PopCap was once a studio of creative faces. Bookworm featured a nerdy worm in a handful of different word games. Astropop had spaceships. Feeding Frenzy was fishy, Zuma froggy. They even had a tank in the awesome war satire Heavy Weapon.
Their games decorated Wal-Mart’s PC section. In some cases, they WERE Wal-Mart’s PC section. Cardboard slipcovers showed colorful images of jewels, the sea, or Egyptian mythos. Variety was substantial.
That’s gone. All of it. PopCap has been reduced to four franchises. Peggle, a dream-like knock-off on Price is Right’s Plinko. Bejeweled, the iconic, long-standing king of match-em-ups (even if Candy Crush has eroded the territory). PopCap’s rendition of Solitaire has some color, and then Plant vs. Zombies.
The latter is indicative of PopCap’s relentless series downsizing, dissipating creativity, and ignorance of the wider market they used to rely on. Plants vs. Zombies 2 on iOS and Android is free – but you’ll need to connect your bank account to access diffculty-diminishing features. Then came Garden Warfare where the accessible tap-and-touch was removed for twin sticks, twin triggers, and ferocious versus-other-people pace.
PopCap was an everyone company. Past tense. Their games were priced to be affordable – $10, sometimes less. Even financially strained families could splurge on a PopCap outing. PopCap games were technically pure as to run on any hardware, and carefully planned as to ensure anyone could understand the rules. Tutorial levels stuck around for an hour if need be. You could play for five minutes or ten hours.
Garden Warfare’s sequel is $60, runs on the technical background of EA’s multi-million dollar Battlefield series, needs a $300 console or super charged gaming PC, and has no tutorial. After five hours of play, it’s still unclear what Garden Warfare 2’s stars are for. Being connected online for a thin solo campaign, you cannot pause – you play when EA says you can. You can’t play on your bathroom break because you’re not allowed a bathroom break.
This is PopCap’s output now. Before the studio was purchased by developer hog EA, they ripped up digital services with regular new releases. From a personal perspective, they would mail generous care packages full of goodies with considerate guides on how to play. Their current offerings on Apple’s iOS store shows six total games from four franchises. That’s it. Older games have been rendered obsolete by Apple’s firmware updates. Search for Bookworm and you’ll find a couple of decent clones. (Letter Quest is awesome.)
Since 2014, they have produced only one new Peggle and two Garden Warfare’s for home consoles. They tried to break into Facebook gaming, but that has been closed down.
Both Peggle 2 and Garden Warfare 2 are fun, but changed. PopCap would make passing references to pop culture; Garden Warfare 2 blares Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” as soon as the disc boots up. References to EA’s lengthy Mass Effect space opera are made, a series which while critically lauded, is miles from the casual Plants vs. Zombies audience.
Communities compared PopCap releases to digital crack, a jab at their quick-fix, addictive qualities. Load an app, match a gem or make a word. Maybe you quit, maybe you don’t. Garden Warfare features a massive airplane made of corn, dropping bombs on undead. This isn’t crack – it’s processed fructose corn syrup. Sweet, cute, and full of empty calories.
With Plants vs Zombies, PopCap discovered the definitive design for the casual zombie. Heads are a bit mishapen, eyes droop, and skin is a blend of gray and green. They wear street cones on their heads or carry screen doors for protection. Some are deceased football stars, buried in their gear. That’s clever. The gag is still adorable despite the morbidity.
Those zombies remain. Other zombies tote guns. Cute, bulbous guns, but guns. Oh, and a mechanized assault suit. They’re not meant to creatively find their way through a backyard garden of sun-spitting, smiling sunflowers or pea-shooting plants; they only need to pull a trigger.
Some of PopCap remains. Their animation team is stellar. The same as Disney gave life to inanimate things or humanized animals, PopCap does the same to roses, corns husks, and oranges. Ingenuity isn’t dead; it’s been suppressed. Maybe it can come back. Wal-Mart needs them.