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The Minds Behind Some of the Most Addictive Games Around

If you've wasted half your life playing Peggle, Bejeweled, Zuma or Plants vs. Zombies, blame these guys!

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The gaming industry tends to focus on the high end products, first person shooters that crank out a bazillion polygons a seconds and RPGs which spend more time developing the plot in cut scenes than in actual gameplay. But for every person playing Borderlands, there are scores playing casual games like Bejeweled and Zuma. PopCap Games has been at the forefront of casual game development, with a catalog that includes bestselling titles like Peggle and Plants vs Zombies, in addition to the two previously mentioned. I recently had a chance to talk to Jason Kapalka, one of the founders and the creative director of PopCap. We discussed the evolution of PopCap, how the casual gaming industry differs from mainstream gaming, and the challenges of creating games that can be engaging, without being frustrating.

James Turner: Could you start by talking a little bit about your background and how you came to PopCap and what you did before then?

Jason Kapalka: My career in computer games started back in the early ’90s, when I was writing for the magazine, Computer Gaming World, doing various reviews and articles. In ’95, one of the editors from the magazine left to join an internet dotcom start-up in San Francisco called TEN, the Total Entertainment Network. He invited me to come down there and work there, which I did. And TEN evolved over the dotcom boom and bust cycle, from a very hardcore gaming service into what eventually turned into Pogo.com around 1999. I worked there initially on hardcore games. One day, I was working on Total Annihilation tournaments, and then the next day, someone said, “Hey, design bingo.” And I was sort of like, “Oh. Bingo? Okay.”

pvz.jpgThat was the beginning of my casual game design career, I guess. And yes, I was there at Pogo. I helped design a lot of the structure for their casual games until around 2000 when I left, and Pogo eventually went on to get bought by Electronic Arts, of course. I left in 2000 and started PopCap with two other guys, Brian Fiete and John Vechey who are these guys from Indiana that I’d met earlier, around ’97. They had made an internet action game called ARC that we’d produced on TEN, and we stayed in touch. In 2000, we all thought we wanted to try something different. So we all left our respective companies to start PopCap. As you might remember, 2000 was not the best year for internet companies. So we didn’t really realize that the entire industry was collapsing. We had an interesting time initially. Luckily, our ignorance protected us, I guess.

PopCap started from there, just the three of us working out of our apartments. And over time, we’d say, “Well, I guess we need to hire an artist.” And I’d say, “Well, I guess we need to hire maybe another guy here to program this stuff.” And then eventually, maybe someone should look at the books or whatever, so we’ll hire someone to take care of the bookkeeping. And it kept going like that until eventually we thought that maybe we needed an office. And from there, suddenly, we’ve got nearly 300 employees now in 2009. So it’s been an interesting kind of experience. We never really intended PopCap to get anywhere near as big as it has today.

James Turner: How would you describe PopCap’s place in the market today?

Jason Kapalka: I guess it’s a bit odd. Casual game companies exist in these strange spaces where they’re often the developer and the publisher at the same time. And then they also publish stuff with other guys, where they’re sort of rivals, but also they’re partners. There’s a lot of this co-opetition thing going on. PopCap is obviously a developer, and we develop a lot of games. We used to publish other people’s games. And we still do indirectly. in that we have SpinTop Games. which is a company we bought a couple of years back. They distribute a lot of other people’s games through their site. But primarily, I think we develop and then publish titles. But we primarily focus on publishing our own titles. So we’re kind of a self-publisher, I suppose.

James Turner: That’s actually something I wanted to ask you about because one of your distribution channels now is Steam, which is another company’s portal for their games and others. How do you see that relationship?

Jason Kapalka: Steam’s been really good. We work with lots of different portals. Steam is one of many that our typical game would go out on. On Steam, on Real Arcade, Big Fish Games, Yahoo Games, MSN, WildTangent, a whole bunch of smaller channels. So Steam was just one of several. It’s been interesting in that it was developed differently than a lot of those other ones. Steam is definitely much more of a hardcore game distribution channel than something like Real Arcade. So initially, when we started on Steam, it was uncertain whether our games were going to really fit in. Initially, a lot of the ones we tried on Steam didn’t really work too well for their audience. Hidden object games don’t do especially well with Steam users, for example.

