Seattle-based publisher and developer PopCap Games started out of a desire to create core games -- but has grown, over the last decade, to become the most prominent creator of casual games in the world. With hits like Plants vs. Zombies, Peggle, Zuma, and of course, Bejeweled released across a huge number of platforms, the company has earned a reputation for quality, polish, and inescapability.
Recently Gamasutra had a chance to talk to founders Brian Fiete and Jason Kapalka -- John Vechey was traveling and unavailable -- about the circumstances around the company's founding and its last 10 years of operation. What we got was more than that.
What you'll find here is a candid look into how two of the company's founders viewed the casual games market at its inception, how that informed their decisions when founding the company. You'll learn how those convictions shaped the way the company operates today.
You'll also find out more about the process and priorities of the hugely successful company. In short, this article serves as a guide to PopCap's way of thinking about and developing games.
Brian, could we talk about your background before PopCap?
BF: Sure. It's not a very long one. When I went to college, in my freshman year I met John [Vechey], one of the other founders, and he was in one of my computer science classes. We were both computer science majors. So John and I were in college in computer science class, and we had kind of decided to work on a side project and try to build an internet game.
The game was called ARC. It was kind of like back in the old days when there weren't too many action internet games. There was this game called Subspace; it was sort of popular, but you had to have a pretty decent connection to be able to play it. We just kind of started with this very simple game that you could join in very easily and play against other people, but in kind of a flying saucer capture-the-flag type game. So we put that up on the internet and only spent a couple of months doing the initial development on it.
Jason was working for the Total Entertainment Network at that time, and he saw the game, sent us an email, and was kind of interested in finding out what we wanted to do with it. So that's how we ended up meeting Jason. We didn't really have a company or anything; we just had made that prototype of a game that was up on the internet. It was still our freshman year of college.
Total Entertainment Network flew us out to San Francisco to talk about potentially licensing the game and developing it into a real product. So we flew out there and met Jason and got along pretty well. They ended up licensing the product from us, and we started talking to Sierra Online about going to work for them and dropping out of college.
We had the credentials of having built an internet game already, so we weren't really too interested in the college experience, or graduating, or doing any of that stuff. So John and I dropped out of college and went to work for Sierra in their online gaming division. That was '98.
JK: Yeah, I had started working at the Total Entertainment Network around '95, and earlier, before that, I had been a writer for Computer Gaming World. One of the editors from there had quit and gone and joined this internet startup; he gave me a call... In 1995, we didn't really know what the internet was; basically, AOL was the internet. I had just gotten an email address, I think, the week before or so. It was kind of new and unusual stuff.
Total Entertainment Network, at the time, was trying to do hardcore games like Duke Nukem and so forth. Over the next couple of years, they started getting into more original online games, and that was where I was starting to be kind of a game producer. I was looking around for stuff, and that's when I came across that game that Brian and John were working on, ARC, which I guess was kind of ahead of its time in a lot of ways in 1997. It was basically a top-down version of Counter-Strike, only with little saucers instead of people. It was quite a lot of fun.
When we flew the two of them out to San Francisco, it was kind of a surprise because they were both 19 years old. Our business guys didn't quite know what to do with them, because they couldn't really take them out drinking. They didn't really exactly know where to go to dinner with them and all this stuff, so I kind of got assigned to deal with these two crazy kids from Indiana. As Brian said, we got along pretty well, and I thought they really had a good idea about how games work.
ARC: Attack Retrieve Capture
We did that game, ARC, on TEN, and later that led to Brian and John getting a job with Sierra in Seattle. But we kept in touch over the next couple of years, and, meanwhile, back at TEN, TEN had sort of morphed into Pogo.com and started doing casual games. They didn't really call them that then; [it was] "family games".
Sometime around '98, I think, one day I was working on Total Annihilation, and the next day I was told to figure out a way to do Java bingo on the internet. So that was a bit of a change! For the next couple of years there, I kind of bounced from there to start doing casual games and started getting interested in that field.
So in 2000, we were all kind of getting a little bit tired of our respective companies -- whether that was Pogo or Sierra -- and so we started talking about starting our own. Our grandest ambition really was we thought we could make small games and sell them back to companies like Sierra or Pogo and make a few bucks that way.
Was it PopCap at the time, or were you going by a different name?
BF: Well... If [our VP of communications] Garth [Chouteau] was on the line, he'd probably try and get us to not talk about this...
