Blizzard announced yesterday that it has hired VP Greg Canessa away from PopCap Games. That’s right: the father of hardcore gaming bastions like World of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo has decided it could learn a thing or two from the company that brought Bejeweled to stay-at-home mothers everywhere. Is this the Twilight Zone?
There seems to be an article written about the rise in casual gaming every other day, but until recently, casual gaming has existed in its own quirky bubble, totally separate from any conversations involving the so-called “hardcore gamer.” Even as the casual gaming world scored hits like Diner Dash and Puzzle Pirates, the gaming industry (and media) continued to treat its growing casual audience as something entirely different than its traditionally-held image of a “gamer.” After all, what could Red Bull swilling, twenty-something, male PS3 owners have in common with your Mahjong-loving mom?
Maybe more than we think. Casual game developer PopCap Games has roared into the spotlight recently, riding on the back of hits like Peggle and the recently released Plants vs. Zombies. What separates these games from the throng of competition is a beautifully executed mission statement: to weave hardcore gaming concepts into universally accessible formats. The result? Crossover appeal that has broken entirely new ground.
When it first became clear that Peggle had somehow struck a chord with both casual AND hardcore gamers, Clive Thompson proposed that where casual fans saw a light-hearted game of chance, hardcore gamers recognized a devious challenge of skill. Which audience is right? The answer, which also explains the game’s massive success across platforms, is that both groups are right. On the surface, Peggle appears to be a game of luck (it does look just like Plinko on The Price is Right, after all), and it can be played successfully as such. Once you bounce a ball off your first target, who knows where it will bounce next? And for the casual audience, that mystery just might hold the fun of it all.
But take a deeper look, as hardcore gamers are wont to do, and you begin to realize that the game engine’s physics allow you to predict where the ball will land several bounces down the line. Which is a big implication, because it means that Peggle can also be played as a game of skill. Doing so takes an almost obsessive level of patience, but couldn’t the same be said for reaching level 70 in WoW? PopCap struck audience crossover gold by weaving traditionally hardcore gaming tenets into a casual, non-intimidating format. In other words: simple to learn, difficult to master.
It should come as no surprise then, that PopCap built its latest hit, Plants vs. Zombies, on the same adage. They have upped the ante this time by constructing a casual game with building blocks lifted from one of the most hardcore genres in existence: Real Time Strategy. Plants vs. Zombies is built to pull in your mother with its humor, cartoon graphics, and forgiving learning curve. But before she knows it, she will be harvesting resources, upgrading her weapons, and allocating strategic defensive structures. It’s Command & Conquer in a colorful candy coating.
PopCap isn’t out to reinvent the wheel: Plants vs. Zombies is basically a tower defense game, and these have been done almost to death. What separates this studio from the crowd is its ability to perfectly balance the casual and hardcore aspects of its games. The resulting crossover appeal allows PopCap to do one other thing differently than almost every other casual developer: make lots and lots of money.
Which explains why PopCap’s senior executives are hot commodities. Make no mistake, WoW prints money with its monthly subscription fees, but Blizzard is well aware that its audience is strictly hardcore. After all, how is one supposed to make a level-grinding, fantasy role-playing game about orcs and elves appeal to the Bejeweled crowd? Blizzard doesn’t know the answer either, but it’s betting that if anyone does, it’s the PopCap braintrust. If their bet pans out, then the gaming industry is about to be in for a paradigm shift. You’ll recognize world domination by its first sign: the day your mom calls to see if you’re free for a raid.