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PopCap: The Complexity Of Being Casual

PopCap's titles like Bejeweled and Peggle make them the top casual brand - here, Gamasutra talks co-founder John Vechey and CEO David Roberts about XBLA, iPhone, and an upcoming "cool collaboration" with a top console developer.

Brandon Sheffield

June 20, 2008

27 Min Read

Seattle-headquartered PopCap was founded in 2000, and over the past few years has established itself as arguably the premier brand in casual gaming, with almost 200 employees across multiple offices.

For example, we all know Bejeweled, which has sold at least 10 million units across all major platforms. In addition, the more recent Peggle took both the casual and hardcore market by storm.

Recent console expansion has seen multiple Xbox Live Arcade releases for the firm - including Feeding Frenzy and Heavy Weapon - and PlayStation 2 compilation releases to add to existing markets such as the pre-eminent PC downloadable, cellphone, and even iPod.

But in this rare, wide-ranging and unusually jovial interview, the company's co-founder John Vechey, CEO David Roberts and PR director Garth Chouteau explain its structure and the thoughts behind its business and development moves.

Let's start out with an expanding but still relatively new area for you. What is your perception of the console downloadable market versus the PC downloadable market?

John Vechey: No comment! (laughter)

Oh, this is going to be an easy one.

JV: We're big fans of the whole console market in general. It started off with the Xbox 1, which was very experimental and had somewhat abysmal sales, but Microsoft really did an amazing job learning a lot of lessons and advancing and making the Xbox Live Arcade experience.

Business was amazing for the Xbox 360. When we actually got the demo for the 360, everyone said, "This is it. We're going to start really supporting this and really investing in this business. It's really exciting."

It's done really, really well for us. What it's actually done is open up the whole console business. We have a PlayStation 2 compilation, an Xbox retail compilation, and we're doing each of the console games we're working on now and going deep in the console business.

For us, Xbox 360 Live Arcade and the downloadable console thing really opened up that business for us that I don't know if we would've been able to approach in the way we did. So for us, the best part is that it's such a big part of our company now, having the console development teams, and having it as a focus for our company that wouldn't have happened without the space.

popcap_heavyweapon.jpg
PopCap's Heavy Weapon

As far as the comparison to the PC download space, the PC download space is very different and has a very different consumer. We're actually getting a gamer customer. For example, Heavy Weapon was a game we had done that's an arcade-style shooter. It was pretty much our least successful game in the PC downloadable space, and not surprisingly so. We didn't think it would be that successful.

When we put it on Xbox Live Arcade, it was one of our first, day-one best selling games ever, in the history of the company. It has a different demographic, so it's kind of cool to hit the more gamer-driven demographic, the people who play console games.

Do you have a proper console division now?

JV: Yes.

Do you consider the console space somewhat ancillary, or is it more like an area where you're pushing more resources, or is it supplemental to your existing products? How do you look at it?

David Roberts: Our company has three business units, if you think about it. Technically divisions. One is mobile, which is a big part of our business. The other is the PC online, which includes Mac, PC, and retail.

The third is the video game platform business, which is all about dedicated devices. And that covers everything from Xbox to Wii to little dedicated devices that you might buy for $20 that connect to TVs. We're looking at all those things and working on a bunch of different projects.

JV: But definitely, as far as putting resources onto it, some of our best game people are thinking solely about consoles right now. It really is an equal priority. And really, it's key to our business, just as mobile is, because for us, our business isn't just a PC downloadable business with some sort of side revenue streams.

It is very much a multiplatform, multichannel, multipartner business where our goal is to get our games anywhere they're going to be great, anywhere we can. If your fridge can make a great Bejeweled experience, by god, we'd have your fridge playing Bejeweled.

That's kind of like the Linux coder philosophy for Doom. It's like, if a toaster could run Linux, then Doom would get ported to it. It would be the first thing they did.

JV: Exactly.

In terms of those dedicated "TV game" systems, have you considered making any of those dedicated handheld things? At first I assumed they weren't popular, but I actually see people playing them on the trains.

