Plants vs. Zombies GOTY Edition

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?
Plants vs. Zombies GOTY Edition
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 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.”
Bejeweled Deluxe
Bejeweled 3
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.
Plants vs. Zombies GOTY Edition
PVZ Thumbnail
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 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 for the time being. Boo to language barriers.

Bejeweled Deluxe

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.
Plants vs. Zombies GOTY Edition

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:

Honorable mentions

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.
Plants vs. Zombies GOTY Edition

A huge wave of zombie loot is approaching! To round out PopCap week, we'd like to give away a few more awesome prizes. If you like Plants vs Zombies as much as we do, take a screenshot of the coolest or most interesting garden you've made and post it on our forums. Our favourite will win this mega-pack of awesome loot, including one of the best gaming T-shirts ever, a zombie figurine, and a goddamn apron. Here's what else you get.

That haul in full:

Plants vs. Zombies apron

Plants vs. Zombies t-shirt (reads "Ask me about moustache mode")

Plants vs. Zombies XBOX Skin

Plants vs. Zombies iPhone skin

Zombie figurine

Plants vs. Zombies mouse mat

Plants vs. Zombies beverage holder

Plants vs. Zombies PC/MAC game

£30 of iTunes vouchers as both games

What you must do:

Take a screenshot of the coolest or most interesting garden you've made, post it in this thread on our forums, and tell us a bit about what it does or why you built it. If you're signed up to to comment, you're already signed up to our forums too, and you can upload images there.

Deadline: Any shots posted in that thread before 9AM GMT on Monday the 8th of November are eligible.

Tomorrow we'll have a similar give-away for Peggle fans. If you happen to pull off a particularly good shot between now and then, make sure you save the replay.
PC Gamer

PopCap Games are the creators of Bejeweled, Peggle and Plants vs. Zombies, each of them one of the biggest and most lovable games on PC. When casual and social games are reaching ever larger audiences and their developers are getting a bad reputation for poor design practices, how have PopCap managed to find fans amongst gamers and grannies alike? To find out, I visited the studio and interviewed everyone I could find. We're running those interviews each day this week and calling it PopCap Week.

Today I'm speaking to PopCap co-founder Jason Kapalka and the designer of Peggle, Sukhbir Sidhub. It's only now when looking back at the transcript that I realise there are long periods when I don't ask any questions. Jason and Sukhbir have worked together for years, and it shows. They talk away without my intervention, revealing details of PopCap's forgotten first release, a strip poker game called Foxy Poker, and follow it up by going into detail about the many variants of Peggle, including a Thor-themed version called Thunderball, and what would have happened if co-founder John Vechey's mum had been PopCap's accountant.

Jason Kapalka: You know the original name, right?

PC Gamer: I think it was Sexy Action Cool?

Jason Kapalka: Yeah. I don't know if you know the original product. Did they show you Foxy Poker?

PC Gamer: No.

Jason Kapalka: That's the PR person having a pained look on their face


Jason Kapalka: This is not in our corporate histories, but the first thing that we did was a strip poker game. Mostly just because we thought, “We can do this thing, then we can sell it and take the money to use to do whatever.”

It was more like strip video poker and in fact there wasn't actually any stripping. We were still trying to do this advertising stuff where they wouldn't allow nudity, so there was this awesome power stripping where there was always some object interposed. We did get a lot of complaints, because you had to play a long time to get enough tokens to get to the final stage of undress, and when you did there was some vases and things, so we got a lot of complaints that they'd just spent four hours.

It was a pretty good strip poker game if I do say so myself, but we found there was going to be a hard time doing anything with it because 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. We then did Bejeweled and after that, yeah, started licensing games to Microsoft, primarily, and a few other companies.

PC Gamer: Did you have in your heads the type of game that you wanted to make at that point?

Jason Kapalka: The strip poker game seemed like a way to get some starting money, but the kind of games we were planning on doing were always these web-based, simple puzzle games.

We ended up gravitating more to single player puzzle games, not necessarily because of choice, but because it was easier to sell, because the multiplayer stuff was a real pain in the butt to integrate. If you want to go to Microsoft with a multiplayer game it was really hard, because you had to work with their APIs.

