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Developer Interview with PopCap Games Studio, 4th & Battery

by Adam Pavlacka on July 25, 2011 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

PopCap Games formed 4th & Battery, a new experimental label where PopCap's designers and developers have free reign to create smaller, simpler, and sometimes edgier games. We recently caught up with them to get some more details ...

WP: Who has the honor to speak with us? State your name, rank and occupation!

I'm Garth Chouteau, and I'm the VP of public relations for PopCap.

WP: PopCap's new studio, 4th & Battery, has been up for a few months, but when you guys first announced it, you announced it on Apr. 1. Was that an accident, or were you doing that just to screw with people?

GC: I think that was a function of having announced Plants vs. Zombies on the previous Apr. 1 and just kind of keeping people guessing as to whether we're serious and what PopCap's all about and what we're doing and whether it's real or some kind of joke. So a lot of what we do is very real, and some of what we do is very whimsical and kind of "catch-as-catch-can," and we try to have fun all the time no matter what we're doing. 4th& Battery is definitely a real studio, but it's a very different studio from PopCap.

WP: Can you tell us a little bit about 4th & Battery's setup? Is this completely separately from PopCap? Do they have their own offices? Are they just a team inside PopCap? Do engineers just come and go? What's the basis behind it?

GC: It's teams within PopCap. We do not have a separate facility, but we have a separate sort of philosophy that applies to 4th & Battery, and what we try to do is take the developers and designers and game creators and give them a more creative outlet that enables them to kind of run with ideas in a way that is much more immediate and much more freeform and open-ended than PopCap. PopCap is now a 420-person company, and we have to bear in mind that there are a lot of creative people within PopCap who need to just sort of let it go and let loose and create things, and that's what 4th & Battery is for.

WP: Was it a surprise when Unpleasant Horse was initially rejected by the Apple store?

GC: No, that was a miscommunication on our part more than anything else. They just kind of pushed back and said, "Based on what we understand this game to involve, it should have a higher rating," and we hadn't completely thought that through. We looked at the game and their rating system and agreed with them and changed the rating of the game, and it was approved pretty much immediately at that point. That's part of the function of having an independent studio. You've got people there whose expertise is in designing and creating games; it's not in publishing games, it's not in marketing games, and it's not in publicizing games, so you're going to have some missteps and miscommunications initially. We've ironed those out, and 4th & Battery, as a studio, is a stand-alone entity that understands what it is and is finding its place in the world.

WP: How do ideas evolve into a 4th & Battery project? Do engineers say, "I've got a cool idea, but it's going to be more like an indie film," and you decide to go with 4th & Battery rather than PopCap? Or does something start out at 4th & Battery and then move to PopCap? Just trying to get an idea of the thinking process.

GC: Sure. I think it's still a work in progress for us. We're still trying to figure out exactly what that formula is, but initially, it's more a function of an indie film studio. You've got an idea for a movie — it could be two minutes long, it could be an hour and 20 minutes long — but it's something you need to do and you need to do it soon for creative purposes, and that's what 4th & Battery is for. PopCap is more of a polished, methodical studio that puts out a new piece of content every one-and-a-half to two years. 4th & Battery is a way for all those creative people in the studio to put new ideas in front of the public and consumers on a much more frequent basis.

For consumers, it's almost like a glimpse of what the creative minds at PopCap are thinking on a day-to-day basis. So when you play something like Unpleasant Horse or Candy Train or some of the upcoming titles from 4th & Battery, what you're seeing are games that are smaller, they're more fundamental in a way than PopCap might publish, but they're fun at their core. So we feel a need to get them out there, and 4th & Battery gives us a way to do that with no constraints or concerns about, "Are we making money off this?" "Are we appealing to all the people who love Peggle or Plants vs. Zombies or Bejeweled?" That's not what it's about. It's about you have an idea, you are a creative person in our studio, and you have to get it out there. Here's how we can make that happen in a relatively short time frame as opposed to a polished PopCap game that might take three or four years.