JV: I think we actually got a prototype for a dedicated little game device from a partner. It was manufactured in China, and there were little warnings on the prototypes -- so we could see what the device would be like -- that said, "This uses potentially poisonous materials. Wash your hands after use."

DR: After you touch it, yeah.

That's great.

JV: It was an exciting moment.

That doesn't necessarily answer the question, though.

JV: They were prototypes. They were something we were looking into.

That's true, but it could've been like, "And we're never doing it again!" (laughter)

Garth Chouteau: Three of our developers died from the poison, so we don't have that capability anymore!

JV: It turned Garth into a zombie.

Do you think that kind of device is better as a one-off, or a 20-in-1? What do you think is the sweet spot there?

JV: We don't know. I'm sure the people working on it have a theory and plan. I don't know what that is right now. I wish I did.

You had an existing relationship with Apple, because you had games on iTunes already. Did that make it easier to transition into proper iPhone development stuff?

DR: Apple's pretty compartmentalized, so in some sense it probably made it easier, but we weren't really at a particular advantage with any of the iPhone stuff. As everybody knows, they're obsessively secretive and careful about that. Internally, PopCap had a bunch of ex-Apple people who were running the ranks here, and I still don't think we had any more of an advantage.

But we do have a soft spot for Apple, so we committed to the iPod stuff. We did start on that one really early. We did start on that one. It's been great. That's been good for us, but it was a lot of work, to do the iPod stuff.

popcap_bejewelediphone.jpgJV: And we had the first iPhone game -- the browser-based game -- with Bejeweled. We just kind of whipped it out because we thought it would be cool.

DR: That wasn't because of a special relationship with Apple.

JV: Yeah. It was funny, though, because our special relationship with Apple is that... I think Bejeweled is now on every single... you go to apple.com and go to the iPhone page, you will see pictures of Bejeweled. It's completely ubiquitous in their marketing.

At some point, someone said, "Ooh, that little gem game looks interesting. We're going to put it out and market it."

I've heard that iPod development was difficult. Are you going to continue to do iPod development as you go into iPhone? Because those markets are somewhat separate.

DR: We just shipped Peggle for iPod a few months ago, and it did great for us.

JV: We just updated our latest games.

DR: We updated a couple of our early games to be more compatible with the current design platform. Obviously, you have to understand what Apple's strategy is, to the extent of... their hardware strategy changes, and we follow their lead on that.

But right now, we don't see a reason to stop iPod development. It's a fun business for us. It gives us exposure to the kind of audience that probably wouldn't see our games otherwise. It's not just... I think the demographic of the iPod isn't just the young, hip kids. There's a pretty wide demographic there, and our company benefits from the exposure we get out of that with those games we have.

How is the iPhone development in comparison to...

GC: I don't think we can tell you.

JV: I know I don't know.

DR: I just don't know. My understanding is that it's a lot more like Mac development than certainly the iPod is.

JV: Yeah, I think it's pretty quick and easy.

Have you not started yet?

JV: We personally, no.

DR: We just sell them.

You guys are doing some casual/hardcore hybrid stuff. How much more are you going to go in that arena? It seems like a pretty interesting one, to me.

JV: I think in the case of Peggle Extreme, where we paired up with Valve and created a mash-up of Peggle and Half-Life and Team Fortress 2, it definitely was really highly successful, so it's something we're probably going to be thinking about in the future and how we're going to leverage that and help Peggle succeed and cross over into the hardcore games space, unlike any other product we've ever done.

Zuma and Bejeweled had big game followings, but Peggle has overtaken the gaming community in a way that none of our games have ever really done that. It was dramatically sped up by Peggle Extreme, and we're trying to think of other things as well with Peggle and seeing if that works with other things. Some games... you couldn't do a mash-up of Bejeweled and Half-Life. That would only suck.

But I think it's something we're looking at, and as we do things, we're always very much a game company first, even though we make casual games. So when we look and see things like Puzzle Quest, which is very much a hybrid hardcore/casual game, we definitely look at it and say, "Okay, maybe we'll do something like that in the future."

