PopCap’s New Indie Label 4th & Battery, the Sandbox For a Death-Metal Horse Romp & Other “Really Strange or Marginal Ideas”

Chalk up another sign of the explosive growth in mobile and casual gaming—Seattle’s PopCap Games, makers of the hit games Bejeweled and Plants vs. Zombies, has set up an “experimental” second label for feeding their weirder side. Yes, even weirder than a Zombie bobsled team.

The new studio and label is called 4th & Battery, a tribute to PopCap’s headquarters address. The second label is intended to help feed the PopCap team’s creative juices by offering a sandbox for coming up with far-out games in a more fast-twitch manner, the company said in a statement. Ed Allard, PopCap’s executive vice president of studios, described the new shop as “a pressure valve,” recognizing that the normal development process can be long and intensive for creative types who like to have fun with their work.

“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,” Allard said. PopCap co-founder Jason Kapalka added that 4th & Battery also won’t have “the typical concerns like schedules, profitability, or even target audience. It’s kind of the video game equivalent of B-sides or short films.”

It’s an interesting move for a maturing company like PopCap, which has been around since 2000. It certainly has the resources to let its developers run loose, now that it claims 56 games and more than 400 employees, and has been edging toward a possible public offering. On one hand, I could see something like 4th & Battery functioning just as advertised—a place to capitalize on PopCap employees’ creative side without restrictions or expectations. That’s probably a good way to keep talent—and their wild ideas—in the building at a time when many of them could be hearing siren songs from other talent-hungry companies.

But this indie-label approach also could function as a faster-moving development pipeline that adds new streams of revenue pretty quickly. One of the casual game industry’s major advantages over traditional console gaming is a quick development cycle. That’s led to some tension within the broader gaming world, but it’s also clear that technological improvements are going to make game development even quicker than it is today. On top of that, PopCap’s 4th & Broadway experiment is a potential play on a broader market, as PopCap says the games coming out of 4th & Battery will include titles aimed solidly at a “mature audience.” I read that to mean people—particularly guys—who love games but don’t want to download some of the cutesier titles out there.

The first game coming out of 4th & Battery definitely fits that mold. It’s Unpleasant Horse, which involves keeping a skull-bedecked black Pegasus flying through the air and sending nicer creatures into a field of meat grinders below. The demo video includes an awesome heavy-metal theme song that really makes me think we should resurrect our Battle of the Tech Bands.

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