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PopCap Tries a New ‘Game’: In-House Indie Brand

PopCap Games, the company brought us mainstream successes like Bejeweled, Bookworm and Peggle, wants to explore another side of gaming. To that end, on Tuesday, it announced the launch of 4th and Battery, a new small games label with a distinctively indie feel whose first title will launch on the iOS App Store later this month.
The idea behind 4th & Battery is that PopCap’s design and development team has free rein to exercise their creativity with “smaller, simpler and sometimes edgier games,”  according to the press release announcing the new label. PopCap’s EVP of Studios Ed Allard describes the idea as follows:
4th & Battery is a pressure valve intended to keep our heads from exploding. The PopCap brand has become closely associated with ultra-high quality, polish and attention to detail — which is a great thing. But our standard game development process is therefore long and involved, and doesn’t really accommodate all of the creativity pumping through our collective veins. 4th & Battery gives us a way to quickly try really strange or marginal ideas, and to give our designers a safe area to hone their chops.
What does that mean once you cut through the marketing speak? Essentially, PopCap wants to be able to foster innovation and possibly strike it rich with the next big small-budget gaming craze, and it wants to do it while also respecting and not diluting the established brand that its built, and by taking an approach that shouldn’t require too much additional investment.
Motion picture studios, record labels and even comic book publishers have, in recent years, all adopted similar strategies of either partnering with, or creating their own, associated “indie” content producers in hopes of cashing in on the demand for that type of content while also keeping it separate from their primary sources of income. The advantages of this kind of setup are two-fold: Big brands get to play with risky content while preserving their squeaky-clean corporate image, and unfamiliar studio names mean picky consumers are less likely to turn their nose up and move on to something more obscure. This also speaks to the risks involved in bigger games, which consume a lot of time but need to be hits to justify their costs. An indie-style setup at 4th & Battery could allow PopCap to increase the odds of finding a hit by allowing for more, smaller bets.
4th & Battery’s first title is a good illustrative example. It’s called “Unpleasant Horse” (anyone else think immediately of Bad Horse from Dr. Horrible?), and it involves players controlling the title character as he smashes more well-adjusted horses and birds to the earth, where they’re fed through “a perpetual meat-grinder.” The game will be free when it arrives on the App Store later this month for iPhone and iPod touch devices.
PopCap claims this is all about providing a creative outlet for its game designers and developers, but I suspect the fact that quirky indie games and titles that tend towards the crude seem to do very well on the iTunes charts factored in to this decision. But, on a less cynical note, this could definitely generate some interesting titles if PopCap’s developers, who have a proven track record when it comes to producing solid games, really do have free rein to let their imaginations roam. Check out the video trailer for Unpleasant Horse below and let us know what you think about its potential in the comments.