Update: Valve's Doug Lombardi told Joystiq: "As a point of clarification, this is probably better categorized as Valve hiring two new employees instead of an acquisition of a company or opening of a Valve SF office."
Original: Valve Time are reporting that the two-man operation Star Filled Studios have been bought by Valve, and will be heading up a new office based in San Francisco.
According to the LinkedIn profile of Star Filled's Tod Semple, a former programmer for PopCap, "my recent startup was acquired by Valve and we are opening a new office on the San Francisco peninsula."
Star Filled Studios is comprised of Tod, who has previously worked at Blizzard and LucasArts, and Jeff Gates, who did work on Maxis' Spore and Blizzard's Diablo 3. Both then worked together at PopCap.
Valve's plans for the company are still a mystery. While Star Filled Studios never announced what they were working on, their website states, "our games are made to be playable by everyone and available on iPhone, Steam and many different platforms."
The last company acquired by Valve was Turtle Rock Studios, who made Left 4 Dead before being rolled into Valve's Bellevue HQ. Turtle Rock have since reopened, now independent of Valve.
Today's "say it ain't so" news involves PopCap releasing about 50 employees at its Seattle offices and investigating the shaky future of its Dublin, Ireland branch. Now, PopCap co-founder John Vechey took to the keyboard with an official blog post explaining the decision with unusual clarity.
"In the past year, we’ve seen a dramatic change in the way people play and pay for games," Vechey wrote. "Free-to-play, social and mobile games have exploded in popularity. That happened fast. Surprisingly so. The change in consumer tastes requires us to reorganize our business and invest in new types of games on new platforms. It’s a completely different world from when we started."
"There’s also an economic component to the reorganization. To stay in business, we need to manage costs, improve efficiency, and maintain a profit. We’ve been able to invest in creative new games like Peggle and Plants vs. Zombies because we had a high profit business. That business is challenged, and if we don’t adapt, we won’t be able to invest in new IP. That sounds harsh -- but if we don’t stay in business, no more plants, zombies, jewels, frogs, or worms."
Vechey later tweeted a followup thought to the employee departures, saying, "PopCap's leadership, especially and including myself, are the only ones culpable for this sad news."
We're saddened by the layoffs at PopCap. It's refreshing, however, to see a developer breaking bad news with such candor, rather than burying it in an obfuscating haze of corporate jargon.
Did you enjoy Plants vs. Zombies? We did, very much. It was a dark drama about sunflowers plopping out light beads in the shadow of hordes of hungry undead, some of them wearing speedos. Expect more strangeness spring next year when the zombies return with new strategies designed to undo your home grown garden defences. There are no real details yet, but unlike most of EA's other games at the moment, it doesn't seem to be made in the Frostbite engine, as far as we know. Hooray! The screenshot above is from Plants vs. Zombies 1.
“Spring is crullest curlie ungood time, and plantz grow dull roots,” a zombie told PopCap's press department. “So, we are meating you for brainz at yore house. No worry to skedule schedlue plan… we're freee anytime. We'll find you.” What a polite young zombie.
The PC Gamer Word Dungeon hasn't stopped echoing the phrase "What Diablo class are you playing?" for months. It's a constant inquiry. We talked about it at length at the end of last week's podcast. A few of us still haven't made up our minds. With precious time left to make a decision (and hopefully helping you to relieve the same burden), we bugged some developers. We asked Notch, Runic Games, Blizzard themselves, and others: what're you rollin'?
BLIZZARD Barbarian - Jay Wilson, Diablo III Game Director “Because no one in Diablo III breaks things better! Being a Barbarian is leaping into the thick of the fighting, being tough enough to take as good as you get, and never being afraid of anything.“
What classes are other Blizzard devs rolling? Read here.
RUNIC GAMES (creators of Torchlight II) Witch Doctor - Max Schaefer, CEO, Runic Games "I'm rolling a Witch Doctor because it's the weirdest class. I usually end up just wanting to mash things, so I'll go Barbarian eventually, but my first will be a Witch Doctor for sure."
Barbarian - Travis Baldree, President, Runic Games "I was going to say a Wizard, but who am I kidding. I'm going to have to take a Barbarian out first time. Smashing things until they aren't things anymore is a special pleasure, and I really, really like axes."