The turning point for Steam was probably when we did Peggle Extreme with Valve. I don’t know if you remember that. Peggle had just come out, and the guys at Valve really liked it. We were talking and we had some weird ideas. Someone had the odd suggestion to do sort of a miniature-themed version of Peggle that featured all of the Orange Box’s characters, the Half-Life, MT Team Fortress guys. It was a really strange idea, because that was a fairly mature violent kind of franchise. And certainly, it didn’t seem like the obvious fit for Peggle. But, on the other hand, we thought, “Well, what the heck? We can try it and it’s only going to go on Steam anyway so it’s not like it’ll offend the soccer moms necessarily.” So we tried that out, and it went up. And we were all kinds of nervous because we didn’t know — it had launched initially as a free download with the Orange Box. And even though it didn’t cost people anything, we were still kind of wondering if there was going to be this big backlash from the hardcore community about, “What the hell is this cheap little pinball thing doing in the middle of my Orange Box product.”

But actually, the response was really good. I mean, the Orange Box guys all really liked Peggle a lot. And ultimately, that led them to go and seek out and buy the regular versions of Peggle which made Peggle suddenly this fairly big success on Steam. Which a month or two ago, before that, didn’t seem very likely that this game with unicorns and rainbows would be selling well on Steam. So after that, that sort of seemed to kind of be — it sort of opened the floodgates a little bit. And now a variety of our games do very well on Steam. Obviously, Plants Vs Zombies was the last one that had quite a hit there. Not everything. There’s still some of our games that are clearly more casual and that don’t particularly work well on Steam. But the ones that do work there seem to really work well.

James Turner: There seems to be a fairly different expectation level for casual games in terms of graphics and such. Do you think that’s a natural result of how they’re produced and what they’re intended for? Or could you see something like Plants Vs Zombies but with the graphics levels of a Half-Life?

Jason Kapalka: It’s certainly possible. I mean in some cases, we’re not intentionally trying to make the games low fidelity. We try to do the best art direction we can. Although the usual contradiction, or decision to be made, there is we also want to make games as accessible as possible. So we want Plants Vs Zombies to play on every crummy netbook and seven-year-old computer your mom has and all of these types of things. And so that tends to mean that we try to work and have good art, but usually make the technical requirements very modest. We’ve been working at making things that can scale well so that on a good computer, you’ll get a really nice experience and it’ll still scale down to play on a lower-end computer. But that can be challenging in itself. So usually, we err on the side of not worrying about the graphics being too high-end because our experience is showing that a good game with not very fancy graphics can sell very well, like Plants Vs Zombies. And I think that game has good graphics, but it’s definitely limited. It’s only got 800X600 resolution and so forth. But on the other hand, we’ve seen plenty of games in the casual space that have really good graphics and they sell very poorly if they’re not a fun game. So accessibility and fun definitely, for us, end up being a first priority over graphics. And especially 3-D or technically impressive graphics versus just good art direction.

James Turner: You would think Nethack and Rogue would be the ultimate proof that you can have good game play without good graphics.

Jason Kapalka: Sure, I love Roguelike games. We have lots of Nethack fans over at PopCap, which seems a bit weird in that they’re obviously not very casual in many regards. But yeah, they’re good exemplars of that principle that graphics are not as important as game play.

James Turner: In a lot of your games, and especially games like Peggle and Zuma, the game play, to put it mildly, is pretty simple in terms of what the user can do. A lot of times, it’s just a mouse click or two mouse clicks. How can you take what is fairly simple game play and keep it engaging so that people want to play it for hour after hour?

Jason Kapalka: Typically, the hard part is keeping it simple to begin with. Usually the problem is is that a lot of time, games become increasingly more complex as you work on them. And it’s hard to resist that temptation and keep things simple. With Peggle, certainly one thing that everyone asked for was everyone wanted to have some sort of control over the ball once they’d launched it. So they all thought, “I shoot the ball and then I can’t do anything. I just sit there and watch it bounce down. Why can’t I have bumpers or a laser beam or something that I can do?” And on the surface, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that request. But when you do things like that, suddenly it changes the game. And so the simplicity goes away, and it’s no longer as compelling. It’s kind of like bowling. If you can control the ball after you throw it in bowling, that doesn’t necessarily make it a better game. Or golf. If you had a game of golf where you could change the direction of the ball after you shoot it, again, it doesn’t necessarily make it better.

