Bejeweled Blitz LIVE And More With Popcap's Jeff Green
Popcap's Editorial Director Jeff Green has been a voice in the game industry for years. He's an outspoken man, unafraid to give an expletive-laced opinion on a game, even if its the one he's promoting. From Games for Windows Magazine, to EA, and now Popcap, Green has found his way into many sides of the industry, and from what I can tell, working at Popcap has been going quite well.
Understanding why a company like Popcap courted someone like Jeff Green is almost part and parcel to understanding what makes Popcap such a hitmaker. “We'll never release a game if it's not good,” Jeff tells me during a demo session in Manhattan, NY. Popcap isn't a publically-traded company, so there's no investors forcing deadlines, and they've even gone as far as tossing games out after a year of development if they're just not working.
Long story short, Popcap does game development right, so they had nothing to worry about when they hired someone honest to promote their games. Green isn't a shill, so when spending time with him and Popcap's suite of new games, I got a genuine sense of enthusiasm, one that translated to the games themselves.
The Main Event
First up was Bejeweled Blitz LIVE for Xbox Live Arcade. Blitz is essentially the Facebook game with a fancy coat of paint and a few new modes and features, and at the outset that had me a bit worried. After all, the hook of Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook is that it's quick, free, and offers precise mouse controls. Blitz LIVE doesn't really offer any of that, but manages to be great fun in its own right.
Those weaned on Facebook Bejeweled Blitz may find themselves thinking faster than they can make moves, but taken on its own merits, Blitz LIVE is extremely playable. The controls are snappy, with the left stick controlling a cursor while the four face buttons control the direction of gem swaps. The best part is probably the cursor controls, which feel quick and loose because the cursor doesn't anchor to the gems as much as it did in say, Bejeweled 2 on XBLA.
The game also has a very different art style, with the Trapper Keeper-style backdrops replaced with a clean and modern look that fits in better with the rest of the XBLA catalog.
Blitz LIVE is more than just the standard 60 second game too. It features an entirely different mode called Twist, which has existed in other iterations, but is modified a bit here to work on a console. It's a great addition, because aside from the basic match-three concept, the gameplay is entirely different. In this mode, players rotate 2x2 squares of gems instead of swapping two gems. On top of that, not every move has to be a match, so players can arrange complex chains much easier in this mode. It actually plays quite a lot like Hexic.
Taking the game online or playing with a buddy on the couch is a lot of fun too. It's not exactly competitive – you're actually just playing your own game at the same time as everyone else, with the highest-scoring player coming out the winner. So it’s not exactly Tetris Attack, but with the ability to group up with as many as 15 other players in one game, Blitz comes off more like an entertaining chat room than a competitive arena.
That sort of comradery carries over into the game’s leaderboards and achievements, which use a similar weekly group arrangement as the Facebook game. While Green told me the achievements may not be final, at least one of them makes use of the friend’s leaderboard, asking players to reach a combined score threshold with their friends.
Set to arrive sometime in the next few months, Bejeweled Blitz LIVE has all the makings of a slickly designed, entertaining, and addicting puzzle game. If there’s anything wrong with it, it’s that there isn’t a lot of content. Both modes, whether played with friends or alone, use the same 60-second Blitz model. If you were being reductive, you could say that’s really only two minutes worth of gameplay.
While no price for Bejeweled Blitz LIVE has been announced, Green didn’t disagree when I said this seemed like a $5 game. “I hope it is,” he responded, adding that the difference of $5 or $10 is probably the difference of it being a no-brainer purchase or something that might leave you hesitant.
Side Show Android
Along with Bejeweled, Green also showed off Peggle for Android phones. “Android fans are begging for these games, but it’s a hard platform to program for,” Green tells me while showing off an early version of the game. “You have to get it working on all these different phones.”
The problem is once again Popcap’s stubborn struggle for absolute quality. Both Peggle and Plants vs. Zombies are headed to Android phones, but they’re not coming until they’re compatible with all Android phones. “We don’t want to piss anyone off,” Green adds.
The Peggle version I played already looked great, but it was still clearly early, with some rough loading times and touch screen glitches getting in the way of what was otherwise Peggle as it’s always been. No hard release date has been made yet, but word is that the games will probably hit in the summer.
Popcamp and Facebook Games
While that’s all there was to show of upcoming Popcap games, Green was more than happy to continue chatting about his time at Popcap and the company culture. He told me of a database of prototypes they have containing dozens of game ideas that will most likely never see the light of day. Prototyping is a big deal at Popcap - they even go as far as taking the team off-site for what they call “Popcamp”.
Popcamp splits the team into four groups where they each brainstorm new ideas. While it is mostly a way for the team to recharge, it’s also the source of some real games. George Fan, the mind behind Plants vs. Zombies, prototyped an as-of-yet unnamed Facebook game that is currently in development while doing PopCamp.
Speaking of Facebook games, when asked what’s next for Popcap on the social network, Green says they’re very focused on Zuma Blitz right now, but constantly trying new things. Peggle Blitz and Plants vs. Zombies Blitz could happen one day, but so far the company hasn’t come up with a good way to make those games in bite-size form. “How do you do that with a game you spend more time watching than playing?”
Still, Popcap isn’t all-PvZ, all-Peggle, all-Bejeweled, etc. all the time. “We’ve got at least three new games we’re working on,” Green assures me, further explaining that the team is dying to talk about them, especially these days, when it looks like they have nothing new in the cards.
It wasn’t that long ago that Popcap was the Zynga of the moment, ruining all the hardcore gamers' fun with their casual games. Now it’s undeniable, Popcap is one of the darlings of the industry, up there with Valve, Blizzard, and Nintendo with a track record that even an industry veteran like Jeff Green can’t be jaded about.