MOJANG (creators of Minecraft, duh) Demon Hunter - Markus "Notch" Persson "Surely the best way to fight the hordes of hell is to not even get close to them? Thankfully loot is individual, so I might actually get some equipment this time."
SONY ONLINE (creators of PlanetSide 2, EverQuest) Monk - John Smedley, President, Sony Online Entertainment “I’m going Monk. I love the hand-to-hand combat and getting up close and personal. I’m also going to see how many hours I can stay up and play! I’ll be on at midnight for sure!”
POPCAP (creators of Solitaire Blitz, Plants vs. Zombies, rainbows) Monk - John Vechey, PopCap Co-Founder and Franchise Studio Director "I am the Monk. Why? Because monks are the most fun in any RPG. They're all like 'I PUNCH ZEN THROUGH YOUR S$&*!'"
Barbarian - Jeff Green, PopCap Editorial and Social Media Director "My go-to in Diablo 2 was the Necromancer, who had his undead minions do the killing for him while he sat around and counted his money. I was part of the Diablo 1%. But, like John, I too like hitting things, and the Barbarian in Diablo 3 has a satisfying bone-crunching fury to him. Honestly, though, I'll play the game all the way through with every class, because I'm just that sad."
ACTIVISION Monk - Dan Amrich, Social Media Manager "I loved the Amazon in Diablo II, so the Demon Hunter looks great...but since it's a female avatar and my wife likes her characters to be representative, she's probably going to claim that instead. So I'll probably go for the Monk—I play rogues in WoW, so this matches well with my preference for fast, devastating melee attacks. And who knows, maybe I'll finally learn how to heal."
UBER ENTERTAINMENT (creators of Super Monday Night Combat) Monk - Chandana "Eka" Ekanayake, Art Director and Executive Producer "I gotta go with Monk for his lightning quick reflexes and bare-knuckled-spirit-powered fists of whoop-assness. Playing Monk is the closest you can get to experiencing the soul glow power of Bruce Leroy. It's the proper choice."
Wizard - John Comes, Creative Director "I'm going to play a Wizard because I like money, and power, and he's got both. And you know it."
GASLAMP GAMES (creators of Dungeons of Dredmor) Witch Doctor or Wizard - Nicholas Vining, Technical Director, Lead Programmer "It's a toss-up between Witch Doctor and Wizard. On the one hand, I'm a sucker for voodoo references; on the other hand, there's a lot to love about time manipulation. The ideal solution is that the game industry stops discriminating against voodoo practitioners and gives them access to time manipulation magic, but until that day comes we'll have to make tough decisions."
GAS POWERED GAMES (creators of Age of Empires Online) Barbarian - Chris Taylor, CEO and Founder "Sadly my answer is Barbarian, because you have to be a Barbarian in real life to raise 4 boys. When I was in the beta, I played Barbarian too. You’d think I would want to reach out, try something new. My experimentation years are behind me now; I just want to smash monsters in the mouth and grab the loot."
HI-REZ STUDIOS (creators of Tribes: Ascend) Demon Hunter - Scott Zier, Lead Designer, Tribes: Ascend "I'll start with the Demon Hunter. I'm a big fan of the agility and speed, and ranged DPS is kind of my thing."
Wizard - Joe Rougeux, Senior Software Engineer, Tribes: Ascend "Definitely gonna start out with a Wizard, stacking MF to get geared up for Inferno!"
Wizard - Sean McBride, Art Director, Tribes: Ascend "The Wizard. I love the utility that the class brings to the table in a group setting. Her awesome ability to nuke huge groups of enemies at once also is a big draw for me."
Monk - Adam Moore, Sr. Artist, Tribes: Ascend "The Monk. His combination of both agile DPS and support abilities make him a cornerstone of the group play."
PopCap are going head to head with the X-Factor this Christmas. Crazy Dave aka. Cray-Z is the talent behind Wabby Wabbo. It's available to buy through iTunes now. Purchases registered between December 18 and December 24 will count towards Wabby Wabbo's Christmas chart rankings. PopCap mention that "approximately 55p of each 79p purchase" will go to the Concern Worldwide charity.