JK: Yeah. The initial name was... Sexy Action Cool. The short story was that it was an inside joke from back at Edmonton that we had, and the URL was obviously available. The main thing was that we didn't really expect that we'd be using our company name as a public website; we thought we'd be a developer where people in the industry might know who we were, but it wouldn't really matter for the general public if they were just going to our games through Microsoft or Pogo or whatever. We didn't really think it mattered how wacky our company name was.
So that was the choice we made, and two months after that, when we started getting traffic to our site to play Bejeweled and so forth, that that was maybe not the best title for a family, casual game kind of company.
PopCap Games was just a DBA for a super long time. We had paychecks going out as Sexy Action Cool for many, many years after we started hiring employees...
BF: Yeah, pretty humorous getting that check. I think, yeah, for awhile -- I'm Canadian, so then I was on a work visa for awhile -- I had to stop at the border to explain that I was working for an internet company called Sexy Action Cool, which usually got you some funny looks from border officials.
(Laughs) That doesn't seem all that out there for a 2000 internet company, though.
JK: No, it wasn't... [but] for a casual game company, it was not the best name; so we did eventually change it. PopCap was just -- we all wanted a shorter name that was a little more friendly and sounded more mass market and casual. I liked the word "pop," so I just started looking through all these possible combinations of phrases that were six letters or less that had the word "pop" in it.
BF: It should have been PopFrog.
JK: I think we would have been PopFrog if it had been available, but someone had taken PopFrog. I remember we liked PopCap, but there was definitely some question -- at the time, the phrase "pop a cap in your ass" was kind of common. There was a little concern over whether that would have the wrong connotations. But overall, we thought it had nice appeal, and more importantly the URL was available.
When you founded Sexy Action Cool, did you start it with some game concepts in mind, or do you guys just all sit down together and say, "We're a company now. Let's start working on this"?
JK: Yeah, our first game concept we never actually released.
BF: Well, no, actually the first game concept we had was what essentially became Noah's Ark later on, when we kind of revisited it.
JK: Oh, yeah. That was our "lost city" game.
BF: Yeah. That was the first one. Jason and I worked on that for a little bit before John really started coming over. John kind of found the initial inspiration for Bejeweled in some really, really crafty dynamic HTML web game with colored circles and no animation.
JK: They weren't even circles; they were squares. It was really hard to figure out what was going on. It's like, "Oh, I kind of see... You're sort of trying to create a row or something?" But with absolutely no animation, it was impossible to play, so the first step was "Let's just try to make this animated and put better shapes in it."
That ended up becoming Bejeweled. We figured that would be just a quick little project for our first game and then we'd move on to much more complicated games after that.
BF: Well, we were kind of used to the idea. It had been working at Pogo, and at Sierra too. The idea was a lot of those games that were done there were not very big games; the idea was to spend a few months on a game, and in many ways it was sort of a sideshow. You had a chat room and prizes and all that stuff; the game was just something to kind of keep you amused. So they didn't necessarily put a lot of work or time into the game.
We were kind of on a schedule; if we could do a game every three months or something like that and could sell that game for a few bucks, that would be able to keep us afloat. So we just figured we had to do games on a very tight timeline like that.
JK: The initial version of Bejeweled, I think, only took probably a month or two, really.
When you say you were going to move on to more complicated games, you mean move on from one or two months to three months?
BF: Well, I had aspirations of eventually kind of working on more of what we would call "core games" today -- kind of like lighter versions of core games. But yeah, I didn't think we would stick to the casual games genre. I like action games and strategy games, and that's what most people play at our company. I figured eventually -- once we'd made some money with these quick Java games -- we'd be able to afford a longer development cycle and keep working our way up to be like the big boys.
JK: In the early days, we actually did do a lot of multiplayer games, but the problem with those was that they were very hard to sell to anyone else. The other sites didn't want to buy them because it was a pain to try and integrate all the multiplayer aspects.
Going into this, it doesn't sound like either of you guys were really into casual games.
JK: Well, at Pogo, I'd gotten to be pretty involved with it, over the last couple of years. It certainly started in the hardcore gaming space, but after a couple of years working on those games at Pogo, I really built a respect for those games; they were just as good in their own way as hardcore games. We weren't just slumming it. We really did like those kind of simple games.
BF: I didn't like those particularly much, though. I didn't have too much attraction to them in the beginning; I kind of saw it as they were easy to make. I thought we could rip them off pretty fast. I thought we could be superior developers who wouldn't have all this overhead, all this bureaucracy.