We did actually do multiplayer games for the first couple of years at PopCap. Psychobabble is the coolest one, probably. A sort of competitive fridge magnet poetry. It was really fun and actually very funny, it was a laugh out loud hilarious often. We eventually took it down a few years back, not because it wasn't any good but because it was literally impossible to make it family friendly. No matter how many curse words or suggestive words you took out, people would find a way to make something filthy out of any possible configuration of words.

Sukhbir Sidhub: That was definitely half the fun of the game.

PC Gamer: At what point did you join the company?

Sukhbir Sidhub: I think it was June 2002. It was about a year or two after Bejeweled.

Jason Kapalka: Yeah, 2002, I guess. At that point I can't remember what employee number you were.

Sukhbir Sidhub: I think there were like seven other people, but I'm not quite sure. Pretty small office.

PC Gamer: I read your bio and you were number 8 I think.

Jason Kapalka: Sounds right. I mean, some of them were like John's mum was our accountant.

Sukhbir Sidhub: His aunt.

Jason Kapalka: Oh no, his Aunt. Sorry, that would be terrible!

Sukhbir Sidhub: (laughs) Yeah. I don't think we would be here now if John's mom was our accountant back then.

Jason Kapalka: Yeah, I think we'd all be in jail.

PC Gamer: Can you talk me through a little bit the development process for making Peggle?

Sukhbir Sidhub: The first conversation I had with Jason when I talked about coming up here to work for PopCap, we talked about the kinds of games they wanted to make. You know, casual games, games for a wide audience. I actually mentioned Pachinko at that time and we started talking about it just in that one conversation.

That was years before we even started Peggle, because I'd actually played a Pachinko game that Jason had at his apartment back in San Francisco. It was a Godzilla Pachinko machine, and it was awesome. It was really fun and it was mesmerising and I couldn't believe how fun it was and how addictive it was.

So that experience always stayed with me, but the problem with that was, it was all luck. It's hard to make a computer game, because the fun in Pachinko, in regular Pachinko, is the gambling aspect of it. Even though it's mesmerising, it's going to be hard to get that same feeling in a game. That was a problem

And then a few years later, one of our developers had been working on a simple 2D physics engine, and we started talking about the idea of a Pachinko or a pinball game, but we didn't really know what to do. We wanted to do some sort of Pachinko game and we needed some skills, so we were thinking maybe if it was somehow meshed with pinball.

We ended up spending about 3 or 4 months prototyping different game ideas. Some where very Pachinko like, some were very pinball like, some were in between, some were Breakout. We were trying to find something that was fun, accessible, simple, so we went all over the map for a few months.

PC Gamer: So over that three or four months, when did you start to know that you were hitting the right balance between Pachinko and pinball or, what was the breakthrough?

Sukhbir Sidhub: The prototypes I did were more luck based and random. The prototypes Brian did were more skill based, and there were good things and bad things about both.

We got to a point where it was really fun, but it was overly twitchy. It needed fast reflexes and we sort of said, this is fun, this could be a game, but we didn't know how accessible it was going to be.

We stepped back and simplified it and had some spinning crosses instead of pegs. We tried that and it was kind of fun, but we found that with spinning crosses it was impossible to really anticipate where the ball was going to bounce, it was just too random.

Then we changed it to pegs, and basically it was a game where you clear all the pegs. It was kind of fun, but it always had that problem where getting the last peg was super frustrating.

That's when we decided, well, what if it was just 25 pegs you had to hit? I wonder if that would be fun? After that one prototype when we had the 25 pegs, that was it pretty much. We were like, “You know, this is kinda fun.” We spent a few days on that, had a few people play it and felt like … that felt like it.

Jason Kapalka: Then there was a year or two of graphics and themes and names and all that stuff. There's about 300 Peggle variants.

Sukhbir Sidhub: Yeah, so many different ones. Even that prototype had some early themes of Peggle, the classical music and a unicorn in it, so even back then we had some ideas that ended up in the final version.