Right. Because everyone's looking for the next Puzzle Quest.

DR: Well, in a way, Bookworm Adventures was a little bit of that, right? It's interesting to note that our last two major releases both touch on that in different ways. Peggle Extreme was a totally different...

JV: Yeah, like Bookworm Adventures was Boggle and Final Fantasy. We're constantly trying to experiment. We don't believe that a genre -- except for maybe first-person shooters -- is what makes it hardcore. It is the implementation that will make the game hardcore.

popcap_bookwormadv.jpg
PopCap's Bookworm Adventures

DR: And if you think about it, and one of the things that most are scared about in the casual space is that there's this trend of "panderware," as I've been calling it, that everyone says is either "games for girls" or trying to appeal to the 40-year-old soccer mom. We've never done that and we never will. We don't build games for focus groups. We build games that are fun for people.

JV: So we're building games that are fun for us first. That's the first test. After that, we try to make them more accessible to everyone else.

DR: So really, I think some of the success of Peggle as a crossover hit for us is indicative of the fact that we're getting better at building deeper games that have a great, deep game experience, and also I think there's some credit in people saying, "Wait a minute. This isn't just a flash-in-the-pan thing. There's some really fun game stuff here."

Our success on Xbox Live helped that a lot, because people said, "Wow, this Zuma thing..." It suddenly got people who wouldn't have looked at Zuma because it was sold on MSN Games that they suddenly take a different look at it. That's helped a lot, but really, at the end of the day, it's about fun games, and not "fun games for this kind of a person."

popcap_bioshock.jpgYeah, with the casual/hardcore thing -- you've got Pipe Dream in BioShock, and that's kind of interesting... I don't know if that's the absolute best implementation, but by that logic, you could have Bejeweled in Half-Life 2, because you could have some sort of minigame. But I get the impression that you wouldn't want to relegate your stuff to minigame status.

JV: It depends. It's less about relegation than it is... it can be a really great game experience within that game, and it doesn't make sense for our game and that other game. I mean, I'd love to see Bejeweled in World of Warcraft, so people who want to kill time while they're waiting can just sit around and play Bejeweled while they're looking for help, right? Ideally, there would be something for that, whether it be experience or gold, but wouldn't that be funny? I'd love something like that. It would be great. I just don't see how it could happen.

You can make a pretty good casual game in item management.

JV: Oh, if only someone could make that fun. (laughter)

Someone could. I know they could. Resident Evil 4 isn't the best example, but it winds up becoming like a Tetris game, because you can rotate the items -- they fill up different numbers of boxes.

GC: Oh, it's a spatial relations-type thing.

JV: But they don't have the auto-sort, like Half-Life?

No. It's like, "Oh, there's one square. I can get one more thing in there." Or two squares across the screen, and you can be like, "Oh, these two squares have to be right next to each other."

GC: Hey, just that should earn you some experience points.

JV: But the question is, is that fun? Or is it just frustrating?

Well, I enjoyed it. But maybe some of those games inspire OCD in the right person.

So you do operate in the mobile space. I've heard that the carriers right now are really kind of restricting the number of content providers they will work with to seven. Well, some of them are doing that. Is this affecting you guys? I was talking to the head of Taito in America, and he was like, "Yeah, we have to go partner with somebody now."

JV: It's funny. We've been very lucky that... we went to carriers with very different propositions than any other... sort of bigger, like an EA, or Glu did, which is, "We're going to ramp up to four games a year. They're awesome, high-quality games. We're not trying to fill in your 11 to 50 on your top 50 list spots. We're trying to fill the top 10 list. That's what we're going to deliver on with great brands and, most importantly, great games."

So we've been lucky so far, as carriers have started working with fewer partners, generally speaking. We still have a direct relationship with them, and it helps having the number two best-selling game in mobile after Tetris, but it's also a challenge.

There are some carriers where we decided it's either not worth it for them or for us directly, and we should have a middleperson in there. It's been true in Europe, especially, but for the most part, we've been pretty lucky.

