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.