Jason Kapalka: A lot of those were placeholder, or at leas we thought it was. The Ode to Joy and the unicorn and the rainbow. They were all placeholder stuff that we sort of assumed would be changed, and at one point wasn't Thor supposed to be the star of Peggle?

Sukhbir Sidhub: There was one point, yeah. We were playing around with themes. Jason's very big on themes. At the time, I didn't disagree with that, but I didn't know what theme to put on this game. We'd just spent all this time trying to figure out what the mechanic would be.

Jason Kapalka: It was going to be Thor, and it was going to be called Thunderball.

Sukhbir Sidhub: Yeah, we tried that out and it just didn't work very well. It was a little forced and the art – it just wasn't coming together. And the artist wasn't really thrilled with that theme either. It didn't really play to his strength.

Jason Kapalka: 50 levels of frost giants.

Sukhbir Sidhub: Exactly, yeah. So we ended up backing off and doing something more whimsical and fun. That's was something I was more into. It really fit in with Walter Wilson, the artist, his style.

Jason Kapalka: As far as the theme went, it became its own theme. Sort of random.

Sukhbir Sidhub: Held together by randomness, pretty much.

Jason Kapalka: I don't know what the world of Peggle represents, but it didn't really need one.

Sukhbir Sidhub: At a certain point we had to make a decision about Ode to Joy and what Extreme Fever was. I'd thrown in, “Let's call it fever when you hit the final peg”, and I think Jason said “Let's call it Extreme Fever!”. And that sounds cool, so we called it Extreme Fever, and that's based on Pachinko games. At certain points in some Pachinko games you get the ball in a certain slot and it goes “Fever! Fever! Fever!” At that point it was completely random and we were like, “Should we really go with this because no-one's going to understand it?” and we decided to do that, and that's the point that we decided to...

Jason Kapalka: Embrace the randomness. Keep that unicorn in.

Sukhbir Sidhub: Yeah, keep basically all the crazy aspects of it, and try to make Extreme Fever as dramatic as possible. Because without it, it's a fun game, it's enjoyable but …

Jason Kapalka: If you're looking for a turning point, the point where we decided that the unicorn and the rainbow were not placeholder was the moment where we more comfortable with embracing humour in a game. Doing something that we think is funny, even if we weren't sure anyone would get the joke. Peggle has been embraced by hardcore players a bit, but, it wasn't really clear at the time that that would happen.

Sukhbir Sidhub: It took a little while, but really the Half Life 2 Peggle Extreme edition really helped change people's minds about Peggle.

Jason Kapalka: I remember we were quite worried when we did the Half Life thing, because nobody really knew how these Half Life Orange Box buyers were going to respond to this Peggle thing. It was strange because of some of the comments we'd gotten afterwards. I clearly remember one guy had written, “This is the gayest game I have ever seen, yet I cannot stop playing it”.

Sukhbir Sidhub: The difference was, before Peggle Extreme came out, people were saying, “This is the gayest game we've ever seen,”, but they weren't saying “but this is awesome.” Afterwards they were saying, “This is the gayest game I've ever seen … but it's awesome!

Jason Kapalka: Somehow the association with Half Life gave hardcore gamers permission to say, “Oh, it's affiliated with Half Life, it's got to be cool, it's not gay!”

Jason Kapalka: That kind of paved the way for Plants vs Zombies as well, the idea that we could get away with something a little more surreal or silly, and kind of trust that people would get the joke. 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. But it's not really pandering to five year olds. It's really just going for this surreal, zany look intentionally. We had to trust that people would get that.

PC Gamer: What was the Thor theme like?

Sukhbir Sidhub: I might have some pictures of it. It was pretty crap. We only did some explorations of it.

Jason Kapalka: It was very dark. Dark and dingy.

Sukhbir Sidhub: Yeah, it was dark and dingy with a lot of browns and dark colours.

Jason Kapalka: I think it was that Thor and his pet goat were travelling across Asgard or something, and the hammer was the shooter, or something like that?

Sukhbir Sidhub: Yeah. I really liked the name Thunderball for it, even before we had a theme, I thought it'd be kind of cool. Ultimately, we kept that name for a good chunk of the development, and at a certain point we said, “This doesn't feel like a game that's called Thunderball at all”. It was really tough. Then we picked Pego, P-E-G-O, and we were really happy with it, and it grew.

