Polishing A Facebook Gem

by Jeff Cork on Nov 28, 2010 at 07:34 AM

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.”

Those leaderboards, added near the middle of 2009, further honed the game’s competitive edge. It’s one thing to know that you’re pretty good at a game. It’s another thing entirely to be able to finish a session and instantly see how you rank against your friends’ current best scores. In that way Facebook is a perfect place for a game like Bejeweled Blitz. Your friends are already likely to be on the social network, and having the ridiculously recognizable Bejeweled name attached to the game ensures that even the most casual player is likely to click a banner enticing them to check it out.

As I said earlier, I’ve been fascinated with how Bejeweled Blitz has evolved since it launched. Let’s face it—vanilla Bejeweled definitely has its followers (100 zillion casual players can’t be wrong), but the basic game alone can be extremely boring. Blitz already created a bit of tension with the addition of the timer. In January 2010, PopCap added boosts, a feature that changed the game entirely.

Now, as people played the game, they accumulated coins. These coins could be cashed in to buy up to three boosts, essentially powerups, from a bank of five. Some of them include adding a 2X multiplayer at the beginning of the game; tossing in a special gem that shuffles the playing field if players get stuck; or even adding an additional five seconds to the game. No surprisingly, Hazen says the decision made a few waves among some players.

“We anticipated that people would act aversely to the new boosts, because there were purists who were like, ‘This is a game that we already have and we already know how to play. Why are you throwing in all these powerups?’”. Hazen says that people have warmed up to them since they launched. “It’s almost a given that you’ll play with a boost now.”

Much of PopCap’s design philosophy is based on intuition, which seemingly makes it easier to introduce new features and take risks. “The ruleset for Bejeweled Blitz does not exist,” Hazen says. “It’s a classic example of PopCap design; we design on feel, we make tweaks and changes, we add new features, and we’re always thinking, ‘Does this feel right?’ as opposed to ‘Does this check a box?’

Another change to the formula came a few months later, with the introduction of the daily spin, a slot machine that randomly doles out coins to players once per day. “When we first started talking about daily spin, it was purely a way to get players more coins so that they could engage with the game more often,” Hazen recounts. “Instead of just coming up with a daily coin bonus, which would just pop up, we wanted to make something fun and engaging and add a little bit of suspense, so that’s where the idea of the slot machine was born.”

While it seems like a pretty simple thing to introduce, Hazen says that it underwent a fair amount of change itself. “When we first started, it was much slower than it is. The gems spun, and there was a really huge sense of mystery around what was going to happen and how the gems were going to land, and all kinds of animation effects. We realized that, while it was cool, it was taking way too much time. So we tweaked the animation and started thinking what the incentive to really care about the spin. Why would you come back every day? That’s when we added friendship boost, and the engagement boost was coming back every day for a week.”

Currently, players click a button to spin the slots once every 24 hours. After receiving their slots payoff, players also get coin bonuses based on the number of consecutive days they’ve played and the number of friends that they have who also play the game. As Hazen pointed out, both are subtle (and diabolical) ways of coercing players into coming back to the game every day and recommending it to their friends.

Making sure that a game is worth recommending in the first place is one of the most difficult parts of Facebook development. In that regard, player feedback has been a critical part of Bejeweled Blitz’s development.

“The great thing about being on Facebook is that when people have an opinion they will definitely let you know,” Hazen says, laughing. “So we get lots of posts on our fan page and lots of inquiries through our customer-service channels, and lots of e-mails. We have really taken a customer-focused approach for this game. Each week we have our customer-service representatives sit down and give us the major complaints and put them on a grid. These are the number of complaints we’ve had for this thing… that helps us identify bugs, it also helps us figure out how to make certain features better, and identify features that people might want to see in the future.”

Sometimes that means being surprised when things don’t work out the way you expected. Hazen says that’s what happened when they launched replays. “This is one of the first features that I started working on when I joined the Bejeweled Blitz team,” she recalls. “We thought it would be awesome. If I had a really great game and scored about 500,000, my first instinct as a player would be, ‘Hey, check out my awesome game.’ Let me post a replay so all my friends could see it. So what we did was add the ability to post a replay when you earned a star medal. Well, curiously, after we launched this feature, we noticed that star medal posts were going down. We couldn’t figure out what the heck was going on, because we thought replays were cool. Well, it turns out that if people had a really bad game and they knew that a replay was going to be attached with it, then they wouldn’t post that star medal—even if it was an OK star medal and they normally would have posted it. When you threw that replay in there, if you had that one little glitch or slowed down or had to use a hint, we found that people didn’t want to share that.”

The most recent additions to the game have been both obvious and subtle. Rare gems have been added, which are appropriately hard to find but offer up substantial bonuses. “It took a lot of time to run some automated test to make sure that it wasn’t throwing balance so out of whack that it wouldn’t make the game unrecognizable anymore,” Hazen says. “Now we know people really like it, it’s not throwing scores really off, so we’re thinking about more rare gems and doing brainstorming to think about what other kind of effects we could do.”

There’s also a change to the way that boosts are presented to the player. Before, players had to click on an icon in the toolbar to activate them, and some players never knew they existed. PopCap changed the UI to steer players toward them, and Hazen says it’s been successful. “Once we added that new UI flow, the percentage of boosts in games went up from 24 percent to 35 percent. So it was an 11 percent increase in the number of people who are using boosts in games.”

Hazen says that the team is still working on new additions to the game as well as tweaks to the existing features. “We’ve talked about introducing new boosts, and we’ve gone back and forth. There are a couple of people here who think that a larger menu of boosts would be awesome, because you could try out lots of different combos. It’s just really hard to find a boost that’s well balanced. We’ve tried out a bunch of different kinds, and we just haven’t come up with more than five that we feel are totally awesome. We do think it might work to have some way of sharing boost combos with your friends through the ‘like’ functionality on Facebook, but we just haven’t found the right contextual place to do that yet.”

There’s obviously no one thing that makes Bejeweled Blitz so malleable, but Hazen says one thing is critical. “Cooperation is key—it’s about the Flash developer walking over and talking to the artist. It’s about the PHP guy walking over and making sure project developer understands what his implementation is. We set loose dates and say, ‘We’re going to go for Daily Spin launch on June 15th,’ and we all work toward those dates, but we keep in mind that if we get to a certain place and it’s up on the test server and we don’t like it, then we’re going to keep iterating.”

“We don’t ever just ship a feature and say, ‘OK, we’re done,’ she adds.

Looking at how the game has evolved over that past two years, that’s clearly an understatement.