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PopCap CEO Dave Roberts on diversifying platforms, channels and geography in the casual space

PopCap Games is certainly one of the major publishers when it comes to the casual games sector. Buoyed by the success and enormous popularity of its Bejeweled franchise, the company specialises in web games; games sold as downloads for the PC, iPhone and mobile phones; and sells a few retail, boxed titles for the PC, and some of the console and handheld platforms including the Nintendo DS.

GamesIndustry.biz spoke with Dave Roberts, CEO of PopCap, about how the casual gaming market is faring in these economic times, the continued viability of selling game product on store shelves, and what went wrong for them with Amazon's casual games download store.

GamesIndustry.biz There's been a spate of news since the year started about the challenges that the major game console publishers are facing in these trying economic times. So how is your side of the industry, the casual segment, doing thus far?
Dave Roberts

We're cautiously optimistic. Things are still going pretty well. A lot of it has to do with price points. We're a lot cheaper than the USD 80 console games that some of these guys are releasing.

All the retail partners are being a lot more cautious than they were. They're focusing on bigger brands, trying to be a little more conservative in their buying. That affects the bigger companies, the EAs of the world, a lot more than it does us.

So far the business has been good. We're still seeing growth. I do attribute a lot of it to the broad appeal of the games, as well as the price points. It's a good combination.

GamesIndustry.biz What are the challenges facing the casual games sector - and PopCap - this year?
Dave Roberts

In a world where our traditional distribution partners are selling bulk-purchase stuff, there's always a question of how do we participate in that appropriately? That's a big challenge for everybody. We have a group that does games really well with the portals because they basically got the game that is the fad of the moment, and they've got lots of them.

We also invest in "big" casual games, relative to what other people do. One of the products we're shipping next has been in development for three years. To do new IP still takes a lot of time. So a challenge for us will be how we make sure that those products don't just become the release-of-the-day on some portal and disappear into obscurity. We have to make sure we have something that's going to go beyond that.

GamesIndustry.biz What have been the major business trends about the casual games sector in recent years?
Dave Roberts

A few years ago, people thought casual games were the gold rush. There were a lot of little companies trying to throw lots of content out there. That's what the distribution sites were asking for - lots and lots of all-you-can-eat content to give customers infinite numbers of choices and charge them recurring, either monthly, quarterly or annual, fees. The net result of that was some of the smaller publishers weren't making money.

The trend in distribution has been to really focus on "game club" bulk-purchase plans that serve a certain customer set very well, but I think it does ignore a larger customer set.

For PopCap, the business has been about diversifying platforms, channels and geography. Everybody thinks of the casual games business as a USD 20 download out of Yahoo! or Real. That, as a percentage of our business, has been declining dramatically over time. Not because that business is shrinking, but because the rest of the business is growing.

GamesIndustry.biz PopCap has only a few titles that are sold in retail outlets. Is your company actively seeking to sell more boxed, retail store versions of its games in the near future?
Dave Roberts

Yeah. Our retail business is growing dramatically, actually. In fact, last year, for NPD we showed up as one of the top 20 PC publishers in North America, which was the first time we'd ever done that.

As a category, PC gaming is shrinking at retail. But what you're seeing is it's really moving to more casual stuff than it used to four to five years ago. Bejeweled has been a top seller at Wal-Mart for a long, long time, and continues to do really well there. So we actually continue to increase our retail presence.