Behind the Game: Bejeweled

The guys from PopCap really weren’t worried when they named their company Sexy Action Cool.
It was an in-joke, lifted from a poster for the Antonio Banderas flick "Desperado." But the way they saw it, their company name wouldn’t be heard much, they’d just be a small developer, in the shadows of the major portals who would host their games.

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The guys from PopCap really weren’t worried when they named their company Sexy Action Cool.

It was an in-joke, lifted from a poster for the Antonio Banderas flick "Desperado." But the way they saw it, their company name wouldn’t be heard much, they’d just be a small developer, in the shadows of the major portals who would host their games.

All of that, of course, was before the world spent an estimated 2 billion hours playing their little game of matching up jewels.

In a way, the birth of Bejeweled was the death of Sexy Action Cool, and, one could argue, the genesis of the casual gaming boom.

After founding their company at the turn of the millennium, game designers Brian Fiete and John Vechey and former Pogo game producer Jason Kapalka were looking for a fitting maiden voyage.

Although that first game would become Bejeweled, exactly how the game’s basic concept was created has been lost to the annals of time.

As Kapalka remembers it, Vechey had seen a basic Java game with the same basic premise as Bejeweled, only "extremely bad." It was so crude, in fact, that the page had to be manually refreshed every time a move was made.

Unfortunately, casual game historians who might like to go take a look at this cave drawing version of the game are completely out of luck.

"We’ve since tried to go back and find that page, for historical purposes, but no one’s been able to find it," PopCap Chief Creative Officer Kapalka said. "This legendary proto-Bejeweled thing has never actually been proven to exist. I believe it was there, but no one’s been able to identify it."

No matter what its origins, the game was badly in need of an overhaul if it was to be a viable product. Fiete began updating the gameplay to something more fluid, and Kapalka thought about what could replace the colored blocks that the game had been using as pieces.

"The idea was to find something that you could have seven of that clearly all belong together, and yet are sort of different in terms of color and shape," Kapalka said. "Jewels came to me right off of the bat."

Kapalka spent a day looking for pictures of gems to use in the game, but nothing seemed right. So he created the designs himself.

"The original graphics were done by me," Kapalka said with a laugh. "That’s why they’re pretty ugly."

Numerous other enhancements had to also be put in place, like the inclusion of the meter that lets players progress between levels, and a timer that ticked down and added more pressure to the game. Of course the untimed version was included in the final product; something that Kapalka suggests might have been integral to its success.

He said that many of the companies they showed the game to were alarmed by the untimed mode, which they believed didn’t require any skill to do well at. For this particular quandary though, Kapalka decided that mother knew best.

"We were having fun playing it and my mom was having fun playing it," he said. "Our theory was, if my mom likes it, who doesn’t normally like games, there must be something there. She may not know good game design, but she knows what she likes."

Although they had created a working version within a couple of days, it took around a week to redesign the interface, add sounds and balance the game’s timed mode, making sure there was enough time to adequately complete levels and remain moderately challenging while still relaxing.

They completed their game, which they called Diamond Mine, and began licensing it to portals like Microsoft’s Zone. The software giant had a problem with the title though, believing it to be too close to another game called Diamond Mines. Microsoft submitted a list of possible replacements to PopCap, and there, towards the bottom of the list, was Bejeweled.

Although the Web-based application was popular, PopCap still had one major problem: They had no way to make money from it. This was in a time where the dot-com boom was ending, and advertising revenues were swiftly tanking. PopCap’s plan had been to license the game to high-traffic sites, and then make some of their revenue from the advertising visitors would see as they played. As of 2001, that plan was no longer viable.

They decided to take a risk, one from which the repercussions are still being felt to this day. They created a deluxe version of their already popular Web game with better graphics, better sound and more modes that they would sell.

In 2001, there was no set path or pricing structure for this sort of venture. E-commerce was in its infancy, and it was unclear if people would be willing to whip out their credit cards to buy an intangible product online.

How much they would ask for their product was crucial. A friend in the industry had suggested that they price the game at $20, but that seemed high even to the guys who created it.

"He said that the cheaper a game is, the less people think its worth," Kapalka said.

Trusting his advice, they settled on the two-sawbuck price tag, put Bejeweled Deluxe online and held their breath.

To help track their progress, Fiete had created a small desktop application that made a "ka-ching" sound every time that someone purchased Bejeweled Deluxe. At first, the ka-chings were dishearteningly slow.

But slowly, they began to mount, one every couple of hours, one every minute. Before long, the halls of the PopCap offices were rarely without the public’s ringing endorsement of their game.

"Eventually, it got so annoying that we had to turn it off," Kapalka said.

CNNMoney went so far as to call the downloadable deluxe versions "the second coming of shareware."

Of course, it wasn’t just financial acclaim that the team would receive. In 2002, Bejeweled became the first puzzle game to be inducted into Computer Gaming World’s Hall of Fame since Tetris in 1988.

Since then, their game has seen more iterations than Cher, on everything from PDAs to Xboxes. PopCap released a sequel in 2004, and Kapalka hints that another may not be far behind.

But perhaps the game’s most notable feat was appealing to non-traditional gamers outside of the 18-24 male demographic.

Since the release of Bejeweled, the casual gaming market has grown exponentially, with the International Data Group predicting it will be a $1 billion dollar industry by 2008. Research indicates that half of these casual gamers are women, and 75 percent are between 35 and 60 years old.

Obviously, PopCap can’t receive all the credit for this paradigm shift in gaming. But in a world where every RAZR cell phone has their game packed in and millions of lunch hours have been wiled away swapping jewels, it’s hard to deny that the artists formerly known as Sexy Action Cool weren’t just making a game … they were starting a revolution.

Click here to play Bejeweled.