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Nothing 'Casual' About It: PopCap's Brave New World

Nothing 'Casual' About It: PopCap's Brave New World

April 14, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

Things sure have changed for PopCap since its founding in 2000. The company was struck in an era before smartphones and Facebook, when "casual" was a villainous descriptor. Now, it's considering being ready for an initial public offering by the end of this year, facing an entirely different landscape as an entirely different organization than it was just a little over a decade ago.

CEO Dave Roberts, who joined the company in 2005 once the organization decided to formalize its growth process, says PopCap has benefited from a slow, steady approach: "It's go big, but go careful," he tells Gamasutra. "We wanted to preserve the essence of the company, and not just go 'big for big's sake'."

To Roberts, that's partially a consequence of being in Seattle, insulated from the serial entrepreneurship culture prevalent in Silicon Valley, where a long-term growth plan is often looked upon as a negative. Another part of growing carefully involved avoiding messing with what isn't broken -- in other words, leaving successful developers alone while building out the business infrastructure around them.

"The biz guys never blame the studio guys for slipped products," Roberts says. "Any idiot can run a company where your products are predictable and get delivered six months in advance. Sales and marketing would be easy if that were the case. The truth is, that's never the case, so we wanted a business team that can deal with the unpredictability inherent in making great games and manage their way around it. That's taken more skill than might seem evident, but it's a pretty good relationship now."

In fact, early on Roberts surmises the company might have sheltered the studio a little bit too much. The company began as a trio who, as Jason Kapalka entertainingly explained at GDC, decided to reach for their creative freedom by developing a halfheartedly-'sexy' strip poker game. Although PopCap grew to 25 people by 2005 when Roberts joined, it took a while before the staff was accustomed to a more formalized management structure.

"A team doesn't have to be stifled, but it can also grow as well, with better management," says Roberts. "When it works it's invisible -- when it doesn't work, it's painful."

The Zynga Trajectory

Now the company's seen major growth; rather than a small organization operating in the ill-viewed "casual gaming space," PopCap enjoys a much more powerful stance, and much more cross-market favor in an environment where most on the design and business side agree that the word "casual" doesn't even mean anything.

There are some parallels to be seen with Zynga. Like PopCap, the social gaming giant also began much smaller, addressing an audience generally relegated to second-class and viewed with some disdain by gamers and developers alike. Of course, Zynga's market mass is now impossible to ignore -- and the same types of IPO rumors now surround both organizations.

But PopCap's games, from Bejeweled Blitz to Peggle and Plants vs. Zombies, have been at last generally embraced by the design community and audiences across sectors from core to the increasingly-meaningless "casual" group. For Zynga, which has been candid about its focus on metrics and forthright about its strategies to monetize users with simple Facebook products, there's a steeper road to acceptance from the more traditional community, which tends to point to FarmVille as the poster child for all things unwholesome.

Could Zynga achieve the same kind of reputational makeover PopCap's steadily achieved over the years? According to co-founder John Vechey, the fact that Zynga has acquired some boutique talent in studios such as Area/Code suggests that the company cares about the fun and integrity in game designs more than it's given credit for. On the other hand: "We were easy, because we were always about the games," Vechey tells us. "There was just no one believing we could do that."

Cross-Market Acceptance And The Changing 'Casual' Space

People played Bejeweled and Zuma almost guiltily at first, Vechey reflects, something they engaged with for more hours than they were willing to admit. But it was Peggle that began to turn the tide, leading more and more players -- somewhat-famously including Valve's Half-Life team -- to accept it as a welcome part of life.

Then came Besharded, the mashup of Bejeweled featured in Blizzard's World of Warcraft, another bridge between PopCap and the gamer community. That situation was particularly notable, considering most major publishers quickly move to quash unauthorized use of their mechanics or IP. PopCap moved to support and assist with the initial fan version of Besharded in WoW -- and ultimately hired the modder who developed it to the team.

