The PopCap Plan
Lee Cash visits the games company's European HQ to learn more about the rise of casual
Welcome to the Establishment
Addressing the crowd of industry luminaries at The London Hilton last March - gaming giants that included Nintendo maven Shigeru Miyamoto and Atari founder Nolan Bushnell - an eminent speaker at the BAFTA Video Game Awards took a moment to acknowledge something of a sea-change currently permeating the gaming world.
Sure, it was nice to see some familiar faces from Bungie and Naughty Dog, hindered no doubt by constrictive bow-ties and lingering jet-lag, but it was the new faces among the throng - people from gaming's burgeoning casual and social quarter - that the BAFTA elite were particularly cordial in welcoming to the award ceremony.
As one of only a handful of casual developers in attendance, PopCap, creators of such titles as Peggle, Bejeweled and Plants Vs Zombies, weren't there as token recognition of their growing demographic. No; PopCap was nominated.
It's a testament to a perceivable shift in mindset among the industry that a casual game like Plants Vs Zombies could pick up a nomination from a respected fellowship such as BAFTA. Reticent to announce future games - or even confirm release dates of adaptations guaranteed to ultimately appear - PopCap titles take years rather than months to complete, while finished games can spend a further period of time in a polishing phase before release. If released at all.
Some PopCap games have been scrapped long into their development cycle and at great cost, the reasoning behind such culls quite simple: the fun wasn't there. PopCap, who claim to be flattered when another company mimics their products, are unfazed. Cloners invariably cut corners: "The quality shines through," it's suggested, an iterative development process a luxury quick and dirty imitations can't afford.
That Irish Allure
Situated in the midst of Dublin's city centre, PopCap's European headquarters is the heart of the company's expansionary plans to grow outside of the US. Perhaps fittingly, the studio is located in a listed building, a location suggesting a rich history from which new and creative ideas can emerge.
Attracted to Dublin's multicultural - and hence multilingual - resources, general manager Paul Breslin is eager to talk about how, though localisation is a key element of the studio's core work, this is a development studio.
"Half of the staff in the European HQ in Dublin work on development," he says. "We've been in Ireland for the last four and half years, mostly working on adaptations of classic PopCap games for various mobile platforms. We're currently doing a lot around smartphone games."
Though new IP has yet to come out of the Dublin studio, it seems such a prospect is only a matter of time. Localisation, however, is crucial to their wider strategy. With 17 languages among the 50 employees spoken on site, the studio is very much a cosmopolitan outfit.
"85 per cent of Europeans don't speak English," Breslin says, before listing off the core languages PopCap's games can be found in. They're big in France and Germany, with Scandinavia also a budding market. There's even talk at one point of Brazilian Portuguese. It's the PopCap ethos: where there are people with devices who like to play games, they'll be there.
Apart from its multinational endeavours, the studio head also describes PopCap's approach to the market as very much a multi-platform strategy. In fact, the Dublin operation is now viewed as an integral hub after a company-wide restructure that saw the lucrative and burgeoning smart sector awarded to its European house.
Cathy Orr, European PR Director, describes the decision to locate the company's smart-based development in Dublin as a big coup for the European branch.
"PopCap Dublin has always been PopCap's dedicated studio for mobile phone games, but the arrival of smartphones was a thinker," she explains. "The iPhone platform could conceivably fall between the videogame platform business unit and the mobile development one.
"Thankfully it was decided that the Dublin studio should remain PopCap's core mobile studio, and with the dawn of smartphones, we now have a lot of very exciting projects to work on directly."
A Platform For All Occasions
Of course, it would be impossible to work in the mobile arena without the omnipresence of Apple being felt, with the iPhone and iTouch devices noted as key development platforms for the company. There's a history in PopCap of platform agnostic support, however, with Android specifically recognised as a 'key strategic platform.'
The groundswell support for Google's mobile OS is noted as beginning to eat into Apple's dominant market share, with PopCap planning to expand their catalogue in this area in the future.
But it's not just Apple, Android or even Windows 7 Mobile where PopCap are putting all their eggs. It's the emergent technologies; the devices PopCap have their eye on in an effort to stay ahead of the curve. There's iPad development currently underway in Dublin (Paul describing Apple as a fantastic partner), with other tablets and imminent platforms actively being investigated.
There is no device or system they won't consider, a company attitude that permeates through the workforce. PopCap's developers are trained to be multi-latform inclined; a flexibility and diversity that allows them to quickly respond to changes in the market.
