PopCap Games: The iDesign Interview

On June 1, 2010, iLounge updated our iDesign series—a look at the top industrial designers and designs in the iPod and iPhone ecosystems—with a series of six new feature articles and interviews. For the first time, iDesign expanded to look at the work of noteworthy application developers, including Duck Duck Moose, PopCap Games, and Tapbots, while probing the creative, marketing, and engineering talents of leading Apple case developers Incase, Speck Products, and SwitchEasy. Today, we’re rolling out the extended version of the third of the interviews we conducted, which has been edited only modestly for style and focus. This iDesign Interview discusses PopCap Games, famed creator of multiplatform titles such as Bejeweled, Peggle, and Plants vs. Zombies; PopCap was one of the earliest third-party iPod developers thanks to Apple’s invitation to bring Bejeweled and Zuma to Click Wheel iPods, surging with the iPod success of Peggle, and continuing with multiple popular iPhone releases.

The full iDesign feature on PopCap Games can be seen on pages 68-69 of the iPad Buyers’ Guide and iPod/iPhone Book 5, with excerpts from this interview following on pages 70-71. iLounge interviewed PopCap Senior Producer Matthew Lee Johnston, who has worked on the iPod and iPhone versions of Peggle, Peggle ports and sequels for other platforms, the iPhone release of Bejeweled 2, and Plants vs. Zombies for Xbox Live Arcade. Enjoy.


Peggle’s Title Screen Originally Was Customized With an iPod That Mysteriously Disappeared Before Release

(1) PopCap was one of the first third-party game developers for the Click Wheel iPod, and later made the very best game for that platform, Peggle. Can you tell us about the differences, positive and negative, between developing for the old iPods and the iPhone OS?

Matthew Lee Johnston: Well on behalf of the small team who worked on Peggle for the Click Wheel iPod, I want to thank you for that huge compliment. As you know, Apple is famously particular about developers communicating externally about their platform, in fact I think I may have just violated the NDA by merely mentioning it. I will say that the Click Wheel device was a tricky beast to tame but the unique interface made it a really great destination for Peggle. Remember that this is before the App Store, and when we started the project, there wasn’t even an SDK. We had already shipped Bejeweled and Zuma on the device without an SDK, so that wasn’t so much of a problem, but it wasn’t like today where you can log in to a web forum to get out of a pickle.




It may not always be evident on the surface, but PopCap takes great care to make sure that our games have that hand-made quality to them. When you play one of our games, we want the love and care that went into that game to be tangible. A great example is the physics system in Peggle. We could’ve cut a lot of corners and saved some time by making the physics simulation less robust, but we knew that it wouldn’t be as satisfying and fun. So the programmers who worked on that title really went the extra mile to make sure that ball bounced like you would expect it to in real life, which translated into a very high resolution, dynamic, ball bouncing, unicorn fueled, rainbowlicious, fever generating experience. Try playing a round of one of the few Peggle clones out there, and it becomes evident that the physics engine—and maybe the Fever Particle System—was one of the things that made Peggle the fantastic game that it is.


Peggle for the iPod (above) and iPhone (below)

Then one day, someone says, “hey… let’s put that on the Click Wheel iPod,” which at first seems like a no-brainer with the unique wheel interface and all. But suddenly something like all the intense physics computation that we could “hide” behind the scenes on the PC, can’t be done on the more constrained platform. As the producer, it then becomes my job to stay friendly with my beloved programmer, while advocating hard for the best possible user experience that we can deliver under the difficult circumstances. We like to call everything we do in the Platforms Group at PopCap an adaptation, not a port, because we really do strip everything down and take a hard look at how we can deliver the very best experience for that specific customer, on that individual platform. This is also why sometimes it seems like our adaptations take a bit longer than other game companies. Hopefully once you get the game in your hands, it feels like it was worth the wait.

(2) As impressive and well-liked as your earlier titles were, something changed with both Peggle Nights [for PC/Mac] and Plants vs. Zombies—they felt as if they’d been given a triple-A level of extra polish and charm. What do you do during the finishing stages of your games these days to push them over the edge into blockbuster territory?



Johnston: Primarily due to the continuing support from our customers and fans, along with some amazing internal leadership, PopCap teams have been in the privileged position of being able to work on a title until everyone feels like it’s worthy of release. Nothing gets rushed out the door. PopCap is a game company and there should be zero confusion about that. Everyone here loves games, and the first line of defense against mediocrity has always been our own internal review process. Sometimes the peer feedback can be harsh, but everyone’s just trying to help you make the best game possible. It’s not personal. We don’t fear failure either. If someone has a cool idea we try it, and if it works then great, but if not… no big deal.



