Interviews: Ty Roberts - Bejeweled 2
Posted by Sean Aaron
We talk to producer Ty Roberts about PopCap's upcoming WiiWare debut
Though PopCap is no stranger to Nintendo platforms, having already released several retail and download games for the DS and DSiWare, Bejeweled 2 marks their first foray in the lounges of Wii owners. After a bit of hands-on time with the final release candidate, we thought we'd find out a little more about PopCap and what's it's been like getting ready to dive into the WiiWare marketplace.
NL: PopCap has grown far beyond the three founders in the last decade. Where do you fit into the PopCap family and how were you involved with PopCap's Wii debut, Bejeweled 2?
Ty Roberts: I was fortunate enough to come into PopCap as a tester about three years ago with the idea that I would be the main tester on Xbox 360, Playstation, and Nintendo titles for our fledgling Video Game Platforms group. After about a year of doing that, I transitioned to an Associate Producer role in the group and have been there ever since. The Wii adaptation of Bejeweled 2 is the first title on which I've been the sole producer.
NL: It seems fair to describe PopCap as an internet success story, growing from a staff of three to the present 200. It's even more amazing that this success was on the back of accessible downloadable games at a time when it was accepted that no one was willing to pay for content on the web. How did PopCap manage this feat and continue to build upon it?
Ty Roberts: Actually, we have more than 275 employees now, with more joining all the time. I honestly have no idea how that initial success was achieved. The founders definitely had a vision and a game and just completely believed in both. I’m one of those guys that never wanted to pay money for an online game that I could just play for free. But when I found Bejeweled 2 and Bookworm (before I worked at PopCap), I gladly paid $20 for each of those games. I loved them. I spent hours playing them. I came to expect PopCap to deliver good games that I could play incessantly.
I really believe that people will always buy quality and value. In other words, bang for their buck. Take a look at Plants Vs. Zombies. How many hours of gameplay is that when you toss in Survival, Adventure, Zen Garden, Minigames, etc? It’s a solid, what, 30 or 40 hours of quality gameplay for about $20? Not to mention that it's pretty much infinitely replayable even once you've completed all those modes and mini-games once. That’s an awful lot of game for $20. Our fans have done the math and have decided that our $20 games are better than many $60 games.
PopCap continues to put out these crazy good games (I mean, Peggle…hello) that lots of people can enjoy playing for very little money. That’s our raison d'etre.
NL: What do you find are the challenges of releasing software for a closed system like a games console versus home computers?
Ty Roberts: Well, really there are two big ones.
Each console has their own certification checks with very specific requirements. These always make me cringe. Even though Nintendo lays out the requirements, I always sweat profusely when my game goes into certification. I suppose it’s not really a challenge, but it’s the thing that makes me sweat the most.
We really try hard to make our games sing on a particular console. I know it’s kind of hard to explain, but we really try to figure out what we can add or change about the game to make it better for a particular platform. With Bejeweled 2, it was a no brainer to put the Miis in, but we had to figure out how to really do it well. We decided to make them do a lot of different things whether it’s reacting to setting off a hypercube in a game or carrying around a player’s statistics. I really like adding specialized touches into a game. I mean, I don’t want to play a PC game on my Wii. I want that game to feel like a game that was meant for the Wii. That way, if you can find the four people in the world that haven’t played Bejeweled, they can play it on the Wii and never even know that it was originally out for the PC because it feels like it belongs on there.
Computers have their own issues though. We at least have a fixed hardware system. PC testing has to include an awful lot of variables.
NL: We've only recently seen PopCap release titles on Nintendo's systems, starting with the DS. Any reason why you're so late to the party?
Ty Roberts: We are just getting the party started. Nah, I’m kidding…that’s a pretty cliché answer. We don’t just decide that we’re going to simply toss a game onto the 3 major consoles and maybe an Apple product or two all at once and make them exactly the same. The game needs to be a great fit for the platform or we won’t do it. It would actually be a challenge to do a Bejeweled 2 or a Chuzzle on the Nintendo DS and make it go beyond expectations. The seek & solve title, Amazing Adventures, seemed like a good fit and we were able to add quite a bit to it such as new levels, a story, and some new minigames. Bookworm and Bejeweled Twist were also really strong fits on that platform and we had some great ideas for new features for both of those games. So we made them and they did pretty well.
With the Wii, I think…ugh…I think it was almost scary territory. I mean, we’re not Wii developers and that platform is so cool and so good that you don’t want to screw up your first release on it. I’m not sure why I got tabbed for that one then...hmm. Anyway, we waited for the right opportunity to test the waters and luckily this came along. I hope it does well. I'd love to work on more Wii games.