"Valve is of a similar philosophy to ours," says Vechey. "They'll protect their stuff when they need to, but on the other hand they give the community the flexibility to create cool stuff."

The explosion in the mobile and social space has also helped create an environment in which PopCap can stand more favorably, to say nothing of the very early start its smaller games got on the digital distribution market by being too small for retail when retail was still much healthier.

With more people playing quick gaming sessions on smartphones and Facebook, the environment's a lot more populated. And yet it's not a rivalry: "We love it," says Vechey. And now that the company is no longer on the most extreme end of the "casual" spectrum, the company can relate somewhat to the woes of social game developers whose peers tell them their work is "not a game" -- after all, people once said that about Bejeweled.

"We were on the other end of the spectrum for so long that we're not going to do that to other people," says Vechey.

Keep On Growing

The company sees its main challenge as the fact that there's still, in its view, such a large addressable market that remains untapped. In recent years, millions and millions of people have found they like playing games on the developing platforms that they've begun discovering, and there are more still to come.

"It's what we wanted the casual industry to be like in the first five years, and it just never could do it," says Roberts. "Facebook and iPhone "have absolutely opened every door for us... our business has gone crazy because of those two platforms that opened people's eyes to gaming."

Interestingly, it's been a boon to the company's business on the Nintendo DS -- "How can the iPhone help your DS business? Because more people play games. I'm sure there was some real direct cannibalization at first, particularly among kids 5-12 whose parents were buying them iPod Touches because it's just easier to give them a $20 a month allowance for software."

So what's next, and how will the company address the challenge of growing further? In addition to reaching more of the new audiences with its successful brands, it hopes to add another classic design to its portfolio. But creating something as hooky and enduring as Peggle is hardly easy: "It takes us a long time," says Roberts.

"We're a 10 year-old company; we have six of those. Every couple of years, we try 50 or 100 concepts to get to one [major product]," he notes. "We're always trying to build a couple of them, and our big focus is trying to build out and keep up with where people are playing games."

The Asian market remains a huge growth opportunity, as the company works with NCsoft on an avatar-based multiplayer environment for its games that both companies hope will be friendly to China's MMO-oriented market. And with Taito in Japan, PopCap is collaborating on a game service for feature phones that has all of PopCap's Java Brew games running on mobile phones integrated with GREE, among other efforts for the East.

Future Moves And The Big 'If'

The company will carefully consider potential acquisitions, too. "We do look to buy studios, but we have to find people who are a really good fit for us," explains Roberts. "We don't buy IP; we buy people who want to be part of our studio, typically... we need people who can be compatible with how we think about games."

Adds Vechey: "There's a lot of studios out there we have a lot of respect for... like Twisted Pixel. They're great, we love them, they make great games that are super innovative and cool. If there's a way it makes sense to work together, we'll figure it out -- until then, we're happy just being friends with them."

With all these elements in play, the company aims to be ready for an IPO by year-end, as Roberts says. "We're going to be ready -- but I think if it screws up the company, or it's the wrong time, we're in no hurry," he points out. "A lot of it's market, a lot of it's the company performance and what investors think. Can they understand a company like ours? And what's Zynga doing? Because if they go public, they're going to define the market."

And even though a comparison between PopCap and Zynga ultimately doesn't hold up in terms of product offering and market position, investors will seek parallels -- and they'll also seek parallels between PopCap and Electronic Arts or Ubisoft, even though those would be imperfect comparisons as well.

The biggest hurdle, says Roberts, is that investors "think of us as a manufacturing company. They all want to know, 'what's your pipeline, how many games are in the pipeline, how do you make them faster and make them cheaper,' and that's not what we do. A lot of our challenge will be explaining that to people, as a lot of the stock price for a company like EA is what investors think is going to happen with their next game.

"We really have to make sure we've got a message that they understand that's true to what we do, true to ourselves and to our culture while being a public company" before the IPO is firmly on the table, he adds. "And if we can't, we definitely won't. If it can't make us a better company in the long term, we'll run away from it kicking and screaming."

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