Jason Kapalka: And then, Pogo!

Sukhbir Sidhub: And then right at the end, a few weeks before we were going gold we hear that we can't use Pego because Pogo might complain. I think they did complain.

Jason Kapalka: I don't think they complained. We ran it past the trademark guys and the trademark guys said it could be a problem. Then, ironically, we rang Pogo up and asked if they would mind if we used it, and they said “We might”.

Sukhbir Sidhub: So then we had to change the name and that was really tough. In retrospect sounds like a great name, but at the time it was like “Peggle!? Ugh! That doesn't sound like Pego!”

Jason Kapalka: That's happened to a lot of games.

Sukhbir Sidhub: Pego sounds weird now.

Jason Kapalka: Plants vs. Zombies also had, I don't know if you heard this story on the name for that.

Sukhbir Sidhub: Oh boy.

Jason Kapalka: It started off called Plants vs Zombies.

Sukhbir Sidhub: It was a placeholder name. It felt like a placeholder name for everyone.

Jason Kapalka: Then its name changed. I can't remember who suggested it, but the name changed to Lawn of the Dead. And it was an awesome name. At some point though, someone decided to run it past the lawyers.

Sukhbir Sidhub: It always goes wrong when you run it by lawyers.

Jason Kapalka: I will say this for our lawyers in this case, the lawyers said, “You know, you're going to have trouble with the movie company that owns rights to Dawn of the Dead”, and we said, “But wait, it's a parody!” and they said “Yeah, maybe, but it's also commercial and making money and so you can have that argument, but you might be having that argument in court.” It would have sucked to have to go to court for it.

Sukhbir Sidhub: Everyone was really upset about that whole notion, so.

Jason Kapalka: George Fan even put together a video message of himself in zombie makeup to George Romero, begging him.

Sukhbir Sidhub: It's like, if the lawyers don't agree then maybe we can get George Romero to stand up.

Jason Kapalka: To intercede or something like that, because we thought, he let them do Shaun of the Dead, he's a cool guy. He wasn't cool about it.

Sukhbir Sidhub: We found some sort of agent there who knew Romero's agent, and passed it on through this chain of people who knew George Romero. And George Fan did this video, and it took him a long time to get it together, we spent a lot of time making this little video plea to George Romero and packaged it up, sent it, and we basically just heard back, “Not interested.” That was crushing.

Jason Kapalka: Though there was a point of justice, because just recently this year we heard from some publicity company that was representing George Romero's new zombie film Survival of the Dead, and they wanted to see if we could do some sort of cross promotion with that. At that point we had the pleasure of being able to say, “We think your brand might pollute our game, we're not interested”

Sukhbir Sidhub: I don't even know if George Romero ever actually saw it. The agent might have just seen it and said...

Jason Kapalka: It's entirely possible he didn't have anything to do with it.
Plants vs. Zombies GOTY Edition

PopCap Games are the creators of Bejeweled, Peggle and Plants vs. Zombies, each of them one of the biggest and most lovable games on PC. When casual and social games are reaching ever larger audiences and their developers are getting a bad reputation for poor design practices, how have PopCap managed to find fans amongst gamers and grannies alike? To find out, I visited the studio and interviewed everyone I could find. We're running those interviews each day this week and calling it PopCap Week.

Today I'm speaking to George Fan, the designer of Plants vs. Zombies. Alongside a ton of incredibly early sketches from the game's development, George talks about his time working for Blizzard and PopCap simultaneously, PvZ's origins as a double-decker fish tank, and why he dressed as a zombie for the director of Dawn of the Dead. Also, a few words from his cat.

PC Gamer: How did you join PopCap?