The problem with mobile, that is much greater than how many [carriers] we're working with, is that the games business, they don't care enough about it, compared to the ringtone business. And you know the games business is shopped under the VP of ringtones, or something, and so it's...

DR: I think the ultimate challenge in the mobile business is, "How can we improve the game-finding and buying experience?" as an industry. Because we can't do it by ourselves, and carriers can do it by themselves. It's always a little bit disconcerting.

I've been hearing that since before we signed up with carriers, that carriers have been consolidating and getting rid of vendors, and we signed up a bunch of new carrier relationships while they were all doing that. So it's possible.

I think at the end of the day, if you have great games and you can get to the right people at the carriers, you can make things happen. Sometimes you have to work through an intermediary. I'm not sure that really matters, if what we're trying to do is get our games in front of customers and make it easy for people to buy good games. That's the goal here.

Most people seem to not be making money on them yet in America. Are you guys going in Japan or Korea as well, where you can actually make a profit?

DR: We're actually one of the few companies who makes money on mobile phone games. We don't do much in Asia yet, so we make money on good old American mobile phones.

GC: Go USA!

DR: We're doing our best to get in Europe, and Europe's doing pretty well for us too. In Asia, we're just barely getting started with some relationships there.

JV: We actually did something in a Beijing office.

DR: Shanghai.

JV: Shanghai. Really?

GC: Well now we're going to have to open one up in Beijing. Are you happy? Before he writes this up. I'm happy.

DR: We'll have to wait until after the Olympics.

JV: So we've been developing an office, and we have about four people working. But that's going to be focused on making games for the Chinese market, not outsourcing or making games for our market. It's very much, "Hey, all the things that work over there? Do them."

What's kind of frustrating in the mobile space is that a lot of the problems, such as making the buying experience better and making it easier for people, have been solved in most other countries.

DR: But not here yet.

And not here. It's like, "Come on!"

DR: We've seen some glimmers of hope with some of the other carriers over there. We've always been big advocates of...

JV: The visibility is going to help.

DR: We've always been advocates of the try/buy law, because that's how we've worked in the PC space. We've really always believed that if the carriers would let people try games for free, people would buy more of their games and they would get better games.

JV: Except they're like, "We already tried that model, and it didn't work." And you're like, "Yeah, but you tried that on the Soul Plane video game mobile adaptation." It's like, "Try it on a real game and you're going to see it work much, much better."

GC: Wasn't the trial period five minutes, or some insane...

DR: Even five minutes works pretty well for the ones we've done. Early on, they were worried about bandwidth, too. So they said, "Well, people just download a bunch of games and they don't buy anything because they just play everything on the deck and buy nothing!" It's like, "No. If that's what you have... if you're giving them a game that they don't actually want, then that's going to happen."

I think there's some change that has to... the game industry has been part of that problem, though, because if you look at some of the... when the frenzy for mobile game development was going a year and a half ago, people were shoveling some pretty bad games out on mobile and trying to build games for a budget. When you've got small studios doing twelve games a year, you're not going to get good stuff there.

And customers are smarter than that. You can only sell them so many bad things before they're going to stop trying. So I think that everybody hopefully learns from that and they start to get better at it. The shakeout of the market, actually, with fewer people making better games, will ultimately help that, too.

popcap_cookingmama.jpgIt is weird, though, when Taito/Square Enix has to go through another partner to get a big hit like Cooking Mama out. It's like, "What?"

DR: Sometimes it's like... for instance, with companies like Sprint, it's essentially that they don't have an internal group to do it, so it's less about... that business relationship doesn't matter that much, because you still have a business relationship with Sprint, it's just that they've got a different relationship to manage the gaming deck.

Yeah. It seems like they've got to learn how to care about games, and since it hasn't really proved itself in a way as being a huge money-maker...

JV: It's sad, though, because it could be one of their biggest money-makers, very easily.

DR: And they're a victim of their own PR, to a certain extent, because how long have we heard about the giant potential of the gaming business?

So many handsets out there! Everybody blah blah blah!

DR: And very few games have done really well. We've made lots of money on the mobile phone space, and we're really happy with it, but it is hard. It has to be a good game, and it has to be a game that people will want to pay for.