My plan was to just work on games that I actually wanted to work on eventually, but once I actually started to work on these little games, like Bejeweled, I started finding how satisfying it was to take a very simple concept and execute it absolutely perfectly. There's its own joy in that. Doing a simple game very, very well is just as rewarding as making a really complicated game that's executed okay.
JK: I was doing that a couple years before Brian, and I think we all had the same idea -- which was the idea that simple games don't necessarily have to be simplistic or bad.
You said at first you had ambition to graduate to a more core experience. At what point and why did you make the decision not to go in that direction?
BF: Well, I think we started having this love for casual games at some point, especially with Bejeweled. We had a lot of issues convincing people it was a game, but there was just something about it. It was so simple, but it could pull you in, in a really interesting way. We've all experienced that before with games like Tetris where you have these moments of being moved by something simple and beautiful, but...
Yeah, that just became our new focus: to keep doing that over and over, and kind of exposing out the simple, compelling concepts. We just kind of fell in love with that and said, "Well, why do we really need to make these more complex things when we have this new focus in life?"
JK: And it was very rewarding to see -- all these people would be playing these games, who were outside of the regular range of regular hardcore gamers: moms and secretaries and all these people that wouldn't otherwise play games.
BF: We started becoming recognized based on our games. We'd sign some lease form for some new apartment and put down where we work, and it's like, "Oh! You're those guys that do that gem-swapping game! I love that thing; we play it all the time." It would be somebody who, a year ago, would absolutely swear up and down that they'd never play a video game. We can change the world and reclaim video gaming for the masses.
JK: I was quite famous when I went into our local bowling alley on Seniors' Night wearing my PopCap bowling shirt. That was... not quite like the Beatles, but it was pretty funny how many people at Seniors' Night would recognize the PopCap logo.
Yeah, that was probably the turning point when we realized that this was a worthwhile endeavor to do, not just a stepping stone so that we could make our RTS or FPS games.
Bejeweled was the first game you guys released, right?
BF & JK: Yep.
JK: It was originally called Diamond Mine.
Was it just the three of you on the first version of Bejeweled, or did you have employees by that point?
JK: Yeah. It was just us initially.
Was Bejeweled an immediate hit, or did it build up to that?
BF: It was an immediate hit. It was on the Microsoft Games site -- that was the first site that it went up on, and I think within the first month it was the number one game by traffic, right?
JK: Yep. It was doing quite well by traffic, although we kind of just moved onto other games.
BF: But we weren't making much money. It wasn't until we started selling the game in like June of 2001 that we started making any real money, and the moment we put it up we started making like a hundred times more money than we thought were ever going to make off of selling this thing that was essentially just a better version of what you could play on the internet for free.
JK: Actually, Microsoft was too cheap to just buy the games outright, like Bejeweled; they were paying us just a licensing fee. It was 1500 dollars a month, I think. If they'd actually been willing to spend 25 or 30 grand to buy it outright, we'd have had a very different story.
The version you started selling was a different version than the one that was online, right? It was a deluxe edition?
BF: We had a lot of customers who were still using modems. So we wanted to put up a version of the game that enabled you to download so they don't have to be connected to their AOL account all the time while they're playing with it.
So we had the idea that we could either just package up the Java version and put a little webpage that they could click on their desktop -- but if they're going to download something, we figured why not just make an actual application and make it full screen and put better graphics in it? We don't have to make it a small, tiny little thing if they're going to download an installer anyway.
JK: Yeah, the thing was that this was in 2000 or 2001. We didn't really notice it ourselves that much at the time, but this was when the entire internet was collapsing -- the dot com bust. We didn't exactly know that. I sort of noticed that a lot of my friends were getting laid off, and suddenly Microsoft were getting very worried about paying us even 1500 dollars a month for fees. That was because the advertising was falling through the floor.
That was the main reason we tried it because we were thinking, "Uh, these advertising fee schemes might not be working too good. We'd better try something else." I think Howard Tomlinson -- who runs with Astraware, a UK-based company that were doing Palm Pilot games -- suggested that we should do basically a shareware version of Bejeweled, and I clearly remember him saying how much we should charge for it. We said, "Uh, how much should we sell this for? $4.99? $5.99?" He said, "No. Sell it for 20 dollars."
BF: John was the only one that thought that could potentially be reasonable, but Jason and I just thought it was the most obscene idea to try to charge 20 dollars for this thing that was a bigger screen version of what we had already given away for absolutely free.
JK: Howard said that, back in the shareware days, "The cheaper it is, the more people will think it's a piece of crap; if you charge 20 dollars for it, people will assume it had better be good." As it turned out, he was correct about that.