George Fan: A long, long time ago I had this prototype for a Java game about a fish tank where aliens attack it. It ended up turning into Insaniquarium. My ambitions were simple, I just wanted to enter it into the Independent Games Festival, and that was 2002. At the time I was working at an online games company, and as part of my job I felt I had to do research on competing companies. I stumbled upon PopCap and thought, “These games are all really good.” I think back then they had Bejeweled, Money Maze and Seven Seas. So I sent an email telling them, "Hey, great job on those games." I think John Vechey rang me back. So when I heard that my Insaniquarium prototype had gotten into the Independent Games Festival finals I rang them up again and asked if they would be at GDC. We met up there and found that we have similar ideals, and they help me make Insaniquarium as a downloadable game. I agreed and we worked together on that for what ended up being a couple of years.

PC Gamer: Did they hire you at that point?

George Fan: They didn't hire me at that point. At the time, I was looking for a job and I also got an offer from Blizzard. I was ecstatic, as I had been a Blizzard fan my whole life, and I got offers from both Blizzard and PopCap. I'm from the Bay Area in California, so that was one factor that ultimately let me make the choice to go to Blizzard.

PC Gamer: So how did you then end up going up from that and PopCap to working at Blizzard?

George Fan: That was a really tough transition. Normally when you work in a job they're not really keen on having you work on other projects for other companies, so I was really concerned that if I worked at Blizzard I'd have to stop working on Insaniquarium. But they made an exception, based on precedent, they said, 'Because you were working on this before we'll give you the leeway to finish it up.' But knowing that I wasn't going to work on anything else afterwards. And that was actually a pretty horrible thing to try to attempt. I don't suggest that anyone works a job programming during the day and going home and programming some more during the night. 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, so I'm glad I've made it through and released Insaniquarium, but I don't think anyone should do it that way.

PC Gamer: How long was the period of overlap where you were working at Blizzard and doing Insaniquarium at the same time?

George Fan: I was working at Blizzard for around two and a half years, so I think from somewhere around 2002 to 2004. Insaniquarium was released in 2004 and it wasn't that long after I'd finished, when I was only allowed to work at Blizzard, that I discovered that I was more of a designer than a programmer. There are a lot of talented programmers at Blizzard and I just didn't feel like I could keep up with them in that realm. I tried to get into designing when I was over there and it was tough. I think I have a good design sense, but sometimes it's pretty tough for me to communicate design ideas. Or rather, I can communicate them, it's just hard to persuade people why they're good. I found that working in a smaller team was a better fit for me, and had all these games inside of me that I wanted to make and I don't think Blizzard was the place to do that. I kind of have these original little Insaniquarium style experements that I want to do. So I ended up leaving Blizzard to go independent for a while. There was at least a year where I was totally independent and working on what ended up being Plants vs. Zombies.

PC Gamer: So what was it exactly that brought you back to PopCap?

George Fan: When I left Blizzard I hadn't gotten an offer from PopCap. I really liked the idea of doing the same thing I did for Insaniquarium, which was an independent company making a game. One of the things that changed was that PopCap had opened up a studio in San Francisco and so the question came around again of whether I wanted to work for them. It was a tough decision for me because there was a big part of me that wanted to stay independent and work on games that way.

Cat: Meeaaaaow.

PC Gamer: What convinced you to then join PopCap?

George Fan: They made me a really good offer and convinced me that doing Plants vs. Zombies as an employee would help me make the best game.

PC Gamer: What about being internal makes Plants vs. Zombies a better game?

George Fan: You get a lot of support, and I think that one thing I would worry about as an independent is if I would be consistently motivated enough. That's a key factor. When you're independent, you're your only motivator a lot of the time. I was a little concerned about being sidetracked or letting things take longer than they should, procrastinating at times when I don't feel inspiration. Also, PopCap have this internal forum where we put builds occasionally and everyone comments on them. I think they might have shown you it when you were up there?

PC Gamer: No, they didn't show me that.

George Fan: Yeah, they have a forum called Burrito where people post internal builds. I think it's really useful because everyone in the company can play and-

Cat: Meaoww!

George Fan: I've got to feed my cat, he's yelling at me. Yeah, we did builds for Plants vs. Zombies every four months maybe, and they always got a lot of good commentary and feedback on every single build, and that allowed us to really pick and choose which things we wanted to address.

PC Gamer: How did development on Plants vs. Zombies begin?

