now, while Peggle is relatively new. Peggle’s certainly gathered a lot more attention over the last year, though. Five years from now maybe Peggle will be bigger than Bejeweled.

It is very difficult to quantify success – either in monetary terms or otherwise. Bejeweled is PopCap’s flagship franchise and put us on the map as a founding father of casual games. Peggle, on the other hand, is relatively new to the PopCap stable and is quickly putting us out there as an industry innovator. Both monikers are hugely flattering – and important to us as a company going forward. Five years from now we may look back and discover that Peggle is bigger than Bejeweled… but it’s far too early to tell at this point!

RPS - To more avid gamers, you're most known as the Peggle company. Does that bother you at all? Are there others games in your stable you feel deserve a similar profile?
JK - We would argue that most consumers, even hardcore gamers, continue to recognize PopCap more for Bejeweled – and to some extent, even Zuma – than for Peggle, given that Peggle’s only been on the market for 11 months. The fact is, hardcore gamers are just more devoted gamers; they WILL play casual games if given the opportunity. We hear from hardcore gamers all the time who say that they play Bejeweled or Chuzzle or others of our games between sessions of Halo or WoW or etc. As far as ‘twitch-type’ games, Heavy Weapon and Hammer Heads are both fun, fast gaming experiences that anyone, hardcore gamers included, can enjoy. Beyond those, it’s largely about personal preference; someone who finds Peggle boring may well fall in love with Zuma or Bookworm, and vice versa.

RPS - To what extent do you work addiction theory into your games? Are there known methods and tweaks to keep people playing, or does it come organically from making a fun game?
JK - There are some tricks and shortcuts we’ve learned… like, always have sound cues of rising pitch associated with combos, and never award points in increments of less than 10. These are often non-intuitive little things that just work with gamer psychology for some reason. But beyond a few things like that, it becomes a black art rather than a science. Everyone has theories about what makes a game fun, or can revisit a successful game in retrospect and analyze it, but if it were really that simple to understand the elements of what makes a great game, everyone would be cranking them out like popcorn, and that just isn’t the case. It comes down to a lot of trial and error, abandoned prototypes, and trying different things until you find something that’s fun.

RPS - How important is humour to your games? Do you consider it a necessity?
JK - It depends on the game. There’s not much room for humour in Bejeweled, for example… that’s a game that’s almost math-like in its purity, and jokes or funny animals would just clutter it up. On the other hand for titles like Peggle or Bookworm Adventures we definitely try to incorporate as much wit as we can without causing problems. We hate games with extended cutscenes you end up skipping through, so we try to avoid that syndrome in our own titles.

Occasionally we’ve run into problems with this. Peggle, for instance, is very tongue-in-cheek with the inclusion of all the rainbows and unicorns, but some people don’t quite get that. Similarly, our game Heavy Weapon was intentionally done as an over-the-top 1980’s style shooter, complete with lots of Reagan-era jingoism and anti-Soviet gags, but some people again just took it as completely straight, like we were these slathering extreme-right warmongers.

RPS - Do you have writers for games like Peggle and Bookworm Adventures, or does all the dialogue and humour come from other guys on the team?
JK - We do have a dedicated writer, like Steve Notley, a cartoonist who does Bob the Angry Flower… he did a lot of the dialog for Peggle and Bookworm Adventures. But a lot of the gags come from other people on the team as well, programmers, artists, producers, whoever. It’s usually a communal process.

RPS - What size team tends to develop a Popcap game? Do they tend to be large collaborative efforts or just a couple of guys?
JK - While it depends on the specific project, teams tend to be small to begin with – ramping up to the entire PopCap company as time goes on! For instance, with Peggle there was a core team of five people. But then we also had lots of great input from our QA team - and the rest of the PopCap staff throughout the project. So depending on how you look at it, you could say 5 people created Peggle, or you could say 150 people were involved!

RPS - Do you feel Popcap could ever go beyond puzzle games without alienating any of its existing audience?
JK - Sure, although having some amount of puzzle-oriented activity is pretty fundamental to our games. A ‘casual’ RPG is certainly doable, but a bit outside our core strengths and audience. A few of our games, like Heavy Weapon and Hammer Heads, are not puzzle-based at all; they’re strictly action-oriented. But they tend to appeal to a somewhat narrower audience, so they’re the exception and not the rule in terms of our focus.

Lots of people at PopCap are fans of other genres, from MMOs to shooters, and occasionally we’re tempted by something in that direction. But on the other hand, there are a lot of people already making games in those areas, so you’re really jumping into some hotly contested grounds there.

RPS - Do you ever feel like you're blazing a trail, giving credibility back to puzzle games?
JK - As far as we’re concerned, puzzle games never lost any credibility. I think the resurgence you’re seeing now with things like the Wii and casual games in general is really just the natural state of things… as with computers and the internet, their early phases were dominated by geeky hardcore early-adopter types, but later they became much more mass market and universal in their use and acceptance. Why shouldn’t video games be the same way? It makes no sense for them to remain a ghetto exclusively for twenty-something males who like shooting imaginary aliens.

RPS -You're known for snapping up other casual gaming studios – what specific qualities do you look for in someone you're thinking of buying?
JK - We need to feel they’re bringing something to the table we couldn’t do ourselves, and that they’re in sync with us on our general philosophy… that making great, accessible games is the #1 priority, after which everything else will hopefully fall in line.

RPS - Do you see Popcap continuing to develop its own games for the foreseeable future, or is the distribution arm of the company more important?
JK - PopCap is primarily a casual games developer. We don’t focus on publishing other people’s games. That said, a small number of our games are co-development efforts that an external developer brought to us in a playable stage, which we helped refine and polish, and then published and marketed.

While our business is focused entirely on developing and publishing casual games, the channels through which our games are distributed, sold and consumed are evolving and multiplying rapidly. Our games are now found at retail, via Web download, on mobile devices of every kind, as in-flight entertainment on leading airlines, even as scratch-off lottery tickets.

RPS - Game developers are always complaining about their ambitions leading to "feature creep"; is that a problem for PopCap?
JK - Yes, to some extent we’re prone to the same trap as other game developers, adding bells and whistles just for the sake of it. But we really do focus on FUN first and foremost, and at the end of the day, it’s not too difficult to spot the features that have been added with fun as a secondary or tertiary motive…and those usually get cut from the final version of the game.

RPS - Conversely, do you ever feel penned in by the limits of puzzle gaming? How tough is it to brainstorm a new game that isn't too similar to what you've done before?
JK - We believe there are still infinite game archetypes and entire game genres yet to be imagined and built in the casual games space – and, in some ways, we feel Peggle proves that. On the surface, a game based on pool and pachinko might not sound compelling but yet, the response Peggle has received has been astounding – and beyond what even we at PopCap could have imagined possible.

RPS - What can we expect from Peggle Nights? Is it primarily more Peggle levels and powers, or will there be significant changes to the game itself?
JK - Peggle Nights will be a pretty straightforward ‘sequel’ to the original Peggle, with the primary points of appeal being dozens and dozens of new levels, one additional power-up/Peggle master, and some new kinds of challenges. Beyond that, Peggle Nights will appeal to existing Peggle fans because it will expand on the personalities of the Peggle Masters… each Master will ‘host’ 5 new levels that reflect that Master’s personality – in a dream-like context.

RPS - Can you tell us anything about this mystery zombie game?
JK - PopCap has a few core policies – one of these is not to talk about future games and another is not to ship games until we are 100% happy with them. So, unfortunately I can’t put you out of your misery – or even give you a firm indication of when I can. You’ll just have to watch this space...

Thanks, PopCap. Thopcap.

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