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From Bejeweled To Plants Vs Zombies: How PopCap Got Just About Everyone To Play Their Games – Kotaku Australia

There is a very good chance you’ve played a PopCap game. More extraordinary, there’s a very good chance everyone you know, including your parents, have played a PopCap game. For about 10 years, there was one name in casual gaming, and that name was almost Sex…

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There is a very good chance youve played a PopCap game. More extraordinary, theres a very good chance everyone you know, including your parents, have played a PopCap game. For about 10 years, there was one name in casual gaming, and that name was almost Sexy Action Cool.
Whether it was Peggle, Bejeweled, Bookworm or Plants Vs Zombies, whether played on mobile, PC, Facebook, console, inside World of Warcraft, or on a Palm Pilot, there was a time around 2009 where PopCaps games were ubiquitous, when everyone and their mother would have tried PopCaps products. So how did this happen? How did one studio manage to occupy every corner of gaming, from dial-up downloads to mobile phones, from casual gaming portals to Valves Orange Box? And how did it go from a three-person indie project to a $US650m+ sale to EA?
It began with a game called ARC. In 1995, Brian Fiete and John Vechey were two college students who were fascinated by the earliest iterations of multiplayer gaming. They put together a 2D capture-the-flag concept that Vechey believes was one of the first downloadable multiplayer games. Back then connecting players was tricky, so they approached Total Entertainment Network (TEN), a company that specialised in adding multiplayer modes to popular games. There they met Jason Kapalka, a former games journalist and one of the original members of TEN, who was put to work on ARC. Or as Kapalka recalls, They were definitely two 19-year-old kids out of an Indiana trailer park. I was given the job of trying to entertain them.
Vechey and Fiete eventually got jobs at Sierra Online, but, as Kapalka puts it, all three felt a little disgruntled with our work environment. They decided to start their own company. Kapalka had already created a company called Sexy Action Cool, a name inspired by a promotional poster for Robert Rodriguezs movie, Desperado. At one point he and Vechey had used it to release a since-abandoned strip poker game, Foxy Poker, and the company was lying dormant. So to save time, they used that. In retrospect, probably not the best title, acknowledges Kapalka, but the URL was certainly available. (I strongly recommend against checking it today.)
The trios aim was to create simple, downloadable games, that they would be able to licence back to companies like Microsoft and Pogo (formerly TEN). They believed they could do it far more efficiently than these big studios, and hopefully make enough money to keep themselves ticking over. So, giving it a go, the first thing they tried their hands at was a little match-3 game called Bejeweled.
In 2000, Jason Kapalka was based in the Haight, San Francisco, while John Vechey and Brian Fiete were in Renton, Washington, each working out of their own apartments. It was split up like this that they first started putting together what would eventually become Bejeweled. Originally conceived under the name Diamond Mine, it was a simple game in which you mined gems by swapping tiles to make lines of three or more. And while it wasnt the first match-3 game, it was certainly the first most people played. The original was, I think, a game called Shariki, remembers Kapalka. A Russian game. But to be honest we werent aware of that. What we were aware of was someone had found a really crappy Javascript game. It was called Colours Game, this really primitive game, it didnt have sound effects, animation, didnt even really have graphics. It was just a bunch of coloured squares that you could swap, and if you made a row of three they disappeared and it fell down. We thought: this is an interesting mechanic, we can probably make a better game with this idea. Brian went off and programmed a better version of the game in Javascript.
John Vechey picks up the story. Brian had programmed a different version of it in 24 hours, and then 24 hours later Jason had done some art added on top. I swear, it was like four days later I showed my uncle and he said, Hey, this is fun to play. Then we had three months of trying to make it into more of a game, polishing it, and then we had the insecurity of people saying, I played it for five hours, but its not really a game. You fucking played it for five hours! What the hell!
.we had the insecurity of people saying, I played it for five hours, but its not really a game. You fucking played it for five hours! What the hell! PopCap co-founder John Vechey
I think Bejeweled might have been the first new, actual good game in that space, says Brian Fiete. It was wide-open easy, he says of an era before quality seemed a priority to others developing online games. This was before Flash was good, so there were a lot of really, really terrible Flash games. No one took it seriously. Pogo was probably the best of the bunch, but it was gambling games, poker, simple slots, but they werent actually good. They were made to be timewasters with a chatroom attached, where they would cycle ads at the top. Microsoft had a portal that had some really, really, really bad games. No one who was working in the space cared about games, they just threw out as much crap as they could.