I think with computer game players, often they want all of this control, but I think a lot of classic games actually work well because they limit the amount of control you have. You have to really focus on these clear, specific decisions. And that’s a very engaging thing to do. I don’t think games like pool or golf will be going away any time soon, and they have fairly simple mechanics at the base of them. You’re calculating angles and trajectories. And so that’s the case of something like Peggle. It’s a similar game. You’re calculating angles and trajectories and then making one single decision. But I think that simplicity doesn’t mean that it lacks appeal.

James Turner: This next question, keep in mind, is coming from a guy who’s now spent three weeks trying to get through the last level of Zuma’s Revenge. How do you decide the balance between too easy and too frustrating?

Jason Kapalka: That is quite hard. Obviously, I think I once said that no casual game has ever failed for being too easy. But that’s not entirely true. I mean a game that is too easy, people don’t perceive it as being too easy; they just perceive it as being boring. And so you certainly don’t want to have a game that’s boring. At the same time, it’s much, much easier to fall into the trap of making a casual game too hard. That’s certainly one of the hallmarks of computer game design is to make them very challenging because as a game designer and hardcore game player, that’s sort of what you’re used to. A lot of the DNA of video games comes from things like the arcade where they were very pure games of skill that they were intended to get very hard very quickly. That’s some evolutionary development that’s not really relevant in a lot of games today, and especially not in casual games, but it’s kind of hard to get out of the habit of that. So with that in mind, trying to figure out how to balance things to be the right level of difficulty is quite challenging.

Sometimes people have a thing where you can select easy, medium or hard. We don’t like doing that at PopCap. By and large, the problem I always have with that is it’s really hard to calibrate what that actually means because obviously, easy, medium or hard are going to mean different things for different games and for different people. And so one game’s easy might be ridiculously difficult on another one. And typically, you’re asked to decide that at the beginning of the game when you don’t actually know. So I’ll start up a game of whatever, whether it’s Halo or Ninja Gaiden and decide “Do I want normal or do I want easy? Do I want hard?” In various cases, it could be any of those things and you don’t have any good way of knowing until you’ve actually played the game.

So I don’t like having those choosable difficulty settings which means you need to have a game that has one degree of difficulty and that people can adapt to or it adapts to them as they go along. That was a big challenge of Zuma, to try to arrange the levels and so on in such a way that they provide an interesting scale of challenge going upwards without ever getting too insanely difficult. Although, as you pointed out, the later levels of Zuma can get quite hard. Zuma’s Revenge is a bit easier than the original Zuma. The original Zuma was quite punishing in many ways. And Zuma’s Revenge has gotten a little more forgiving than that. But we figured that it’s okay on the later levels if it becomes difficult because by the time someone gets to level 60 in Zuma’s Revenge, we assume that they’ve got the hang of the game and are enjoying the basic game play. Whereas if someone starts at the first level of a game like a Ninja Gaiden type experience and gets his ass kicked repeatedly, that’s the sort of thing that may discourage them from continuing to try it at all.

James Turner: I’m going to go off interview for a second here and say the only problem with that is that almost all of the bonus play in Zuma’s Revenge is locked to getting through the whole game.

Jason Kapalka: Yeah, and that’s something that we’ve thought about and is actually on our list of things we would probably try to address if we have another Zuma sequel. If you ever see a third Zuma game, we’ll definitely try to make some of that content more accessible before people complete the game.

James Turner: The other way that sometimes difficulty is addressed is through cheat codes. And it seems like you’ve gone out of your way not to have any of that backdoor stuff. Was that a conscious decision?

Jason Kapalka: Yeah. Actually, there’s a few Easter eggs and so forth we have in the games, but it really seems the opposite of casual to have these kinds of codes that you need to have the secret hidden knowledge, whether it’s digging through the internet or magazines to find these special codes. It’s the opposite of making the game accessible, by making one that you have to discover this secret information in order to play effectively. I think it’s kind of fun, but only in the context of games where you expect the audience to be really so invested in the game that they’re going to kind of go outside of it and seek out that kind of extra information, which is quite common in MMOs and other hardcore games.