PopCap point out that Wabby Wabbo "is believed to be the first hip-hop single ever released to feature a yodelling solo by a Yeti zombie." It may also be the first hip-hop single ever released to contain just five real words ("heeey, gonna eat your braains"), and is probably the first to be performed by an animated character wearing a saucepan on his head. The official music video is above, which means you've probably heard it by now. What do you think?
Following the news that PopCap has been purchased by EA. We've decided to bring you a feature on the mammoth casual games developer that originally ran in PC Gamer UK issue 220.
Sitting on the floor of Benaroya Hall in Seattle, I’m depressed as hell. I’ve come to the Casual Connect Conference 2010 to hear the makers of casual and social games share their ideas, but in three days of lectures I haven’t heard a single idea about games.
Instead they’re talking about how designers don’t matter. They’re talking about how psychological tricks can turn their audience into zombies. They’re talking about how to use metrics to better monetise your mum. This isn’t just the industry’s business men and women talking, either; these are the people who actually make the games. At a point in history when a new and huge mainstream audience is trying computer games for the first time, our ambassadors aren’t interested in talking about how to make something fun.
The scene couldn’t have been more different three days earlier, just a few blocks away from Benaroya Hall at PopCap’s headquarters. They’ve been playing Risk with their office space for the past ten years, starting with just a couple of desks and expanding through their skyscraper in all directions. They showed me the workmen putting the finishing touches to their most recently conquered floor, where every wall is coated with IdeaPaint. It turns every surface into a whiteboard. Designers, programmers and artists will hole up inside each room for years – as long as it takes to make something great – and will literally cover the walls with game ideas.
Since 2000, PopCap have grown from three guys working from their homes to an employer of hundreds with offices in Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Dublin and Shanghai. Along the way they’ve made some of the most successful and beloved games on the PC: from Bejeweled to Peggle to Plants vs Zombies.
I came to Seattle not to be depressed, but to speak to the founders and designers of PopCap. Who are they? What makes them tick? How did they get to be so huge, and where are they going? What is the secret behind this very silly company? Like so many great stories, it starts with a game of strip poker.
In 2000, John Vechey, Brian Fiete and Jason Kapalka left their jobs at large online gaming companies to start their own. It wasn’t going well. The idea was to create browser games and make money from ads, but the dotcom bubble had burst and their first game was garnering complaints.
The game was Foxy Poker. “This is not in our corporate histories,” admits Jason Kapalka. “We thought, ‘We can do this thing, then we can sell it and take the money to do whatever.’ But we were still trying to do this advertising stuff where they wouldn’t allow nudity, so there was always some object interposed. There’s no actual nudity. We did get a lot of complaints because you had to play a long time to get to the final stage of undress, and when you did there were some vases and things.”
If strip poker seems an odd fit for PopCap, keep in mind that their company was called Sexy Action Cool. The name was taken from a Rolling Stone review quote for the movie Desperado: ‘Antonio Banderas is the ultimate in sexy action cool.’
PopCap’s history is filled with discarded names.
“It was a pretty good strip poker game,” says Jason, “But we found we didn’t really have the heart to deal with any of the porn companies because they were just too scummy. We abandoned our short-lived effort to be a company like that.”
Their first success came in the form of their next game: Diamond Mine. Today it’s called Bejeweled.
“I’d seen a game that used some similar rulesets to Bejeweled,” says John Vechey. “But there was no animation, no sound effects, and they had very indifferent rules. We simplified it and changed it and then I sent a link out, Brian did a version that was just circles, and then Jason added the gem graphics. So it was three days of boom, boom, boom. And then we had it.”
Is this just another case of a casual game developer making a derivative dollar? Sort of. Bejeweled certainly wasn’t the first of its kind, as John admits. The first match-three PC game seems to be Shariki, a 1994 DOS game by a Russian programmer called Eugene Alemzhin. On top of that core concept, Bejeweled added a timer and bonus points, but PopCap’s largest contribution was polish. Even in its most basic version, Bejeweled is testament to the human mind’s ability to be endlessly entertained by things that tinkle.
Struggling to make their advertising model work in the short-term, they tried to sell Bejeweled outright for $60,000 to EA. EA said it wasn’t even really a game. They turned to MSN Games, offering it for $30,000. Microsoft said no.
