Fail Fast: PopCap's Approach to Quality


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Presentation from Digital Taipei exploring how PopCap uses the idea of "Fail Fast" to develop its run of high quality games.

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  • Plants vs. Zombies is the best selling games for PopCap in China.
  • Before I start talking about how it was built, let me first share some numbers.This has been the fastest selling game in our history.Since the original PC launch we have launched it on iPhone, iPad, and we just announced this week the Xbox versions is coming soon too.
  • So here’s a never-before-seen screenshot of the early prototype that eventually became PvZ. Back then, the game was called “Weedlings” and the core idea was you would plant seeds, grow plants, and then the plants would attack monsters in a tower defense style game.Now, when building a prototype, art doesn’t matter. Re-use as much as you can. So here you have the aliens from Insaniquarium assaulting your farm, and you've planted a few cabbage-pults in hopes of defending stemming their attack. In the bottom left corner you've planted some tubers and uber-tubers, which are your money crops. To harvest those, first you need to water the dirt to change it to grass, then you need to plant the tuber sprouts in the grass, next you water the tubers, then you pluck the tubers out of the ground when fully grown.Now, does that sound fun?No. And as soon as we started playing the game, it was clear that it wasn’t fun. And we found it out pretty quickly. In fact, it turns out that really these are two separate ideas here… planting and taking care of a plant is fun… but not in the middle of battle. To fight the monsters, you really just want to plant the plants right away and not wait for them to grow.
  • If you look here at some early concept art, you can see some of the ideas of PvZstartin to emerge… here you can see the idea of cards, and rows, and plants…..
  • But back then George was still thinking about fighting normal monsters, or aliens.
  • So where, you might ask, did the zombies come from? To understand that, you need to go back in time and look at some of the games coming out around the same time.So while George is exploring this idea of planting plants, and fighting monsters, a bunch of planting & garden games started coming out.
  • Plantasia was one of the first…. In fact, it’s possible that these planting games were the inspiration behind Happy Farm and some of the recent farming games on social networks.
  • As a genre, you started to see more and more planting games. And George started getting nervous – he was worried that by the time his game finally shipped, people would think he was just copying these other games. He was wondering how to stand out, how to be original.
  • In fact, look at this game from 2007. It’s exactly the core concept that George was working on – a tower defense game, where you plant plants to fight garden invaders like bugs.So when you’re worried about making your game different, what can you do??? The answer is obvious.
  • So George quickly realized that he wouldn’t do the same as the others, and he failed his previous alien/monster idea fast, and Adding zombies is fun!!!!! It’s okay to be inspired by other games. Great games like PvZ rarely come from no where. But you should try to innovate too – the best games are a combination of copying, to be familiar, while also trying to be different, to be fresh. So let’s look at the inspiration behind PvZ.And that’s where the idea of plants vs. zombies was born.
  • Right around the same time that George was designing PvZ, he was teaching his girlfriend, Laura how to play Magic the Gathering (who went on to compose the music, by the way, and has become a huge star in her own right). Who here has played Magic?The key idea of Magic is that you collect all these different cards, and then you “make a deck” out of those cards. And then you draw cards from that deck, and play against the other player.
  • So in a very early prototype of the game, George had the same idea. He had plant cards, and the player would “make a deck” out of these cards by assigning probability to different cards.
  • And then, when you played, cards would appear randomly at the top based on the probabilty of your deck.Let’s take a look…..(queue demo of 2006_07_26 build)Point out:How much of the game was already “right” at this stage --- rows, a grid, zombies, zombies with stronger defenses, planting plants, pea shooter, sunflowers, etc.How there are two ideas combined togrther here --- resources, which you need to “buy” cards, and cards appearing randomly.- actually, it turns out that these are both good ideas, separately. So let the player choose which to buy… or, give the cards randomly. But don’t do both.
  • So the problem with this idea, of course, is that it’s really frustrating when you really need a shooter and you keep getting sunflowers. So it turns out, that while it sounds good on paper, it’s a bad idea in practice. But the only way to figure this out is to play it --- which, again, is why building a fast prototype is so important.