PopCaps earliest mission, and one that remained at least until the late 2000s, was to take the mainstream market as seriously as developers as they took the specialist market as gamers. As Fiete puts it, It was a revelation to a lot of people that it was possible to make a small online game that played well.
In those early months of 2001, it turns out their carving of the casual gaming market was something of a happy accident. As they tested Bejeweled, they had a timed and untimed mode. Theyd assumed timed would be the default. Untimed, as Kapalka puts it, There was not much you could do. You played until the luck of the draw meant there were no more matches. And yet they discovered this was the version everyone wanted to play. Initially confused, they eventually labelled this The Games For Mum idea. My mum doesnt know about balance or fairness or that stuff, but she just likes playing the version with no timer, Kapalka said. That was the beginning of the casual game idea. About not having to cater to the hardcore gamer demands. Theres still a lot of people out there who enjoy playing games, but they want to do it their own way.
Sexy Action Cool certainly didnt really feel like the right name for this. Plus there had been some issues with visas at the border, questions about the name appearing on invoices, and they realised that if they wanted to capture this family-friendly space, it had to change. So why PopCap? Because Kapalka wanted the word Pop in there, he said, and it was the first short URL they could find that was free. Had another URL been available, wed be reminiscing about PopFrog today.
The three initially offered to sell Bejeweled to gaming portals run by Microsoft and Pogo, for $US50,000 ($72,020). Had either said yes, thatd be the end of this story. Instead, they both declined and offered to rent the games for $US1,500 ($2,161) a month, a decision that meant PopCap still owned the game and would eventually be able to earn unfathomable amounts of money from just that one title.
Everyone I spoke to acknowledged the incredible freedom to spend so much time, and put so much care into their casual games, was only possible because of the consistent revenue that came in from Bejeweleds phenomenal success. Taking advantage of the burgeoning home internet of the early 2000s, they created a model where people could play a simpler version of Bejeweled for free online, or download the Deluxe edition which came with limited free play before it would ask for credit card details and 20 of your dollars. That premium deal was far cheaper for players than paying the per-minute AOL fees to be online, and it meant the phone line was clear. In retrospect, says Kapalka, it was the second coming of shareware. This method of selling their games was so alien at the time that companies like Microsoft refused to even try it. Despite coinciding with the dot-com bubble burst, publishers still believed the money was in the advertising. And they werent the only ones who didnt believe it would work.
Jason Kapalka told me a story about how at this point John Vecheys mother had expressed concerns at his quitting a proper job to do this video games thing, and told him, Youll not make any money just sitting around on the couch! Vechey laughs, surprised at just how wrong Kapalka had remembered the story. My mum didnt say this! A character from the movie Clerks said this! He picks up the rest of the tale. In the early days of PopCap, Brian had made this program that would go KERCHING! whenever we had sold a game. Me and some friends were watching Clerks, and theres a line in it where someone says, You cant just sit around on a couch making money. And for some reason my speakers were turned up really high, and that thing went, KERCHING! at that exact moment. It couldnt have been funnier, because we were just sitting on the couch making money.
Eventually, Kapalka says, they had to turn off the cash register sound because they were coming too frequently and it was getting annoying.
Before everyone was in the same Seattle office, with Kapalka now living in Vancouver, Fiete built a a tool for everyone to communicate. Along the lines of the yet-to-be-imagined Slack, Discord and the like, it was called Project Burrito, a shared space that allowed everyone to share ideas, comments, access to the latest game builds, and so on. As the company grew, opening their first proper office on 4th and Battery in 2003, Burrito continued to be the main tool by which company communication was conducted. When there was a new build, wed post it on Project Burrito, explains Fiete. And everyone could see it, they could make comments on it, have different ideas.
And he means everyone. As the business grew, whether a secretary or web designer, the whole company was involved. It began with the quality assurance team, then spread. Even in the early days, that was their number two job, says Fiete. Number one, find bugs. But youre going to be expected to contribute feedback to these games. We extended that to everyone as time went on. It was a system that made perfect sense. As a company designing games for audiences of non-gamers, they found a way to utilise all the non-gamers in the company to keep this focus.
