PopCap’s latest title was a game in search of a theme.
Their new word game had briefly been titled “Word Fall,” because, you know, letter tiles fell down, followed by the marginally more creative “Block Droppers.”
“There were a lot of generic game titles like that that we kind of threw around,” lead artist Tysen Henderson recalled with a laugh.
Soon though, the team had their mascot. They approached Henderson with the task of bringing their idea to life. That was problematic, as he was already stretched thin working on several different titles.
“They said ‘Put together a really cute bookworm guy,'” he said. “I don’t think I spent much more than an hour all together on him. I never really thought that he would go anywhere.”
Although Henderson may have gotten Lex the Bookworm’s design dead on, he couldn’t have been more wrong about his future.
As casual gamers all over already know, Henderson’s character was at the heart of Bookworm, one of the most popular casual word games in existence.
Lex has served as a guide and partner for millions of rounds of the game, and Henderson theorizes that much of his success has to do with sympathetic personality.
“He’s very empathetic, if you’re in trouble, he’s in trouble. He’ll sweat with you in the bad times,” Henderson said. “In the good times, he’ll jump up and down and celebrate with you.”
Whether it was the word search gameplay, or its frontworm, the game, even in its early stages was something special, and the team knew it.
“You know the game is a success when productivity in the office sort of halts, and everyone is suddenly playing that game,” Henderson said. “Suddenly everyone is inundating you with a flood of ideas, interesting little mechanics you can add to the game.”
PopCap staffers weren’t the only one, gamers all over embraced Lex, and Henderson couldn’t seem to get him out of his head either. He found himself so attached, that he took the lead on the little guy’s next outing, Bookworm Adventures.
This game though would be something different, uncharted territory for casual games.
“As we started brainstorming this, we realized that just making another word game, maybe with new tiles, or new ways of using nouns or verbs or what not, might not actually be all that compelling,” Henderson said. “We really wanted to create something that was not only new for Bookworm itself, but for word games in general … for casual games.”
It was a difficult choice, not only because it was the road less traveled, it was also the road potentially less secure.
“There’s a seductive attractiveness to just pumping out that next game and making a good return on your investment,” Henderson said. “At PopCap, we sort of, maybe to a fault, really don’t let a game come out until it’s perfect and it’s ready. We also don’t want to just make that next derivative game. We’d rather be the ones that are cloned than the ones that are cloning.”
As the name would imply, Lex was going on an adventure, escaping the sterile confines of repeated level progression into his own world and his own story. There’s even role-playing element that allows players to improve their skills by spelling words and equipping treasures that they collect throughout the game.
As the team created this odd hybrid, they knew they had something that they found a lot of fun, but they also knew they had a tough sell. Word game and role-playing elements are strange bedfellows to say the least, and Henderson knew that accessibility was the key to keeping the Bookworm fan base for the second adventure.
“We had to go with it, while trying to restrict the nerdiness that RPGs can have in the more hardcore game industry and keep it as casual as possible, so our typical audience could get into it a lot easier,” he said.
One of the concessions that was made was to actually make the core Bookworm gameplay easier, relieving the player of some of the puzzle pressure to allow them to apply a bit more when it came to the adventure side of the game.
“It was very important to us to make sure that none of the elements do you have to absolutely understand or pay attention to succeed at the game,” Henderson said. “If you just spelled words and that’s all you wanted to do, you will succeed, regardless if you wanted to pay a whole lot of attention to everything else.”
Finding a balance between the two sides of Bookworm Adventure’s gameplay would not only require a larger-than-typical budget and a lot of extra passion, but also a two-year development cycle, almost unheard of in the casual game industry.
The Bookworm’s latest adventure has now been released on the general public, and Henderson’s little go-nowhere creation has taken center stage in one of the most expansive casual games in history.
After two years on the title, Henderson is ready for a break, too.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there were certain times I didn’t want to see his grinning little face looking back at me,” he admitted with a laugh. “If I could punch him I would, sometimes. It can be really grueling, especially in the last months leading up to release.”
Henderson admits though that as his journey with the bookworm is (for now) coming to a close, his feelings are still good ones. He now simply waits, maybe like a proud papa, to see what the world think’s of Lex’s new look.
“Now that it’s basically coming to an end though, and looking back at the entire project, I’m just so amazingly excited.”