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How PopCap Embraced Its Inner Indie and Formed 4th & Battery

As development times got longer, PopCap's designers needed a new creative outlet.

PopCap Games takes its sweet time before releasing a game, instead focusing on spit-shining its titles towards maximum addictiveness, then quickly expanding them to every platform imaginable. It's why we all own so many copies of Bejeweled, Plants vs. Zombies and Peggle for no particularly good reason--the games are just that god damn good.

It wasn't always this way, though. PopCap used to release games in a year or less, but modern PopCap releases spend two or three years in development. Eventually, the studio started to realize it needed a release valve for its designers, an internal outlet for new ideas while working on these bigger games.

Thus, 4th & Battery, a label within PopCap to channel all this additional creativity.

Bringing games like Peggle and Plants vs. Zombies to near perfection takes years.

"People can get a little restless working on the same project for that long," explained Matthew Lee Johnston, a producer at PopCap and the guy credited with originally pushing the idea internally.

"We did have a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor on the shelf that we didn't feel, for one reason or another, warranted a full-fledged release as a PopCap title," he continued, "and we [wanted] to get those ideas out somehow."

There were other reasons for creating a sub-label, too, like having more ways to interact with the PopCap fanbase about design, but during my phone conversation with Johnston and others about 4th and Battery, it's clear the initiative was more about making the developers happy.

"The retention thing is a really important thing," said director of editorial and social media Jeff Green.

Yes, that Jeff Green.

"We don't want people to have think 'Well, I've got this great idea for a game, so I better quit PopCap so I can go make it,'" he continued. "We want to be able to say them 'No, you can stay here and make it and we'll pay you, and there's a chance that if it's good enough, we may actually release it, too.'"

Settling on the actual name wasn't simple.

Green and Johnston initially went to great lengths to concoct a story of a fake independent development house no one would be able to connect to PopCap Games (more on that tomorrow, since it's worth telling in full). That idea was ditched in favor of mulling over the name PopCap Labs.

The problem with PopCap Labs was the fear of putting unnecessary pressure on PopCap designers who were fleshing out these small, experimental ideas. These games didn't need to live up to expectations associated with PopCap's stuff.

"We didn't want there to be any psychological burden on them, so that they could treat these as their own indie games, while still working at PopCap," said Green.

Unpleasant Horse was mostly conceived and created within a 24-hour development marathon.

The first release under 4th & Battery was Unpleasant Horse, a game derived from a 24-hour game jam at PopCap, where the studio was split into different teams. Teams plucked phrases out of a hat, and one of them simply read "unpleasant horse racing in the sky." Seriously. That's all the team had to go on. One day later, what you can download on your iPhone and iPad for free today is basically what they built.

"There aren't a whole bunch of resources behind 4th & Battery," said Tysen Henderson, another producer at PopCap and internal evangelist for 4th & Battery. "It's kind of like...whoever has time at that moment can pitch in. There's no release schedule, there's no pressure to get a title out at a certain time. There's no pressure to put it on any particular platform. It's really, really open and undefined."

It's a complete coincidence all three games released under the label have been for Apple's iOS platform and without a price tag attached. Future games from 4th & Battery could cost money and appear elsewhere. Green described PopCap's attitude towards platform and pricing as a case-by-case process.

Candy Train, a simple moving tile puzzle game, was 4th & Battery's second release and has a long history with PopCap, as it turns out. Candy Train was originally published on PopCap's website years and years ago.

"It lived there for a while, until we took it down, because like five people were playing it," said Johsnston. "Those five people told like five more people, so ten people were really upset about it! They continued to be upset about it for about...seven years. The same ten people kept writing us emails over and over again."

An engineer at PopCap decided to port Candy Train onto iOS as a way of familiarizing themselves with iOS. Elsewhere, PopCap employees Sophia Hohing, then a tools engineer, and Adam MacDonnell, working as a quality assurance lead, saw a path to realizing their dreams of being a designer and a producer. The two of them pitched PopCap on the idea of updating Candy Train as part of a PopCamp project, where employees ask for permission to explore an idea, game or skill for a week.

PopCap gave the thumbs up, and they pulled it off.

Candy Train was a PopCap game lost to the mists of time, until a few employees decided to rescue it.