But they had a different idea. “Microsoft said they would do a licensing fee for $1,500 dollars a month,” says John. “We had two games at the time, we had Bejeweled and our second game, Alchemy. $1,500 a month times two is $3,000 a month. If we get about ten of these we’re actually OK, right? And our third game we licensed exclusively for $10,000 a month.”
Licensing instead of selling the game outright meant that they weren’t losing complete control. While Diamond Mine appeared on the MSN Games portal, they could also put it on their own site. The founders realised they needed a more public face, and that meant a company name that better matched their intended audience. They settled on the lid to a bottle of soda: a pop cap. PopCap was officially born.
“We ended up not being a great business, but for three guys it was OK. But then Bejeweled experienced disproportionate success to any money we were making, I think it was getting 50-60,000 peak users during the day. A lot of people were playing it, and it took a while for us to find the financial success behind that.”
They found it by offering a premium version of the game. You could play Bejeweled for free at any number of online portals – you still can, even sometimes still named Diamond Mine – but if you liked it, you could grab a downloadable version. After an hour’s trial, you could pay $20 to unlock it.
“Now we were making $30-40,000 a month just from that one downloadable version on our website,” says John. It provided stability for the company.
Rather than trying to build on that stability and grow the company, the founders were more concerned with having and making fun.
“Brian and I moved to Argentina for a couple months,” says John. “We were making money and we wanted to learn Spanish, and they had good steak and wine and we could work there.” At the time, PopCap still didn’t have an office. The three of them worked from home.
“We were having fun. We were making games. We’d spend four days playing Counter-Strike,” says John. “Well, Brian and I would spend four days playing Counter-Strike and lie to Jason. We’d tell him what we were working on was really hard. He didn’t understand technology at the time.”
Given such humble origins, it’s important to put the game’s success into perspective. Bejeweled has now sold over 25 million copies, and the series as a whole – which includes Bejeweled 2, Bejeweled Twist and Bejeweled Blitz – has sold over 50 million. It is a gaming juggernaut.
When their first office opened in 2002, they focused on hiring artists and other game designers. “We didn’t want to be anything more than a game developer. That was really the focus,” says John. They contracted George Fan – who would later make Plants vs Zombies – as employee number five. Sukhbir Sidhu, the designer of Peggle, was employee number eight.
“The first conversation I had with Jason when I talked about coming to work for PopCap, we talked about the kinds of games they wanted to make,” says Sukhbir. “I actually mentioned pachinko at that time.”
Pachinko is a Japanese sensation. The player fires a ball up into the machine as in pinball, and the ball then cascades back down, striking dozens of small pegs as it falls. There are no flippers to send it back up, but if it falls in certain pockets at the bottom, it triggers a jackpot that drops more balls. The balls that are won are then exchanged for tokens that can be traded for prizes.
Sukhbir had played a Godzilla pachinko machine that Jason had in his apartment in San Francisco. “It was really mesmerising and I couldn’t believe how fun it was. That experience always stayed with me,” says Sukhbir.
“The problem was it was all luck. The fun in pachinko is the gambling aspect of it – the thrill of it – even though it’s mesmerising it’s hard to get that same feeling in a game.”
Real development didn’t begin until 2004, when a coder at PopCap named Brian Rothstein developed a simple 2D physics engine. The talk quickly turned back to pachinko. Sukhbir thought that if they merged it with pinball or billiards, they could mix luck with skill.
“Brian created an editor that allowed us to create any kind of game like that. It was a 2D physics editor with bouncy ball physics, and we could put all sorts of objects in the game – we could put flippers there, we could do the shooter. So we ended up spending about three or four months prototyping different game ideas that were very pachinko-like, or very pinball like, or in-between. We were trying to find something that was fun, accessible, and simple."
Experimentation is key to everything PopCap do. For those first months, it was just Sukhbir and Brian working on the game – though John Vechey contributed a couple of prototypes. They’d try out some ideas, invite the entire company to play it, solicit feedback, and then iterate. I’ve yet to find another casual game developer that works that way.
