It’s one of the biggest casual game releases of the year, but there was every chance that instead of spinning gems in Bejeweled Twist, fans could have been turning tuna in “Zongo.”

Twist began as little more than a gameplay concept and its eventual branding with the “Bejeweled” name had just as much to do with luck as it did with strategy.

A twisted start

“The first thing we plugged in as temporary graphics were the Bejeweled gems because they were convenient,” said PopCap’s Jason Kapalka.  

PopCap spitballed lots of different items to use in the project, which was originally codenamed “Zongo,” including fruit and even sushi. But, Kapalka says, they just couldn’t cut it. Fruit just didn’t have the sparkle and sushi… well, sushi speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

“Somewhere along the way we realized that nothing really worked as well as jewels.”

Bejeweled beginning

It was decided that that Twist would become an offshoot of the beloved Bejeweled franchise. This did, however, present some considerable problems. Most notably, the core gameplay of Twist has very different from traditional Bejewled, despite similar goals of matching a set of three gems.

It was decided fairly early on that there would need to be a clear separation between the main series and this new upstart.

“It’s not really a direct sequel to Bejeweled 2, our conception of it was that this would be a spin-off,” Kapalka said. “There are some people who never liked Bejeweled who love Bejeweled Twist. Some people prefer the simplicity of Bejeweled.”  

Despite drawing a clear line between the two properties, PopCap was risking alienating longtime fans.

“It was definitely a concern and it remains one,” Kapalka said. “If you change something that’s ingrained, there are going to be people who don’t respond to it. For us, it’s a complicated risk, because the audience for our games has broadened over the years.”

Casual gaming is an ever-broadening genre. PopCap knew that, in order to stay relevant, they had to take some chances like Twist with their established properties.

The story continues (sort of)

No one could make the case that Bejeweled has a compelling narrative, but Twist did go further than its sister games in trying to set the fun in a coherent world.

“We’ve had sort of a space setting for the other Bejeweleds. For Twist, we continued that a bit more, we went further with it. But there’s no effort to have a consistent story,” Kapalka said. “We try to be careful, because if we get too science-fictiony it can be a negative for some of the audience.”

The semi-sci-fi setting also allowed the team to play with some new types of stones like the Lightning and Doom Gems. It’s also the sexiest looking Bejeweled yet, with a brand new graphics engine and more 3D support.

Tweaking the twist

Even after the basic twisting gameplay and use of gems was hammered out, there were still plenty of kinks to work out, part of a four-year development cycle (which, admittedly, had varying intensity).

Kapalka said, “The bulk of the work though was about refining the mechanics. In some stages of development it was almost RPG like, because you’d earn tokens to upgrade your abilities.”

There were also different ways the game could have ended, like radiation and pollution gems. The team also toyed with skull gems that would eat their way to the bottom of the board.

The one feature that was the ability turn the gems both directions instead of just clockwise. But in the end, Kapalka said, it just wasn’t a good fit.

“The reason that we took it out is that it actually makes the game harder and much less fun,” he admitted. “It actually slowed you down, because you had to consider more than twice as many moves in your head. If you’re looking ahead more than one move the number went to this ridiculous thing, it’d be like trying to play chess with Gary Kasparov.”

What a twist!

Though response from critics has been generally positive, there have been a few who aren’t so happy any deviation from the classic formula.

“It’s been a bit of mix, there’s been some violent opposition on both sides,” Kapalka said. “It’s a bit of a razor’s edge there, in that we’ve had some people complain that the game is still just basically Bejeweled, then you have other people complain that we’ve changed everything and lost what Bejeweled was supposed to be about.”

But, for each of those who refused to adapt, there have been new converts to the Bejeweled fold who find themselves taken by the twist.

“We’ve gotten some very favorable reviews from some unlikely sources,” Kapalka said. “There are some people that won’t have anything to do with it, but there are some people who really love it.”