"Sophia now works as a game engineer and she has realized her goal," revealed Johnston, "and her boyfriend, Adam, is working as an associate producer on one of our Bejeweled Blitz games. 4th & Battery served as an empowerment opportunity for both of them, and I think a whole bunch of [us] got a really fun, free game out of it, too."

There's no established style for games that quality for release under 4th & Battery, but the group made it clear Unpleasant Horse would be about as "edgy"--if you can even call it that--as the label ever got.

Naturally, I cracked a joke about what the hell a PopCap-developed military first-person-shooter might look like.

"No, we probably won't do that," laughed Johnston. "That's not because there's a rule that says we can't do that, it's just because people here probably wouldn't do that. You don't show up at PopCap to work every day because you'd rather be making first-person-shooters but instead you're making games about chuzzles. "

Weinart reacts to seeing his vision come to life, courtesy of PopCap's designers.

The third and most recent 4th & Battery creation is Allied Star Police, a game PopCap developed in conjunction with a talented 10-year-old named Owain Weinert. PopCap met Weinhert through the Make-a-Wish Foundation, who told PopCap that Weinert's dream was to create a video game his friends and family could play. Weinert came into PopCap's offices and proceeded to give the studio a 30-minute presentation about this game, complete with a breakdown of units and in-game economy.

PopCap employed another PopCamp week to develop a working prototype for Weinert, then spent another few months adding new layers of polish to the game.

"He [Weinart] sat down with that game when we gave him the first playable version of that game," said Johnston, "and played it like he'd played it a million times before. [...] It says a lot about Owain and his ability to communicate his design and his ideas to them, so that [we] could build the game that he had envisioned."

No one would hint at what's next for 4th & Battery, mostly because they're making it up as they go along.

"My goal for 4th and Battery is that it becomes the preeminent lifestyle brand in the world," said Johnston. "Basically, there's the Gap and Target and, uh, Dolce and Gabara--it's going to be all that and more to people. But that's in the future. For now, it's going to be this little thing that we put out games out every once and a while."

Patrick Klepek on Google+
39 Comments
Posted by patrickklepek

PopCap Games takes its sweet time before releasing a game, instead focusing on spit-shining its titles towards maximum addictiveness, then quickly expanding them to every platform imaginable. It's why we all own so many copies of Bejeweled, Plants vs. Zombies and Peggle for no particularly good reason--the games are just that god damn good.

It wasn't always this way, though. PopCap used to release games in a year or less, but modern PopCap releases spend two or three years in development. Eventually, the studio started to realize it needed a release valve for its designers, an internal outlet for new ideas while working on these bigger games.

Thus, 4th & Battery, a label within PopCap to channel all this additional creativity.

Bringing games like Peggle and Plants vs. Zombies to near perfection takes years.

"People can get a little restless working on the same project for that long," explained Matthew Lee Johnston, a producer at PopCap and the guy credited with originally pushing the idea internally.

"We did have a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor on the shelf that we didn't feel, for one reason or another, warranted a full-fledged release as a PopCap title," he continued, "and we [wanted] to get those ideas out somehow."

There were other reasons for creating a sub-label, too, like having more ways to interact with the PopCap fanbase about design, but during my phone conversation with Johnston and others about 4th and Battery, it's clear the initiative was more about making the developers happy.

"The retention thing is a really important thing," said director of editorial and social media Jeff Green.

Yes, that Jeff Green.

"We don't want people to have think 'Well, I've got this great idea for a game, so I better quit PopCap so I can go make it,'" he continued. "We want to be able to say them 'No, you can stay here and make it and we'll pay you, and there's a chance that if it's good enough, we may actually release it, too.'"

Settling on the actual name wasn't simple.

Green and Johnston initially went to great lengths to concoct a story of a fake independent development house no one would be able to connect to PopCap Games (more on that tomorrow, since it's worth telling in full). That idea was ditched in favor of mulling over the name PopCap Labs.

The problem with PopCap Labs was the fear of putting unnecessary pressure on PopCap designers who were fleshing out these small, experimental ideas. These games didn't need to live up to expectations associated with PopCap's stuff.

"We didn't want there to be any psychological burden on them, so that they could treat these as their own indie games, while still working at PopCap," said Green.

