I am standing in a room few people get to see. It's barely a 10 by 10 foot space, crammed to bursting with computers and consoles. A keyboard in the corner, a violin case against the wall. Two huge computers compete for space on a mixing desk, crowded with other equipment. A laptop, some monitors. An Xbox One.
This is the audio room, a small, secret room behind a simple, orange door. It's deceptively ordinary from the outside — around a corner, at the junction of two hallways, not in a place you'd expect. But it's one of the most centrally-located rooms in the building. No outside walls. No windows. It is as close to acoustically isolated as it gets here in the heart of downtown Seattle.
This room is where the music is made for Peggle 2. It's where sounds, songs and human voices combine to make the pleasing jingles and jangles that make Peggle more than just Pachinko on a PC.
Drew Robertson is standing next to me. He's Peggle 2's lead artist. He's been working on the game for almost two years and he's never been in here. He is in silent awe.
Microsoft has code names for every game in development for its consoles, whether they're made by Microsoft or not. Here's how important the music is to Peggle: Microsoft's code name for Peggle 2 is "Symphony."
In making video games, the term "secret sauce" is used, frequently, to describe the creative critical mass that forms when a collection of certain individuals works on a certain type of thing. Every successful game has it, but even people who've made a game struggle to tell you what it is. It's a way of doing things, perhaps. A philosophy. A technique. Something proprietary, unusual or special that defines a game or a series that no other company has somehow managed to match. It's something you can't put your finger on, but when it happens, you know it.
Peggle is a so-called "casual" game modeled after Pachinko that's beloved by millions and includes rainbows and unicorns for added flavor. It's been copied, unsuccessfully, and it's been replicated, once, with Peggle Nights. You know when you see it — and when you play it — it has the sauce.
Just over two years ago, Seattle-based PopCap set out to bottle that sauce to make Peggle 2. It had to be different but also the same. It had to open up the game to people who'd never played it before but be a familiar and pleasing experience for those who had. And it had to be made for Xbox One, a console that hadn't yet been released.
Making sequels is a challenge many game makers face. It is not unique to PopCap, but for Peggle 2, the challenge is further complicated one simple fact: Peggle is a game that is made almost entirely of secret sauce. PopCap would have to not only expand the product, but tinker with the secret sauce as well, and potentially ruin the whole thing.
The game is out this week. Sauce and all. Last week its creators invited me behind closed doors to see how they made it.
Placing the pegs
Peggle starts on a blank page — no math, no guides, not even any art. It's just a page in a level editor. And then come the pegs, the tiny, rounded objects that you have to hit to score points.
They don't have to be in any pattern. There are no hard and fast rules. There can be any number of pegs, so long as a certain number are orange. A smaller number are green. Occasionally also purple. Most are blue. They can be symmetrical or not. Moving or not. Outlining some shape or not. It's up to the editor.
Some go here; some go there; some are close together; and are some far. This part of the process doesn't take any set length of time, but it is a critical step. The pegs are everything. They are the shape of the playing board. Hitting them will produce those pleasing baby sounds. They are what will encourage and frustrate the people playing the game. And, in a way, they are the game. It is called Peggle, after all.
But they're just pegs. They can go anywhere, which means that, at the start, they aren't anywhere. Each Peggle level starts as nothing. Just a blank, white page.
And then they drop a ball and see what happens.
Onto that blank page, the level editors will add some pegs, wherever they want. Maybe in some kind of arrangement they saw in a dream. And then they drop a ball and see what happens.
"I have a reverence for Peggle. It's my favorite PopCap game before I came to PopCap," says Sylvain Dubrofsky. He's the lead designer on Peggle 2. Before coming to PopCap he was at Boston-based Harmonix. In September 2012 he got the nod to lead design on Peggle 2.
"When I talked to the people on the team to see if it was going to be a good fit for me to be lead designer, I was like, 'Look, I can't tell you what makes a good Peggle level now. But by the end of the project I should be able to tell you,'" he says. "The very first Peggle level I made was terrible. You put rows of pegs. I just did that, a grid, and it was terrible because the ball hits a peg and it drains. The first thing you learn is you have to diagonally stagger the pegs if you want them to fall and keep bouncing. Big drains where the ball just falls and doesn't bounce back up are not fun."