NL: What do you find are the biggest challenges of releasing a packaged product at retail like Bejeweled Twist on the DS versus a downloadable game like the DSiWare versions of Bejeweled Twist and Bookworm or Bejeweled 2 for WiiWare?
Ty Roberts: The answer is in your question: The packaging. That’s a brutal challenge. I don’t know if people really understand how tough it is to actually come up with a box cover, the back of the box, the inserts inside, the manual, the sticker that goes on a DS cart, and then trying to literally ship it out of a production facility and getting it into stores. Just writing a game manual takes forever. Taking something like that from a word document and turning it into a cool manual is not an easy thing to do. Plus, you HAVE to get the game right. It’s not like you can update your title.
Putting a game on a digital distribution service like WiiWare is much easier. There are just fewer moving parts that I have to synchronize.
NL: There's a few things that impressed us about Bejeweled 2, one being the way Miis are supported, which seems to allow for a vast number of user profiles; and also the number of available control schemes and inclusion of online leaderboards. You could just as easily have done as other vendors of multi-platform games and simply ported the PC version with the minimum number of changes. What was your philosophy towards developing Bejeweled 2 for WiiWare?
Ty Roberts: I was just trying to not screw it up and get fired. Just kidding. Jason only would have resorted to public humiliation. I would probably end up as Bejeweled Dancer #4.
I’m not a fan of porting games, and thankfully neither is anyone else at PopCap. We like to be able to put a unique stamp on our games when we work on them for other platforms. I mean, there is no creativity to simply tossing Bejeweled 2 on the Wii, making someone use a Wii Remote, and then calling it a day. It’s much more fun for me to work with a great developer and figure out what’s technically feasible and what’s going to be fun specifically for the Wii audience. After a lot of discussion, we figured out a good additional feature list and made it happen.
NL: How was Bejeweled 2 created for the Wii, did you import your existing development environment (the PopCap Games Framework), and if so, does this mean we can expect more PopCap games on WiiWare in the future?
Ty Roberts: We actually partnered with Engine Software out of the Netherlands and they did all of the programmatic work. I’m pretty sure that some elves baked some cookies and the framework just showed up on the Wii via the magic of rainbows. That’s how I like to think about it since I couldn’t write a line of code to save my life. All I know is that a lot of people at Engine that are smarter than me made it work.
I think the Wii is a great platform and our games would work well on it as long as we keep the quality bar super high and we can innovatively adapt to it. I have no idea whether or not we’ll make more games for it, but I certainly hope that we do. If we do another one, I’d like to get much more ambitious with it.
NL: You've mentioned in prior communications about our recent preview that Bejeweled 2 is being prepared for a European release. Is a release planned for Australia and New Zealand as well? Is this PopCap's first attempt at releasing a game in an overseas territory generally or just for a Nintendo platform?
Ty Roberts: We are working on the European release for sure. I’m hoping that will get out shortly. We’re not doing Australia or New Zealand this time around. Since we typically release digitally downloadable titles, people all over the world have access to our games already. Nintendo is a bit of an oddity in that they do digital distribution the same way they do retail distribution: they split it into regions. Like when I worked on Feeding Frenzy 2 for Xbox LIVE Arcade, it was just one big ol’ worldwide package. We didn’t have to shoot it off to Microsoft Europe to be distributed on LIVE for Europe or anything. With Nintendo, you go through separate entities depending on where you want to release the game. It’s kind of nice because you can test the waters in the North American market for example and then make a decision whether or not you want to go into the European market.
NL: Are there plans to release your DS retail/DSiWare games overseas as well? Are you also looking to sell games to Nintendo gamers in Japan or are you only focusing on North America and Europe?
Ty Roberts: Ubisoft distributed our first DS title Amazing Adventures: The Forgotten Ruins in Europe. That’s our only DS title overseas so far.
I hope we do get those to Europe. I was the associate producer on all of our DS titles (except Peggle DS) and I’m really proud of all of them. I worked my tail off on Bookworm DS, Bejeweled Twist DS, and the two seek and solve titles. I’d like to see them make it overseas at some point. Plus, I think that there should be a production voice over there which I could volunteer for.
It usually comes down to a business decision. While I am always happy to weigh in on those decisions, it’s ultimately up to the business folks.
NL: Finally, we were impressed to see a Robotron high score of over 4 million on the PopCap "About Us" page. Who managed that feat?
Ty Roberts: Andy “Candy Train” Piro.
NL: Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions - we're sure there's a lot of readers (and staffers) looking forward to playing Bejeweled 2 this summer!
Ty Roberts: Thanks for asking!