Neowin interview: Popcap, creators of Bejeweled

One of the most polished titles to have launched on Windows Phone 7 so far is Bejeweled LIVE. Here at Neowin, we were lucky enough to grab an interview with PopCap - the creators of Bejeweled, Plants vs. Zombies, and other great casual games. This interview was designed to cover a range of topics, so if you’re interested in casual games, game development, or mobile devices, it’s probably going to have something for you!

How did PopCap start?

PopCap was formed in 2000 by Brian Fiete, Jason Kapalka and John Vechey. When PopCap was founded, there was no such thing as the “casual game” industry – most games were created for very hardcore gamers, and for everyone else there was Solitaire and Tetris and that was about it. The PopCap plan was to work on Java web games, which could be licensed back to bigger companies to make enough money to enable them to work on more games.

PopCap had an ominous start when the dot-com industry collapsed. The bottom fell out of the online advertising market and web games, which made money from ads, were no longer worth anything. So, PopCap’s founders decided to experiment with a different business model. The new plan was to try the ‘shareware’ model first used in the earliest days of personal computers: try the game for free, and if you like it, send money! And so, the three entrepreneurs launched their first deluxe game by creating an enhanced version of Bejeweled (known then as Diamond Mine).

Today the "try-before-you-buy" deluxe-downloadable sales model that established the casual games sector ten years ago and continues to account for more than 50% of all casual games sector revenues.

How many people were initially employed at PopCap? How has that changed?

PopCap began with three founders (with some of their Moms serving as ad hoc beta testers) in an attic office. Ten years later, PopCap has a worldwide staff of more than 350 people in Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Vancouver, B.C., Dublin, Seoul, Shanghai and Tokyo. Its games have been downloaded over 1.5 billion times by consumers worldwide, and flagship title, Bejeweled, has sold more than 50 million units.

How do you account for the success of your products? In your opinion, what makes your products so successful?

PopCap starts from the standpoint of “do WE like playing this game? Or, as one of our founders put it, “is it adversely affecting productivity because everyone in the office is playing it all the time? Good - that’s an excellent sign!”

In the early days, PopCap’s founders used a ‘mom test’ to gauge a games’ potential. They would sit their moms down in front of a game in Alpha or early Beta stage, and leave them there. If the moms were still playing 30 minutes later, the company co-founders knew they were headed in the right direction.

I can’t give ingredients for PopCap’s secret sauce but I can say we are passionate about ‘the beauty of the game’ and we invest time in enhancing the industry and consumer’s casual game experience. PopCap prioritises a superior design process and spends an inordinate amount of time developing and polishing each game. It is expensive but results in extremely high quality games that set PopCap’s offerings apart from other casual games and make them truly special and memorable – and hopefully nearly infinitely replayable!

How did you come up with the idea of your recent hit “Plants vs. Zombies”?

George Fan, Senior Designer at PopCap, had just finished PopCap’s Insaniquarium, and was noodling around with some new game ideas, one of which was a more defense oriented sequel to Insaniquarium. At the time he was also playing some tower defense mods in Warcraft III and thought "What if I used plants as towers? Plants are great because you can give them lots of character, and no one expects them to move." So out went the fish, in came the plants. Around that time, however, a plethora of gardening games appeared in the casual games space so rather than blend in, he decided to come up with an usual mix in form of plants and…zombies. He was pretty sure nobody else would be working on such a combination! And it turns out it was a pretty compelling one!

Do you have anything new in the pipeline that you’d like to talk about?

We have just launched Zuma Blitz, which is rolling out across Facebook this month. It’s already enjoying rave reviews and whipping social gamers into a frenzy!

Can you talk a little about your experiences developing for iOS and WP7? What are the selling points and disadvantages of each of those platforms from a developer’s perspective?

PopCap is very lucky to enjoy wonderful relationships with both Apple and Microsoft and this certainly helps us from a developer POV.

Since the beginning, we have been pleasantly surprised by the ease of development for the iPhone - particularly as the SDK has matured.  We’ve found it quite straightforward to port our Mac code to the iPhone and, because we are committed to spending as much time and energy on a platform iteration of our game as we would a new game, we have been able to spend much of our development efforts leveraging the unique aspects of that platform (multitouch, accelerometer, connectivity etc.) We focus on creating new features specific to the iPhone; those features ultimately take the most development work.

Windows Phone 7 is an interesting challenge to work on – instead of C++, it’s a C#/XNA environment which was new to us.  However, Microsoft has some really strong development tools and the conversion to C# went much more smoothly than we originally expected.  It allowed us to add more polish to Bejeweled LIVE – in addition to the LIVE functionality, it is this polish that sets the game apart. Bejeweled LIVE has an evolved look and feel: from the stunning artwork to smoothness, and speed, of gameplay.

Do you plan on bringing more of your games to WP7?

Although we haven’t announced anything yet, we are excited about Windows Phone 7 and have more projects in the works.

What would you like to see happen with the Xbox LIVE ecosystem (Windows, Xbox, Phone) in the future?

It’s fair to say that Xbox LIVE was the first big step in creating an effective community and friend network around gaming. Now that social networks have taken that basic principle to the main stage, we are all looking at how to create even more ways and ‘wheres’ to connect people - to each other and to their favourite games.

PopCap is focused on pioneering both connected and social games experiences.  In the future, we would love if it were possible to explore interconnected LIVE gaming experiences e.g. for players to start a game on their Xbox 360, then leave their house and pick up their game on WP7. This is not possible at present but PopCap has already started exploring this connectedness on other platforms with Bejeweled Blitz. Players can play online on Facebook, on their iPhone or via a downloadable application on their PC. Allowing players to connect to their game on multiple platforms - and simultaneously to each other - is something PopCap considers to be a very exciting future prospect. Our ultimate ambition is to connect people through our games regardless of their device or OS.

Can you talk a little about why you’re yet to launch any Android games?

The overriding factor here is that PopCap does not forsake quality for trend. We won’t consciously put a game out knowing it’s not as good as it can be. It comes back to that polish point. We want to give the same attention to a new platform adaptation of one of our games as we would an entirely new game.

What do you see in PopCap's future?

PopCap is a worldwide leader in casual games, combining universally beloved franchises – Bejeweled, Peggle, Plants vs. Zombies, Zuma – with diversified business models that transcend the shifting landscape of technology and consumer fads. We aspire to make playing games as mainstream a lifestyle entertainment as watching TV or reading a book. To achieve this, we work towards having our games on as many devices as possible to make them accessible to that audience of everyone.

PopCap does do not make games solely for PC or mobile or social – we make games for all of these platforms and more. To make the gaming experience as good as it can be for players, PopCap is committed to pioneering cross-platform, connected (including social) game experiences. We are already realising this to a certain extent with Bejeweled Blitz, the adaptation of our flagship franchise for Facebook, which can now be played online, on iPhone or on your PC as a downloadable game.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

Just to say thanks for playing – and keep an eye out for Zuma Blitz on Facebook and Bejeweled 3 launching on on 7 December 2010.

Special thanks to PopCap's Cathy Orr for her time responding to Neowin's questions!

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