We're in a sort of meeting room on the third floor of PopCap's building. It's just a corner alcove, vaguely triangular, sectioned off with two high walls and a large opening between them with no door, just a rolling whiteboard that can be pushed into the entryway.
Along the long wall is a sofa and some tables. Across from that, a TV with an Xbox One. It's a living room setup, similar to the one (or two) you might have in your house — but at PopCap, as in almost every other game studio on the planet, it's one of many.
This setup is in the process of displaying the freshly minted Peggle 2, although there's been some difficulty. The game hasn't been loaded onto the console yet, or, if it has, it's the wrong version. The game will be released to the world in just a few days, but it wasn't finished until very, very recently.
Dubrofsky is showing a long, intensely detailed storyboard along the one wall that doesn't brace a couch or a television. The tiny room is so narrow, the storyboard is hard to take in all at once, but it's nothing less than a complete storyboard of the entire game of Peggle 2, from the first screen you see when you start the game, until the very end.
"This is a few months old, maybe four or five months old," Dubrofsky says. "We do things like this to try to convey the flow of the game. A lot of screenshots of in-progress shell screens or ideas for things that could happen. ... [You] can see the flow from the EA logo to PopCap and all the way through the game, and then transitions. We were trying to make sure we got the transitions ... the character master comes in, and the HUD builds up from there."
In Peggle 2, each master or main character is introduced in their own section of Peggle land, and then they roll in a sort of mechanical screen that creates the playing board with the pegs, bumpers and what have you. It's a sort of high-definition conceit for a game that could be (and has been) as simple as a screen with pegs, but the lavish art and sound and flow of the total package make it all seem natural.
"It's super subtle, but we wanted a progression with the levels, too," says Dubrofsky, showing off the levels for Peggle 2's final master, Luna, the part-girl part-ghost. "You're starting out at the edge of a forest here. Then you're going through the forest, going through a swamp, and then you see a little bit of humanity. You see the gates and the gravestone. You see a rose ... we wanted to bookend each set of 10 levels with something good."
The rose is Luna's final level. It's a lavish background painting with a single red rose in the middle. The pegs mimic the outline of the rose petals, forming an intricate and beautiful array. And like every other Peggle level it started as a blank canvas.
"First thing we'll do is go to a whiteboard and say, 'What's Jeffrey the troll?'" Dubrofsky says, citing Peggle 2's first new master as an example. Jeff is a large, laid-back bridge troll. He's been characterized as very dude-like. "What's his environment like? He's got bridges. Bridges have water sometimes. They have multiple types of bridges. They have trees at the tops of the mountains with little troll faces at the end. The water here allows us to have big, obvious rows you could shoot at."
Jeffrey's super power, activated by hitting the green pegs, is to turn the normally small, silver playing ball into a gigantic boulder, which simply falls down the screen, occasionally being nudged in one direction or another by pegs, but mostly crushing a wide swath through them.
For Peggle 2, PopCap wanted to make the powers more, well, powerful. More satisfying. But super-charging powers brings new challenges. For one, it could make the game too easy, which would make it less fun.
At its core, Peggle is a simple game: you press a button to shoot a ball then sit back and watch what happens
The essence of Peggle's gameplay is a delicate balancing act between the random, Pachinko-like gameplay and the subtle ways a player can impact the action. At its core, Peggle is a simple game: you press a button to shoot a ball then sit back and watch what happens. But where and when you shoot the ball impacts the result. If it were truly random, it wouldn't be fun. But if it's not at all random, it's also less fun.
"There's a threshold of random versus skill in Peggle. It's very finely tuned," says Dubrofsky. "Doing different things will change that ratio. ... We have an aimer that comes out of the gun, and it goes down X length of the screen. At one point we had that longer. It made the game more of a skill-based game, because you could pick off pegs at the bottom and go right to the bucket. It just didn't feel right to me, so we moved it back up a bit and found a sweet spot where it felt like, 'Oh, I can hit these pegs, but these down here, I don't have ultimate precision.' It restored that kind of mix of random versus skill."
When Dubrofsky was tapped as lead level designer, he spent weeks playing previous Peggles, learning what worked and what didn't, noticing commonalities, seeing patterns. He was finding the chinks in the armor he could exploit to make something similar, but better. And then he paired up with veteran Peggle level designer Steve Notley to get to work.
