GDC 2011: Jason Kapalka postmortem covers the origins of PopCap and its biggest blockbuster, from an ill-fated stab at pornography to a casual gaming icon.
Who was there: PopCap cofounder and chief creative officer Jason Kapalka delivered a postmortem on his company's original cash cow Bejeweled, which has sold 50 million copies since its debut.
What they talked about: Kapalka opened with an admission that he was a bit nervous leading up to the session. When considering the games and creators involved in the other Game Developers Conference postmortems, he said he felt like Justin Bieber receiving a lifetime achievement award. However, there was one scheduled postmortem that made him feel a bit better about the situation: Marble Madness.
"No offense to Mark Cerny or anything, but I hate Marble Madness," Kapalka said. However, he did mention that at his local arcade, someone had spilled soda on the game's trackball, making for a sub-optimal interface.
In 2001, Kapalka said the typical response to his saying that he made Bejeweled was "So what?" Now he says the response is more along the lines of, "B******* you did." The game has achieved an odd sort of ubiquity in our culture, but it started in a pretty humble way.
Kapalka had been working at Total Entertainment Network in the late '90s, and it was his job to wine and dine the future cofounders of PopCap, John Vechey and Brian Fiete, to get their game ARC (Attack Retrieve Capture) onto TEN. He thought they were clever and kept in touch until 2000, when they all decided they were sick of their jobs and quit to form a new company: Sexy Action Cool. Kapelka said the name was pulled from a tagline for the movie Desperado. It also helped that the URL was available.
The company's first game was Foxy Poker, which Kapelka described as "our ill-fated venture into pornography." The idea was to make a strip poker game and sell the engine to porn companies to fund the games they wanted to make. However, the team couldn't bring themselves to depict full nudity, choosing instead to use Austin Powers-like obstructions to cover up naughty bits. It didn't do that well, which taught them the lesson that you can't be half-sleazy. It's all or nothing.
The other thing they learned is that when you incorporate a company as Sexy Action Cool, the name will haunt you for a while. As a Canadian, Kapalka had a work visa that said he was employed by an Internet company named Sexy Action Cool, which caused some misunderstandings from time to time.
Kapalka said he wanted to improve on the game, which used nothing but flat colored squares. He wanted things with different colors and shapes. He tried fruits at first, but they didn't seem to work well. Fruits were mostly round, and it was difficult to find seven distinct colors of fruit, Kapalka said. Geometric shapes worked better, but lacked visual appeal. Kapalka settled on geometric shapes with gem-like facets on them, which worked exceedingly well.
Kapalka's critical "mistake," he said, was leaving an untimed tutorial level in the original game. The actual game had a timer on it because they thought that was what made the challenge apparent, but they found players loved the pressure-free tutorial level. That became the classic untimed version of Bejeweled, making the mistake a fortuitous one for PopCap.
One of the early complaints levied against Bejeweled was that it "wasn't really a game." Design experts told Kapalka that Bejeweled was more a game of luck than skill because players had little control as to when their game actually ended. He ignored that advice, reasoning that games of luck can't be that bad if his mom enjoys them. He also pointed to Solitaire as one exceedingly successful game driven almost entirely by luck.
Failing to sell the game or get any kind of investment was also a positive hiding as a negative. Kapalka wanted to make his money by selling game after game to publishers, but PopCap couldn't find a buyer for Bejeweled. Instead, Microsoft agreed to lease the game for a time, leaving the eventually highly lucrative ownership rights with the studio.
As for what actually went wrong, Kapalka said he decided to name all the games he worked on after Canadian classic rock bands and their songs. "Diamond Mine" was a song by Blue Rodeo, while the follow-up, "Big Money," got its name from a Rush song. Microsoft could be credited for renaming Bejeweled, Kapalka said. The company offered them a bunch of names to choose from, and Kapalka "really hated" one name in particular: Bejeweled. The Brendan Fraser movie Bedazzled was in theaters at the time, and Kapalka loathed the idea that his game would be an instantly dated pop culture reference.
