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GDC Online: PopCap's Vechey On Transitioning Into The New Social Frontier

GDC Online: PopCap's Vechey On Transitioning Into The New Social Frontier

October 12, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

Bejeweled was PopCap's first game back in 2000, and it also led the company's journey onto the Facebook platform in 2008 with Bejeweled Blitz. Since then the longtime casual game developer has been in the midst of an important evolution into the complex, always-on social gaming environment.

Co-founder John Vechey was at GDC Online to discuss the company's journey, and he says there are many important lessons from previous transitions in the company's history that are helping shape the new PopCap. And despite the challenging proposition of evolving in the social environment, Vechey believes it's much better for developers and players in many ways.

"The way we make social games now is different than we made Bejweled, and it's different than the way we'll make games in two years. I don't know how it's going to be different, I just know it's going to be different," he says. Social gaming has very specific methodologies and success tactics that don't necessarily apply in other places.

The old way of making casual games created a pay wall early on in the player's experience, and very few customers experienced the rest of the game. The freemium model has changed all of that -- the entire game is free, but "there are these edges of the game that are paid, but the core of the game is free. So what you get now is a whole lot of people experiencing your game."

"The new way is a lot better," Vechey says. "It's harder for developers and you have to think about more things, but it's better for developers, better for our partners and better for our customers."

In the old model, a period of construction and design was followed by a period of sales and promotion. Now, a game is in a constant dialog with the consumer base, almost a work in progress since launch. Companies launch a product, measure and learn from it, and return to iteration.

"It's harder, it's different than making a PC single-player game," says Vechey. But it's also better for developers and more rewarding, he says.

The last time PopCap saw such a big transition was back in 2005. For the first four years of its life, "we were just a bunch of dudes making games," he says. And the company rejected an offer of around $65 million because "we didn't start PopCap to have a big company, we didn't start PopCap to have a lot of money," and the team valued its independence.

But it made the company realize it was time to grow its own publishing capabilities if it was to control its destiny, Vechey recalls, and a transformation was underway. The company would transform again in 2010, with this new focus on becoming a developer and publisher of connected entertainment.

The parallels between those transitions hold; in both 2005 the company made strategic acquisitions that were "less about revenue, more about leadership." PopCap bought Sprout Games, a downloadable game developer (Feeding Frenzy, Word Harmony) in 2005. Its three founders brought a beneficial way of thinking to the company.

Recently PopCap bought social game developer ZipZap Play, which had several social game failures and a moderate success called Baking Life. Vechey says the team had a core that is culturally similar to PopCap, and yet they spoke the language of the social gaming landscape. In one sense the acquisition was simply "a big recruiting fee," but the positive influence of the ZipZap Play staff on the PopCap culture has been worthwhile, Vechey says.

Another key success element in both transition periods was the creation of focused teams, Vechey says. In 2005, Sprout Games founder Ed Allard -- who now runs development at PopCap -- championed the creation of a new internal group that focused on the console space, when at the time the company had worked primarily in the web space. And in 2010, Bejeweled Blitz team member Jon David cultivated a discrete social studio within PopCap.

"What JD did was say, 'hey, we need to learn, embrace this and become experts at social,'" and the best way to do that was make the team distinct, Vechey says. "It's okay to say, 'here's this other world, and it's going to be over here.'"

Yet it's equally important to "[knock] those walls down when the time is right," Vechey suggests. Both the console-specific and social-specific groups have now been integrated back into the rest of the team, now that it's possible to see a more fluid spectrum of games.

"Once you realize and learn this new world, if you keep this little walled garden... you're not going to bring people from the old way into the new world," Vechey says, "and most importantly, you're not going to have the new world learn from those people."

Learning new skill sets as a company and as employees is an essential part of any transition, too. "For us, one of the things we did was acquisitions, but another thing we did was just be aware of it; be honest about the fact that you need different talent, different types of people," Vechey advises.

Becoming a developer-publisher in 2005 required a new set of talent, and becoming a social developer in 2010 required new team members too, like metrics and analytics staff and specific live teams. "Sometimes you can cultivate talent internally, and sometimes you can hire from the outside."

Although Vechey stresses metrics alone can't design video games, "our metrics and analytics needs have evolved tenfold" since transitioning into a social developer.

"In five years I guarantee you that we as an industry will invest in technology such that 100 million per players will be easy," Vechey predicts. "Engineers... become much more important." Companies need to be prepared for upcoming transitions and think about what kind of talent they'll need.

Finally, "if you're aware of how the world's changing, you can take your time. PopCap's been around for 11 years, and we're going to be around for another 30," says Vechey. The company has always been conservative by nature, investing slowly in products and technologies and making its initiatives into new opportunities considered and careful.

"Change too fast can hurt your company," says Vechey. "We never cared about going fast for the sake of going fast; it was never important."

In fact, a lot of things that PopCap ignores help creates its success, Vechey says: "We never really cared about growth. As a company we've always tried to do decent growth and... we're trying to make sure it's organic, we're trying to make sure it's believable."

"We as a company has never cared about the competition; anyone who's competing with us is making games, and anyone who's making games, we can learn from," Vechey adds. "We don't win because someone else loses."

"We also ignored MySpace," he says, a decision that seems a lot wiser in hindsight than at the time. Companies should be selective about which platforms or spaces to pursue and master, rather than an approach that aims to go forward on all fronts.

"We'll always be learning, and I think everyone's going to have to be," Vechey advises. "Everyone is going to do it differently; the things that work for us in 2005 happen to line up with a lot of things that worked out for us in 2010, and in 2015, or 2018, I don't know if things will work the same, but we're going to see."

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