  • Let’s talk for a second about the team… obviously getting the right team together is critical. And art, especially, is critical because it sets the tone for the whole game. I think for a lot of designers, there is this idea that artists are interchangeable.. That artists can work in any style, and do anything. And in general, it’s not true. Different artists have different styles. So when you pick an artist, you’re picking their style.For this game, it all started with this concept art created by George himself.He then interviewed a bunch of different artists, starting with the guy who did the backgrounds, Enrique.Then he tried a different artist, Sergio.Then he thought about maybe trying a pixel art look, so he asked pixel artist Derek Yu to do his take on the main characters.But ultimately, one of the Seattle artists, Rich Warner created this set of plants and zombies that made George pick the artistwe did a few iterations on the sunflower and the zombie...and here is the style we ended up with, I was really pushing for the zombie's and sunflower's faces to look similar to my original concept sketches
  • So that leads to the lesson of pushing contributions down as far as you can – don’t treat your team members like robots who just do what you tell them. Encourage them to be as involved as possible in the creative process, because you never know where your best ideas are going to come from. George was clearly the boss, and makes the big decisions, but his team members are very involved creative as well, even the engineer.
  • But first, let me test how much you know about Pixar movies already. (ask about each movie)(from L to R):CarsWall-EToy StoryIncrediblesFinding NemoMonsters, Inc.Bugs LifeRatatouilleUpSo, finally, what does Pixar actually do?They make movies…As part of my job I sometimes get to visit other companies in related industries. I was very excited a few months ago to have a chance to visit Pixar.
  • We have a tool called “Burrito” and we post versions of our games in there at many different stages, and then we encourage people to post feedback – from across the whole company. And in the case of PvZ, this caught a potentially very serious issue.
  • Here’s the feedback. The point was that this guy’s wife didn’t know about the importance of planting lots of sunflowers first. So she was ending up with just peashooters, no sunflowers, and dying. It was frustrating for her, enough that she would want to quit.Of course, lots of people had lots of suggestions. “Add a tutorial” was the most common – namely, fix the problem by educating the player. Maybe.But then we investigated further….Get sun from killsTell player to plant 3 suns (tutorial)Reserve spots for sun flowersGive player more starting sun energyStart with sunflowers already in place
  • Turns out, at this stage of development, both sunflowers and pea shooters cost 100 energy, and in fact you started out with 200 sun energy.Now, most hard core gamers knew just what to do --- plant lots of sun to build up your economy, and don’t start planting pea shooters until the zombies come out. So for a long time, this 100/100 split was never seen as a problem.But for a beginnner player, when the level starts, you can click on either. So they start planting pea shooters because they seem more useful
  • And then you end up like this, with no sunflowers. You can still win in an easy level, but not on a harder level. So it was a problem.
  • In the end, the solution was pretty clever… change the price of sunflower to 50, and reset starting sun to 50. So at the start, the ONLY thing you can do is plant sun.Solution:Reprice sunflower from 100 to 50Tweaked sun generator to be a little slowerChanged initial energy to start at 50Now only one choice – guides the playerDownside: rebalance & retest entire game
  • So the lesson there is to prevent your players from making bad choices --- without taking away their freedom to choose, or making hard-core players think it’s too easy.Another example of this same law comes from the potato mine.
  • Consider this early level. Here, when you start the level, everything is “charged up” and ready to go. So a lot of beginning players would buy it all.
  • And end-up like this – pretty useless.So the fix was to start out with the “one-shot” items uncharged. So you need to wait 20 seconds before you can use them --- and by that time you’re spent all your money on sunflowers.
  • So the lesson there is to prevent your players from making bad choices --- without taking away their freedom to choose, or making hard-core players think it’s too easy.Another example of this same law comes from the potato mine.
  • So that leads to the lesson of pushing contributions down as far as you can – don’t treat your team members like robots who just do what you tell them. Encourage them to be as involved as possible in the creative process, because you never know where your best ideas are going to come from. George was clearly the boss, and makes the big decisions, but his team members are very involved creative as well, even the engineer.
  • For example, here we flag levels that are too short – not enough to do.
  • Here we flag levels that are too difficult.
  • And for the final rule…. Measure. Don’t just use your own judgement. In our case, we created a beta build and distributed it to a few hundred users to play for several months before finalizing the game. The data we gathered from those tests were used to tweak difficulty and to balance the game. It’s the same thing that social games are doing now.
  • Sounds pretty cool, right? Let’s take a look at the demo….
  • And in the end, this joke ended up turning into the famous “Yeti Zombie” in the game --- which may not have happened if we didn’t have that joke.And this Yeti gives users yet another reason to replay the game.
  • This is so important… having fun and goofing around is an important part of making a game.For example, one great joke came from the development team on April 1st. In the US, April 1st is a day of jokes. And so the team had the idea of creating a fake ice level build. Here is how they announced it:
  • Fail Fast: PopCap's Approach to Quality

    1. 1. Fail Fast!PopCap’s Approach to QualityJames GwertzmanGM of PopCap Asia/Pacific
    2. 2. FAIL!!!
    3. 3. Is this failure? or is it learning?