I think the industry overhyped itself for a while, because there were way too many overfunded companies trying to change the world and sell zillions of dollars of games on mobile phones and everybody will be playing mobile games all the time, and they didn't make very good games.

GC: There's still a little of that gold rush mentality. I just read a column in the Hollywood Reporter a couple of months ago where this mobile developer was bragging that it took them longer to port their little movie tie in-based game to 500 handsets than it took them to develop the game. And they were very proud of this. And I'm thinking, "How does that work?"

JV: That fills me with rage.

Yeah. That's not right. Five-hundred handsets.

DR: It makes our porting department not very happy, let me tell you.

GC: They wouldn't have jobs if it wasn't for 500 handsets! They should be doing backflips! (laughter)

Switching gears here... what do you think of the PC downloadable versus browser-based thing? When people talk about more universal delivery platforms, it seems like browser really has a lot of appeal. What do you think?

JV: For us, it's both. We started with browser-based games, as a company, and both are very important for us. The fact that we have millions of people playing the browser version of Bejeweled every day.

DR: Twelve seconds.

JV: Every twelve seconds or something, right? It helps to sell it at Wal-Mart and the downloadable format.

DR: It made mobile sales.

JV: Yeah, for us, it ties into the ecosystem. We want a lot of people playing our games, and with advertising, that's the way we monetize the browser-based games, and it helps us, because I think without that, we wouldn't be able to have as much success as it did. It's a really key component of our overall strategy.

As far as only making games for the browser, it's probably a mistake for us, because we're a multiplatform company. The online browser is a platform, just as the download to your PC is a platform. We often look at how to make both of those experiences better.

Do you think multiple platforms is good for the industry? There's been debate about, "If there were one delivery platform, then people could have common tools" and things like that.

JV: You can say that about the motion picture. It's like, "Man, if we just had TV..." But clearly, as a consumer, you don't want just TV. There's TV, movies, DVDs...

Yeah, but you use the same equipment to make all three of those.

JV: I guess that's true.

DR: We come at this from a bit of a different bias, because I think the hardcore space is almost looked at as a challenge, because you have different development environments and are looking to make a consistent, giant, almost cinematic game experience across multiple platforms.

It's a very big challenge. For us, the challenge is different. We're about trying to get the game in front people who might not have seen it or been able to play it at other places.

JV: Or have a new interaction with it that you can't have on a different platform.

DR: We really do look at it as an opportunity to get it in front of a different class or kind of person. It is hard. There is no doubt about it that it's harder just to make an iPod game based on... Peggle on iPod was not an easy challenge. We had a lot of struggles with how to get the control structure going, the graphics to work, and lots of things like that.

popcap_peggle.jpg
PopCap's Peggle

But just because it's not easy doesn't mean that it's not a good thing for us or for the customer, so we're big proponents of it. We're probably spending more time doing less least-common-denominator development and more focused enhancement for an individual platform, to make sure it's the best experience that we've ever done.

You mentioned that you're looking at the other console platforms for downloadable development stuff. Did you have to hire a lot of console people to make this work?

JV: Yeah, we had to look for people with console experience. I mean, we're very much a company who believes that experience is important, so one of the challenges was, "Okay, how do we find people who have console experience but think like casual game developers?"

DR: We do a mix. For some of our console stuff in particular, we'll look at outside companies who are really good at something or collaborate with other companies.

You'll see, actually, in a couple of announcements that we'll have later on in the year where we've done some pretty cool collaborations with a company that really, really knows the space really well, and we think the collaboration will hopefully make it more interesting.

JV: We have the coolest collaboration ever, I promise.

Uh oh. That's on tape, there.

JV: I'll maintain that it will be one of the top ten collaborations.

Ever?

JV: In games.

Wow.

JV: It's really awesome.

I see.

JV: Blizzard Peggle! For the phone! I'm just kidding. But it is cool.

It's on par with that?

JV: I think so. Well, nothing's on par with that. (laughter) I would love to see Blizzard taking Peggle. Not on the phone, though.

Right.