James Turner: Is it easier or harder to do sequels to a casual game? Does the lack of a complex storyline make it more difficult in some ways?

Jason Kapalka: Obviously, I haven’t had to make Uncharted 2 or anything like that so I couldn’t say for sure about the challenges of dealing with a 300 person team. But the challenge that we find for things like Bejeweled 2 or Zuma’s Revenge is that you have a very simple structure, and it’s challenging to improve that without changing it. The problem I always had is the one that I saw with a lot of Tetris versions. They’ve been making versions of Tetris for years. And you see a new version of Tetris come up for a new system. You pick it up and check it out. And often, they’d have some new twist on it that once you played it was not very good. And you switched back to playing basic Tetris as soon as you could because whatever new gizmos they threw in there just didn’t actually make the game of Tetris any more fun. It made it different, but not more fun.

So when we did Bejeweled 2 or Zuma’s Revenge, my first priority was not to make the game less fun. For the sake of making it different so you can say, “Zuma’s Revenge has this many different things in it,” that helps with your bullet list of stuff if you’re trying to sell it. But once you start playing it, we found a lot of the stuff we tried initially — we put in a lot of things. We put lots of extra power ups in there and a bunch of different kinds of levels and different boss monsters and a whole bunch of stuff, mini games. You could sort of play Space Invaders type mini games with a frog shooting at tiki invaders and so forth. But none of them actually made the game any more fun. It was one of those things where the mini games, for example, you kind of felt more like you were playing Tetris and suddenly, you were forced to play a round of Bejeweled in the middle of it. It didn’t make sense. If you’re playing Zuma, most people kind of want to play Zuma. They don’t want to be interrupted with some random other type of game play. Some of the power-ups, again, we had some extra ones in there that they were different; they just didn’t add a lot to the game play and didn’t make it any more fun.

So it can be challenging to add stuff and modify a game that has a lot of fans and that is very simple because it’s not easy to change that without breaking it. It’s like trying to make Chess 2. Many people have made up all sorts of different variant rules for chess, but I don’t think too many people would claim that they had improved chess in any universal way. But in a sense, we feel like our job is to try and improve chess, some sort of game that’s very simple. That’s, to some extent, classic in that it’s been out for a while and is loved in its current form by a lot of people. And so you don’t want to mess it up just for the sake of saying you changed some stuff and made a sequel that was different.

James Turner: I’m going to morph together a couple of questions that came out of our editors because some of them were similar, and they all were on a theme. So I’m just going to read them all and then you can figure out how to amalgamize them. The first one was: Can you describe your development platform including frameworks and programming languages used and how that relates to target customer platforms? Someone else asked: How do you manage development for games that need to run on multiple platforms? Is that changing with the popularity of mobile platforms like iPhone, Android and Pre? What about mobile platforms like netbooks and Chrome OS? And then someone asked if you were still planning to develop for Web OS?

Jason Kapalka: Okay. Well, our usual platform we develop on is typically for PC and using C++ as the programming language. For a fair number of years now, that’s been our default. So when a game is started, that’s typically the way we develop it. And later on, we call that our reference build, if we do that. Typically, we’ll figure out where to port to after that. And some of the ports are somewhat easy and can involve a lot of the same C++ code. If you’re doing a port to XBox, for example.

Other times, if it’s Flash, for example, or some Java or Brew mobile handset, it ends up being a fairly major rewrite. We don’t have a magic button that ports Peggle onto every different platform available. Sometimes you just have to do it the hard way and do a lot of rewriting of the code and revising the graphics and layout in UI and all of that stuff. So we definitely think it’s important to do other platforms, but we certainly feel like you have to take a lot of care to make sure that the game works properly on whatever that platform is. So we do spend a lot of time and effort on ports. I guess we think of them less as a straightforward port than as an adaptation because the challenges of doing Bejeweled on the iPhone, for example, are significantly different than doing it on XBox or some other kind of device.

James Turner: Mobile like netbooks and Chrome OS.

Jason Kapalka: We definitely are trying to keep netbooks in mind when we do games, so that even if we have a game like Zuma’s Revenge which has some high-res options, it’ll still scale down and run on a typical netbook. And that’s unlikely to change. We certainly are well aware that a lot of our audience has lower-end computers. So in a sense, netbooks don’t cause us any problems because we were already making games that played on that kind of computer. So we don’t really have to do anything extra special to make our games work on a netbook.