George Fan: I was a big fan of the DS when it first came out, and there was a quick talk between me and Jason about Insaniquarium DS. That was fresh in my mind and kind of led me to think of what I would do for a sequel. I'm not the type who just wants to do the same game again, so for Insaniquarium 2 I was thinking about the dual screens. I was thinking that it would be, instead of a one fish tank game, it would be twice the fish tank. It would have two fish tanks, right? The concept was that these fish tanks were going to stack on top of each other. I don't know why that makes sense. The aliens would enter the top fish tank. They would come in hordes and would attack your top fish tank 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 more focused on having defensive fish and depth charges and whatnot, and was basically going to be a defence tank. The bottom tank was going to be more like Insaniquarium 1; it was going to be the resource generator tank. That was the initial idea.

PC Gamer: When did the game make the shift from fish to plants and zombies?

George Fan: It first made the shift to plants when it was all ideas in my head and early prototypes. I was playing WarCraft 3 and really getting into all the custom games that were coming out. One really big mod was tower defence, back when tower defence wasn't as ubiquitous as it is now. I was playing all these tower defence games I can't remember the names of now, and I realised you could make a tower defence game. I was thinking about defensive elements and I was thinking if you had plants as towers they could be expected to stay in one place, and you could draw faces on them and give them a lot more character, whereas every tower in a tower defence game has zero personality. That was the first step of what led to Plants vs. Zombies.

The second step was born of me not wanting to make a game that blended in with everything else. I started working on this plant defence game, and then all these games started coming out in the casual games space about gardening, planting plants and greenhouses. I felt like my game wouldn't stand out enough, so that's when my adversary changed from aliens to zombies. They were aliens because they were the same aliens that were originally from Insaniquarium, but they decided instead that they wanted to eat veggies instead of fish. But at that point I was like, "Okay, we're safe now," because no one is going to make a plant game with zombies in it.

Before that, plants had the number one billing; it wasn't Plants vs. Aliens, it was called Weedlings. From that day on it was a game that gave the bad guys equal billing, or equal importance. But then the funny thing that happened was Tower Defence totally took off. Unfortunately when the game came out it was just dismissed as-- when people told other people about it it was just, "Oh, it's a tower defence game." In a way it is, but I think it brings a lot more than just being another tower defence game, I think.

PC Gamer: So you didn't start with the genre and work out from there?

George Fan: No, no. It was never meant to be a tower defence game, it was meant to be Plants vs Zombies.

PC Gamer: I know you do your own character designs, so does it start with a sketchbook?

George Fan: I did the sketchbook and prototyping concurrently. I think that's the best way to make games, creating the art and gameplay together. Nothing should let the gameplay bend to it. One of the draws with Plants vs. Zombies, definitely the goal I try to shoot for, is that the art would support the gameplay. For instance, the peashooter plant looks like something that would spit projectiles out. Ideally someone who doesn't even know English could play the game, because it would just be so reinforced by the visuals.

So, yeah, I did start out with a sketchbook, just sketching plants and, back then it was aliens, and whenever I would be programming, I would open up that sketchbook. The sense of style was set in stone then, but I kind of drew it all with the intention of having it replaced later by an artist who could really render out, and make the lines clean.

PC Gamer: Were there any paths you started down but that didn't work out?

PC Gamer: Were there any paths you started down but that didn't work out?

George Fan: There was a point when I was inspired by Magic: the Gathering. I was teaching my girlfriend how to play it, and was at a stage where it was already Plants vs Zombies. It was a five lane defence game, and I had this ambition to incorporate some of the elements that I found really cool from Magic: The Gathering.

The idea was that you would custom build your deck of plants, and one plant would be randomly selected off the top of the deck and would roll down this conveyor belt. Every ten to twenty seconds a plant would come down, so instead of having all your plants to choose from, or six or seven of your plants, you would only have what was given to you by the random selection of one card off the top.

The idea was that you would customise what your deck would look like, in a simplified way. We never got too far with the first version of that. You would choose ten plants, so you could choose sunflower three times and peashooter seven times, and so that would equal 70% peashooter and 30% sunflower. I had these ideas later because in Magic: the Gathering I like the draft format. I think it's a lot of fun, and I had these ideas of incorporating some sort of draft where you might face off versus a computer opponent somehow and pick cards that would go into your plant deck.

