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Polishing A Facebook Gem

Here's my confession: One of the first things I do every morning when I get into the office is fire up Bejeweled Blitz and play a few rounds. I'm among one of the more than 4.5 million Facebook users who make PopCap's game part of their daily routine. In addition to being a one-minute blast of fun, Bejeweled Blitz offers a fascinating glimpse into how the game's designers integrate new concepts and iterate on older ideas. I talked with senior producer Heather Hazen about how the game has evolved since launching in December 2008, how the team came upon some of its features, and some of the surprises they encountered along the way.

If you haven't yet played Bejeweled Blitz, I suggest you do so first. Games are timed to last a minute, adding a sense of urgency to its casual foundation in addition to ensuring that you won't have to suffer too long if you absolutely hate it. And if you scoff at Facebook games on principle, let me assure you a few important things. First, it's an actual game that's worth playing, irrespective of the platform. Second, while there is a social component to the game, it's completely optional. You can excel at the game without informing any of your friends about the fact that you're playing the game. Too many Facebook games turn people into spamming idiots. This is not one of those games. Honest.

Back in 2008, PopCap decided to see what it could do on Facebook. This was before FarmVille hit the scene, and when games were still relatively rare on the platform. As Hazen tells it, five guys at PopCap who didn’t have much else going on at the time were grabbed, and they prototyped the first versions and launched it in December of that year.

Compared to its current incarnation, the Bejeweled Blitz of the time was a pretty stripped-down affair. In its first few months, players could send automated smack talk messages to their friends, but there wasn’t much else in the way of bells and whistles. This was still a new area for PopCap, and they were sorting out how to best make use of what sets Facebook apart from the PC at large.

“As we started understanding the ways that games are built on Facebook, we started doing a lot more exploration,” says Hazen. That meant learning from what other developers had figured out, but also making sure that Blitz retained its own identity.

“We’d go to all these seminars and hear ‘Oh, cooperation is important,’ or ‘Customization is important,’ and we started thinking about some ideas around those tenets, and we never really came up with anything that was better,” Hazen says. “Bejeweled Blitz is a one-minute, competitive experience, where you see a leaderboard and that’s that.”

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