"I learned a lot from Notley," Dubrofsky says. "Some people like Notley just have a knack. ... [We banged some levels] out and they worked right away. It could be an hour. You just hit it and you're like, what's the goal here? I wanted a level with a lot of bricks that spawn and I wanted to make it really hard. It worked. Then you always have to be aware, though, can the artist art that? In the style of our game? That's always the level design and artist relationship. If they can't art it, then you probably need to go back and do some more work on it."
Along the way they continually play tested, which PopCap does for every game. The entire company, not just the QA team, give a new game a shot, as its being made. If it's fun, they keep working. If it's not, they try something new, then keep working. It's a long, iterative process that results, eventually, in the PopCap games you know when you see them.
Dubrofsky and Lead Producer Jared Neuss describe one level that just recently got finished. It had been complete for months, but in play test after play test, it came back as the least fun.
"It was a level that had been around for a long time," says Neuss. "It wasn't quite working the way we would have wanted it to. Then [Dubrofsky] sat down one day and said, 'What if I just throw a couple of bumpers in here?' And all of sudden it became the most fun level in the entire game."
"No one really liked it. It wasn't the worst level. We could have shipped it."
It became so much fun, from just that small change, that PopCap showed it off at PAX.
"I love this level now, and it was super not fun [before]," says Dubrofsky. "Notley was working on a different level, and I was like, I'm going to redesign this level right now. We're going to re-art it and we're going to take it to a layout. ... Because it just wasn't fun. It was too random, kind of ... the ball would just ... hit all this stuff, and drain. Then the middle would be boring. No one really liked it. It wasn't the worst level. We could have shipped it."
"But it was difficult and not fun," Neuss says, laughing.
"Difficult and not fun," Dubrofsky agrees. "Sometimes you can have difficult and fun. Sometimes you can have easy and not fun. But usually, the combination of difficult and not fun is the worst one.
"The first thing you realize is like … All right, if you symmetrically lay out a thing and half of it's fun, the other half's gonna be ..." Dubrofsky laughs, shaking his head. He says Peggle is easy to learn to design, but, as with playing it, difficult to master. "That's one of the early lessons I learned."
Drew Robertson is a tall, deliberate man. He has the air of an academic and speaks with the slightly distracted effortlessness of a fine artist. When he looks at you, it's as if he's looking for your essence, what makes you different, spiritually, from everyone else.
"I had no interest in doing an ironic, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, 'it's so bad it's good' type of title," says Robertson. "I wanted to make a beautiful game."
Robertson's part of the process started over a year ago, when he was brought in to answer the question of what Peggle should look like designed for a television, for the living room, on Xbox One.
"We've got this great opportunity to remake Peggle in HD. So what does that mean?" he says. "It means everything's open for redoing."
Robertson stands up from the long conference table just off PopCap's main lobby and opens up an over-stuffed manilla folder. Out spill dozens of full-color printed photographs and charts, a sampling of his reference material. It's as thick as a phone book.
One chart depicts a Venn diagram of overlapping spheres of influence, attempting to plot Peggle's position among popular media — Disney cartoons like Peter Pan and Fantasia and films like John Carpenter's campy sci-fi thriller They Live!
"We're at the intersection of that," he says. "In that diagram we also have Toy Story and Alice in Wonderland. [Peggle is] a fun, positive, beautiful game. That was the starting point.
"From there we thought ... to put some sense of progression into it, some sort of logic, a logical backbone. Not an explicit story necessarily that the user needs to follow, like go rescue the princess, but a thread of logic."
Early on Robertson went to the audio team, which was among the first to begin work on the game. It had already banged out some concepts and built up ideas for an orchestral score that would be interactive, something many composers think can't be done. The audacity and purity of the audio direction spoke to Robertson. It was brave and beautiful. He wanted to capture that same spirit in the art.
"They had put together an audio demo before I came on, and it was just this beautiful orchestral audio," Robertson says. "I said, 'That's it. That's what we're talking about. It's a beautiful game. Let's play up the beauty.' That was basically the starting point."
From there, Robertson focused on the idea of cryptids, creatures that are generally well-known but not recognized by science. Like the Yeti or the Loch Ness Monster. Like the unicorn.