“Jason was at Pogo.com and felt they weren’t making very good games because they were very structure oriented,” says John. “At Pogo to this day a game designer can do a prototype, but once they get a prototype they have to write a design doc that has every element and game design choice already made. Then a programmer programs it, and then the artist does the art.”
By comparison, Peggle was in a constant state of flux. “We got to a point where it was fun, but it was overly twitchy,” says Sukhbir. After that, “we stepped back and simplified it and had some spinning crosses instead of pegs. but it was impossible to anticipate where the ball was going to bounce.” And then, “We changed it to pegs, but it was always super frustrating.” Finally, “What if it was just 25 pegs you had to hit? I wonder if that would be fun.”
It was. Peggle finally took form after “about 300 variants.”
Four months in, with the concept now finished, they did the obvious thing: they spent another three years working on it. While they had their idea and it was fun, what they didn’t have was a theme. They had unicorn artwork on the main menu, and Ode To Joy played when you won a game, but obviously these were just placeholders. Keeping those things in would just be silly. What the game really needed was a Thor theme. And to be called Thunderball.
The idea was to mimic the artwork of pinball tables with Norse gods, oak wood, and fire. “50 levels of frost giants,” says Sukhbir.
Eventually they realised the charm of the original placeholder art. The design ethos became to “embrace the randomness.” The unicorn and rainbows stayed. They added a cast of other, equally bizarre characters. When the name Thunderball no longer fit, they changed it. To Pego.
PopCap’s history is filled with discarded names.
It was released as Peggle in 2007 after a development process almost entirely undertaken by a team of three, and found success with both casual game players and some of the hardcore. The latter came in part because of Peggle Extreme, where you cleared levels decorated with images of Half-Life characters. It was bundled on Steam alongside Half-Life 2: Episode Two, Portal and Team Fortress 2.
“We were worried when we did the Half-Life thing, because nobody really knew how these Orange Box buyers were going to respond,” says Jason. “Some of the comments we got afterwards were, ‘This is the gayest game I have ever seen, yet I cannot stop playing it.’”
“If you look at Peggle the wrong way it looks like something that’s been designed by a gang of idiots for their idea of a five-year-old.”
If Peggle softened up traditional gamers, it was Plants vs Zombies that made them completely fall in love with PopCap.
The company’s fifth employee, George Fan, was hired as a freelancer to make a downloadable version of his game Insaniquarium, in which you feed fish and protect them from attacking aliens. He worked on it for PopCap at night and spent his days programming Diablo III for Blizzard. “I don’t suggest that anyone does programming during the day and then go home and do programming more during the night,” says George. “It’s just too much using the same part of the brain. And the same part of the wrists. My wrists got really, really messed up that year.”
When Insaniquarium was complete, PopCap convinced him to join fulltime. What became Plants vs Zombies started as Insaniquarium 2. “I’m not the type who just wants to do the same game again,” George explains, “so for Insaniquarium 2, I was kind of thinking that it would be, instead of a one-fish-tank game, it would be twice the fish tank.” A double-decker fish tank.
“I don’t know why that makes sense. The aliens would enter the top fish tank in hordes and they would attack your top fish, and if they broke through that they would get to your bottom fish tank. When they ate all your fish in the bottom fish tank the game would be over. The top fish tank was going to be defensive fish and depth charges, and the bottom tank was going to be the resource generator tank.”
It wasn’t Plants vs Zombies, but it’s not far away. Imagine that fish tank turned on its side.
It’s only after returning home, when I’m speaking to George on the phone, that it becomes clear why PopCap are the casual game developers we care about. It’s because they act like the very best of the traditional developers we’re used to. By working at Blizzard and PopCap, George has experienced both.
“I worked at two companies that let people take as long as they wanted to make their games,” he says, with the key difference being that the smaller teams of casual game development allow for greater experimentation. “I don’t think I’d be satisfied making games that everyone has played before. I think my job is to try to come up with some new experience for people to play. That happens in the hardcore industry, but it’s a tougher framework.”
But maybe still not as tough as working at other casual developers. “I think when you do metrics, they’re helpful, but I don’t think you can rely on them,” says George. “A lot of times they’ll use the metrics and they’ll keep the game mechanics that help them do the best business rather than the game mechanics that create the most fun experience.”
