Interview with Todd Kerpelman (EA, Pogo)

Todd Kerpelman is Creative Director for EA’s Pogo division, as well as one of Pogo’s most talented game designers. I’ve spent way too many hours playing his brainchild, Phlinx. Anyway, on to the interview:

In your experience, what are the most important elements of a fun *and* popular casual game?

Well, obviously, I think one the most important aspects to having a popular game _is_ that it’s fun. Honestly, if you’ve got a game that’s fun enough, a lot of the conventional wisdom around what players want and what kinds of games they like tend to go out the window.

But with that being said, I think accessibility is certainly one of the keys towards making a casual game successful. This is especially true in the downloadable space, where you only have an hour to get people to like your game, and there’s dozens of other games just waiting to be downloaded if the user gets frustrated with yours. In general, you want people to be able to pick up and play your game and feel like they’re doing something correct within the first minute. This doesn’t mean that games have to be simplistic, though. There’s a lot of really complex games out there, but the successful ones do a good job of easing the player into it.

The flip side to that, though, is being able to ensure that there’s still strategies that emerge over time. You want people to feel like there’s something to get better at in the long-term — if they’ve mastered the whole game in the first five minutes, there’s no reason for them to keep playing.

If you look at a game like Poppit, for instance, it’s clearly very easy to do something right within the first five seconds of the game — you click on a group of balloons, they pop, and you feel satisfied. Maybe you release some of the prizes, and even if you don’t win your first game, you feel like you’ve done something right. But it’s after playing the game several times that you start to realize some of the more complex strategies involved in winning the game, and there’s enough deeper strategy there for people to think that they haven’t mastered it all before their first hour of play is over.

Are there any elements that you think definitely make a game more “fun” (in your opinion), but don’t tend to make for popular games?

Well, I grew up on action games and first person shooters, so there’s plenty of stuff I think is fun (generally involving lots of crap blowing up) that isn’t particularly popular with our core audience. (Of course, if you’re talking the Xbox Live Arcade audience, that’s another story.)

If you want to focus more on casual games, I think it’s a common trap for game designers (myself included) to come up with some idea that’s innovative or clever, and we end up being so impressed by our cleverness, that we often overlook the fact that there’s a simpler (and probably more fun) solution out there. So maybe the issue isn’t that there’s “fun” stuff that doesn’t make for popular games, but there’s “clever” stuff that we often mistake for “fun”.

For example, back when I was prototyping Penguin Blocks (a game where you have to lay down blocks of ice to get your hero to pieces of seafood before evil penguins steal them), I had this feature where you could place down walls that would impede the Penguins’ progress. Our engineer and I both loved the feature, but nobody else did. Later, I realized that what I really liked was watching the Penguin correctly find a path around the walls. Playtesters, who didn’t care that I could remember enough from my college CompSci classes to implement basic pathfinding, found the feature confusing. In the end, I went with a much simpler power-up that “froze” a penguin for several turns, which ended up having the same effect, but was much simpler for everybody to use.

Do you believe that the *best* casual games generally become the most popular (distribution being held equal), or have marketing, brand recognition, graphics, etc become equally important, or more so?

In general, I do think good games naturally find an audience — one of the nice things about casual games is there’s very little barrier to entry. You don’t need to convince somebody to go to the store and plop 50 bucks on a game they may or may not have played. You just need to convince them that it’s worth the couple of minutes involved to download a 5 meg file.

These days, though, it is a little trickier. There are so many casual games in the market now, that it certainly helps to have something — a recognizable brand, a flashy screenshot, some prominent placement — just to get people to notice your game and try it out. But in the end, all the marketing in the world won’t help you if your game’s not good enough to convince players to buy it after their one-hour trial period.

And there’s still plenty of room for word-of-mouth to take a relatively unknown game and make it a hit. As far as I can remember, there wasn’t a huge marketing push, and certainly no license, around Mystery Case Files when it first game out (developed by Big Fish Studios, I believe). It was just a really well-done game. And so I’m glad to see that it became successful.

Many people claim that there will never be more than five or six successful types of casual game at any given time. I.e. the bejewelled variant, the snood variant, the tetris variant, etc. How do you feel about that?

Hmmmm… they’re probably correct, although I think it’s not really related to people getting overloaded on game variations. It’s simply due to the fact that there’s only so many games that people can talk about and share with their friends at any given time. And if you figure that out of that list of seven “hot” games, you’re bound to have one or two games of the same genre, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if you only see five successful types of games at any given moment.

What is it about Pogo that keeps customers coming back for more? Why can’t it simply be copied by competitors?

I think Pogo’s popularity is probably a combination of two things…

One is all the “outside the game” enhancements — the community, token, and prize features that we add on to the experience. I think it helps to provide players with long-term rewards for staying on the site and also makes them feel like their time spent playing Pogo games has a greater purpose (whether that’s improving their standing within a community or just socializing with friends and family).

