How Mark Turmell went from creating NBA Jam to match-three at Zynga

It's been almost a year since NBA Jam creator Mark Turmell left Electronic Arts to join social gaming powerhouse Zynga. Now, the company is finally ready to reveal his first project, Bubble Safari. Zynga's first arcade title, Bubble Safari tasks a former space program monkey named Bubbles (not that Bubbles, presumably) with saving his jungle friends. Bubbles does so in the only logical way: A match-three bubble-popping puzzle game.

Bubble Safari will launch tomorrow on both Facebook and, with a mobile version under consideration.

It might seem strange for Turmell to move from the likes of Smash TV, NBA Jam and NFL Blitz to a puzzle game, but he sees them all as fundamentally arcade experiences. "Match-three games have been around for 20-plus years," he says, "even the original Bust-A-Move in the arcade was one of my favorite games – that was in the same era as NBA Jam."
%Gallery-154879% The influence of Bust-A-Move (AKA Puzzle Bobble) is immediately apparent. The basics are still the same, tasking Bubbles with firing ... bubbles out of a cannon toward an ever-descending rack of colorful spheres above. Connect at least three of the same color, and they pop. Skilled players might try to eliminate the top row first, which will automatically drop any bubbles attached below.

There are, however, some significant additions to the traditional formula. One of the key additions to the formula was actually borrowed from NBA Jam, namely the On Fire mode (sadly unaccompanied by a Marv Albert impersonator). If Bubbles nails three matches in a row, he becomes "on fire" and can briefly blast huge clumps of bubbles off of the rack (all to the tune of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture). There's also a special gauge that fills as points are earned and, once filled, players can spin for a random Boost Bubble. These bubbles grant special abilities, such as lightning that can zap through a line of bubbles or time bombs that explode after a few seconds.

Bubbles, the monkey, has to deal with a number of hazards as well, notably beehives and spawners. Beehives will periodically launch bees at Bubbles, causing him to erratically fire bubbles, while spawners will spit out additional bubbles every turn, making it more difficult to plan your next move.

Unsurprisingly, Bubble Safari also packs in a fair amount of social features. For example, players are able to trade bubbles with one another during play, a handy feature if you need a specific bubble at a given moment. Also, a first for Zynga, Bubble Safari includes real-time, head-to-head multiplayer on, allowing players to find opponents via matchmaking or to play with friends directly.

The game is free-to-play, with players given 5 free "energy" – credits, essentially – every day. Each level costs one energy to play, though players earn that energy back upon completing the level. Just like an arcade game, says Turmell, you can keep playing all day so long as you keep winning. Should you run out of energy, you can borrow some from friends or wait for it to regenerate at a rate of one energy every 20 minutes. Of course, if your friends are stingy and you're impatient, you can always buy more energy for real money. Power-ups are also available for either in-game currency or real money.

I don't want to throw stones at the traditional business, but this is clearly the future.- Mark Turmell

As to what inspired the game, Turmell says Zynga wasn't doing any arcade games when he joined the company last summer. "There's something magical about match-three," he says. "I realized that although the genre's been around for so long, and there are many, many, many bubble shooters, that there was still huge room for innovation."

So, why leave Electronic Arts for Zynga? After all, EA already has social game studios. Turmell says it's a matter of pursuing ideas. "I had rebirthed NBA Jam [and] NFL Blitz there, and it was really difficult to justify up the chain of command the wisdom, or lack thereof, of any one particular title," he says, "it's hard to convince people about what the numbers will be." He notes further that his experience in the arcade business is very similar to Zynga's. "When NBA Jam went out and collected a billion dollars one quarter at a time in 1993, that happened because we were in the arcade months before it released, tuning and tweaking that game," he says, elaborating that his team worked directly with players at local Chicago arcades to create the final version of NBA Jam. "Here [at Zynga] we have the ability to go through that same kind of data and shift and adjust as needed." This kind of direct player feedback, he says, puts Zynga "light years" ahead of the competition.

"I don't want to throw stones at the traditional business, but this is clearly the future. There's no question that Zynga is marching down the right path of making games free-to-play and social. It'll be in every aspect of gaming in the years ahead."

This article was originally published on Joystiq.