The other reason he hated that was an interview with the defunct gaming site Old Man Murray, which insisted on calling the game "BeJewed" and asking him what he had against the Jews. Before long he couldn't see the name Bejeweled without thinking of the interview accusations.
There was a price for using Microsoft's name, however, and that was that Microsoft would be allowed to put sponsored versions of the game up on its sites whenever it wanted to. The result was versions of Bejeweled sponsored by Tyson chicken, the American pork board, and Purina dog food.
Bejeweled originally had a mining theme, Kapalka said, but most people didn't notice it. Despite that, he believed that games needed a strong, coherent theme. Sometimes that worked well (as with Bookworm), but other times it didn't. Originally, Peggle was called Thunderball and had a Norse mythology theme with Thor trying to take his pet goat back to Asgard.
PopCap went on to other games after launching Bejeweled, but the game's popularity started to draw their attention back with continued success. However, the advertising market was collapsing, and Microsoft wasn't offering them as much money to lease the game. Kapalka said they went and created Bejeweled Deluxe in response, even though they weren't sure people would buy the game if they could play it online for free. While Kapalka thought it could sell as a downloadable game for $2.99, he was convinced to put a $19.99 tag on it because, "If you sell it for $2.99, it's crap. If you sell it for $19.99, they'll know it's good."
The development time for the original Bejeweled was less than a month, with the Deluxe edition taking up three months. At the time, Kapalka said that was considered an especially long development cycle for their business model. However, development times got considerably longer, with Bejeweled 2 taking about two years, and Bejeweled Twist nearly three years.
The team added a number of other pieces for Bejeweled 2, including power gems, bombs, and spiky boulders that couldn't be matched. They found it made things different, but not more fun or better than the original. Since then, they've set the requisite that if they add anything to Bejeweled over the years, they want it to be something everyone would agree is an improvement; it couldn't result in customers asking if they could play it with the older rules
Kapalka noted that more time in development doesn't necessarily make for a better game. Bejeweled Twist was a good game in and of itself, Kapalka said, but it wasn't so well received by fans of the previous Bejeweled games.
After Twist, PopCap moved to make Bejeweled for the iPhone. The small screen and the complicated playfield resulted in some accuracy issues at first, but the developers instituted "fat finger detection." If a player tries to make a bad match in a part of the screen, the game considers what possible matches in that area of the screen was probably intended, and makes that move instead. It's a subtle effect, he said, but it helped greatly overall.
The development cycles were shortening around this time. Moving onto 2009's Bejeweled Blitz, Kapalka said the game was up and running within three months. However, with Facebook games like that, it's not a "fire and forget" development process. Creators need to provide an ongoing service, so there are still people working on Bejeweled Blitz.
For last year's Bejeweled 3, Kapalka said it was "maybe one of the last gasps of our old development process," which involved discrete games instead of ongoing services. The game spent two years in development, and Kapalka said it got back to the basics of what people liked about Bejeweled and left behind the things from Bejeweled Twist that didn't go over so well.
Looking forward to the future of the franchise, Kapalka said there's a popular drinking game at the PopCap offices called Bejeweled Blitz Carnage. All players in the game start a one-minute iPhone Bejeweled Blitz game simultaneously. At the end, subtract the lowest score from the highest score. For every 10,000-point difference, the loser must take a drink. Kapalka said the drinking part might not show up in PopCap's next game, but he was interested in the way the geolocation aspect of the game might bring people together outside their normal gaming haunts.
In the audience question section of the game, Kapalka was asked about Bejeweled clones, specifically Puzzle Quest. He said he's not thrilled with the knockoffs that don't add anything, but added he loved Puzzle Quest because it brought something new to the formula.
Quote: "Part of the thing we do at PopCap is try to make sure things are simple but fun. One of the things that turns out is that simplicity often takes longer than complexity."--Kapalka, on why the Bejeweled sequels took so long to make.
Takeaway: Bejeweled may seem like a simple puzzle game, but PopCap has put plenty of thought into making the game not just a hit, but a classic.