Unpleasant Horse was mostly conceived and created within a 24-hour development marathon.

The first release under 4th & Battery was Unpleasant Horse, a game derived from a 24-hour game jam at PopCap, where the studio was split into different teams. Teams plucked phrases out of a hat, and one of them simply read "unpleasant horse racing in the sky." Seriously. That's all the team had to go on. One day later, what you can download on your iPhone and iPad for free today is basically what they built.

"There aren't a whole bunch of resources behind 4th & Battery," said Tysen Henderson, another producer at PopCap and internal evangelist for 4th & Battery. "It's kind of like...whoever has time at that moment can pitch in. There's no release schedule, there's no pressure to get a title out at a certain time. There's no pressure to put it on any particular platform. It's really, really open and undefined."

It's a complete coincidence all three games released under the label have been for Apple's iOS platform and without a price tag attached. Future games from 4th & Battery could cost money and appear elsewhere. Green described PopCap's attitude towards platform and pricing as a case-by-case process.

Candy Train, a simple moving tile puzzle game, was 4th & Battery's second release and has a long history with PopCap, as it turns out. Candy Train was originally published on PopCap's website years and years ago.

"It lived there for a while, until we took it down, because like five people were playing it," said Johsnston. "Those five people told like five more people, so ten people were really upset about it! They continued to be upset about it for about...seven years. The same ten people kept writing us emails over and over again."

An engineer at PopCap decided to port Candy Train onto iOS as a way of familiarizing themselves with iOS. Elsewhere, PopCap employees Sophia Hohing, then a tools engineer, and Adam MacDonnell, working as a quality assurance lead, saw a path to realizing their dreams of being a designer and a producer. The two of them pitched PopCap on the idea of updating Candy Train as part of a PopCamp project, where employees ask for permission to explore an idea, game or skill for a week.

PopCap gave the thumbs up, and they pulled it off.

Candy Train was a PopCap game lost to the mists of time, until a few employees decided to rescue it.

"Sophia now works as a game engineer and she has realized her goal," revealed Johnston, "and her boyfriend, Adam, is working as an associate producer on one of our Bejeweled Blitz games. 4th & Battery served as an empowerment opportunity for both of them, and I think a whole bunch of [us] got a really fun, free game out of it, too."

There's no established style for games that quality for release under 4th & Battery, but the group made it clear Unpleasant Horse would be about as "edgy"--if you can even call it that--as the label ever got.

Naturally, I cracked a joke about what the hell a PopCap-developed military first-person-shooter might look like.

"No, we probably won't do that," laughed Johnston. "That's not because there's a rule that says we can't do that, it's just because people here probably wouldn't do that. You don't show up at PopCap to work every day because you'd rather be making first-person-shooters but instead you're making games about chuzzles. "

Weinart reacts to seeing his vision come to life, courtesy of PopCap's designers.

The third and most recent 4th & Battery creation is Allied Star Police, a game PopCap developed in conjunction with a talented 10-year-old named Owain Weinert. PopCap met Weinhert through the Make-a-Wish Foundation, who told PopCap that Weinert's dream was to create a video game his friends and family could play. Weinert came into PopCap's offices and proceeded to give the studio a 30-minute presentation about this game, complete with a breakdown of units and in-game economy.

PopCap employed another PopCamp week to develop a working prototype for Weinert, then spent another few months adding new layers of polish to the game.

"He [Weinart] sat down with that game when we gave him the first playable version of that game," said Johnston, "and played it like he'd played it a million times before. [...] It says a lot about Owain and his ability to communicate his design and his ideas to them, so that [we] could build the game that he had envisioned."

No one would hint at what's next for 4th & Battery, mostly because they're making it up as they go along.

"My goal for 4th and Battery is that it becomes the preeminent lifestyle brand in the world," said Johnston. "Basically, there's the Gap and Target and, uh, Dolce and Gabara--it's going to be all that and more to people. But that's in the future. For now, it's going to be this little thing that we put out games out every once and a while."

Posted by BigLemon

Holy shit, I totally remember Candytrain. Great article!

Posted by JCTango

Good on them for making Weinart's dream come true. =)

Posted by Sinful

hmmm i see

Posted by MauveForest

Awesome article patrick ! I really love these kind of articles.