It was ambitious, but it ended up being-- it took people at PopCap to say, "This is on the side of too complicated." I realised, yeah, I was trying to bring this mechanic into a company that was PopCap. I think it could have been done, but it would have been a big fight to reign in on the game mechanics.

PC Gamer: Was it too complicated for the game, or was it too complicated for PopCap and their ethos?

George Fan: I think it was more the first than the second. I think it would have ended up being something that I didn't want for the game, too. I really dislike games when I play them and I have to do a lot of work to understand what's going on. I like games that put it all in front of me, and I try to apply that whenever I make a game. Just because it's been done one way before doesn't mean there's not a simpler, more understandable way to do something. Whenever I could in Plants vs. Zombies I tried to look for that but I think it was a good decision to not pursue that direction.

PC Gamer: Do you work in the San Francisco office or do you work from your home?

George Fan: We have an office pretty close to San Francisco that I do go into and work there. Right now it's just me and a programmer, the one for Plants vs Zombies. He's a very talented programmer and it's just us two right now. There were plans to grow the studio out more originally, but instead the studio actually shrunk, so it's just us now.

It's kind of ended up feeling like something in between what I was doing before, in between working independently and working for a company. I appreciate that, it's a nice balance to get. I think it'd be nice to get another team in here that was working on a game so that we could test out their games and they could test out our games, and I think we'd have this nice symbiotic situation. PopCap's pretty hands-off. We're working on something new now and PopCap's letting us do it, and not really getting their hands in too much.

PC Gamer: Plants vs Zombies, and I heard this from PopCap people, seems to skew a little more hardcore than PopCap's usual audience. Was there ever a resistance to that side of the game, trying to make it more simple when you were getting feedback from the other PopCap guys?

George Fan: There was a little bit of trepidation in terms of-- I think it was more that it was a new, untested game concept. The original operating budget for Plants vs. Zombies was really, really, really, really small compared to other games that came out at the time, like Bejeweled Blitz for instance. I think there was a little bit of cautiousness on PopCap's behalf. Not so much that it was hardcore, but it was an untested concept and while people internally really love the game, there was still a bit of uncertainty about how well it would do.

The game ended up doing a lot. The game ended up having this crossover appeal more than being a real casual hit that PopCap games traditionally succeed in. I never felt like they changed anything in the game because PopCap deemed it too hardcore. I think every decision that was made was something that I would want to see in a game anyway. I think I was designing it for an audience of everyone, and just making a game I would want to make myself. I never felt like I had to make a decision that I wouldn't have wanted to put in the game or take from the game.

PC Gamer: Another early name for the game was Lawn of the Dead. I was told that you produced a video to send to George A. Romero, the creator of Night of the Living Dead, to try to convince him to let you use the name. What did that video contain?

George Fan: It had me dressed up as a zombie, and I was a zombie programmer. So I was trying to compile the code, and it would be me grunting and subtitles of, "Oh, there's a runtime error in line 437" or something like that. It was pretty much just a quick glance into what the game looks like, and me saying, "Please let us use the name." And we sent that over to him, and I don't even know for sure if George Romero watched it, but we got a response from him that they didn't want to let us use the name.

From that point on we knew we had to find a new name, which was an incredibly trying ordeal. In the end, it was kind of poetic I guess, as we ended up going with the first prototype name I had.

PC Gamer: As someone who has worked for both a hardcore and a casual games developer - at the same time, no less - what are the differences you see between the industries?

George Fan: I worked at two companies that let people take as long as they want to make their games. That was the connection, I think. In terms of casual or hardcore, I think the key is just that casual games require fewer people to produce, and that's something you don't find as much in the hardcore industry. Game teams are at least 30 or 40 large, and I think being a small team lets you experiment more.

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 new experiences for people to play. It's nice to be on a small, agile team that has the freedom of making more unique games. I think it's a lot like what I was doing before, which was like the indie games community, and that's where a lot of the most bold ideas are coming from these days.

