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PopCap's Ed Allard

Tue 31 May 2011 7:45am GMT / 3:45am EDT / 12:45am PDT
Development

PopCap's Seattle studio head on casual versus core, new business models and Unpleasant Horse

PopCap and its games are virtually household names, with the combined force of titles like Peggle, Plants Vs. Zombies and the ubiquitous Bejewelled worming their way into the public consciousness. That embodiment of gaming's rise to acceptance, and the incredible growth of the 'casual' sector makes for a great business, but how much did the company pre-empt the market compared to following player trends?

Ed Allard, head of PopCap's Seattle studio gives GamesIndustry.biz some surprisingly honest answers to those questions below, and reveals that the developer often tends to play things by ear...

Q: PopCap was incredibly well positioned to take advantage of the swing towards social and casual gaming, was that an intentional reading of the market or a happy coincidence?

Ed Allard: I think it's probably a little bit of both. Since PopCap was conceived, it was about bringing games to everybody, not about core gamers or casual gamers or mobile or social gamers, just people. So the overarching theory that, right now when you say the word game, people think of Scrabble or Monopoly, but pretty soon those are going to be replaced with something digital. That's kind of where we want to be: mass market to the point where there is no demographic, it's just people playing games.

That was always the vision, and what's great now is that the market is kind of catching up to that vision. Really just making games and meeting people where they are. So I'd say we're not really trying to predict any market trends so much as just trying to figure out where people are going to be playing games and gearing ourselves up to be there.

Q: So do you think that the categorical distinction between casual and core will disappear?

Ed Allard: I do, what's interesting is that right now, if you think about core gaming, I think of that as the niche genre as opposed to the mainstream. That change happened almost overnight - it would have been a ridiculous thing to say three or four years ago but now it's pretty much reality. With core consoles getting more casual, and social becoming so widespread, and iPhone bringing games to so many people who didn't think they were gamers. All of a sudden we woke up and found ourselves thinking that the casual distinction is kind of a useless one.

PopCap's never really been a leader. We weren't the first social game company by a stretch, and we weren't the first mobile game company by a stretch.

Q: Do you think that, had the rest of the market not gone down that route, that PopCap would have still tried to pursue it?

Ed Allard: I think so, but what's interesting is that where we are right now isn't so much the result of a master plan so much as it was about creating a company and a culture that's able to shift and adpat to meet people where they are. So not so much that we were setting ourselves up to become a social or mobile company as much as when we started seeing people playing games on social networks or mobile devices we were able to reinvent ourselves into that space without compromising what's core to us.

Five years from now the word of the day will be something different from social or mobile, and I don't know what it is, but we'll be kind of shifting who and what we are to meet that, because that's where the people are going to be.

Q: Are you confident in pre-empting the curve again?

Ed Allard: Well, PopCap's never really been a leader. We weren't the first social game company by a stretch, and we weren't the first mobile game company by a stretch. We tend to use the analogy of us being the tortoise. We follow people to where they are, sure, but it's not necessarily about being there first. It's about bringing PopCap's level of customer experience wherever we go. So I'm not sure pre-empt is the right word as much as we will quickly adapt.

Q: What would you call your lead platform these days?

Ed Allard: Internally we have a lot of discussion about lead platform, because it's a constantly moving target. But one thing about PopCap is that we're really not one big single studio. We're really a group. We've got four different studios worldwide, we're really kind of a collection of 30-40 active game projects at any given time. Each one of those operates, not really independently, but in the best way that works for that team. So when we think about lead platform, we've kind of shied away from, as a company, saying "our lead platform is iOS or browser". What we do is to look at a new platform and see what's right for it. What's the right lead platform for this.

In some cases we've got new IP where the lead platform will be social networks, in some cases it's leading on iOS and in some cases on PC. So it's really kind of a mix. We let the game teach us what the best lead platform is, then we figure out how to adapt to new platforms.

Q: What can you tell us about the way in which 4th & Battery will be working?

Ed Allard: A creative release valve is one great way of thinking about it. In some ways it's a reflection of our internal processes, to invest back into the studio and the people. The best way to learn how to make games is to make games. You've got to have the room to make mistakes and try stuff.

So 4th & Battery is less about trying to be commercially successful than it is about trying to create a place where the people within PopCap have the room to experiment, make some mistakes, learn from those mistakes in a rapid iteration timeframe without having the pressures of schedules or revenue forecasts attached to it.