Posted by bretthancock

PopCap is awesome, I interviewed there for a Network Admin job and the entire process was blissful. Super nice people throughout that place.

Posted by rmanthorp

ARRRTTIICLEEESSSSS

Moderator
Posted by ApolloBob

That's right you bitches, CANDY TRAIN.  The unsung hero of the Popcap lineup.  Screw your Bejeweleds, screw your Peggles, to hell with your battles betwixt horticulture and the undead - get on the damned Candy Train.
 
THAT TRACK IS PINK!

Posted by Lord_Ozma

So awesome that Weinart got to play a hand in having his dream game developed.

Excellent read Patrick. Hope we get more articles like this in the future.

Posted by FourWude

Indie till I die.

Posted by YOUNGLINK

Jeff Green IS the man

Edited by aceofspudz

They developed a video game for make-a-wish? Now that is amazing.

Posted by patrickklepek

You guys have no idea what you're in for in tomorrow's PopCap article, which explains the original idea they had for 4th & Battery. Hint: MySpace.

Posted by Cybexx

Naming their indie label after the intersection where the Popcap office is located is pretty cute.

Posted by fishmicmuffin

@patrickklepek said:

You guys have no idea what you're in for in tomorrow's PopCap article, which explains the original idea they had for 4th & Battery. Hint: MySpace.

So.... they wanted to make MySpace before it existed? Or put games on it before there were games all over Facebook?

Posted by MrKlorox

Aw, I was hoping some designers had left PopCap after being acquired by EA to form a new, actual indie studio. Oh well, this seems pretty cool as well.

Posted by XFLOP20

cool

Posted by karatetron

That logo is indie as fuck.

Posted by Silver-Streak

@aceofspudz: Agreed. Despite how some people may feel about them, or casual games in general, that's some classy stuff right there.

Posted by saxmusician20

Patrick's articles are incredible well written, and you could tell he thinks about them. Great information!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by Kazona

More developers should give their employees the chance to just have fun coming up with stuff like this.

Posted by mnzy
@TrippinBungalow said:

That logo is indie as fuck.

Reminds of an old 1up show intro, maybe Jeff got the same artist for it.
Posted by go_diego_go

It's great to hear that a developer is giving their creative team a chance to ....well be creative!

Posted by mewarmo990

@patrickklepek said:

You guys have no idea what you're in for in tomorrow's PopCap article, which explains the original idea they had for 4th & Battery. Hint: MySpace.

Looking forward to it. I wonder if it has anything to do with Jeff Green's position as the social media director.

Posted by RagingLion
@MauveForest said:
Awesome article patrick ! I really love these kind of articles.
Posted by Bummey

Still waiting on Insaniquarium for iOS. I want to shatter my phone's screen with all that tapping.

Posted by Tim_the_Corsair

Great article, increased my respect for PopCap.

Posted by Rolyatkcinmai

Awesome article, Patrick.

Posted by countstex

Soon as there is something on Android I'll be sure to check it out.

Posted by Akia

4&B is the new R&B

Posted by MikkaQ

That Allied Star Police game is pretty goddamn awesome. It's like... tower defence on wheels, but you're also attacking.

Posted by probablytuna

@Bummey said:

Still waiting on Insaniquarium for iOS. I want to shatter my phone's screen with all that tapping.

Oh man I remember that game... Freaking love that shit when I was a kid.

Posted by ghostNPC

Fantastic article once again Patrick, well done.

Posted by SonofSeth

I always wondered why someone like Blizzard doesn't do that

Posted by Trejik

So, after reading Alex's awesome Rage preview, and now reading this awesome article, I have awesomley decided that Giant Bomb has some of the best writer's this side of internet-video-game-land. Keep up the interesting, and overall entertaining stuff you guys.

Edited by aidros

Was Jeff Green wearing the money hat in the interview?

Posted by Xsheps

I just want to say that I really enjoy reading Patrick's articles.    Far superior to most online journalism where people just copy stories from other sites, reporting on industry rumors and other fan gossip, without any real thought of commentary.  Keep of the good work!

Posted by BeautifulSpaceCowboy

Great article, Patrick.

Posted by Xpgamer7

Didn't know about this, but it sounds like a great idea on Popcap's part.