PC Gamer: PopCap seem to believe in traditional game design more than a lot of the other casual developers I've met. You guys trust your designers and iterate a lot, while everyone else seems to use player metrics and statistics.

George Fan: Oh yeah. Are you referring to social games, how they'll just try to fire and adjust mentality?

PC Gamer: Whereas PopCap seem to be steadfastly refusing to go down that line, even when doing things like Bejeweled Blitz and Zuma Blitz on Facebook.

George Fan: Yeah, I'm definitely on the side of PopCap in terms of that I think. I think when you do these metrics, they're helpful, but I don't think you can rely on them. They tell you what might sell in a game. 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.

That was kind of a bit of a wake up call for me, too. I realised that where as before I was equally striving to make games that were fun and addictive, I guess I think in this day and age I really want to focus on: if I make a game and someone says that it's fun, then I've succeeded, I think. I think you lose that in a lot of the game design by metrics, you lose the fun. It might retain its addictiveness because it's an activity that for some reason resonates with your brain, that keeps you wanting to play, but if you're not having a good time playing I don't think we should be designing games just to mindlessly make people want to play it over and over.

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 is actually, truly fun about videogames.

PC Gamer: What's next for you?

George Fan: I have a completely new game world and game genre that I am building right now. I don't think that I can say anything about it except that this is something new. But it's what I love doing; I love exploring new territory and I think the theme with all my games so far is taking a more hardcore game concept, like an RTS, and not so much making it casual, but stripping it down to something that can be enjoyed by everyone. The game I'm working on right now is kind of along the same lines. It takes elements from more hardcore genres and tries to boil them down to what the essence of them are, and retain all the funness, and not adding unnecessary complication.

PC Gamer: Can you tell me what genre it is?

George Fan: (laughs) Let's see. I don't know. It's actually a few different ones. I don't know if I can say that, I don't know if PopCap will let me. Yeah, I think I'll just stay on the side of caution.

PC Gamer: Say hello to your cat for me.

Click for mega-resolution versions of each image.

Plants vs. Zombies GOTY Edition

PopCap have just announced Bejeweled 3, the first proper sequel to the gem-swapping match-three juggernaut since 2004. It has new gems! Also, some kind of "Quest" mode, a "Zen" mode where you can customise the game with "ambient sounds and binaural beats" to help you relax and, if the trailer is anything to go by, a ton of other weird looking stuff. If you're somebody's mum, you are probably so excited right now. In fact, sod it - I'm excited too. It has explosions, and it's due out on December 7th.

This also marks the start of PopCap week here at Check below for more details of Bejeweled 3 - including the first trailer and screens - and what we've got in store for the rest of the week.

For the rest of the week, we'll be posting interviews with the founders and designers of PopCap, beginning today with co-founder John Vechey about the making of Bejeweled and the meteoric success of the company. We'll also be giving away free copies of Bejeweled 2 to registered users who are subscribed to our newsletter, so sign up now and look out for that tomorrow.

According to the release, new and expanded features in Bejeweled 3 will include:

Classic: Play the most popular puzzle game of the century, with powerful new
gems and new ultra-smooth gameplay

Quest: Journey through 40 magical puzzles in this multifaceted Bejeweled

Zen: Personalize your experience with ambient sounds and binaural beats — a
revolutionary new way to relax!

Lightning: Charge up with a heart-pounding, beat-the-clock bout of gem-blasting

Secret Games: Unlock 4 all-new games including Butterflies and Ice Storm

Badges: Earn up to 65 badges to prove your skills

High-definition graphics and high-fidelity audio: Bejeweled is now more dazzling than ever before!

Ultra-smooth gameplay: Make multiple matches while new gems fall into place.

The Zen mode seems especially interesting. When I was at Casual Connect earlier this year, I attended a "live focus group," where five mothers of different ages answered audience questions about their gameplaying habits. Some played World of WarCraft, some played on, some playing on, and some via Facebook, but the one constant was that they all played games to relax, and they all played Bejeweled.

Now check out the screens. They have gems in! And some sort of poker mode?


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