Peggle is a game with helper characters, masters, who encourage and teach and lend the player limited use of their powers. The first Peggle came with a handful, including Bjorn the unicorn. Bjorn returns for Peggle 2, but is joined by a quartet of first-timers: all-new masters, created by Robertson and crew.
The backstory for Peggle 2 involves magical beings and special powers and the ability to see pegs that release joy into the world. And you would never know that unless they told you, but it doesn't matter. It informs the process and unifies and binds the galaxy together. You may not know it's there, but you know when it's not.
If a ghost wanted to help you, how would it do so? What would a yeti do?
"If we presented a flower made out of cheese, you might say, how does that relate to everything else?" Robertson says. "We've seen knockoffs of our game where they've even chosen our colors. But there's no soul there."
Robertson again opens up his folder and begins shuffling out small, wallet-sized snapshots of cryptids and outright fictional creatures. He's dealing them like cards, blanketing the conference table. The yeti. Yoda. A unicorn, a dragon, a mermaid. A grey alien. Dozens of creatures. It's an avalanche of material to draw from. Until recently the assemblage was plastered along the walls of a studio room upstairs. Developers would walk in and stare ... and dream.
"Unbeknownst to us, there's this group of beings that are out there harvesting, hitting the pegs, harvesting the energy, making the world beautiful," Robertson says. "You've been chosen to become a member of this troop of beings that go out and harvest this energy. ... This informed what would be the perfect type of character that might be out there harvesting things."
From this exhaustive research and intensive daydreaming came Jeff, the bridge troll, Berg the yeti, Gnorman the gnome inside a machine and Luna, the ghost. Peggle's new masters — part cryptid, part mentor.
From there, research moved to the types of powers each master should have. If a ghost wanted to help you, how would it do so? What would a yeti do?
"What if, going back to Fantasia, [Berg is] a goofy dancing hippo? Clumsy dancing hippo, that's a gag, right? It's a twist on the big mean yeti, where he wants to dance. ... Why would a yeti think he could dance? He's not really the body type to do that. Or, say, Lenny from Mice and Men for the character. He can't just be a straight-up yeti. We did that with all the characters. Once we came up with a power we were happy with, we said, what sort of cryptid could we assign that, so there's the logic, the link between them? We had the cloaking power. That's a ghost. That's a will-o-the-wisp. What if she was ... Lydia from Beetlejuice is an inspiration. Big-eyed painting girl. The shy cat. Again, it's all about the brainstorming.
"At that point we've all designed the sandbox. It's just up to ... It's the animator, the character designer, they go from there. We have a big broad box. You see what we're trying to do. Go crazy with it. All the power came from the character designers, the background designers. There's a history with Peggle that pretty much anything goes. We have this logic now. Just go with it."
The powers influenced the level design. The characters determined the powers. The characters were cooked out of scholarly study and navel gazing. All of which, at the basest level possible, was inspired by the work of Peggle 2's audio team, working upstairs, down a hallway, behind a simple orange door.
Meet the masters
PopCap knew early on that Bjorn the unicorn would be returning as one of Peggle 2's masters. "We just souped up his power a little bit so you could see slides now when you're getting the super guide," says Dubrofsky.
Jeff's power is a big ball, called the "bowlder." He makes sure to cover his beverage when you're using it.
"Jeffrey is like your favorite dude," says Dubrofsky. "El Duderino."
Berg's power is freezing the screen, causing pegs to slide into each other.
"Berg is kind of a doofus," says Dubrofsky.
"He’s a friendly yeti," says Neuss. "He’s a yeti, but he’s a friendly, goofy yeti who wants to be a dancer."
"Gnorman is a gnome who built a suit to make himself bigger and taller," says Dubrofsky. "There are opportunities for you to see what’s inside the robot costume, and it’s different for every costume in there. There’s a different thing inside. The base costume has a little gnome inside."
Gnorman's power electrifies the pegs surrounding the pegs you hit.
Luna was originally the fourth master. During playtesting PopCap realized her power was a little bit harder to master than Gnorman's so they switched places.
"She’s a ghost who isn’t real clear on the idea that she’s a ghost," says Neuss.
Her power makes blue pegs transparent and the ball passes right through them.
Secrets of sound
"There's kind of a notion that if you're using an orchestral recording, it can't be interactive, but I wanted to prove that wrong."