James Turner: I was just going to say that I can tell you that I think your Mac port doesn’t like running on Hackintoshes because I tried using Zuma’s Revenge on a Hackintosh Del 10V and I think you probably didn’t optimize your Mac version as much as some of the other ones.

Jason Kapalka: It may be true. Our Mac versions — definitely our Mac ports, we’ve had some troubles with those over the years. And we don’t yet have 100 percent reliable system for doing our Mac releases at the same time as our PC ones. So yeah, I wouldn’t be too shocked to see that there were some issues with the Mac version being not quite as efficient as the PC one. I’m sorry to hear it, but I’m not entirely surprised. We’re working to try and get out Mac support to be a lot better than it is currently.

James Turner: The iPhone, obviously, has had a lot of good and bad press about the App Store and how well you can actually make money on that. What’s your experience been and how do you think it’s going to go with the other platforms like the Android and Pre?

Jason Kapalka: Well, we’ve been doing pretty well on the iPhone. Bejeweled has, I think, been pretty consistently in the top ten or twenty since launch. And Peggle’s done well. And Bookworm’s done pretty good. So we’ve done okay with it. It’d definitely an interesting and challenging platform in that the sheer number of apps out there means that unless you have some way of standing out from that crowd, there’s a very high risk with it. I mean, if you’re at EA and you have the ability to get big brands out there, or if you’re like PopCap where you have a couple of games like Bejeweled that people recognize and will seek out, you have an advantage there. But if you’re a brand new developer working on an iPhone game, it’s a little scary. One hears about the stories of the guy who wrote a game in his spare time for two months and then put it up on the iPhone store and made $250,000 and quits his day job and all of that. But there’s a lot of stories that don’t end like that in the same way when you hear about guys going to Vegas and betting their last 20 bucks on a slot machine and getting rich. That does happen, but it’s not necessarily a typical story. And it’s easy to overlook the risks when you only hear the sort of success stories.

So I think the iPhone is a really cool platform. I think it’s a risky one, even for small developers. And I think for large developers, they’ve already started to realize that it’s hard to justify a large development budget for an iPhone game. So they might do it as a marketing tie-in with another game or occasionally if they have a very casual, friendly title like EA with Scrabble. But, for example, right now, not too many people are going to think about investing $1 million making an iPhone game because the risks are just way too high that you’ll never make any of that money back. That may change in the future with Android and other platforms that are similar to iPhone, if they start having more touch screen App Store type devices. That might suddenly multiply the potential audience for some of these games by a large amount. I mean the iPhone is cool, but compared to other mobile phones, it’s really still owned by a small percentage of people. That might change. In a year or two, you might see iPhone-like devices in a lot of people’s hands and if the UI and the App Store experience are similar to the iPhone that might have a huge impact on the way games work. Suddenly, you may find that audience not just growing by a small amount, but doubling, tripping, quadrupling overnight if some new phones in that category become popular.

James Turner: So I have a question from Tim O’Reilly. He wants to know, how do you go about getting new customers? And he says, “Be specific.”

Jason Kapalka: How do I go about getting new customers? Well, I’m going to mention two things. One is the not very exciting answer, which is we do what a lot of people do in the casual game space do, you do search engine marketing. That’s the most common way on the web to drive people to download games from a casual game site, search engine marketing largely through Google where you buy keywords for various things and people search and blah, blah, blah. You pay a certain amount and they click through. And it’s fairly mechanical now because we have metrics to know if this many people download the game, you’ll sell this many on average and so forth. So that’s kind of the non-interesting way that we get new customers.

The more interesting ways — well, one example would be Facebook. We’ve been looking at social networking games for a while. And there’ve been some interesting things going around there, but we weren’t too sure if it was a good idea for us to get into it. It wasn’t really our forte. But at the same time, it was a very different kind of crowd. A very different space for us to try something with. So that was the idea behind Bejeweled Blitz, to get into a completely different market than the ones we were in at the time. And sure enough, it has done quite well on Facebook in terms of getting Bejeweled out in front of people who otherwise have not maybe seen Bejeweled very much. And it is a very different crowd on Facebook. The players there are not the types who — most of them don’t play very many games at all. So even by the standards of casual games, they’re not the type who even download a game. They don’t do any games whatsoever. So that’s been a way of expanding our user base to a whole different crowd.