BF: We figured we'd sell maybe a few copies a week or something, maybe something to keep us going, but I put up this little counter that would make a ka-ching! noise whenever we'd make a sale so we'd have an idea of if somebody actually buys the thing. So it would update our sales page every few minutes to check for any sales coming in.
The first day we put it up, we'd get these little ka-ching! Sitting on the couch, it was like, "This is a little bit more frequent than I thought it would be." But by like the third day, the little ka-chings were happening so often that we had to shut the program off because it was just way too annoying. We quickly went, within the first week, to making something like a thousand dollars a day, which was several orders of magnitude more than we thought it was going to be.
JK: [Our online partners] were worried the downloadable model would cannibalize their ad revenue, which might have been true, but was one of those things where -- who cares if your ad revenue goes down if you're making ten times as much from the other thing? It actually took quite awhile to get people to kind of recognize that that was a viable business model.
This became your model -- having a free online version and then a deluxe version, right?
BF: Well, yeah.
JK: Everything changed after that first week. It went from being this crazy little idea to being the absolute center of our business model for years -- even up to now almost.
BF: Once that happened, we knew for sure that that was the right way to go. It just took other people a little longer to recognize that.
How do you start moving on, once the money starts rolling in -- do you start making deluxe versions of your other games?
JK: Yeah, that was the first thing we started doing; I think we made deluxe versions of all the other web games we'd had so far at that point: Alchemy and Big Money and Atomica. And then, increasingly, we started with a web game, and over time we got to the point where we would start with the deluxe or downloadable game and then later do a web version. That's kind of what we have now, where you have Plants vs. Zombies done as a PC downloadable game first, and then, sort of as an afterthought, a Flash version gets done as kind of the marketing vehicle for that.
So taking you a little bit past Bejeweled, then, did you have another immediate hit, or did you have a couple failed experiments after that?
BF: We had a couple of okay things. We had things like Atomica, which wasn't that good, and Big Money, which was a little bit of a disappointment. But then we started getting into things -- we did Bookworm after that, and that did pretty well for us; not to the level of Bejeweled. Then we got into Zuma, and I think Zuma changed the way we looked at our business because that was one of the first games that was a slightly cross-over game, that had kind of a hardcore appeal to it as well as being attractive for casual [audiences].
JK: One thing that certainly stands out now is that pretty much all of our early games that went on to be big hits -- I can clearly remember every one of them having somebody who had stood up before and said, "There's no way this thing is gonna sell."
I remember someone saying that about Bookworm because they said, "You know, word games just don't sell. They never sell." I remember someone saying that about Zuma because they said, "This thing's like an action arcade game. That's not gonna sell."
And I remember someone saying that about Bejeweled; they said, "There's no skill here! That's not even a game. It's not gonna sell." And yeah, I think Plants vs. Zombies, someone said something to that effect: "This is too weird; it's too hardcore."
BF: "It's like a strategy game."
JK: Yeah. So if someone says it's not gonna sell, that's probably a good sign.
BF: But a lot of our initiatives are kind of not obvious. The Facebook game didn't quite have the momentum behind it [that] it would have [had] if we knew how big of a hit Bejeweled Blitz was going to be on Facebook. It was kind of more of an experiment; it had to be forced.
JK: Yeah. I guess that the thing about PopCap is that the composition of the company's management is still controlled by the three founders, so we've never really become a marketing- or business-driven company. In general, we're not ignorant of these things, but the usual way that things get done is that the studio says, "We're making this game. Hey, you business and marketing guys -- figure out how to sell it."
Rather than the opposite way around where the business guys might like it if they could say, "Hey, this kind of genre is very popular; make a game in this genre because our research says it will do well." But by and large, we don't usually work that way.
When we like a game, it's usually a pretty good indicator that other people will enjoy it. Sometimes that stuff's a better way to look at a game rather than worrying about sort of demographics and focus groups and all that sort of thing.
When you're developing a game -- when you're coming up with the concepts, anyway -- who are you thinking of? Are you making games for yourselves, or are you thinking of your primary demographic?
JK: Well, the truth is that... We get asked this question once in awhile, and it's kind of a strange thing. With few exceptions, I don't think we do think of a demographic in particular when we're making the games because one thing that's become clear is that we really don't have one demographic.
We have demographics for certain types of games on certain platforms; so if you looked at the people who are downloading Bejeweled off of our PopCap.com website, now that is a demographic that you can look at and is probably largely female and largely over 35. The demographic that is buying games on the iPhone or the demographic that is buying Plants vs. Zombies on Xbox Live or something like that...