We're pretty harsh on ourselves. We can a lot of stuff because we don't think it's got what it takes to be a great franchise.

It's one part release valve, once part training ground. Some of the stuff we come up with we love, and we wish we could share with people. Not necessarily mass market but... things like Unpleasant Horse, we think there's people out there that would get a kick out of it.

We're pretty harsh on ourselves. We can a lot of stuff because we don't think it's got what it takes to be a great franchise. It's tough to completely mothball something. If we can tighten it up a little bit and bring it to the public, then it makes us feel a little bit better from a team perspective. Who knows, we could connect with some people.

Q: So will it be a commercial label going forward, or will you stick to free releases like Unpleasant Horse?

Ed Allard: Well, just like it's an experimental ground from a design perspective, we're also using it to explore and learn from a business and publishing perspective too. So we'll probably, if an idea lends itself, we'll experiment with some monetisation methods. But mostly it's about connecting with people and learning.

It may be commercial in the sense of experimenting with monetisation, it won't be commercial in the sense that we won't be investing heavily in a successful secondary brand from an important business perspective. The analogy I use is Pixar shorts. Sure, you can go to iTunes and buy the latest Pixar short, but for most part they give those things away. You go see a Pixar movie and you get to see a short at the beginning and it's pretty cool.

They're really about training up directors and testing out new technologies and those sort of things.

Q: There are a few PopCap games, like Plants Vs. Zombies, which look like they might be the sort of thing which would come under 4th & Battery's remit these days.

Ed Allard: I think for sure that we want to have the freedom to make something like Plants Vs. Zombies and call it a PopCap game. We're playing with finding where that line is, but I sure hope that we can keep making games like Plants Vs. Zombies. The game that the creator of Plants Vs. Zombies is working on right now is pretty out there but will absolutely be a PopCap title.

Q: Your model in the past seems to be that you'll bring a game out on a single platform then follow a staggered porting process to others - is that something you're sticking to?

Ed Allard: Well the rolling platform release strategy has been something that's evolved out of, not out of a business plan - although it turned out to be pretty good from a business perspective - but it's more about being able to approach these platforms with such individual care and attention. Releasing them all simultaneously, well, we worry about that forcing us into a kind of lowest common denominator thinking.

When the console industry started hitting a point where everything was coming out multiplatform, you started feeling that. If you've got Wii, 360 and PS3 day and date, you kind of end up playing a Wii game on your PS3 as opposed to playing a great PS3 game, because that's sort of what it takes from a development perspective.

So instead of taking that approach we'd rather, if you're playing a PopCap game on 360, it feels like a great 360 game, you've got to assume that you'll never play that game anywhere else, as opposed to you playing a great Xbox version of a PC game.

So that sort of lead to the staggered release schedules, taking the time that each platform needs. That's one end of the spectrum, I expect that will continue. The other end is that, if there's a good reason to make a simultaneous release, just to reach more people, then we may end up holding back one platform's release.

I really fear the lowest common denominator approach.

I really fear the lowest common denominator approach.

Q: You've signed an exclusive content deal with Amazon for some content on its App Store - do you share any of the concerns of the IGDA about the terms and conditions which Amazon enforces or do you think it's being a little over-protective?

Ed Allard: I absolutely understand. I understand. My general approach on that, and I certainly don't represent the business side of the company that really approached that and signed that deal, is that... my view is that anyone who wants to be successful in the Android marketplace needs to solve some of the handset marketplace fragmentation problems. And they need to be open and fair to the developers who are making great content.

If you look at what's been successful on the iPhone App Store, it's not just all the big boys that are being successful there - it's the small out of nowhere developers that have the massive hits. So wherever they're starting, I think any successful marketplace has to evolve to be supportive of, and not take advantage of, the little guy.

So I certainly get the concern, and I hope to see the entire Android marketplace, whether it's Amazon or others, evolve to a place that's a little more sane and well-understood for developers to navigate.

In general, PopCap is really excited about the Android platform. Despite the challenges that we discussed around navigating space, Android is going to be a great way to reach a lot of people with our games. That's what we do this for, so we're committed to figuring out how to be there in the right way for our games and our customers as the platform evolves.

We're really excited about the Amazon marketplace opportunity. Ultimately, we're there because we think that it's going to be a great experience for customers, and a great way to find and buy games that they love that they can be sure will work on their devices.

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