Interview with PopCap Games: We Build Really Simple Stuff that’s Hard to Do
PopCap Games seems very distant from the Silicon Valley game development community sometimes. Because it’s based in Seattle, the company’s executives aren’t always in the limelight. But founder John Vechey and CEO David Roberts were in the area last week, so we sat down with them to hear their views on social gaming.
A bit of background first: PopCap is a decade old this year. Its hit game Bejeweled has been downloaded over 150 million times and has over 10 million monthly active users on Facebook. It also created Plants vs Zombies, Zuma and a bunch of other games, several of which have a presence on either Facebook or the iPhone. PopCap will make about 10 percent of its total revenue from Facebook this year, and 25 percent from all mobile platforms, according to Roberts.
Here’s our edited interview:
Inside Social Games: Are you feeling old at all beside the new social gaming companies?
Vechey: We are a little old, and we were a bit late to get to social gaming because over the past 10 years, there have been a lot of fads. For a while we just thought it was the latest one. Now it’s interesting that we’re the only company succeeding in social gaming that existed outside of it — every other company is new.
Roberts: A year ago everyone was telling us that you couldn’t do social games unless you built monetization in from the start, that we would fail. But we didn’t.
ISG: You have copycats, like everyone else in the industry. Do you worry about clones and copying?
Vechey: No. It’s really hard to copy Bejeweled, because there’s a feeling that we spent a lot of time on. We worked a lot on how many gems should go in a row, what the gravity is. Those decisions are a craft. If you get another game where it doesn’t all add up as well, it’s not as good. That’s the only reason I can think of. There’s also momentum, but it is a craft.
Roberts: We run the balance between beating up some little company over copying a game mechanic — that’s fine, we don’t care — versus stealing our art and ripping us off directly.
Vechey: It’s hard to cross the line in copying a game. I’d call out any large developer that says copying is bad. Half-Life was, by any measure, a copy of Quake 2. If there’s ever a world where I don’t get Half-Life because of Quake, I don’t want to live in that world. But I do get annoyed when a company takes whatever was originally done and spends more money copying it without making it better.
Roberts: And if you don’t add value, there’s not going to be a commercial success.
ISG: So is success on Facebook still all about artistry and good design?
Roberts: On Facebook I think there’s also the virality and communication channels, and the managing of the virtual economy and user metrics. FarmVille is very good at that. We sometimes forget about those things because we don’t think of them things in our games, but they’re important in this type of gaming. But you also can’t just dump anything on a user and expect them to buy it. People aren’t as dumb as we think they are. You can funnel them from game A to game B, but they do care about how good a game is. That’s actually a testament to Zynga. FarmVille succeeded because people loved playing it.
The thing that’s different between Zynga and us is that they’re building the game that their customers tell them to build, it’s whatever their people click on. We’re almost the opposite. We decide in advance what people will think what is good and give it to them. In the same way Microsoft made the Zune — that’s the focus group driven product, while Apple made the iPod, where they never ask people what they want or go through a features list. Not to say that we’re Apple and Zynga is Microsoft. But we’ve just never been a user-driven company, and we’re not devoted to the statistics. So you’ll get different products.
ISG: Has it been easy to integrate your games across the iPhone and Facebook?
Vechey: It just works with Bejeweled Blitz. It wouldn’t work with Zuma. With Bejeweled, it’s the same experience on every platform.
ISG: Bejeweled is a simple game, and we’ve also seen a lot of simple games on Facebook, because everyone there is new to gaming. Do you think the games will become more complex?
Vechey: I think these very accessible games will always be at the top, and could stay around for a lot longer than the more in-depth experiences. If you look at the history of the game industry, as hardware got better, they started making games more complicated instead of deeper. So you had to play 50 games to understand the mechanics, but now we all know what five hearts in the upper right hand of the screen means. So as social games go on the companies will make them more complicated, but in the process they’ll also create a smaller market. I think the games that will stand out will be more simple, like Bejeweled.
ISG: Bejeweled is one of the most downloaded games ever. Will you be able to hang onto that title? And what about Zynga with FarmVille?