That's Guy Whitmore, Peggle 2's audio director. He's sitting at the crowded console in the secret room behind the orange door. It's stifling hot in here, and cramped, although Whitmore doesn't seem to notice either.
Whitmore is a bookish type with a pork pie hat and glasses. He looks like a jazz musician.
"It can be [interactive] if you record it in shorter phrases, section by section, violins separate from viola, from trombone, from trumpets," he says. "So when you put it all back together it has the flexibility to move from one section to another seamlessly. Or to peel layers away and become more ambient."
The process of creating the sound and music for what would become Peggle 2 started before the game even had a name, during an early prototype phase in 2012. Whitmore captured footage of the prototype, brought it back to his secret room and asked himself, "No holds barred, no technology limitations, what would I do with this game if it were a movie and I were scoring it?"
From there it was music all the way down. Whitmore and PopCap's team of composers created orchestral tunes, which were then recorded, instrument by instrument in isolation, so that each separate track, note and sound could be made into stems and loaded into audio engine WWise, to make them interactive.
Over the course of two years, the audio team created musical compositions, recorded them with the famous film and television recording group Northwest Symphony, Dynamedion in Frankfurt, Germany and a local children's choir in Seattle. All of the in-game music, except for the "fever" tracks, was recorded just a few blocks down the road, at Seattle's famous grunge rock recording room, Studio X. The fever tracks were recorded in Germany.
"For a given master ... Let's say it was somebody like Berg. We would come up with what the musical theme should be," says Audio Lead Jaclyn Shumate, who says she pronounces the name Berg, like "'bairg' as opposed to 'burg'" because there's a composer named Alban Berg ('bairg'), and that's just how she thinks. "Ignore me," she says, as if anyone could. She's got what decades ago might have been called "moxie." Bespectacled and energetic. Smart like a professor.
Listening to Shumate talk, something hits me. All day, touring the studio, talking to its employees, something's seemed "off" about PopCap. It doesn't feel like a game studio. Inhabited by bookish band nerds like Whitmore and Shumate, stentorian art dweebs like Robertson and hyper-focused math kids like Dubrofsky, PopCap is not so much a game studio as an honors club. Sitting in the audio room and soaking in Shumate and Whitmore's energy, it dawns on me: PopCap is the video game equivalent of the Dead Poets Society.
One of the first major creative risks the team took was changing the fever song for each new master.
"For Berg, he lives in this icy winter wonderland, but he's still really light, but heavy at the same time, which is kind of odd," says Shumate, on loquacious fire about the creation of music fit for a yeti. "For him, we wanted to have the music have a feeling like it was a winter wonderland skatepark holiday theme, but not be holiday-ish at all, and get across some of his lightness of feeling ..."
"His ballet," interjects Whitmore. "This big lug."
"Yeah. And still have a presence," Shumate says. The two frequently finish each others' sentences. You get the sense that the pair have formed a deep, creative collaboration over the many months of making the game.
One of the first major creative risks the team took was changing the fever song for each new master. A seemingly small change, but one that could potentially turn off long-time fans. In each of the two previous Peggle games, finishing a level has unleashed the full sound and fury of the finale to Beethoven's 9th Symphony, the "Ode to Joy." For Peggle 2, they wanted to give each master its own ending track.
They pored over symphony recordings, picking out what might fit best with each character, leaning on the backstory and the character research provided by the art team.
"We all had the concepts of what we wanted to do," says Whitmore. "Then, because there was a tight logic behind it … the way things fell together was just magical."
"A lot of the work we did was making judicious decisions about what you want to hear," says Shumate. "We had to design something that would make the player feel really satisfied, but work with the changing timing of fever. ... If you get the highest possible score, it'll reach that super satisfying pitch. You should just keep trying to get it and it'll feel really good. ... It's about controlling what the user is experiencing."
"The idea is that ... some people will notice it outright, and other people will just think it feels good," says Whitmore. "That's great. We don't want it to stick out like a music game. It's about Peggle. It should be subtle to most people, I think."
"Yeah. We just want them to say, oh, look, the audio. Or, 'That was a funny goat!'" Shumate interjects. She's especially proud of the goats. She is, after all, one of them.
