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.