Interview with PopCap’s James Gwertzman

Gamasutra published an interview with James Gwetzman, PopCap’s Director of Business Development.

It goes through a few different topics, such as the history of the company and the amount of growth it experienced, but I think the most interesting part was the overview of the development process:

“Our path of development is extremely prototype-heavy,” said Gwertzman. “We’ll make half a dozen prototypes, and pick just one of those to be a hit casual game. And once we develop that one, it’s a very iterative process. It’s a sandbox model. We try different things out, and find out what’s fun. Only when we find out that the core mechanic is fun do we worry about the art, content, and all the other little details.”

“We really obsess over the core game mechanics. In a game like Bejeweled, hardcore developers look at that and might think it’s kind of…it’s very easy to kind of dismiss it, but we literally spent weeks on just the right way for the gems to fall when you make a match. In a game like that, it’s little details like that. How does it feel? Getting those little details right is what we prioritize. So when we’re designing a new game, we’ll spend months and months prototyping core mechanics.”

Casual games are perceived to be simple to create. People still talk about how Tetris could have been made in a day and made someone very rich. They slap their foreheads at missing the opportunity, but I think it is very easy to look back on games like Pac-man and Bejeweled and decide that they were incredibly simple to create.

What’s forgotten is that a game like Pac-man still took months to create the first time. The developers cut features, agonized over details, and tweaked until it was finished. You could implement a clone within a few weeks, but I’m sure that the same team could throw away what they made, start from scratch, and come up with the same game in a much quicker time frame, too.

The idea that it takes a lot of effort to make high-quality casual games might be surprising to a lot of people, but how often does a great game get made accidently?

9 comments to Interview with PopCap’s James Gwertzman

  • It’s interesting how they say they start with alot of prototypes. If you read about the Cerny method (Mark Cerny aka the Marble Madness guy) You see how he talks about not necesserily making alot of documents (of course you have some docs you make as you design, but a majority of it isn’t), but instead prototyping the game to develop it. I think it goes against what most people tell starting game developers, where everyone says you need a design document and you need to pre-think it. There is just too many things to “pre-think”. When working on interative design via prototyping i’m thinking you might come out with a better game. However I’ve yet to do this 🙂 So i’m not an expert, it’s just a trend i’m starting to notice. My Game Hypno-Joe http://www.games-afoot.com (btw it may not be there for much longer since I took advantage of 1and1’s free 3 year webhosting when they were offering it), will be developed via prototyping. In fact i’m setting up a blog on my personal webpage to hopefully document this process so people can see what i’m doing.

    Keith aka Uhfgood

  • Thanks, Keith. I’m looking forward to the blog. B-)

    My plans for my next game involve making a simple prototype by March, but I will need to rethink it. I don’t think I’ll be making one prototype anymore, or at the very least I will be messing with the one I will have until I figure out what works.

    Oracle’s Eye is still small enough that I can probably try different things as well. I haven’t put a lot of effort into levels or anything like that, so the game could change without too much pain.

  • Prototypes all the way as far as I’m concerned.

    the way I have worked for a year and a half is to jot down ideas, expand the best ones into very small overview design docs (not full ones) then just get stuck in on the core game mechanic. I found some of them unworkable in practice or just not fun. Others I developed further until hitting a wall, and a couple more I carried on with feeling it was fun, do-able and marketable.

    I then took the first of those and began iterative design/prototype of key elements within it (always having the main goal/idea to aim towards) and found I changed the core mechanic 3 times to include more fun and more interaction.

    Once that was out the way It was then I took a look at the final prototype and played around with and wrote a (small) design doc and a schedule to go with it. Rather than sitting down at the start at writng a 25 page doc for something I didn’t know would work or not, I felt much better spending that time on something I knew would be ok (I had the proof in front of me – also had others check it out).

    Then I just went for it. Some things changed along the way, ideas were scrapped or re-implemented. It feels like sculpting something from nothing.

    Finally it now is coming up to beta status and I have to now work hard on doing all the things that are not open to question but just NEED to be put it (profiles, save games, polish etc). After that gameplay testing/balancing and hopefully release inside of the next 2 months.

    So, getting back to the issue, proto typing has definitley worked for me. It may have set me back 6 months intially but I now have more insight into the process and other prototypes to go back and finish off.

    For the kinds of games most indies put out – I think protos are far more important than a pre-production game design doc because fun and playability are prime concerns for smaller games unlike retail.

  • What are the primary concerns for a retail game then? B-)

    I’ve read “build one to throw away” in software development and game development, but it was never heavily emphasized. It’s good to know that prototyping has met with such success in indie game development.

  • in retail? in my experience? Hype, Marketing and a licence or re-usable franchise. Of course they WANT to make it playable but they have a massive checklist of “more important” things that must be drawn up before they start dabbling in code/prototypes (hence the projects getting the green light). Though that is obviously the men-in-suits doing their thing. It’s just a bit dis-organised if a team of 20 coders set of on making a few prototypes *without* a decent design spec imo. It would just be wasting time and that is why retail game designers and producers get paid so much.

    Anyway a clearer way of saying what I mean is – the typical indiegame ONLY has fun and playability to win it’s place in the demo players heart (ie no licence, hype, marketing spend or sequel followers) 😉

  • […] GBGames has an interesting discussion going on about the importance of prototypes and design documents in game design, specifically casual games in direct reference to the Gamasutra article with James Gwetzman of Popcap Games. […]

  • Look,

    Prototypes are key to creating new and unique games. If you want to be a leader, you must prototype.

    When I did the doctor game, I wrote a huge design doc. Everything was detailed….except for the gameplay.

    The document was really worthless because I didn’t know how the final game would look like.

    With the upcoming experimental game…I prototyped and prototyped until I found something compelling. I focused on the core dynamics.

    Here is why prototyping works. The creative mind likes to form creative patterns.

    When you prototype, YOU CREATE KNOWLEDGE AND UNDERSTANDING FOR YOUR MIND; you create unique knowledge that no one else in the world has experienced.

    So as time progresses, your subconscious mind picks up on some of nuances in your prototypes…and ***bam***….your mind finally pieces together all of the knowledge gained from the prototypes…and comes up with a very useful and great idea.

    So yeah, you must prototype. The hardest part for me to prototype was recognizing that I have to throw away a lot of the stuff I try. Initially, it felt like “wasting time” and “being inefficient”…but now I see each prototype as a point on a very curved/crazy path to beauty.

    We all know that success is not a straight path….game development isn’t either.

    Later,
    Action

  • Thanks, Action! Sometimes it is hard to realize that each prototype “failure” is actually an improvement of your own knowledge of the problem domain.

  • […] prototypes developed by the creators of Tower of Goo, and back in 2005 I’ve written about the interview with James Gwertzman of PopCap in which he claims that the development process is “extremely […]

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