Although just 10 years old, Popcap Games is something of a grand old man in the current gaming scene. Tackling browser, mobile and social games years before the start-ups that now dominate the headlines, it has been quietly consistent, growing in stature thanks to a twin philosophy of new ideas and regularly iterating existing properties and concepts. Despite both commercial and critical success with Peggle and Plants vs Zombies, the 50 million-selling match-3 title Bejewelled is indeed the jewel in its crown - even transitioning well to Facebook and microtransactions with its Blitz reinvention.
GamesIndustry.biz caught up with PopCap's thoughtful yet outspoken Chief Creative Officer and co-founder Jason Kapalka to hear his feelings on the rush towards social games, the future of the Apple vs Google vs Microsoft mobile war, the problems with Facebook, and the trends he's seen come and go doing PopCap's long tenure on what was once known as "casual" gaming.
Q: So PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, in-browser, Google Chrome, Facebook: will Android be next?
Jason Kapalka: We're working on it. I think it's inevitable, it's just right now it's an awkward platform because they're changing so much and they have all these different hardware layouts. The nice thing with iPhone is there's one - well, now it's two – there's one resolution, one piece of hardware, it's very straightforward. Android's not as bad as the old days, when you had to make the game for like 300 handsets. But it's still like three or four, or however many weird versions from various different manufacturers. It definitely makes it more work; Google really need to get a handle on it if they want to push it to more developers. I think it'll happen, it's just that it's definitely a hurdle to get over right now.
It's a hassle that iPhone developers don't have, and the marketplace for Android is still a bit confusing because all the different carriers have their own versions of it. I think it'll all get better, unless Google gets sued out of existence by Oracle. Right now it's definitely not the ideal game platform – very promising but there's still a bit of work to get there.
Q: How confident are you about which platforms you're going to target the hardest, given how many seem to be cropping up now – mobile, social, desktop, tablet?
Jason Kapalka: It is unfortunate. From our point of view, we're pretty agnostic about platform. The truth is we like Apple, we like Google, we like Microsoft. We're just trying to reach players. And the best way to reach players is the platform that they favour. Unfortunately right now you've got three of four of these big players, who are all at each other's throats and not at all co-operating as far as standards and so forth go. So we have the obvious issue of, y'know, Flash. It might be good for doing a game on Facebook, it might be even conceivable on Android – but it's absolutely not feasible on iPhone.
There are other issues like that, between Microsoft, Google and Apple – they all hate each other. Well, they're all competing. It's very hard to build stuff that works on all those platforms. You almost want to sit back and see who wins. Or ideally that they at least agree on some sort of standards, so you can say "alright, what's the standard, you tell me? Is it Flash, is it HTML5, is it somethin' else?"
If people can agree on one of those things, from our point of view we can work with everybody. As it is, when they're fighting each other we have to try and support all three of them which means we've got to spend three times as much effort to do that. That's tricky in terms of costs and to make time to make stuff, so we're looking forward to some kind of unification, whether that's by a victor or by a truce. That'd be better for us and ultimately better I think for game players.
Q: I see you've got Plants Vs Zombies on Chrome Web Store as well, and there's new streaming stuff coming through too. How far do you intend to pursue that as well as the mobile battle?
Jason Kapalka: We're trying all these things. They're all experimental right now and we don't know which will work and which will end up falling by the wayside. Generally PopCap has tried to be fairly catholic and do a lot of different things without jumping on any one bandwagon. It's very hard to predict the future. You can always find someone who has gotten lucky. But it's the Vegas fallacy. You can always find one guy who's gone to Vegas and made a fortune on slot machines, but that's not necessarily the same guy you want to invest your money in.
The same problem is true in the high-tech field. A few years ago mobile happened to be the big thing, and so someone like Jamdat did very well and sold to EA for $700 million or whatever. Were they especially smart, or did they just happen to be the right company at the right time? And now you've got social companies doing the same thing. And not to say that they did anything wrong, but if you're a game company you run the risk of trying to follow every trend and they're not all going to work out.
There are plenty of trends that we're quite happy we didn't do anything with, like just a couple of years ago it was Flash MMOs, like Club Penguin. After Club Penguin sold to Disney, everyone and their dog were trying to make some sort of tween-orientated Flash MMO. One or two of them are still around, but most of them are the ones who were there before – Habbo Hotel and Club Penguin. Everything else just kind of [crashing aeroplane sound.]
