Zuma: Formulas

So, I was all set to write a post on how Zuma fits into, and how it fails to fit into, the common patterns found throughout PopCap’s early games, such as the screen layout with a square play area on the right and a sidebar with stats and controls on the left, or the great quantities of thematic titles awarded to the player as their score advances, or the way that combo sequences are signaled by a rising pitch in the sound effects, or the sequence of colors — in games where you match colors, an easy way to make things harder is to add more colors as the game progresses. Early PopCap games shared a lot of code and a lot of conventions, and I’ve long felt that Zuma was a sort of transitional game between this formulaic style and the more freeform stuff that they’d do later, keeping some parts of the formula and throwing out others.

The thing is, in researching this, I’ve gone back and tasted some of the earlier PopCap demos, and the formula isn’t nearly as strong as memory suggests. Some of the early games award titles, some don’t. (Zuma doesn’t, except for a vestigial remnant in one-infinite-level mode.) Zuma seems to use the same color sequence as Alchemy and Dynomite, but Bejeweled uses a completely different sequence, making white one of the basic colors available from the beginning where the other games introduce it only after magenta. And I was surprised to see how few of the early games do the rising pitch thing, even when they have mechanics well-suited to it. This is one of the things I think of as identifying the PopCap style, and one of the pieces of the formula to survive intact to later games (such as Peggle, where it’s produced in pretty much every shot), but maybe it’s a more recent innovation than I thought.

The only thing that really seems consistent throughout early PopCap is the sidebar, which Zuma rejects in favor of a full-screen playfield. I suppose that if you’re constantly evolving your style, every game is transitional. It’s just that I remember them all seeming pretty darned formulaic back when they were new. Perhaps it’s just that the sidebar was a strong enough and constant enough presence to make them seem so. In which case, its absence from Zuma would plausibly be enough to make it seem like more of a break from the past than it really is.

Still, there’s one way that Zuma definitely acts as a transition from old to new PopCap: as far as I can tell, it was the first of their games to include jokes. They’re not a big part of the game, but they’re there, heralding things to come.


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