James Turner: One of the ways that you market your games is through one of our editors called teaser apps. What’s your conversion rate like on those? Is it an effective way of marketing the games?

Jason Kapalka: If he means the web sort of Flash games and so on on the web, yeah, that is pretty effective. It’s less effective than it was when we started about eight or nine years ago when that was, by-and-large, the primary way that you drove people to get interested in games. There would be a flash game on some website or, at that time, a Java game. The player would play a bit of Bejeweled or whatever it was, and then there would be some sort of ad saying, “If you want the deluxe experience, download Bejeweled Deluxe.” And then they’d download that, and then they would hopefully buy that. It’s less important nowadays. More people are willing to download a game directly, and fewer people feel the need to play the web game first before doing that.

Also, there are a lot of flash games out there that don’t have any sort of downloadable component. So people who are playing a lot of flash games are not always in the market for downloadable stuff either. That said, it is still useful. And the conversion rates, they vary a lot for different types of things. Once someone downloads a game, the typical conversion rates are usually in the range of one to five percent. So if you can get somebody to download a copy of Peggle, for example, the typical conversion rates are in the one to five percent range that those people will actually end up buying it.

James Turner: You’ve mentioned Flash a couple of times. There are some players out there who are pure Flash players, like Armor. Do you see them as a serious competitor to what you’re doing. Or are you seeing the same thing as what newspapers are going through, if people are giving it away, how do you make money at it?

Jason Kapalka: I don’t think, as far as we’ve seen anyway, the pure Flash game guys don’t really seem to be competing for the same audience that we are. Sites like Miniclip and so on, they do okay with their own business model. It doesn’t seem to be crossing over with ours. The problem with developing Flash games for those kinds of sites is that it can be very difficult to turn a profit on them because there’s so many Flash games out there. So a site like Miniclip or some of the other ones like that, they pay a pretty small amount of money for a Flash game, between maybe $500 to $5,000 basically, and that’s it in most cases. So if you’re a Flash developer, that’s a pretty small amount of money, unless you’re making the game in one or two days.

There are few larger outfits, like Armor Games that you pointed out, that do actually produce games of a higher level of polish and so forth. As for how they make money, I don’t know. It’s a good question for them actually. I’m kind of curious. I suspect it’s a fairly tough business right now because of the massive commodification of Flash games. And so I definitely have heard from a lot of Flash game developers who, despite turning out lots and lots of games all of the time, like some of them are doing a game a day or whatever, they still have a hard time making ends meet just because the prices and so on are just not good for the pure Flash plays.

James Turner: How international is your development effort? And how do you manage it technically and logistically?

Jason Kapalka: Oh, international? Well, we have a development office in Dublin, in Ireland, of about 40 people. And they handle the bulk of our internationalization. So we take it fairly seriously. It’s work. It takes time and money to do a decent job with it. The majority of our games, we try to end up eventually internationalizing. Usually there’s some kind of decisions. There’s EFIGS, which is English, French, Italian, German, Spanish. And that’s the basic level for doing European coverage. Beyond that, the typical next steps would be to maybe do some of the Asian languages, Japanese, Korean and Chinese. And we do that as well. We have an office in Shanghai, and they do some of that. Those markets are a little more challenging right now. Some of the reasons are that that Japan is very much a console market and has not got into PC, downloadable stuff very much. China, on the other hand, has big problems with piracy. There’s just a lot of piracy out there. And Korea obviously has a lot of MMO kind of focus. So casual games are challenging to get done over there. But yeah, we’re trying our best to have a global reach for all of our games.

James Turner: That’s a good answer. But I was actually asking do you have international developers? Or is it pretty much all done out of one area?

Jason Kapalka: Yeah, the majority of our developers are all in the US. I mean we do have some developers in Ireland and Shanghai. But in terms of the games that you’d be familiar with now, the majority of them have been developed in North America, either in Seattle or in some cases in Chicago or Vancouver or San Francisco.

James Turner: What these days would be the career path for someone who wants to get into game development?

Jason Kapalka: Well, there’s a variety of different paths. There are a number of schools that have some kind of game development programs now. I don’t know too much about them. And although I think some of them are very interesting, they’re certainly not a requirement. Certainly at PopCap, we don’t specifically look for anybody with a game design school background to hire. In many cases nowadays, the best way to get into the game industry is just to do it yourself. The barriers to entry are not what they might’ve been even five or ten years ago. If you want to make a game now, as I said, you can make a Flash game easily enough yourself. You may not make a lot of money with it, but you can certainly produce it and get it out there in front of people easily enough. And in many ways, the experience of just actually making games is more valuable than any amount of training or books that you can read.

So for someone who wants to get in the gaming industry right now, my personal advice would be to just do it. And whether that means a Flash game or yeah, there’s lots of student collectives or just independent guys making a variety of things. It’s entirely possible to just make a game. You don’t have to go to school for it. You can do the traditional path like ten years ago, get a job as a QA guy at Electronic Arts or Activision or something like that and then work your way up. And that certainly can work. Or go to school for programming or art and then get an entry level job at a big developer. And those methods are still entirely valid. But if you want to get into game design and the creative side of things, I think you can actually just go ahead and do it now which was something that ten years ago was a lot harder to do because there just weren’t as many venues for getting your work out there.

James Turner: So two fan boy questions to end things. First of all, are we going to see Plants Vs Zombies 2?

Jason Kapalka: I don’t know. We’ll see. I’d like to see it myself. We have the same challenge with that as we do with some of our other games in that the guy who made Plants Vs Zombies, George Fan, is hard at work on another game. And so it’s a tough one in that we like his new game. We’d like him to work on that. We’d certainly like a Plants Vs Zombies Two as well as that. But it’s challenging in that no one besides George would really do as good of a job on Plants Vs Zombies. So we don’t necessarily want to just hand it off to a B team and produce something that’s not as good. So it’s a challenge. I’d like to see it happen, but we’ll see what we can do.

James Turner: And finally, do the words in Zuma actually mean anything?

Jason Kapalka: The words, the various chants and so forth?

James Turner: Yeah.

Jason Kapalka: Yes, actually, they do mean something. The chants in the original Zuma are — well, they’re mangled Aztec. So as much as people know of what Aztecs actually talked like, the words in there are very badly grammaticalized versions of that. I think some of the things say stuff like, “Too bad little frog,” when you die and so on. And in the second one, Zuma’s Revenge, there is actually, again, a very badly mangled version of the Easter Island dialect, which is in existence still and known by Easter Islanders to some extent. So yes, it’s possible some people out there in Easter Island, if they played Zuma’s Revenge, might recognize a few of the phrases.

James Turner: All right. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.

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  • http://www.fishflashgames.com Steve G

    Thanks for the great interview.. I’ve been a fan of Jason’s since we bumped in to each other back in the day when he was at CGW and I was trying to publish my own small game magazine in Sacramento.. (Not that he will remember me or the long dead magazine)

    I guess I lost track and didn’t realize he was at Popcap.. Great work there Jason.. And thanks for making me waste whole days there..

  • http://www.wagenheimer.com Cezar Wagenheimer

    Great Interview!

  • http://braunwerden.blogspot.com Viktor Selbstbräuner

    Fortunately there is this very different approach to games. Instead of digitalizing every Hair by motion captioning finally someone tries to create games that are actually fun to play not only nice to watch.

  • http://haqu.net haqu

    Thank you for this interview. PopCap is an outstanding team, making outstanding games.

  • http://www.footgaming.com Judy Shasek

    Great interview. I am a fan of everything PopCap, from their work (play) ethic and their incredible games. The ability to enjoy a game with mouse clicks as the communication – and that’s all – makes so many PopCap game perfect for use with the FootPOWR (our patented mouse, you stand on it and move your feet to move the cursor). We have people of all ages balancing, moving, jumping and dancing their way through Chuzzle, Bejeweled, Peggle, Zuma, Bookworm and more.

  • http://www.multiplayerhangman.com/ hangman game

    Quote: “…the challenges of creating games that can be engaging, without being frustrating…” The survival element is crucial here. Perhaps, game creators should somehow reach out to those who easily get frustrated. Know them better – you’ll end up winning their nod.