Vechey: I don’t know how you break Bejeweled’s title. It’s been around for so long, on so many platforms. But social gaming is one of the best things that could happen for traditional gaming. Fighting through keyword marketing for the same customers, instead of getting new customers — now there are all these new people playing games.
Roberts: Actually I think the iPhone did that too. I think Apple gets less credit than it deserves for expanding the number of gamers out there.
ISG: So do you think you’ll ever pass FarmVille with 80 or 100 million users for a Facebook game?
ISG: What are your plans for the future?
Vechey: We’re looking at the path to go public — we’re going through the motions for that to be a choice. You have to do a lot of work before you can even decide whether it makes sense.
ISG: How would you define yourself to investors?
Vechey: We make games for everyone. We build really simple stuff that’s hard to do, and can adapt to anything that the market throws at us. When we started out, there was no Facebook, no iPhone or Xbox Live. However the market changes, we can be there.
Roberts: To the extent that new platforms bring more people into gaming, it’s only good for us. As far as people understand that gaming isn’t just for 15 year olds in front of an Xbox, that’s good.
ISG: So you’re fine being a bit gaming company that’s nothing like Electronic Arts?
Vechey: A company like EA has to spend a lot of money to make a product. We spent $1 million to make Plants vs Zombies, but that was it. We don’t do a lot of marketing. But if it’s a hit game — and it was — we spend a few million dollars more to put it on all the platforms. EA, because their games have such a huge budget, can only make hits, and they have to spend another 50 percent atop a huge development budget to force it to be a hit. It’s high risk, so it limits the risks they can take. We don’t have that problem.
ISG: You don’t think you’ll end up spending a lot of money on development in the future? Will there be a class of games that remains low-investment?
Vechey: If you look at us, we spend four times as much to make a downloadable game than everyone else. Nobody else spends over a million dollars on a new downloadable, but we do for every game name. But we’re still able to go across platforms. We may add social features, but we don’t have to iterate on core features.
Roberts: Look at Zynga. They don’t spend a lot on the core idea, they just make it and see how it does.
ISG: So what will change in the future for you?
Roberts: I think what changes is that there’s always a new platform, and we won’t know what it is until it’s here. We’ve seen maybe five dedicated social gaming companies that two or three years from now may not exist any more. We’d like to think we’ll weather it as we have before. To me, the market feels like it did during the mobile fad eight years ago, with companies pouring money into Java / Brew games. A few years later there were maybe three left. We went from hundreds of companies to three. That’s not a bad thing, but we probably made more profit on Java games than Jamdat ever did by staying out of it in some way.
ISG: And you don’t try to prognosticate?
Vechey: We all felt the iPhone and Xbox Live Arcade would be really cool, but we’re usually in no hurry. We usually think of ourselves as having a second-mover advantage.
Roberts: We don’t try to prognosticate but there is a lot of work to do on a new platform, more than it would seem. Look at Facebook. All the branded games that are failing, Scrabble, Tetris and Uno, all they did was say, I wonder if people will play it? And they moved it over. Only a few hundred thousand people played them, which is a failure for Facebook. The multi-platform stuff is trickier than it looks.
ISG: At our conference there was a lot of talk about whether mobile would surpass Facebook for gaming. What do you think?
Vechey: Anyone who’s worried about whether mobile or Facebook will be bigger is being a stupid Silicon Valley person. If you’re in mobile and you do a good job with your company, it doesn’t matter what Facebook does.
Roberts: The iPhone now is outselling the PS2 as a game platform. That’s only to the good. But then, we’re biased that more platforms are better. We’re making lots of money on Facebook without marketing, because people know about Bejeweled from the web.
ISG: Going forward, what will be the place for small, independent companies on the iPhone or Facebook? Do they have a future?
Roberts: The iPhone does offer a huge advantage to little companies. Sometimes, a really great product will win. Doodle Jump is a really good example. Now, for every Doodle Jump there are probably 2,000 belly-flops. If you track where indies go over time — 5 years ago they were all making casual games, flash games. The indies tend to go to the hot platforms and then move on. So people have been stuck on the iPhone for longer than I would have expected. There’s enough work there to keep the lights on, and Apple deserves credit for that — in casual gaming the developer was getting 30 percent, and Apple’s doing it the other way.