At his keynote speech at this year’s Penny Arcade Expo conference – an orgy of gaming love held at the same Benaroya Hall that houses Casual Connect – Deus Ex designer Warren Spector urged the gathering hardcore not to look down on casual game players.
He’s right. It’s not casual game players that we should be condemning, or the idea of approachable gaming experiences we can play at Facebook. It’s the companies making these games. Most of them are not worthy of our attention or care. PopCap are.
George puts it best: “I think that the reason people want to keep playing should be that they’re having a good time doing so. I think that’s the slope you go down as you start designing by metric: you might lose what’s truly fun about videogames.”
There are strong rumours flying around suggesting that EA are in the late stages of negotiating a deal to buy up PopCap for a massive ONE BILLION dollars. Edge picked up a report from TechCrunch, who have been approached by two unnamed sources who say that Electronic Arts are about to spend 13% of its stock market value to buy up the casual games developer.
PopCap are best known as the professional purveyors of casual gaming crack like Peggle, Bejeweled and Plants vs. Zombies. PopCap's official response to the rumours was to say that "Per company policy, we do not comment on rumours and speculation of this nature."
Joining EA would be an interesting move for PopCap, given that its founding members left casual game company Pogo to go independent, and Pogo was bought by EA soon afterwards in 2001. In fact, PopCap CEO John Vechey told us that PopCap tried to sell their breakout game, Bejeweled to EA when they were starting out for $60,000. "They said no, thank goodness!" said Vechey.
In the ten years since then, PopCap have gone from strength to strength, and are now an international company with more than 400 employees. You can find out more about how PopCap was founded, and the stories behind their greatest games, like Bejeweled, Peggle and Plants vs. Zombies in our week of features on PopCap.
Popcap have revealed a "Social Edition" of the superb Plants vs. Zombies. The adaptation was handled by Popcap's Shanghai studio, and is launching on Chinese networking site Renren.com. There's no news of an English translation yet, sadly.
Read on for screens and the details.
The online adaptation lets you create your own personal town which reflects your choice of tactics. There'll be a Rampage mode that supplies a non-stop zombie attack, complete with leaderboards. It sounds as though Popcap are going for a similar vibe to their Facebook/iOS adaptation of Bejewelled Blitz - quick, competitive bursts of play through a browser.
We're intrigued by the weekly challenges, items, and zombies teased by Popcap, but the prospect of an online Zen Garden-esque town that your friends can come and visit is even more exciting. Upsettingly, Popcap have also confirmed that Plants vs. Zombies Social Edition will be exclusive to Renren.com for the time being. Boo to language barriers.
PopCap are holding a Thanksgiving winter sale, with all of their games selling for half price. That means a chance to scoop Plants vs Zombies, Peggle and Bejeweled 2 for almost $10 each.
The sale is set to run until November 29th over on the PopCap site. For an insight into inception and development of these games check out our interviews with George Fan on the making of Plants vs. Zombies, and Jason Kapalka on the inception on development of PopCap's most addictive opus, Peggle.
Yeah, we did just call Peggle an opus. Eat it, unicorn haters.
Over the weekend we ran a competition to take a screenshot of the coolest Plants vs Zombies garden you'd made, Zen or otherwise, with a massive haul of PvZ swag for the winner. Here are the best gardens we got, starting with the overall winner.
The Plants Vs Zombies award for Coolest Garden goes to:
kdfb, for his gorgeous and painstakingly made Marigold Rainbow
kdfb says: "It took me several revisions to find a working pattern that would allow me to include them all in order. Most frustrating moment: When my garden was half grown I discovered the cyan plant. Scrapped that pattern, had to start another. After that, I couldn't get too few cyan, and made it one of the longer rows. Happiest moment. Getting the final red marigold, the last piece in the puzzle."
He wins this magnificent maelstrom of plant- and zombie-related loot:
Some excellent sucking up by 747 with his PCG garden.
We admire the callous efficiency of kiran255's Money Maker lawn.
And the gleeful self-indulgence of SuperZambezi's Monogram garden.
And lastly, we love the cruel cleverness of auntydoris's Garlic Draughts.
Thanks to all who entered. We'll be announcing the winner of the Peggle giveaway soon.