Bejeweled isn't one of those games that has commercials running for it or a line of cool T-shirts and toys. But still, millions of people have heard of it. When Brian Fiete, Jason Kapalka and John Vechey of PopCap came across a Russian match-three game called Shariki (or The Colors Game), it inspired them to create a browser-based game named Diamond Mine which later evolved into the glittery, ball of addiction we now know as Bejeweled.
Since Bejeweled's creation in 2000, the following 13 years would be wildly successful journey of reinvention and expansion. Presently, the puzzler can be played on nearly every handheld, mobile or home console platform imaginable. Bejeweled's Executive Producer, Heather Hazen attributes the game's reach to the company's willingness to provide a gaming experience wherever the player may be. "I've watched my four-year old nephew play and I've watched my grandmother play, and for us, you have to be where the fans are," Hazen says. "As you think about how it's a game for everybody, you have to be willing to expand your horizons as far as the platforms you want to deliver a top-notch experience. It's always been our philosophy that if we're making a game that everybody loves, it should be available for everybody."
Complex spoke to Heather about the success of the Bejewled along with what went into the evolution of the title.
Complex: At its core, Bejewled is a puzzle game that you match jewels up and do cool stuff when they match up, but it would seem difficult to me to be able to keep coming up with new ideas to add on to it. Whats that process like?
Heather Hazen: It is not difficult [laughing]. I think we have pages and pages of Bejeweled ideas and as a matter of fact, I just got a prototype this morning from Jason Kapalka of what he's been working on. There's lots of ideas for Bejeweled that bounce around the company all the time. We have a dedicated prototyping team on the franchise that all they do is think about new versions of Bejeweled. It's a light weight process where we use some tools and try different rule sets. We've done crazy things like remove gravity and stuff like that but the process is that we think about things that could be interesting and that we've never tried before and even though it seems simple at the surface, you'd be surprised a how many different variations come out of that prototyping process.
With all those ideas floating around, how do you determine what makes the cut and what doesn't?
That's something that we've gone back and forth on over the years. What we typically do is when we figure is fun, we send it out to the rest of the company and get feedback. It's really easy to tell if people get excited about it or if they don't. if we think that we've tried something and other people working on the franchise are playing the game, then we send it out to the rest of PopCap. If we get people coming back saying, oh, "I couldn't put that game down last night" or "my mom stole my phone and I couldn't get it back from her," we know that we've got something.
What are some of the crazier ideas that have come across your desk?
Laser Cats was pretty crazy and it made it into the game. Jason and I have an ongoing cat battle going on; he has a cat named Snackers and I have one named Anchovy. When I started working on the DS version of Bejeweled Twist, instead of putting his cat in as an easter egg, I put mine in. Ever since then, we've been going back and forth about who's cat is going to make it into the next Bejeweled game. Jason's cat is the Laser Cat in Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook, and mine is in the one on iOS. Laser Cats is pretty off-the-wall and some of our rare gems in Blitz meet that criteria. People thought it was crazy for us to rotate gems into sequences of fours like in Bejeweled Twist and I still love that game. The thing about Bejeweled is that when you change the match-three rules, you think about the game in a different way. Some of the prototypes that we’ve done recently involve completing whatever objective it is that you set out. How you do it really determines the way that you look at the board.
If we get people coming back saying, oh, "I couldn't put that game down last night" or "my mom stole my phone and I couldn't get it back from her," we know that we've got something.
Think about the way you play Bejeweled Blitz vs. Bejeweled Classic. Bejeweled Blitz is a fast experience because you want to match as many gems as soon as possible. But if you look at Butterfly mode for example in Bejeweled 3, that’s a very different strategy. You don’t want those butterflies to get eaten by the spider at the top of the board. You've got to take your time, think about your moves, think about how cascades are going to be created and how additional matches will be created bellow those cascades.
Changing the rules is always something exciting for me. The concept of sometimes having to match sideways instead of vertically or match horizontally instead of vertically was a pretty interesting one. Although it didn’t turn out to be super great, there was the gravity one where we tried gems falling at different speeds. There’s just so many prototypes that we’ve thrown away. It’s hard to articulate all of them, but that's what makes Bejeweled such a great game; you can try out so many different options.