The second, really, is just attention to detail when it comes to the games. You have to remember; a lot of the people playing our games are there several hours a day — I’m sure they end up playing the games a lot more than I ever do. So things that seem like minor annoyances to us can be huge hassles to a hard-core player.

I’ll give you one example; we recently made a bunch of revisions to our Spades game that included some nice card animations. While most of our users really liked the new changes, the hardcore Spades players found that those fraction-of-a-second card animations were getting in the way of their game playing. We went back and added in a “Fast animation” option for those players, and they were satisfied. But it’s certainly a detail you’d overlook if you weren’t playing Spades several hours a day.

I don’t mean to suggest we’re the only people who are detail focused like this, by the way. I think if you look at the major game developers in the casual space, you’ll generally find that the ones that spend the most time balancing, playtesting, and tweaking their games before they release them to the general public tend to be the most successful.

As for why the Pogo model hasn’t been copied by other competitors… I’m not entirely sure; you’d probably have to ask them. I think partly, you’ve gotta sacrifice a lot of short term gains for the hopes that maybe, in the long term, things will pay off. Like I said, you’ve got to spend a good chunk of time polishing these games and making sure they’re fun over long periods of time. And when you’ve gone through all that work, it’s tough to then give it away for free in the hopes that maybe, if you’re able to repeat that process several more times, you’ll eventually build up critical mass and have a successful ad or subscription based community. If you compare that to simply focusing on the downloadable product and making a nice bundle of cash in the short-term, I can see why most companies haven’t tried to copy us.

What do you think is the future of the virtual economy within Pogo (and other, comparable sites?) Do you think it will evolve beyond the simple “play games, win prizes” system that currently exists?

Good question — I’m not really sure myself. There are sites out there like WorldWinner and that have skill-based types of games where you compete for real money (i.e. I put in a buck, you put in a buck, and the winner gets $1.50), but I’m not sure that’s where Pogo wants to go. We don’t tend to have a lot of cutthroat competition around here, and the idea of having to defeat an opponent in order to get ahead doesn’t really appeal to much of our audience.

It certainly seems like, from a customer perspective, being able to play games for free and possibly win prizes is a pretty appealing model. I don’t know if there’s a lot we could do to improve upon that…

What does the typical Pogo game-making team look like today? I.e. X dedicated engineers, Y dedicated artists, Z producers, working for ABC amount of time. What do you think it will look like in four years?

It’s pretty small. For our online games, we have 1 engineer, 1 artist, 1 producer/designer, and a contract sound person. Generally, we’re in production for 4 to 6 months — more for multiplayer games, less for single-player games. The teams that make the downloadable games are a little larger just because those games tend to have higher production values.

I’m guessing that in four years, when most of our audience has migrated to broadband and 12 meg games are commonplace, we’re going to see slightly larger teams (probably an extra artist and engineer). Personally, though, I hope they don’t get too much larger than that — one of the enjoyable aspects of working casual games is the fact that you’re on a small team and have so much control over the entire product. I’d hate to lose that.

What has surprised you most about the current state of the casual game market?

I’m pretty surprised at the speed in which it’s gone from being the “crazy aunt of the gaming family that nobody talked about” to the, uhh… hot aunt. (Like Portia de Rossi in Arrested Development, I guess.) When I started at Pogo back in 2001, the site had huge numbers of subscribers, but getting anybody outside of our world to acknowledge that large numbers of people were playing these casual games was impossible. These days, it seems like a lot more people are talking about making or playing casual games. I don’t know why that is. I’m sure that having Microsoft and Nintendo hype casual games with their latest offerings certainly hasn’t hurt.

What has surprised you most about the process of making casual games, in general?

I think when I first started here, I was probably surprised at the amount of work that’s still involved in making these “simple” games. To outsiders, they probably look like they could be whipped up in a week. But once you see all the little details that go into these games — I think we had over 20 prototypes of the Bowling interface until we came up with a version we liked, for instance, and I remember making several prototypes of the “condensing everybody’s poker chips into the center pot” presentation for Hold’em, trying to find a version that was the most fun — you realize that even these simple games can be pretty complex.

Our audience can still surprise me me in terms of what games they like and what they don’t. There are some games out there that I thought were brilliant that never really found an audience (maybe because I’m still confusing “brilliant” with “fun” — see question #2). Similarly, there are games that I didn’t think were going to take off that became huge hits. I remember we all tried playing a few Sudoku puzzles when they were first coming to America, and our initial reaction was, “Jeez — this seems kinda dull and nerdy. I can’t imagine this catching on.”

Needless to say, we got that one wrong.

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