Thursday, December 18, 2008

The genius of Popcap

This article first appeared on my weekly 'Game Invader' column for The New Indian Express.

Popcap games makes the world's most addictive, insanely fun games. Sorry Maxis. Sorry Blizzard. I'm afraid these guys are numero uno.

The cause of this rant is Peggle. A devilishly simple looking game, in which you drop a small ball into a playing board that consists of coloured pegs arranged in various patterns, sort of like a pachinko board. The aim of the game is to drop the ball in such a way that you clear all the pegs of a particular colour. It sounds simple. It is simple. But I challenge you to stop playing.

Within minutes, you'll be figuring out angles, using power ups, biting your nails, and fervently 'willing' the ball to drop in a favourable way. You'll be humming the tunes, ogling the cutesy-pie graphics, and cursing the evil geniuses who designed this mind-virus.

This isn't the first time popcap has done this to me. I've been, at various points in time, addicted to Zuma, Insaniquarium, and Bejewelled. I hate these people. It's all Popcap's fault.

Insaniquarium is actually a game where Popcap has managed to make fish-feeding a fun activity! The whole game revolves around the rather goofy and silly premise of keeping all the fish in your aquarium well-fed and happy. By clicking. That's it. Clicking, Like Diablo. Only crazier. You'll have to manage carnivorous fish that eat the herbivorous fish, you'll have to manage resources by allowing the fish themselves to generate pearls – which convert to cash to buy more food. And of course, you'll have to defend your fish from aliens that sudddenly appear in the tank. You heard me right. Aliens.

Many of you may have played a clone of Bejewelled – the classic match-3-gems-in-a-row puzzle. If so, you'll understand how Popcap games are – simple to learn, impossible to stop playing. It's a formula they seem to have mastered better than any other developer. In fact, in the midst of typing this article, I briefly went over to popcap's web site for 'just a few' rounds of Peggle! The masterly design, superb, pleasing production values, and finely-tuned gameplay makes their games unique, even in the highly competitive world of casual gaming. They're like the Pixar of casual gaming – showing repeated successes and spawning countless inferior imitators.

Popcap also makes these games available free to play on You'll need to install a small plug-in, and you're all set to play some of the finest games ever made. Just don't blame me for the loss in productivity!

In a world where the heavyweight and 'hardcore' games get all the fancy media coverage, the contribution of casual games is often overlooked. Tetris continues to be among the world's most played games. In fact, often people have said to me “Nah – I don't play games. Just Tetris.” Just Tetris? Think about that.

Companies like Popcap continue to draw millions of new users, and generate huge dollars for the industry. By making their games available on almost every available platform – Bejewelled and Zuma are available on PC, web browser, mobile, and even XBOX live arcade – they ensure that huge numbers of casual users become fans of gaming. A significant number of these will then experiment with hardcore titles, and who knows, they may even end up being chainsaw addicts on Gears of War.

But it would all have started with Peggle. Or Zuma. And it would all be Popcap's fault.

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