By the time PopCap's casual puzzle game Peggle was released it was widely viewed internally as their most enjoyable game to date. It also had significant industry buzz through stories of a high profile game studio potentially delaying a widely anticipated release because their developers were distracted playing advance copies of the game. Peggle was well received by critics and developed a hardcore cult following, but despite all this it did not initially perform well in sales.
In 2012 PopCap was ready to create version 2 of Peggle. Were there issues with the original art direction that could be corrected in this version to make it more accessible and appealing to a broader audience (without losing its original charm) and help the franchise meet its sales potential?
Under the title of Art Lead I was ultimately responsible for deciding the vision for the project as well as planning and sequencing the necessary work in coordination with the other project leads (game design, audio, QA, engineering, and PM). I also managed the eight artists, illustrators, and animators on our team and took on several individual contributor tasks, including UX (front end interface, and in-game H.U.D. and menus) and font work.
We began pre-production in the spring of 2012 and shipped as a launch title for XBOX ONE in autumn 2013.
Research & Discovery
I reviewed and critiqued the original Peggle and presented to the Franchise Director the major issues I saw and some possible new directions. We agreed the problems were rooted in poor process more-so than any lack of artistic talent, and so he hired me as Art Lead despite me not being a visual artist. (This was an experience problem manifesting as an art problem.)
There were myriad problems with original Peggle's artistic style and presentation. The key issues I felt we needed to correct in Peggle 2 fell into three buckets:
Lack of a cohesive story or logical through-line. There is some amount of charm and whimsy created by all the surreal elements in Peggle but without any themes holding them together they never became more than just a collection of mildly bizarre random things. A coherent narrative -- even a very subtle one -- would give the user a sense of progression through the game, and also help us make decisions throughout production.
Art competes with rather than enhances gameplay. The core mechanic requires players to engage with small pegs in a 2D plane. The background imagery can't interfere with this and should instead assist the user while ideally supporting the narrative (above) as well. Also, the UI and HUD must give gameplay feedback much more clearly.
Missed opportunities and inconsistent styles. Original Peggle had elements of kitsch, steam punk, cartoons, album art, 2D art, 3D art, static characters, semi-static characters, realism, surrealism, etc. The tone also varied, at times delightful and supportive but also cynical and crude in spots. I, myself, would remain "style agnostic" for much of pre-production but I was insistent we must eventually choose a direction, commit to it, and keep things in balance.
Design & Build
Step 1: Start Making a Plan
After putting together a workback schedule based on the mandated ship date, we mapped out a reasonable pre-production plan to decide broad objectives for the new version, how to accomplish them, and to identify the riskiest parts of a new direction.
I then put a creative stake in the ground by declaring our target for the overall mood and tone of Peggle 2. I expressed it with a Venn diagram graphic we could refer back to when necessary.
Step 2: Create a Story
I proposed the narrative wrapper we'd use to add structure and logic to the game:
The new master characters will all be based on mythical cryptids -- rarely seen but ubiquitous in folklore -- who's job it is to provide all of the world's joy and beauty. They do this by harvesting small packets of positive energy that exist everywhere but which only they can see. These are the pegs. You have been selected to become a master and will be coached in the art of collecting these pegs by masters you meet on your journey. As a student and non-cryptid you will need a looking glass device in order to see the pegs in the world. This is the heads-up-display (H.U.D.) game interface.
The important thing to note is this narrative was primarily intended for our own use during production. If we stayed within this defined sandbox when making artistic and design decisions, the world logic would be subtlety apparent to users and the game would feel "whole". It also meant we would be making a positive game heavy on joy and beauty and couldn't use tropes like battling opponents and defeating bosses.
Based on the target mood the new characters should have appealing personalities and the environments may be mysterious but should never be foreboding. We gathered reference for mythical creatures and archetypal characters (mentors, tricksters, allies, etc.) to aid with concept'ing, and worked with the game designers to match the powers they were creating with appropriate character concepts. Environments would likewise fit the characters, and in the end we could stitch them together to form a cohesive journey through a place.
Step 3: Develop the Art Style
At this point we had a story with game world logic and had set the tone. We now needed compelling art work that supported gameplay. A big benefit of having a journey-through-a-world conceit is we could easily add rhythm and progression to the gameplay using animated transitions between screens (and other tricks). That allowed us to place visual interest there, freeing up the static backgrounds to be purpose-built to support peg layouts by mimic'ing them.
Step 4: Test Assumptions
In theory we had now addressed the three major issues and so work began proving out our concepts. Some items were pretty straightforward, like making test renders of animated transitions and evaluating the results both artistically and in terms of effort and tools involved. Others were more knotty, like reassuring people it's a smart idea to move the masters from the gun to the side of the screen.
Step 5: Build the Game
From there we went into a pretty standard production mode (or Delivery phase). There was a vision to inform our decisions and guardrails to keep us from straying, all created with team input. Plenty of creative decisions still remained but since everyone understood the strategic goals they were all empowered to make those themselves. Examples like designing new characters, giving them personalities through animation, illustrating the worlds, making the in-game interface more understandable, as well as creating cut scene videos, special levels, and the front end interface, were all done by small groups working autonomously with the big picture in mind. My role at this point was focussed on communication within the team and studio and on facilitating collaboration.
Deliver & Test
In the end we shipped on time with the most minimal "crunch" period (four 50-hr weeks total) I've experienced in the games industry. I take pride knowing the art team was never a bottleneck during production and whenever possible was able to adjust designs and otherwise assist others to keep the project on schedule.
I am very satisfied with the game we produced. We successfully addressed each of our main project goals and exceeded all forecasts from our Business Development group. As a launch title for XBOX ONE we garnered very positive reviews and praise.
(For a look at some of the art in Peggle 2 visit the PopCap page in the History section.)
The most valuable lesson I learned working on this project was about the importance of a deliberate and honest pre-production period. When I started the project we agreed on a plan but the Franchise Director left soon after. Each subsequent director pressed for us to get into production ASAP but I was able to make the case for continuing on with the original plan each time. As a result, once we went into production there was very little wasted work (a real morale killer for artists), new problems often had logical solutions, and the project tracked very predictably right up until ship date. Steady incremental progress won the day.
A final, subjective, note: The two years I was at PopCap was a challenging time in the industry and at the studio. It was a transitional period with a lot of anxiety, and perhaps our team was not necessarily set up for success initially. However, something happened along the way and we were suddenly the team and project people wanted to work on. I'd like to believe our process and approach had something to do with that.