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Popping In On PopCap: James Gwertzman On Casual Growth


December 14, 2005
 

Introduction

Seattle-based casual games developer and publisher PopCap was founded in 2000 by industry veterans John Vechey, Brian Fiete, and Jason Kapalka. PopCap has developed a good number of well known and oft-imitated casual game success stories, including Bookworm, Zuma, and of course PopCap's first game, the immensely successful Bejeweled.

James Gwertzman is the Director of Business Development at PopCap. Earlier this year the casual games developer he co-founded, Sprout Games, was absorbed into PopCap, moving James up from development to the business side of games. Gamasutra sat down with Gwertzman to discuss the fundamentals of PopCap's business, and what's in store for the future.

The Old Days

"I joined PopCap about six months ago," said Gwertzman, "when they purchased Sprout. We saw the casual games market getting more competitive, and decided that we needed to either do some deeper partnership work, or get acquired. So...we got acquired by PopCap."


PopCap's Bejeweled 2

Luckily, PopCap just happened to be Gwertzman's top choice. "They were far and away the company we had the most respect for," he said. "We had this motto back at Sprout, 'What would PopCap do?' We always saw them as the gold standard in the casual space. So we came on board, and never looked back. My two other co-founders went into the studio and continued making games for PopCap, and I went into the business side of things."

Growth And Maintenance

"PopCap in the past year has actually grown quite a bit," said Gwertzman. "We've increased the size of our studio a lot. It's no secret that casual games now are much harder to build than ever. There's a ton more competition. The secret's out, and a lot of developers are turning away from the mainstream market – which, frankly, is brutal. So I think the number of talented people trying to make it in casual games are increasing, and the content is increasing too."

"There are sort of three paths we're taking to maintain our position in the market," he continued. "One, of course, is to raise the quality bar – but there are risks there. No one wants to go the path of traditional $30 million games. And second, we are continuing to try to maintain our high level of reputation. Making clones of existing games isn't as profitable as it used to be. We're trying hard to continue innovating.

"At some level, this business becomes a distribution game. So the third basic thing we're doing is continuing to invest a lot more into managing our relationships with our current distribution partners. It used to be the entire distribution process was one guy making phone calls, and we now have five full-time people who do nothing but manage the sales and distribution. And that's increasing, too."

PopCap's Development Process

"Our path of development is extremely prototype-heavy," said Gwertzman. "We'll make half a dozen prototypes, and pick just one of those to be a hit casual game. And once we develop that one, it's a very iterative process. It's a sandbox model. We try different things out, and find out what's fun. Only when we find out that the core mechanic is fun do we worry about the art, content, and all the other little details."

"We really obsess over the core game mechanics. In a game like Bejeweled, hardcore developers look at that and might think it's kind of...it's very easy to kind of dismiss it, but we literally spent weeks on just the right way for the gems to fall when you make a match. In a game like that, it's little details like that. How does it feel? Getting those little details right is what we prioritize. So when we're designing a new game, we'll spend months and months prototyping core mechanics."


PopCap's popular puzzler, Zuma

 

Year Of The Copycats

Game copycats, so far, have been a dominant force in the casual games market, and that trend has continued. "It's kind of the year of the Zuma clones," said Gwertzman, referring to the rotating-avatar puzzle game released last year. "Zuma came out in 2004, and it was the #1 best selling arcade game on Real Arcade for that year. We were all very excited about it, but it's 2005 and there have been a ton of very obvious Zuma clones. There was one called Luxor, and like five or six others. And they've done well, which kind of shows the strength of the mechanic, but I feel that fad is coming to an end now. We ourselves have been working on Zuma 2 for quite a while, and maybe we'll do something in 2006, maybe not."

"We compete in a try-before-you-buy market, and we believe competing successfully there is a fundamentally different kind of design," said Gwertzman. "It changes everything. You can't be successful just by slapping characters or IP or fancy graphics on the box, because people have a chance to try it out. If the game's not fun, it's not going to make a sale. So everything comes down to whether or not the game is fun. And that's what makes casual games so exciting to work on, it's all about fun. It's very oldschool. It's not about fancy graphics or movie licenses, it's just about fun."

PopCap Goes Mobile

"Another huge area for us has been mobile," said Gwertzman. "It's been a big surprise for us. Bejeweled has turned out to be one of the most successful mobile games of all time, to the point where if you look at their stated results for last quarter, Bejeweled alone was 15% of Jamdat's revenue for the quarter. Tetris was 35% of the revenue, so just those two games together accounted for 50%. And it's been a consistent hit, it's been in the top ten games almost since it was launched on mobile phones."

"One thing we fundamentally believe at PopCap is that mobile games are casual games. A lot of people are trying to throw hardcore games or movie licenses or whatever at mobile, and we fundamentally believe that's not what's going to be successful. The top ones are always casual. They're bite-sized chunks of time. You don't want a game very involved and very complex."

"I'm not one of those people who believe multiplayer mobile games are going to be very successful. If you're waiting for the bus and the bus comes, you're going to quit your game, and that just doesn't work with multiplayer games. I believe what's going to be successful is our kind of game."


Feeding Frenzy

 

On The Xbox 360

"We're so very excited about the Xbox 360 arcade," said Gwertzman. "We're the only company to have multiple games at launch. We're very excited by that platform, we think Microsoft really did it right this time." PopCap were also partners with the original Xbox Arcade, but as Gwertzman says, "there were just too many hoops for the user to go through, but on 360 they've done a really fabulous job of making it intuitive."

"Just because they're not designed for hardcore gamers, doesn't mean that hardcore gamers aren't willing to play a casual game," said Gwertzman, on the success of Xbox Live Arcade for Xbox 360. "If you have a couple minutes to kill, it's pretty tempting to pull up Zuma or something. As a gamer also, I'm very excited to see what people are going to do with it as a platform, as an escape from the $10 million tradition console development."

Engine To Go

"We've made the exact same engine and framework that we use to develop our games available for free," said Gwertzman, "so any game developer can use the same engine we use and create their own games royalty free." There is, of course, a catch, but it's a small one. "The only obligation is to put our name in the credits."

"Having said that, we're happy to consider game submissions," he continued. "It's not too often, at least not yet, but we do publish other peoples' games. And by offering that framework for free, we're hoping to see some really cool stuff coming in."

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