Q: Could it be similar to what happened with World of Warcraft and traditional MMOs? All those giant projects designed to compete, but half of them have closed and the rest have gone free to play.
Jason Kapalka: Well, yeah. And we'll see how it goes right now. I think the vibe I'm getting certainly is that people are really deciding that MMOs are a bad place to do business. There's gonna be one or two last gasps – probably [Star Wars] The Old Republic will be, well... I know it's a big, expensive project, and if that underperforms, that'll probably be the last time someone decides to spend $100 million on a WoW-killer. I think they'll try and come at it from a different direction.
The truth is that Farmville is probably more of a WoW-killer than the Old Republic. I doubt that it's exactly the same crowd, but I have a feeling there's starting to be a little bit of that, and probably more so as you go forwards in time – as WoW players get older, have less spare time. I'm 100 per cent sure that people who stop playing WoW are playing FarmVille. Just because they don't have time for a three hour raid, they've got time to put down a few crops or so forth.
Q: That seems to be becoming the commodity: time. We've got all these demands for attention, how do you make a game that stands out amidst all that noise? Is Bejewelled Blitz, a game that only takes a minute, the future of games?
Jason Kapalka: People are arguing if that's good or bad; it's hard to say, but from my point of view, as you get older and you have a job and a family and stuff like this, this idea of your early 20s gaming where you can sit around in a basement with your buddies and kick back and... I think I played Super Mario 3 for three days straight, that sort of thing. That's not going to happen again. I'm never going to have three days to play videogames straight. I don't even have three hours. That's why World of Warcraft is right out for me. I think increasingly a lot of people are in that position, and games have to evolve to meet that need. Whether it's a game like FarmVille or Bejewelled Blitz, or a lot of mobile games that have the same idea of "I have it wherever I go, I can play short games on it." The game adapting to your schedule, rather than you trying to conform to the game's demands.
Those are the kinds of the kinds of games that are probably going to be the big scary ones as far as the current guys like Blizzard, Activision, and EA are concerned. They're going to be fighting them on unequal terms, like asymmetric warfare. So FarmVille versus WoW doesn't seem like a fair match, but they're not fighting on the same ground, they're fighting in very different ways. To date, a lot of the bigger companies haven't shown that they really understand that, or are capable of adapting to it.
Q: But we are seeing a lot of acquisitions for insane amounts of money – it seems they're paying attention, whether or not they're approaching it in the right way.
Jason Kapalka: They tried, Electronic Arts did try their own versions of Facebook games that didn't work out very well, and that's why I think they acquired PlayFish as a way to buy their way in. Whether it works out, it's hard to say. Part of it is trying to integrate a very different company into the bigger structure. Will it happen? If it does, that'll be good. But it's going to be tough.
Amongst other things, those companies tend to have earn-outs, which means that PlayFish will have to have a big earn-out probably, which means they can't just do whatever they like, they have to give EA the freedom to make money and therefore make back their investment. Which is probably three years of letting them do whatever they need to get their earnings up. Which'll be good for making money, but maybe not for integrating them into the EA mothership... And I think you'll see that in a lot of that, where the integration into the bigger company may be quite difficult because the cultures are very difficult and the terms of the acquisition make it hard.
So that'll be the question. Whether companies like EA or Disney can really digest these purchases and really incorporate them into their corporate culture in a way that changes their thinking going forwards. If they just buy them and sit them there in a silo, they might do alright, but they won't change their overall culture. This I can speak of because I was at Pogo. Pogo got bought by EA, it continues to be a profitable business, but it's really just sat in a little silo by itself. It's never really been incorporated into the rest of EA in useful way, and the rest of EA has never really I think learned the lessons that Pogo might have had to teach them, in terms of how Pogo was a social game company in 1999.
They still are – they're a bit dated, they're still using what was considered social media in 1999, which was chatrooms. Which nowadays seems more like... when people say chatrooms, they think of it as a den of perverts, they don't think of it as a family gaming destination. But in 1999 it was. They got them and they left them frozen in time, so they haven't really evolved.
But they would run that risk with acquisitions now; if they do the wrong thing those companies are going to end up frozen in amber and they never really change because a lot of their motivation for evolving on a Darwinist basis is taken away. Maybe it'll work; it's definitely going to be very interesting for the next year or so, I suspect.
Jason Kapalka is Chief Creative Officer and co-founder of PopCap Games. Interview by Alec Meer.