Breslin admits, however, that it's a simple case of bandwidth that prevents them from doing everything they would like. This goes someway to explain why, currently, there are no lite versions of PopCap's games on the App Store. Not that PopCap have anything inherently against the practice, just that with a business objective to get their games on as many platforms as possible, it's just not something they can currently fit into their busy schedules.
"It's a huge challenge to actually do all the things we'd like to do," he says. "There're so many platforms we'd like to be on, so many opportunities to move forward but we obviously can't do them all. . . at least not at the same time."
Preaching to the Unconverted
Orr still describes the practice of marketing their games as challenging, however, and that though word of mouth is integral to PopCap's success, the company is constantly coming up with new ways to reach their potential audience - that's when their customers aren't actively seeking them out, it seems.
Recently, the PopCap site experienced a huge traffic spike when the Bejeweled Facebook page went offline. It's evidence of the social network's influence on the casual landscape. Launching 15 months ago with little marketing, PopCap quickly saw rapid growth in the area.
But could PopCap be spreading itself too thin? Online, consoles, smartphones, support for new technology. It's a lot to focus on. Though the company's aspirations for growth are high, Breslin assures that they will always focus on their core mantra: creating engaging, fun games for their audience.
What's changing, it seems, is how that audience will consume PopCap's products going forward, be it on a mobile device or the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut that is Facebook.
Interestingly, some of that growth will be steered from Dublin. In an Irish economy only now witnessing glimmers of recovery - the Celtic Tiger effectively declawed and the lion's share of Ireland's technology companies still on unsure ground - PopCap are bucking the trend.
Breslin states they are investing in the future, the company having recently received a grant from Ireland's IDA (Industrial Development Agency), such funds already earmarked for investment in PopCap's social gaming manifesto. These plans will see the company expand onto Facebook going forward.
But if PopCap is receiving support from Irish institutions, it's also not shy in giving something back. Eager to help shape Ireland's nascent gaming industry, PopCap is active with universities that help produce the country's future game-makers. Advising on what skill-sets it would like students of colleges such as Trinity College Dublin and Dublin City University to have upon entering the workforce, the company also offers internships to the precocious few.
PopCap is helping to nurture an industry it admits is perceived as moderately underground, with the Irish media still yet to fully realise what's happening in this arena on their very own doorstep.
But these are not the only bridges the company is building. It's had phenomenal success with Bejeweled Blitz - the quick-fire Facebook version of PopCap's oldest and most renowned title - a time-based version of the popular matching game. Despite the game's one minute timer, the average playtime on Bejeweled Blitz is actually 43 minutes. It might be anecdotal evidence, but casual gamers are showing signs of being just as dedicated as their traditional gaming stable-mates.
We're seeing the lines between casual and hardcore beginning to blur, from actual time spent gaming, to how casual gamers are starting to view gaming as part of their wider entertainment lifestyle. Both Breslin and Orr are confident that the public perception toward gaming is changing, and for the better.
Quoting how certain publications have historically ignored casual games in terms of reviewing titles (or simply haven't recognised their existence at all), Orr mentions how magazines from a wide media spectrum are now not only acknowledging casual gaming as something their readers are interested in, but how gaming in general is awarded the same relevancy as other more established artistic forms of entertainment such as film and literature.
Fittingly, considering PopCap's strong appeal to female gamers, Orr remarks how leading women's magazines are now covering social and casual games within their publications. In other areas, too, PopCap is proving effective, with casual games seen to have positive influences on kids with learning difficulties such as autism and Asperger's. An East Carolina university also recently published a report proving how such games can help people suffering from stress.
When Casual Becomes Serious
It's definitely a positive time for casual gaming. While the hardcore market does its best to seemingly make it as daunting as possible to gamers, casual gaming companies are arguably doing more to grow the gaming industry than their conventional counterparts.
But PopCap is trying to go even further than just proselytising this new flock to the digital allure of gaming. Games such as Plants Vs Zombies have managed to cross the classification boundaries of casual and hardcore entirely, finding ardent audiences in both camps. When asked if there will ever be a time when the distinction between casual and hardcore will fade away, Breslin reckons that day will come. When, however, is a different question entirely.
With the likes of traditional publishers like EA and Ubisoft actively focusing on the casual market, the sector continues to expand. PopCap welcomes the mega-publishers' interest in the market, noting how it has already partnered with both publishing giants.
"We love it," Breslin says. "It further justifies the market we're in and helps increase awareness of casual gaming. The social space is so young. We're all only dipping our toes in the water at this point."
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