That doesn’t happen in an environment where there’s one Type A Genius who has all the right answers and everyone else is taking marching orders. In the end, we all love to have fun, and it’s important to understand and consider the different ways people enjoy games. This is just one aspect of our development process that I think makes a big difference. As for the Secret Sauce recipe… no one person has the entire formula. It’s contained in three separate decoder rings that are worn by our founders, who are not allowed to ever be in the same place at the same time.

(3) You went through two different iterations of Plants vs. Zombies for iPhone OS—a version that was specifically optimized for the iPhone and iPod touch, then a version made for the iPad. Can you tell us about the challenges you faced in moving a computer title to the iPhone, and then upgrading that title for the iPad? Or was it just as simple as replacing the iPhone artwork with the same graphics you’d created for the Mac?




Johnston: I was not on this team, but the same programmer who worked with me on Peggle Click Wheel and iPhone engineered both the PvZ versions you’re referring to. His name is Dan Banay, and the guy has an innate sense for how to whip these constrained platforms into shape. Adapting PvZ to the iPhone/iPad was actually a pretty natural transition because the mouse click controls lend themselves extremely well to the touch screen. I know this first hand because I’m currently working on a console version of the title and it’s been a real challenge to get the controls right on a gamepad. If your computer title is mouse-based, you’re in pretty good shape from the interface standpoint.




But it really does get tricky when dealing with things like audio, graphics, and performance across all the devices, especially when you’re moving a lot of pixels at the same time like you are in PvZ. To my earlier point, we really do try whenever possible to deliver the best experience on that particular platform. The iPad really offered us the opportunity to make better use of the multi-touch interface, so we found some really fun ways to show that off like in the new Buttered Popcorn mode. We also took the time to go through all of the art by hand and make sure that the game looked great, because we obviously care a lot about presentation and well… everything really… and the iPad really does allow you to present your game at a relatively high level of fidelity. 

(4) Many developers jumped immediately into offering downloadable additional content for their App Store games when Apple released iPhone OS 3.0, but PopCap has been surprisingly restrained—no add-on levels for Peggle, no Bejeweled Twist, and no extra modes for Plants vs. Zombies iPhone, even though people would likely pay for them. Why have you held off?

Johnston: Our philosophy toward In-App Purchases has been that they need to make sense in the context of the game, and we are extremely sensitive to not making the customers feel like they’re bring micro-transacted to death. We haven’t found that opportunity in any of our existing titles yet, so we haven’t done it. We’re focused first and foremost on delivering a great game at a price that makes sense to the customer and is in line with the pricing on that platform. I love it when I read a review on iTunes about how shocked people are that we put all of the Peggle levels into the iPhone version for $2.99, or how happy people were when we added Blitz to Bejeweled 2 for no additional cost. I believe respecting our customers and understanding that they have choices when it comes to spending money on games, goes a long way toward building a great relationship with the people who help you keep the lights on.



A lot of In-App commerce feels cumbersome to me, largely due to the fact that people didn’t design their game to support it from the beginning. I don’t want to have to pay to finish a game I already bought, because that’s irritating. We’ll eventually support In-App Purchases, because I think it can be done tastefully and in a way that allows people to extend the core experience if they really liked playing through the whole game. But just like everything else we do, when it happens it will feel like an integrated part of the experience and you won’t feel like you have to keep getting your “wallet” out to feed the fun meter. That’s just not how PopCap does business.

(5) All of your App Store releases have been ports from other platforms, and some time after the games debuted elsewhere. What would make it possible for you to either have an iPhone title launch at the same time as, say, the PC and Mac versions, or to create a totally original game that solely makes use of Apple’s multi-touch interface?

Johnston: I really can’t say much about this right now, but how is ‘yes’ for an answer?  Again, we really try hard not to “port” games whenever possible, and we plan on continuing the PopCap legacy of releasing great adaptations on the platforms that make the most sense for those titles.

(6) When can we expect to see a follow-up to Plants vs. Zombies? Or Peggle Nights for the iPhone/iPad? We can’t wait!

Johnston: I’d rather not spoil any surprises, or have my keys to the PopCap executive zen garden taken away, so I can’t reveal any specifics here. But please be assured that those games are very dear to us, we love them as much as you do, and we’re always looking for ways to continue to pass that love on to whoever will give us the opportunity to entertain them.

Thanks so much for the opportunity to answer these questions.

iLounge: Thank you for your time.

[Editor’s Note: Matthew Lee Johnston and other white background images are courtesy PopCap Games. The original iLounge feature article on PopCap Games can be found in the iPad Buyers’ Guide and iPod/iPhone Book 5. Additional notes on the creation of iDesign are available here.]

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