BF: Well, theoretically we design games to not exclude anyone; to appeal to everyone. We don't target anything; we try to avoid targeting things.
JK: Yeah, I kind of think about it the way that Pixar I think targets their films. They're not really making movies for kids or for adults, but obviously their movies are designed to be enjoyed by people on a very broad range.
BF: I think it's a useful mental exercise to envision what you think some of the corners of market are and how they'll react to something. If I'm pushing in something, I think of maybe the hardcore user -- when he sees this, is this going to be ridiculous? Is this going to be talking down to him? It's just not going to be fun or not challenging enough? And then again, if my mom sees this, how's she going to react?
JK: Once a game is underway, we think about that stuff. I remember, for Plants vs. Zombies, there was a lot of talk about -- balancing the difficulty curve was tricky because it was very hard to get it so that it was both challenging to people that played a lot of real-time strategy games and tower defense games and still not overwhelming for the casual player who'd never seen anything like that.
I know George [Fan] tried a lot of different things with that, and I don't think we were ever 100 percent sure. It was kind of a slow wrap-up. I think ultimately we decided that people who were a bit more hardcore would have a bit more patience for the game rather than risk confusing or intimidating players who were new to that.
BF: Taking things too slow is okay as long as the core gameplay itself is fun enough when it's easy. Plants vs. Zombies is just fun even if you have a super-simple level. Having these peashooters shooting at zombies and watching them fall over is fun.
JK: Yeah. We try to think about the demographics once we have the game going and try to remove obstacles and problems that people would face, but I don't think we ever sit back and say, "Let's make a game for 45-year-old women" or "18-year-old guys."
Does that approach of trying to make the games universal come natural to you guys, or is that a challenge?
BF: It's frickin' hard! (Laughs) That's why you can look at one of our games and say, "Eh; this game is pretty simple. Why would this take a year to make or two years to make?" It's because it's really, really hard to design games that way.
It's so easy to come up with a prototype for something -- like the prototype for Peggle didn't take that much time at all, but getting exactly polished right so the game communicates properly and it flows properly and it's the experience we want it to be; that's something that's much harder. I think all of those elements are important to being accessible to people; having the game flow and feel exactly right is important to the way that you're able to understand the game rules.
JK: Well, simplicity is hard. Go and ask Pajitnov how much luck he's had trying to reproduce Tetris for 25 years. It's quite difficult to create simple games that are still fun. It's certainly not easy to do that.
When did PopCap start expanding into other platforms?
BF: We were early in the Xbox Live experience on the original Xbox, which did almost nothing but primed us to go big with Xbox Live on the Xbox 360, which was a much bigger deal. That's where things have really taken off.
JK: Yeah. I think, philosophically, we were always very interested in doing other platforms. I remember we did discuss some strategy; there were other companies who were doing a different approach to casual games, and we decided early on that we didn't want to take the shotgun approach of having a thousand games a year, or whatever, and just try to put out as much as you can. We felt we were going to try and have a smaller number but high quality titles.
But what that would mean was we would make sure we took all those titles to as many platforms as possible so that a game like Bejeweled or Zuma or Peggle or whatever would end up being available on every platform that it made sense to put it on. So part of our strategy was to do it that way rather than just to publish this huge volume of stuff. Big Fish Games is an example of that other strategy, and it's worked well enough for them; so I can't say that that's a bad strategy. We just didn't feel it was the right way for us to go.
It seems to me that all of your titles are made to be universal across platforms. It doesn't seem to me that you've ever, for example, experimented in something that only really works with traditional game controllers. Is that an intentional approach? Is it possible for you guys to experiment in that way?
JK: I think it's semi-intentional. At this point, the vast majority of our games is done on -- we started off on PC as a reference platform, and so far, luckily, that's been a pretty good base to move to other platforms.
We do think about the cross-platform stuff, but at the same time, if we want to do a game that we think is going to be really cool, we don't necessarily shut it down if it won't work on certain platforms. Plants vs. Zombies works well enough on iPhone, but when we were developing it that wasn't necessarily clear.
BF: There was no iPhone when we first started developing it!
JK: Right. The mobile phones we were aware of at the time were not very likely to be good Plants vs. Zombies platforms. If we'd said, "Well, let's cancel it then," that would have been a kind of probably bad idea.
That said, we are interested in trying a few more things because I do believe that some games do have to be designed for a platform that they work well with, and we certainly seen with Bejeweled on Facebook, for example -- even though