All of the animal sounds in Peggle 2 were recorded by people working on the game. In Peggle 2, the audio adds to the feeling of a unified world, adding flavor notes to the secret sauce. Shumate's goat, for example, has a frantic, hysterical sound, that, in context, is one of the most hilarious noises in the game. It's a quick thing, but noticeable. And it works.
In Peggle 2 every sound you hear is perfectly tuned, in harmony with every other sound, every musical phrase, everything you do. It is, in essence, a symphony. And it is all created in real time, adjusting on the fly to your every action, automatically, by the WWise engine.
"[WWise is] an algorithmic arranger, based on the gameplay," says Whitmore. "It is taking all those elements and rearranging them in real time. ... A lot of the rhythmic power and logic happens right in [WWise], which makes it easier for the programmers. They're just sending these very simple state calls or switches, logic calls, that we interpolate. ... We assign what music should play at any given point in time, based on those calls."
Whitmore and Shumate insert nodes into the program, which are basically the points at which a given piece of music could start or stop — for whatever reason or under whatever circumstances — and the engine responds to the game state by calling for one of those nodes. It's basically a script, giving WWise different options for different circumstances. Once the game is running, the engine takes control, playing music according to the script, then improvising based on variations.
As I sit beside him at the crowded console, Whitmore loads up a section of music in the WWise tool. I see segments of songs lined up in rows, represented by graphical wave forms. There's a squiggly line representing a horn section, a fatter one, drums. Dozens of "stems," each representing a single instrument or section of instruments that, when combined, make up an entire song. Whitmore is in the guts of the engine, plucking at its command strings to re-create the effect of playing a Peggle 2 level, like a pianist knocking on the insides of a baby grand.
"You start a game, and the game says, 'start game,'" Whitmore says, changing a setting from zero to one, replicating what happens within the game code when you play it. Music plays. It is Luna's music, haunting and melodic.
"Now each time you pass a threshold of how many orange pegs are left, the game simply says, 'All right, I've gotten rid of four orange pegs, go to the next segment.'"
Whitmore inputs the code change and the music gradually adjusts, ramping up, adding more elements, perfectly in synch with the music already playing. As if it was written that way.
But it wasn't, of course. WWise is simply selecting musical segments from its library, layering them over the sections of music already playing, perfectly in synch with the beat and in the proper key. It is one of those things that, when you hear it, sounds natural. But even human musicians struggle to do this so perfectly.
"Let's say now I've gotten rid of seven pegs." Whitmore makes another change and counts off the beat, just to see if the cue comes in on time. "Two, three, four …"
And it does. Right on cue. Right on key.
It is one of those things that, when you hear it, sounds natural. But even human musicians struggle to do this so perfectly.
"And there's the next piece," he says, smiling, nodding slightly to the beat, still keeping count. Like a jazz musician. "It's always on a nice boundary, a nice little transition into it. This is how the game progresses as you get rid of the pegs."
Another change, another count off. "Two, three, four ..." and the music ramps up again, beaming more urgent.
"And if I go to two, that'll take me down to the ambient state." Whitmore changes another setting, simulating what happens when you press "pause" or set down the controller of the Xbox One. "Two, three, four ..." and right on cue the music slows to its mellow, ambient state.
"There it goes," he says. "[The] player can be progressing [however] they want, but the music always happens on the next boundary step. Then there's one peg left."
Whitmore makes a final change to the WWise settings and there it is, the long, sustained note you hear when you are at the end of a level, the suspense-driving tone meant to focus your attention, ramp up your tension and build to the inevitable release of winning.
And then Whitmore hits the fever command and all hell breaks loose. The speakers erupt with orchestral fury, the finale to Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King," Luna's fever music, bombarding us from the studio surround speakers, perfectly piercing the air in this super-acoustic space. The effect is damn near magical.
"You can see, the game is sending us very simple calls, very abstract, and from there we run with it. It's very data-driven, as they say." Whitmore says it like a magician at the end of a trick.
And that's exactly what Peggle 2 is: a trick. The ball is the hand you're watching, hitting pegs, making baby coos, racking up points. The hand you're not watching is doing all the rest — cuing up music, creating art and design, performing months of deep research and creative engineering. Cooking secret sauce.
And like the best tricks, if they do it right, you'll never even notice.
Editing: Matt Leone, CJ Harrison
Design / Layout: Tyson Whiting, Ally Palanzi, Jake Lear