There wasnt a wall between people making and not making games. They wanted feedback. Heres new builds of our games, play em, tell us what you think. Anthony Coleman
It was a system that meant talent could be spotted anywhere in the business. Joining the company in 2005, Anthony Coleman was employed as a sysadmin, keeping the email running, building computers. I was the 22nd person in the company, he tells me. And it really was a big family. Pretty much all communications were public, and everyone could view everything. There wasnt a wall between people making and not making games. They wanted feedback. Heres new builds of our games, play em, tell us what you think. At the same time, available to anyone in PopCap was access to the proprietary 2D engine in which they built their games, and Coleman started putting together prototypes in his spare time.
Eventually I showed them to the studio, says Coleman And after a year and a half they said, Yeah, we have a job for you in the studio. We want you to take Bookworm Adventures and make a web game out of it. Go. Which was trial by fire, it was a blast! Coleman went on to be the project lead on Bookworm Adventures 2.
This combination of a willingness to try new business models, alongside the amounts of money Bejeweled was bringing in, afforded PopCap the ability to spend vastly more time making small casual games than anyone else in that industry. Games like 2007s Peggle, the Bejeweled sequels, and the Bookworm series, were given years to be created. This was into a market where almost everyone else was focused on churn. PopCaps long-time PR guru, Garth Chouteau, told me how hed played a build of Peggle nine months ahead of its release and responded, Well, this is fucking amazing! Why havent we put this out yet? Lets just ship it tomorrow! But the ethos at the company was to keep holding games back, keep refining, keep adding.
There wasnt a pressure that things had to be released at specific times, explains Anthony Coleman. Almost all those games took two to three years to make. People thought, thats so long for these small games. But Bejeweled gave a very long runway for each project. And it meant we could spend a year and a half on a project, think its not going to go anywhere, and just can it.
It also helped that the company made decisions that werent exactly normal. For instance, when they discovered that someone had created a bootlegged version of Bejeweled, using their assets, and then ported it into World Of Warcraft, their response wasnt lawyers. Their response, Coleman recalls, was How about we just pay you, and you make it good? And he did! He came to work for us for a number of years. Which is how it came to be that WoW featured Bejeweled, and later Peggle, as games to play while on flightpaths.
And this wasnt a one-off. PopCap was no stranger to controversies over borrowing from other games. (On the Zuma/Puzzloop contention Kapalka says, I cant deny it, we definitely were inspired by Puzzloop. We thought it was dead, we found it in some MAME archive from 10 years ago, and had no idea it would be missed by anybody if we borrowed some of the mechanics.) But it went the other way far more often, and their response was almost always to reach out.
Garth Chouteau brought up another extraordinary example. While Bejeweled was ported to almost any device you could think of, one PopCap hadnt opted for was the original GameBoy. A man called Bernie King decided to make it himself, because his girlfriend was a huge fan. So he hacked it onto the Game Boy for her and then programmed in a special level to drop a diamond ring from the top and ask her to marry him. When we heard about that story, we thought it was so cool that we helped pay for the wedding. We paid for a Bejeweled cake and Bejeweled-themed decorations for the wedding and reception.
The call from Valve is remembered by everyone slightly differently. Coleman recalls they said, We really enjoy Peggle, but we also hate you, because youve destroyed productivity for the past 48 hours.
Or the time they found out someone was producing ceramic Plants Vs Zombies garden decorations, and responded by asking him to make them 900 of them, handing out sets to press for a promotional event.
All this time, PopCap had found its comfort zone. Working hard, for years, to create incredibly approachable games, to sell primarily to a casual gaming audience, via casual gaming portals. And yet despite this, they eventually found their games were being played by the so-called hardcore players. Their first realisation of this was the day Valve called them up to yell at them about Peggle.
Before that, it was pretty much mums and grandmas, says Kapalka. I think Peggle was the first crossover we had with the hardcore audience. Their games were being sold on Steam, mostly as an experiment, and had started catching a new audiences attention.
The call from Valve is remembered by everyone slightly differently. Coleman recalls they said, We really enjoy Peggle, but we also hate you, because youve destroyed productivity for the past 48 hours. No one has done any work, theyre just sitting around challenging each other to get high scores in Peggle. Chouteau remembers it as their begging Sukhbir

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