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PopCap's Jason Kapalka talks XBLA and big publishers entering the casual games space.

Jason Kapalka founded PopCap Games in 2000, along with Brian Fiete and John Vechney. Prior to PopCap he was senior producer at, where he was responsible for creating nearly two dozen online casual games as well as Pogo's prize and token rewards system.

The initial plan for PopCap was to make games available online to play, but after offering a few titles for PC download the business really began to take off. As Kapalka puts it, "our head programmer wrote an application that would make a little 'ker-ching' sound every time we got a sale. Every once in a while we might hear it. And then it started 'ker-chinging' more and more frequently until we had to turn it off."

As PopCap grew, so did portals such as Shockwave and Yahoo! Games, taking advantage of a market that began to define itself by attracting an audience that traditional videogame companies didn't target — mature female consumers. The term 'casual games' only began being used to classify the market a couple of years ago, but it was already up and running before publishers like Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and Eidos made their big announcements about plans to grab a piece of the action.

Here, Kapalka talks to about the casual sector and its appeal to the big console publishers, the success of Xbox Live Arcade titles and why developers need to stop ripping-off popular games designs just to make a quick buck. The casual games market seems quite unique in that it has found it's own niche rather than companies specifically targeting a particular type of consumer. Did PopCap set about to target a more mature audience or where you surprised by the type of customer you've attracted?

Jason Kapalka: I can't claim that we had any big marketing plan to aim for particular types of consumers. Casual games have found their own demographic. It's an odd one to describe because it's so broad. It encompasses everyone who's capable of playing games. And now it's expanded beyond playing casual games on the PC.

How has PopCap found extending its business into something like Xbox Live Arcade? Because that doesn't seem like a casual market — there's nothing casual about buying a home console, it's a lot of money compared to paying for a PC download...

We've got half a dozen titles for Xbox Live Arcade right now and we're doing more. That was a surprise to us. It was an experiment initially to see what would happen if we released a game or two for that service. The thing with that market is that it's hardcore. People who buy an Xbox 360 and are going online to play — it's hard to find a more hardcore demographic than that. Those consumers aren't going to be paying USD 400 on a console to play Bejewelled.

But as it turns out, if people have access to a service like that then a lot of them will happily pay for a casual game. It's not that they don't like to play casual games, it's just a case of they haven't been exposed to them before. There really hasn't been a market for 10 dollar games in the console space. It doesn't exist in a games store where everything is competing with the 50 dollar titles. It's a smaller crowd compared to mobile and PC users but the good thing is that they are already online and have a credit card on file. It's a really easy purchase for the consumer.

We also get really high conversion rates. I think that the average conversion rate is about 20 per cent, so one in every five people who download a demo version will end up purchasing that game. When you look at the PC market, the ratio is more like one to two per cent and on mobile it's less than ten per cent ,but trial versions aren't as common.

You've recently moved into the mobile market. Do you see big opportunities for growth there?

What we've started to see in the past couple of years is the expansion beyond that PC space. Mobile is currently a relay large proportion of the casual market because the capacity of mobile phones to play games has gotten a lot better. It's still considered a wide-open growth market because the way cell phones work is that people upgrade every couple of years. The actual experience of downloading games onto your phone is still pretty cumbersome and awkward. Despite that it's still a big market for us, Bejeweled and Tetris are the number one and two games on mobile phones worldwide.

The mobile market is currently chasing 3D gaming. It that something PopCap is interested in?

The form factor of a mobile device is very applicable to casual games. Companies like Electronic Arts have tried to make more complicated mobile games and the hardware is getting to the point where you can do things like 3D on the cell phone. But what hasn't changed is that it's still a one inch screen that you're trying to play with one thumb on a little clumsy keyboard. So despite the presence of a lot of technological games on cell phone, the fact that games like Tetris, Bejeweled and Solitaire dominate the top ten lists of mobile gaming suggests that casual games are going to be the dominant force for some time to come.

What do you make of Electronic Arts' recent announcement of a dedicated casual gaming division?

My suspicion is that they are more likely to do partnerships and acquisitions in the casual games space. Electronic Arts has sort of gone down this path before in the past with And the lesson they learnt there was that out of all of the only thing that survived and actually made money was EA can't make a game for less than a million. It just isn't geared to do that small-scale development. When you're talking about designing games like Bejewelled, it's not the sort of game that requires a team of 100 people. But it certainly has the money to buy or form partnerships with lots of people.

It's not just EA that is looking at the casual space. Ubisoft, Eidos and others are making a lot of noise about the casual market. Is PopCap concerned that these companies will take a large piece of the business?

I don't immediately worry about it. We're big enough now that we have retail distribution in places like Wal-Mart in the US and an increasingly in places in the UK and Europe as well. We have enough access ourselves so we don't require a bigger player to get us into those markets. Those publishers certainly have impressive sales machines but they can't block us out the way they could a company trying to do a small PC or console development strategy.

If anything, we're happy to hear about those announcements because when EA and Ubisoft announce they are going to have casual divisions it increases the legitimacy and visibility of the whole casual field. It helps people to see that it's a real and serious form of gaming and part of the gaming business. Our ideal would be that casual games are something that everyone is aware of. We'd love to see casual games magazines and people talking about it on TV. Anything that increases the exposure of the casual market is good for us all.

A criticism of casual games is that many are a variation on one theme. There are multiple clones and copies of one puzzle mechanic and developers are churning out the same titles over and over. How many version of Tetris or Zuma do we need? Is there a concern that developers are cannibalising their own content?

The truth is that very few games are developed without reference to past games. There's always going to be titles that build on a previous mechanic or game. But there's a fine line between that and very bold-faced rip-offs that aren't adding anything to the game and are just trying to make a quick buck. There's games like that in the hardcore gaming market of course, but the problem in the casual space is that the investment in resources can be a lot less. So a three person studio isn't going to build a knock-off of Warcraft. But they could crank out a clone of Bejewelled in a few months. The barrier to entry is a lot lower so you get a lot more of it.

Do you see these types games damaging the PopCap business model?

It's a worry about the overall creative state of the industry. From our point of view it doesn't do anything bad to our own financial prospects. There's a thousand Bejeweled clones out there but by virtue of its brand Bejeweled is the one people refer to. There are a couple of Bejeweled variants like Jewel Quest that have carved out there own niche but it hasn't caused a huge problem for us.

The worry is that it encourages a lot of independent developers to churn out these cheap clones instead of original projects. They think they can do a quick knock-off to help pay the bills and then they can work on their big magnum opus but that rarely happens. Once they start down that road of making rip-off games you never make a huge fortune off it and you end up working hand to mouth. They don't have time to work on larger projects that take a risk. And that has a negative effect on the industry as a whole. It should be a really creative opportunity to have a small team that has the luxury of creating whatever it wants and getting to market without the usual cumbersome problems that come from publishers and other factors. The casual space should be encouraging a huge amount of creative design but there's a lot of imitation and that's a shame.

Jason Kapalka is chief creative officer of PopCap Games. Interview by Matt Martin.

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Matt Martin avatar
Matt Martin: Matt Martin joined GamesIndustry in 2006 and was made editor of the site in 2008. With over ten years experience in journalism, he has written for multiple trade, consumer, contract and business-to-business publications in the games, retail and technology sectors.
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