Just about everyone knows who PopCap is whether they know the name or not. That's because just about everyone who has ever played a game has played, at the very least, "Bejeweled."
The gem-swapping puzzle game helped rocket PopCap to game development stardom and to something of a cult status. PopCap has often been called the 'Pixar of casual games' because — just like the renowned film studio — it's a company that you can count on to defy convention and turn out high-quality work (Pixar's somewhat disappointing new "Cars" film aside).
Whether it's "Bejeweled," "Peggle" or "Plants vs. Zombies" — superb, delightful, beloved games all — PopCap is known for taking however long is required to make the game they're working on not just good, but great — this while other developers slap casual time wasters together and rush them out the door. And their dedication has paid off. The once-tiny company has grown into a gaming powerhouse loved and respected by casual and core players alike — the kind of company whose games inspire adoring fan tributes from around the world.
But what happens when a quirky independent game house is bought by a mega-publisher? As we officially discovered on Tuesday, Electronic Arts has scooped up the much-sought-after developers for a deal worth up to $1.3 billion.
In a letter to their fans, PopCap joked that this means they will now be making games like "Bejeweled Battlefield Blitz" and "Peggle: Dead Space — Bjorn’s Breakfast."
But I had a chance to chat with John Vechey, one of the three men who founded PopCap back in 2000 (back when they were making "Bejeweled" in a messy Seattle apartment and surviving on pizza). Here's what he had to say about why PopCap's games will continue to be awesome and about how EA will help them achieve their ultimate goal of world domination.
So why sell, and why sell to Electronic Arts?
Vechey: We were on the path to an IPO and we had been working on that for about a year-and-a-half. And the board of directors, we all decided, 'Hey we should explore and see if there are any other opportunities out there that can get us to where we want to be faster or better and aren't the IPO route.'
And when we looked at it, here's EA and they give us a world-class publishing team and some amazing digital distribution on mobile and Facebook. With an IPO you get money in the bank. Well, we don't even spend the money we have. So the logic there was: if our goal is to get everyone in the world playing our games, then EA gets us there a lot better and a lot faster.
This is, I think, the big question that players want to know: Will this affect the kind of games and the quality of games that PopCap is known for making?
Vechey: Not at all. We've made five big franchises in the last 11 years. EA knows that. They bought us because we do something right and they want us to keep doing that. So I expect you'll see some fun new innovative games over the next couple of years from us just as you would if we were independent.
I think the nice thing is, Android players just got access to our games in the last couple of months, well after others were able to get our games. That's not going to happen anymore. Our customers are going to have access to our games on the platforms that they have way faster and way sooner and way better than than they do now.
And why is that?
Vechey: EA has a huge scale. So they have like 800 people whose job it is porting games to different mobile platforms. You put a game on an iPhone, that's just one device. But to put it on all mobile phones, you've got to do like 300 or 400 devices. And they have a whole team that has been working in mobile for the last 10 years that is really good at taking the core game and putting it across all those devices.
So they up your porting man-power?
Vechey: They up our porting manpower and they have the technical expertise that comes with scale. They have a team that has worked on every new console that has come out in the past 10 years and this team is really good at understanding what's going on, getting the technology, finding the hard things and then working with game developers to get the game up quickly. We don't have the scale and scope to have a team like that. They've got multiple. So there are a lot of things like that that are really impressive about EA.
You guys at PopCap are known for taking as long as you need to make a really good game. And that's not something that big publishers or EA are always known for putting up with or supporting. Is that something you'll still do and how will you maintain the control to say, 'Hey we're going to take more time to do this and do it right?'
Vechey: You know, the goals of EA and PopCap are actually pretty aligned, and a lot of credit goes to John Riccitiello, the CEO. If you look at the last four years — since he's been CEO — all of their Metacritic ratings have gone up. And they've made choices to delay several games. The Star Wars MMO has been delayed many times at huge expense and it's really because they're trying to re-focus on making great games as a whole company.
In the last 20 years of EA that's not true. Historically they've had some down times. But this regime — the people in charge and the people that championed this deal from the CEO on down — really care about making EA a great place to make games whatever games they're making. And that's one thing that was pretty exciting for us — seeing that culture of really trying to make great games regardless.
So the idea that it takes us a while to make great games isn't foreign to them. What they care about is the output. They know that a great game is worth way, way, way more than a mediocre game, especially over the lifetime. And that's what they're looking for.
Does this change the day-to-day operations of your company?
Vechey: Not really. Everyone is still working for (CEO) Dave Roberts, our studio is our studio. We now just have a big partner and we can access their resources and talent when we need it. Today I walk around and everyone is just kind of doing what they were doing before and that's not going to change.
Do you foresee it changing down the road? This is a huge deal, it seems like things can't stay exactly the same.
Vechey: As one of the guys here said, "I've been at PopCap for over five years now and every year it changes." So yeah, a lot of things are going to change, but they were going to change if we were an independent company or if it was a different partner. I like to think that we're going to make changes on a whole that make us a better company in five years than we were five years ago or are right now.
As one of the founders looking at the course of this little company that you started and where you are today, what is this like for you having sold PopCap after all this time?
Vechey: It hasn’t sunk in yet. The analogy that I have is, it's like someone being hit with a tsunami and people are asking, "How is the water?" You're like, "Well, it's hard to say." You know, there are a lot of things going on. It's exciting. I'm looking forward to the next five years, there are going to be different challenges.
When I last talked to you, we talked a lot about what it was taking to get PopCap games onto Facebook. Is that still a big push?
Vechey: We're definitely working on a lot of social games. We just acquired social game company ZipZapPlay. A couple of our games in development right now are social. So social is a big part of it. A lot of people ask us the question: does this mean we're only going to social games or mobile games? The answer is no.
When we look at a game, we don't think, "Oh, let's make a social game." We say, "Let's make a great game." And if the right platform is social, or the right platform is mobile, then we will start with that. That's just how PopCap is and that's not going to change.
Is there anything else you'd want PopCap fans to know about this deal and what it means for the games they love?
Vechey: The big thing is, PopCap has never been about an exit and has never been about focusing on our short-term money game. We've always been focused on trying to make a great company and make great games that get out to everyone, and we feel that this partnership is the best route for that. I think the fans can only expect more, bigger, better things to come from us.
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