DR: World of Peggle?

GC: We'd have to call it WoP, though. I don't like that. I don't like where that's going.

I forgot about that one. Old derogatory slang is hard to keep track of.

I know you said previously that you don't want to be making an exclusive type of game for one platform. Yet you do really have to tailor these things. Is there any direction that you might be willing to go, in terms of theming games to their audience?

DR: My first reaction is, we'll do... it's not so much theming as it is... the Peggle mash-up that Valve was. So we don't mind doing that where it makes sense.

GC: But isn't that more of an aesthetic level? Whereas something like Peggle XBLA is saying, "Hey, this is an audience that wants to play against each other. You've got to have..."

DR: What we don't want to do is carve out exclusivity for a platform that's..."Make a game that we ONLY do for the Wii." Does that mean that what we do with Bejeweled on the Wii is going to be a port? No, it will never be just a port.

It's going to really have to take advantage of the really innovative stuff from a control perspective that the Wii has to offer. We have to do that. We won't do a game that's just a mouse port to the Wii platform. We think that's a mistake. We will do an adaptation of it.

JV: It will be fun.

DR: Yeah, it would be fun. So we would take advantage of it, but is it going to be the only place that you'll see the IP? No.

GC: But we will call it Wiijeweled. (laughter)

I hope so.

DR: It's kind of a squirrely answer, I suppose, but we will adapt a lot of our properties and spend a lot of energy will make them perfect and as good as we can for those platforms. But we don't want to limit ourselves to saying, "We'll never take a great success and apply it to other places," because again, our customers are in other places. We want to make sure we're where they are.

JV: We did try to use our IP in other platforms. Not just doing a brand-new game on the Wii, but re-envisioning Zuma or Bejeweled. But if we had an idea for an awesome Wii game that's fabulous, we'd do it, eventually.

Do you see yourselves ever making a game that's completely outside the casual space?

JV: Nope. We'll never do that. I am a hardcore gamer and we're actually a company of hardcore gamers, though lately I've been a wuss and haven't played as many games. I just got kind of depressed.

The closest thing we'll come to that is that we'll do a slightly more actioney game. Like, you'll just want to play it like a Heavy Weapon. But yeah, it will always be a casual experience that you'll approach and sit down and have fun with.

We always maintain a level of nonviolence, because for us, that's what's gratifying to make. As much as I like to play Grand Theft Auto, I don't really want to make it. I don't want to work on a game that's going to take 50 people and four years. That doesn't sound like fun.

It seems like your games may have a potentially higher profit margin. They sell well because you've been doing them for a while, and they must cost far less to develop.

JV: They do. They're a lot more expensive than people think. I mean, there's this perception that it's going to cost you 300 grand to do a casual game. We've spent lots and lots of money on casual games, and we've canceled games that we've worked on for three years.

They do add up, but what makes the profit margin so much better and the type of games so much better as a business is less about the cost of development and more about the longevity. Tetris is still selling. Bejeweled is still selling at Wal-Mart three years after it was released, and Bejeweled 2, and it's really, really sad... ah, I didn't mean to say that. (laughter)

But it's been the number one and number two family entertainment product for two years, every month. For us, you can't really do that with a hardcore game. That's really the goal with casual. You get a hit, and if you can take the time to nurture it and have the business behind it to do it, you can have a game that's an evergreen title.

Also, the hardcore games get kicked off the shelves really fast.

JV: Totally. And it makes it harder, because they are graphic-dependent. When you look at Bejeweled 2, you don't say, "Oh man, those graphics are kind of ass!" Whereas if you look at Half-Life 1 and you compare it to other games now, you're going to be like, "Oh man, that's... yeah. That's old." Casual games don't have that same feeling. If you do compare...

DR: Bejeweled 1 looks old.

JV: Bejeweled 1 to Bejeweled 2, but that's because we refreshed it. But in itself, it doesn't look that bad.

So you aim to create timeless...?

JV: "Timeless classics."

DR: We like to say "evergreen," but...

JV: If every game was a Casablanca, we'd be happy.

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Brandon Sheffield

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Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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