WP: So far, the focus for 4th & Battery has been iOS games, and historically, PopCap has had its base in PC. The iPhone was the first real mobile device on which PopCap put its games. As a company, PopCap has embraced Android via the Amazon App Store. Was there a decision to focus on iOS for 4th & Battery, or was that based on familiarity?

GC: Yeah, I think it's the "path of least resistance" kind of question. For us, the iOS is a simple, straightforward, broadly appealing platform where we can reach consumers of all stripes. The Android is getting there, but it's not quite there yet. It's not as straightforward, it's not as simple to develop for, so at some point, it probably will be a function of producing games from 4th & Battery for iPhone and Android and other very ubiquitous kind of platforms that the broad swath of consumers can access. PC is kind of where we have always come from; our heritage is PC and Mac, but with these more fundamental and core ideas that 4th & Battery is embracing and turning into games, something like iOS is the path of least resistance at the moment.  It's the easiest way to get a game in front of tens of millions of people. That may change over time.

WP: You mentioned two things: fundamental gaming and core.  PopCap's early games, like Zuma and Bejeweled, were known as casual games for casual gamers. More recent titles, like Bejeweled 3 and Plants vs. Zombies, have crossed over into the core gaming group. Has the new hardcore gaming audience affected the thinking or design philosophy at PopCap? Or do you not worry about casual-versus-hardcore gamers during the development process? How do you approach that?

GC: I think the answer for that is true for both PopCap as a whole and 4th & Battery as an independent studio, which is to say 4th & Battery is going to take an idea that may be somewhat hardcore at its roots and still try to make it broadly appealing and broadly accessible. It's fair to say that the majority of the people who work at PopCap on the studio side, the creative side, are hardcore gamers for the most part. So you're dealing with people who know they have to make games that will appeal to the broad consumer audience, but they have hardcore gamer sensibilities. That's reflected in games like Peggle and Plants vs. Zombies and Bejeweled 3. On the one hand, you can access those games if you're a soccer mom, if you're a first-time gamer and get a lot of out of them. You can enjoy those games without really delving into the sort of strategic or other hardcore elements of the game. But if you're a hardcore gamer, there's a lot to like about Bejeweled 3 or Plants vs. Zombies or Zuma's Revenge in terms of strategies. You can devise strategies for those games that will enable you to overcome the hardest achievements and challenges in those games. The people making those games, because they're hardcore gamers, create challenges and achievements that are only attainable if you bring a hardcore kind of mentality or mindset to those games.

So while my mom loves Plants vs. Zombies and plays for an hour every day, she's probably never going to worry about attaining every achievement or overcoming every obstacle in Plants vs. Zombies. She enjoys it on one level, and hardcore gamers enjoy it on a different level, and that's the beauty of a game like that.

WP: Our managing editor wants to know who she has to kill to get Plants vs. Zombies 2?

GC: We will eventually make a Plants vs. Zombies 2. We have acknowledged that that is something we will do. We're very judicious and thoughtful and methodical about these things. I mean, it took us five years to create a sequel to Bejeweled 2, which most people would've done in nine months.  You can expect a sequel to Plants vs. Zombies, but it probably will be a year or two or three from now, and it will be a very polished, very thoughtful expansion on the original idea.

WP: PopCap has been getting a lot of attention in the gaming industry lately. Do you feel flattered?

GC: We're gratified certainly that people are taking us seriously as a billion-dollar company. PopCap has created a number of long-lasting franchises that we think are very evergreen and have a lot more mileage in them.

WP: Is there anything that we haven't talked about that you wanted to add?

GC: We continue to find ways to both expand on our existing content and provide updates for Plants vs. Zombies and Peggle on iPhone and Android. We're also very focused on finding ways to connect the various audiences for our games across platforms across devices. That's a work in progress, but ultimately, I think we will see a day not too long from now where people who play Peggle or Plants vs. Zombies or Bejeweled or Zuma or Chuzzle on a given device can compare their scores and accomplishments and achievements with people who play on a completely separate device and really equate their achievements globally. That's a goal for us.

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