    4. 4. Reasons for FailureBlameworthy PraiseworthySource: Strategies for Learning from Failure. Amy Edmondson. Harvard Business Review: April, 2011
    5. 5. Waterfall Model Idea Design Execute SHIP! Version 2.0
    6. 6. Agile Model Idea Prototype Test SHIP!
    7. 7. fail fast ?
    8. 8. PopCap’s Fastest Selling Game• More than 10M copies sold so far• More than 90M installs• Available on PC, iPhone, iPad, Xbox, NDS, Android, etc.• Over $1M from iPhone AppStore in 1st week• #1 title on iPhone in China for months
    9. 9. Our most award winning gameTop “Casual” Game in 2009/2010 Puzzle Game of The Year (2009), PC Gamer Top 20 Downloadable Games of 2009 (#13), CNET Nominee, Outstanding Achievement in Game Design Downloadable Game of the Year (2009), Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences (2009), Nominee, Casual Game of the Year (2009), Academy of Top 10 Games of 2009 (#3), Interactive Arts & Sciences Best Downloadable Game of 2009, Inside Gaming Nominee, Best Downloadable Game (2009), Game Awards Developers Choice Awards Best Games of 2009, Nominee, Best Innovation in Game Design (2009), Game Best Strategy Game of the Year, Developers Choice Awards (2009) Nominee, Best Game Design (2009), Game Developers Finalist, PC Game of the Year, Spike TV Video Game Choice Awards Awards (2009) Best Downloadable PC Game of 2009, Finalist, Downloadable Game of the Year, Spike TV Top Casual Games of 2009, AdrenalineVault Video Game Awards (2009) Casual Game of The Year (2009), Chicago Sun-Times Editor’s Choice Award, Mac|Life Magazine (Sept. ’09) Finalist, Best PC Strategy Game 2009, Maximum Kick Ass Award, Maximum PC (July ‘09) Inductee, Game Hall of Fame (2009), MacWorld Editor’s Choice Award, PC Gamer (June ’09) Nominee, Best Strategy Game of 2009, Editor’s Choice Award, (2009) Best Games of 2009 (#3), Editor’s Choice Award, GameShark (2009) Best PC Game of 2009, Boysie Awards (Boys Life Heavenly Gold Award, (2009) Magazine) Editor’s Choice Award, (2009) Best Hand-held & Downloadable Games of 2009, San Editor’s Choice Award, GamePro (July ’09) Jose Mercury News Editor’s Choice Award, (2009) Top 5 Games of 2009 (#5), Elite Award, (2009)
    10. 10. FAIL!!!
    11. 11. Add fun,remove frustration.
    12. 12. PlantasiaMarch, 2006
    13. 13. Garden DreamsMarch, 2006
    14. 14. Flower ShopDecember, 2006
    15. 15. Alice GreenfingersJune, 2007
    16. 16. Garden DefenseNovember, 2007
    17. 17. Don’t fear innovation.(or zombies)
    18. 18. FAIL!!!
    19. 19. Choosing the ArtistFAIL!!!Artist #1 Original Concept (George Fan)FAIL!!!Artist #2 Rich Warner #2Artist #3 FAIL!!!FAIL!!! Rich Warner #3Artist #4FAIL!!!(Rich Warner)
    20. 20. Share creative ownershipwith the team.
    21. 21. “Art challenges technology, technologyinspires the art.” – John Lasseter
    22. 22. Importance of feedback Internal play-testing & feedback process Talk about “burrito” and how we review
    23. 23. Seek out feedback.
    24. 24. Prevent players frommaking bad choices.
    25. 25. FAIL!!!
    26. 26. Failing fast takes courage.
    27. 27. FAIL!!!
    28. 28. FAIL!!!
    29. 29. Measure….
    30. 30.  Woah. I love the abominable snow zombies. Those are awesome. Best build yet! On the level with the yeti zombies, is there any way to unfreeze your sunflowers after they get snowballed? I tried fireballs but to no avail. Whoa, Santa Zombies! I still dont understand what Im supposed to do about the polar bears or why they are even in this game. Dude. They drop the pies you need to feed the Yetis to quell their rage. You know- when they scream "TUNDRAAAAAA!" Itll make sense eventually. Keep playing.
    31. 31. Have fun!!!!!
    32. 32. Fun games Fun office Fun Fun colleagues Fun jobsQuality Heart
    33. 33. Fun Everyone gives feedbackQuality Find the best ideas Serious / Intense work Wildly talented Heart Teams must gel together
    34. 34. FunQuality Be ourselves Feels like home No discrimination Heart You’re important Make a difference in lives
    35. 35. “We make gamers out of people who don’t think they like games.” – Jason Kapalka
    36. 36. Questions? Email: