Facebook, social, and game jams: How PopCap created, and is still perfecting, Solitaire Blitz
PopCap is a company known for games that are easy to pick up, fun to play, and frustratingly addictive. Games like Peggle and Plants vs. Zombies straddle the line between casual and hardcore gamers with ease, but where do the new games come from? How does a company with so many prized and profitable franchises come up with new ideas? The answer was simpler than expected: PopCap hosts internal game jams. We spoke with a number of PopCap developers about the creation of the Facebook game Solitaire Blitz, and how the company stays fresh.
The idea came out of Pop Camp
PopCap throws game jams three or four times a year, called Pop Camps. People share their ideas and concepts before the event begins, and others join or help with projects that attract their attention. There is an intense week-long crunch where everyone works on their own dream products, or simply tries to design a working example of the mechanic. There are Pop Camp counselors to provide guidance and help identify the games that look promising. At the end of the week some of the ideas are shown to have merit, and are given more resources. The best of these are then put into active development. “It wasn’t even going in and saying we should do Solitaire, I just coded the prototype,” Jason Mai, the game's senior producer, explained. It didn’t take him long to put the Flash prototype together, and in fact PopCap gave us permission to share that prototype with you. Enjoy!It was clear that the game was fun, even during the first stages of development. Links to new builds of games and prototypes are shared among co-workers, and Solitaire Blitz became a hit on the 5th floor of the office, the home of accounting and human resources. “We found hundreds and hundreds of games played by the same people. It caught on like fire without us even knowing who was playing it. That was when we knew there was something there,” Mai said. In other words, games can go viral within the company. What’s interesting is that they found people playing the daily builds where the URLs weren’t widely spread or public; people were sharing the game during lunch hour or over drinks. They were talking about it and spreading the content organically. The company knew this version of Solitaire was special, but time is always a factor when working on social games. “Just knowing that we’re on Facebook time, and there’s an urgency to get things through the door and get a really solid game out, there was an urgency to find what our true Minimum Viable was,” Mai said. This is a common term in business that has become popular in iOS and social games: The Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is the core of the game, the absolutely minimum experience you can put together and then put in front of someone. If people play it and like it, you can add more content and fill out the edges. If it dies, well… you cut your losses and try to find the next thing. “It’s a hideous term,” Mai admitted. There are advantages to this system, as well. “In some ways its more satisfying, since you don’t have to spend three years on a thing and find out it didn’t work,” he said. It’s much like the standard milestone system, but with feedback from players. This sort of brutal player-driven honesty continues long after launch. PopCap collects all sorts of data about its social games, things like how many people install the game, how often people return, and how much they're spending and on what items. When a game becomes sticky, they know they have a hit, and Solitaire Blitz has enjoyed “tremendous” numbers since launch. Pig Up, another social game that was created during Pop Camp, suffered from much lower retention. People played it, had fun, and never returned. Development on the game was cancelled. “That kind of instant feedback, and the volume, that helps us build the games better and make the improvements that users want,” Scott Willoughby, Customer Engagement Manager, said. “We’re not operating in the dark and making it up as we go. We’re being guided in the development process and how we use our resources.” Jarrod Neus, senior technical program manager, noted that this also puts a strain on working conditions. “It becomes a lot more challenging, since we have the ability and desire to change things more frequently, but there’s no room to breathe built into the schedule,” he explained. “If we want to get something out and someone is sick, these games are made by much smaller teams than AAA titles, so we’re kind of beholden to the team to be available and everyone being able to trade work when someone can’t make it in. There are a lot of dangers with the fast pace.”
But how do you make money?
Solitaire Blitz has an economy is based on energy and silver, which can be used to purchase boosts that help you get a higher score. Silver can be earned through the game at a slow rate, or purchased using real money. “There wasn’t an economy in the early prototype, but it was there in the pitch, explaining where to go with it. You add more treasures, and things to dive for, and it was definitely in the first five bullet points in that early flash game,” Mai said. PopCap thinks about what to monetize up front so the economy makes sense when playing the game, and past Blitz games have given them experience. The trick is to make sure there are no artificial roadblocks that players have to pay to get past.How things are sold in free-to-play games is a sensitive subject, although that’s a weird double-standard: There are total pieces of crap that sell for $60, but players become outraged when the “wrong” thing is sold for a dollar or two in free-to-play games. “There is an inverse correlation between the amount someone pays for a product and the amount of support they expect. Which is interesting,” Willoughby said. In a game where there is zero barrier to entry and people play it in large numbers, they have the luxury of being very judgmental. There is a much tighter connection with a game when someone plays and decides to pay for content, between someone who buys a retail game and feels ready to accept the risk. With a standard game, people accept the risk and make a judgment call, with free-to-play titles, they ask themselves if they’ve been treated fairly, and whether they should come back and continue playing. And that's the trick, while sayings like “minimum viable product” may sound like evil marketing speak, it's very hard to make money on bad games. PopCap wants to create games that you want to come back to, that you're happy to spend money on, and are fun. That's where profits hide, oddly enough: In fun games. The strategy of rapid prototyping, the release of small, fun games, and then following the metrics on those games to see which products are worth supporting and building them out is very different than standard game development, especially with the small teams and rapid updates. The team stressed that every step of the way the main concern was whether or not the game was enjoyable for the players. This makes the constant feedback and accelerated development worth it in the end. “On the platform we’re on, it’s so easy to raise a complaint or report an issue or contact our customer support department,” Neuss said. “The amount of time we spend dealing with issues people have with very small dollar transactions… but you have to do that, because building goodwill is a huge part of what this company is about.”