[Gamasutra talks to PopCap CEO David Roberts about the rise of casual gaming, the possibility of an initial public offering for the company later this year, and why Bejeweled's popularity rises from the fact that "good games are good games."]
PopCap Games, to borrow (and slightly mangle) a phrase from Barbara Mandrell, was casual when casual wasn't cool.
Long before companies like Rovio and Zynga were dominating headlines, the Seattle-based development house was building a loyal following with titles like Bejeweled and Bookworm. And that gives it some perspective in this fast-growing market.
"Last year was the most pivotal in the gaming industry in a couple of decades," says David Roberts, CEO at PopCap.
"The two things that have changed in the casual space, from where we sit, are the iPhone… and Facebook/Zynga. The fact is that we had the uphill battle of convincing 50-year old women that they could play games [in our early days]. Now it's easy."
The surge in casual has certainly helped PopCap fatten its coffers. The company hit revenues of $100 million last year and has sold 10 million games on the iPhone alone.
It has, along the way, become one of the few casual game companies that the core community has truly embraced. But it wasn't that long ago that "serious" gamers didn't pay a lot of attention to PopCap.
"That evolved over time," says Roberts. "The press, in particular, was a bit skeptical of us. The credibility really started when Valve bundled that version of Peggle with The Orange Box. … We made no money off of that. But it was the start of how core gamers changed their gaming habits."
Today, like Zynga and Rovio, there's a lot of talk about a public offering for PopCap. And while the company still hasn't filed the formal paperwork to start the process, it's making a lot of moves in that direction.
PopCap has steadily been adding to its board, including tech veteran Steve Raymund last May. In October 2009, it received $22.5 million in venture capital funding from late-stage investment firm Meritech Capital Partners.
"I do think we’ll be ready internally," says Roberts. "Whether the market is ready remains to be seen. … It has got to be right for us. … We’re as deliberate about going public as we are with game development. We’re in no hurry to do it."
If an IPO isn't ultimately in the cards, there are certainly plenty of suitors sniffing around the company. PopCap has received offers before, but turned them all down. But as valuations in the space have soared and new publishers have been the beneficiaries of eager venture capitalists, speculation has increased. At GDC, there were a lot of whispers about a possible PopCap/Zynga tie-up.
Roberts didn't go into details about talks with any specific companies, but made clear that the company was still considering its options.
"Whenever you [talk about filing] an S12, you’re pretty much guaranteed that someone will come and try to buy you," he says. "Our goal is not about an exit at PopCap. It’s about creating this legacy of games that mean as much as Monopoly and Scrabble to the world."
PopCap has a wealth of well-known franchises, but Roberts indicates we won't be seeing any new IP for a while. "Don't hold your breath," he says when asked if one might come out this year. And he declines comment altogether when the long rumored Yeti Train is brought up.
But PopCap doesn't operate like other publishers, he notes. For one, the company tries to differentiate releases on different platforms. (That's why the Plants vs. Zombies you play on your DS has features you won't find in the PC version.)
And because its fans don't devour games as quickly as the core does, there's not the constant pressure to churn out new IP or completely new installments of its franchises.
"The thing I love about our business versus the core business is this," says Roberts. "In the core business, you’ve got to get big hits out the door. … For us, Bejeweled has been at in the top five of Walmart's best-selling titles for seven years now. I think we occupied a very interesting space. But the truth is good games are good games."