A Tribute to Bubble Witch Saga
In the beginning of October, a game called Bubble Witch Saga was retired after nine years of duty. My name is Jörgen Wänerskär and I was the Art Director for that game during its development and first two years as a live game. It was released on Facebook in September 2011 (according to Google, I was never that great with dates) and as it turned out, became a very successful game for King.
But I’ll start a bit further back, in February 2010. I had just started working at this company in Stockholm called King. They made casual competitive skill games, which was an unknown genre to me, on a web platform called King.com (later renamed Royal Games). King was very different back then, with about 80 people in the Stockholm office. My new title was Art Director, not bad for a former AAA environment artist. As it were, actually all game artists at King had that title. Games were pitched by a designer and developed by one coder and one artist. So, in practice, I art directed myself. It meant I had a lot of influence over the visual themes and got to make all the required artwork; characters, backgrounds, game elements, animations and visual effects. A lot of fun, and a lot of new stuff to learn!
The brand that almost wasn’t
As far as I remember the original Bubble Witch on Royal Games was the second game I worked on at King (the first was a Blackjack game exclusive to the Italian market, it’s a long story). It was Sebastian Knutsson who designed the game, a bubble shooter, and my first order of business was to set a theme for the game and make a rough layout in a few days. I had this fantastic opportunity to come up with whatever I felt like modelling and drawing, as long as it fit the audience, of course.
“When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”
I have never read any Shakespeare, but Terry Pratchett did. And I read his wonderfully absurd Discworld books. Pratchett’s take on Macbeth centred on his trio of Wyrd Sisters. See where this is going? I pitched the idea of placing the game in a cottage with three witches shooting bubbles from their cauldron. Sadly, King’s art manager at the time wasn’t too keen on my idea, “Witches? We already have like five games with witches". Remember I had only been at the office for a couple of months, but I really felt like making witches and didn’t have any better ideas up my sleeve. I asked around and found the games he referred to. It was a stretch to call them all witch games and they looked nothing like what I had in mind. So, I made my case, and Sebastian gave me the seal of approval. The game went on to be number one on Royal Games for months after release and I think it stayed there until Candy Crush knocked it off the throne. I wish I could see the sliding doors movie where Bubble Witch got a different visual theme. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered, maybe it would have.
Wasn’t I supposed to talk about Bubble Witch SAGA?
Not long after I joined King it was announced that parts of the company would shift focus to conquer Facebook, which was becoming a platform for casual games. The idea was to take a hit game from Royal Games and wrap it with a map that players traversed by beating levels. Failure meant a life lost and I’m sure many of you have received notifications from friends sending life requests for a King game at some point. Bubble Witch Saga was the second attempt at converting a skill game and became the first really huge success, it has been installed almost 150 million times.
Eventually Bubble Witch Saga would become a multi game brand. The second and third game in the franchise were made in King’s Barcelona office. I’ll admit I was a little worried about handing over the witches. Then I saw their work and I really liked it. I met the team once at a conference and they were kind enough to ask me for feedback on the new protagonist Stella. I thought she looked great, but I did ask if they would consider changing her ballet flats to proper witch boots, and they did.
Looking back a few things strike me. The first is how quickly the company adapted. The way of working with Scrum teams, sprints and all that jazz was new to King and we still got the game out on Facebook in about six months! This leads to the second point. I was part of a fantastic team with really nice and talented people. Everyone did their part and backed each other up. I believe a key ingredient was the level of ownership that was entrusted to us.
I continued to work on the project while it stayed in the Stockholm office. I built most of the game world, and although the graphics hardly live up to King’s standard today, they are a product of a very rapid development that hit the important mark of reaching the market in time. The game’s large player base was leveraged to jump start the success of Candy Crush Saga. I’m quite proud of what we achieved.
In May 2013 after two years of development and content updates the game had declined in numbers, overtaken by the tremendous success of Candy Crush Saga, and was handed over to King’s Bucharest team. Soon after I stepped out of the office for a lengthy parental leave with my first daughter. I haven’t been involved with BWS since. Looking back a lot of good things happened in my life in that period, and it’s been nice taking a walk down memory lane.
This text was perhaps as much about my own journey at King as about the game. I hope that’s ok. To those still reading, thank you so much.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d better go check on my cauldron.
Final note from Chief Creative Officer at King, Sebastian Knutsson
Big thanks for everyone that has worked on Bubble Witch and Bubble Witch Saga. These were big landmarks for the company and have helped the company get where it is today. - Seb