I’m glad you brought up the Butterflies mode, which is a mode I try to avoid, cause every time a butterfly gets eaten by the spider I feel really bad. Was that something planned—to tap into the emotional part of whoever’s playing or am I just reading too much into it?
I think you might be reading too much into it [laughing]. It’s mostly just a concept that makes sense that when a butterfly gets to the top, a spider eats them. If you want to be invested in something, it would only make sense that you were trying to save the butterflies from reaching the top where a spider is. I didn’t work on Bejeweled 3 so I am not sure how that all came together but it was mostly about the strategy but not necessarily about an emotional connection.
It's all healthy competition obviously, because we're one of the originators of the match-three genre.
Bejeweled revolutionized puzzle games at the time when it came out and since then, there’s been a lot of other games that have been influenced by it . What kind of pressure does that put you guys on to keep putting out new versions?
I believe, and I think almost everybody in the Bejeweled franchise believes that when people take your mechanic and redo it for another game it's flattering because it means you have a great mechanic. Our perspective is when new companies or old companies take the match-three mechanic and expand on it that’s good for the match-three genre. We just want the player to have a great experience. Candy Crush Saga has come into to discussion and their meta game is great. We look at that and think "wow that’s something". They've got some great ideas in that game. That's something we wish we thought of. It's all healthy competition obviously, because we're one of the originators of the match-three genre. But overall it makes the whole puzzle genre more enjoyable for everyone.
What was the state of Bejewled when you first started working on it? Did it need a boost or was it already going in the right direction?
Bejeweled has been through several iterations since I've been here at PopCap and that's since 2008. One of the first projects I worked on was Bejeweled Twist for the [Nintendo] DS. We had just launched Bejeweled Twist on PC and we had never put Bejeweled on the DS or any other console platform group at the time. I fell in love it and had such a great time working on it. I wouldn't say that Bejeweled was on the down swing by any stretch of the imagination. It's always been a staple for PopCap-Bejeweled and PopCap are somewhat synonymous. It's always been a major focus and will continue to be. When I was working on Bejeweled Twist on the DS, another team was working on Bejeweled Blitz for Facebook. Twist was a super successful title for us but we also noticed that we had over a million players on Facebook. We were also working on an extension for iOS and realized that we needed to put that team together. We had this little social studio that was thinking about Facebook and a mobile studio that was thinking about moving towards smartphones and they weren't really having conversations with one another. My big job was to unify the teams and think of a way that we could build a Bejeweled Blitz ecosystem that was sustainable across multiple platforms.
Some developers shy away from making games for consoles since mobile generates so much money. Why do you guys develop for consoles as well when you could just make money in the mobile business?
We want to be where players are. For us, Bejeweled is an ecosystem; you play the game where you happen to be. You can have an experience when you're on your PC, you can have one on your Xbox and another on your mobile phone. That just indicates the way people live their lives. Sometimes, they're in front of their televisions, at work with a five minute break or they might be waiting on a bus. For us it's important that we create that complete experience for where they are and when they want to play.
Bejeweled is a casual gaming experience that's relatable and accessible for any demographic. I've watched my four-year old nephew play and I've watched my grandmother play. For us, you have to be where the fans are. As you think about how it's a game for everybody, you have to be willing to expand your horizons as far as the platforms you want to deliver a top-notch experience. It's always been our philosophy that if we're making a game that everybody loves, it should be available for everybody.
How long do you plan to keep Bejeweled going? Is there gonna be a point where you decide to pull the plug and just focus on a new game?
Considering that I have proposals and pitches and prototypes basically all over the place, I don’t think there’s any shortages of ideas. Bejeweled is a perennial that’s been around since 2000. It's one of those games—if you look at some of our brand studies, nearly everyone that we ask has heard of it. It would be silly for us to not continue to make games for an audience that craves it.
Once people at PopCap stop being excited, we know it's time to try out different things. We’re probably slower than other game companies out there in the marketplace, but that’s because we really want to get it right. As we spend our time thinking about what Bejeweled is and what the next evolution of will be, we want to get the excitement flowing throught the rest of the company. When that happens, we’ll green light it. There’s no mark on the calendar saying the new Bejeweled has to be shipped on X date. It’s about making sure we have the greatest game in the evolution of the franchise.