In the early 1990’s, Jason Kapalka was writing reviews of PC games for Computer Gaming World while he attended university. He was reviewing games such as TIE Fighter and Civilization 3, when one of the editors left the company to join a start up business, Total Entertainment Network, in San Francisco. The company focused on internet gaming before it morphed into Pogo.com, changing the mission statement from “hardcore” gaming to casual card and casino games. At one point Jason was working on a Duke Nukem tournament, then suddenly he was asked to design a web version of the game Bingo, “I hadn’t set out to do casual games, but once we were on that path, I felt it was very interesting to bring a higher level of care and craftsmanship to that genre”.
While Jason was programming Bingo in San Francisco, John Vechey and Brian Fiete were in Indiana making an online shooter called ARC. Jason heard of the game and thought it was “pretty cool”. Pogo flew John and Brian out to see if they could publish this new shooter, “they were I think nineteen years old at the time, just these two goofy kids from a trailer park or something” says Jason. Pogo never published ARC, but Jason loved what this duo were doing and, quite rashly, they all quit their respective jobs to form a new company.
Jason admits there were some miscalculations in this choice; they were attempting to start a dot-com as the bubble was bursting and the boom was crashing to the ground. These were young guys trying to turn what they loved into their careers and it shows in their company name from the early 2000’s — Sexy Action Cool. “That was the actual name of the company, chosen because of a line on the poster of Antonio Banderas’ Desperado, and because the URL was up for grabs.” It was abbreviated to SAC but, “it wasn’t the best name for a family friendly game company and we changed it to PopCap. For years afterward, people were still getting legal documents, cheques, etc from Sexy Action Cool, thinking we’d been hacked by a porn outfit”.
Bejeweled went on to inspire a wealth of games that played around with the match three formula, of course probably the most famous of these is Candy Crush Saga. However, at the time the team at PopCap had no idea what they had created, “We put it up as a web game and moved on. A few months later we noticed that the user counts kept going up. We had 30,000 simultaneous players”. The numbers of active players was great, but PopCap was barely scraping by financially. When the dot-com bubble burst, it took out ad based revenue with it. The company ran ad banners but it wasn’t transferring to monetary success. Bejeweled didn’t start creating rich developers until Bejeweled Deluxe was released. Deluxe could be downloaded for free which would whet the appetite of the player and they could enter their credit card details to unlock all of the content for $20. Jason looks back on this decision as forward thinking, “In 2001, the internet had just reached the point where it was plausible to pay for and download a game at home, of course previously you had to send a check to some address in Texas and then wait for a bunch of 3 ¼ inch disks to show up in the mail.”.
The decision to move towards releasing trial games became the standard business model for PopCap, “When we set up Bejeweled Deluxe, Brian had a program that would play a cash register sound every time we made a sale. John was talking to his mom on the phone, she was telling him he couldn’t make a living just sitting on the couch. We heard the ‘Ka-Ching!’ Constantly and he replied to her, ‘sure I can, mom’”. It was at this point that PopCap became a force to be reckoned with in the sphere of casual video games. Now the money was rolling in and the team had to grow from the three young guys to a full team. They set themselves up in an office in Seattle with a larger roster of staff and “started doing things in a more professional manner.” Jason reflects with a wry smile, “there were also some expensive trips to Las Vegas, but we don’t talk about those”.
PopCap’s next big game, Peggle, was in the far distance. The company kept plugging away, putting out games; Insaniquarium, Bookworm Adventures, Heavy Weapon and Feeding Frenzy were all received well from the audience that was steadily growing. Despite the success, the team at PopCap felt they weren’t being taken all that seriously, “executives at the bigger game companies would literally look at stuff like Bejeweled and tell us, ‘that’s not even a game’”. Ironic considering the later acquisition from EA and companies like Ubisoft and Activision snapping up small developers who were working on similar ideas years later.
PopCap, with its small team, were revolutionising the industry of casual gaming. Jason happily admits that he feels PopCap were, “the progenitor of the whole casual game genre as it exists now, in this huge global industry (largely on smartphones).” Of course, before the advent of smartphones, PopCap were targeting the PC market, followed quickly by consoles. It was surely with the move to releasing their games on Valve’s Steam platform that began to push their company into the periphery of game players across the world. While Jason admits that the inclusion on Steam didn’t initially bring in waves of money, but it did represent the first time that “the more serious gamer crowd noticed us”.
Valve had approached PopCap with an oddball idea in mind — they would collaborate on a version of Peggle, dubbed Peggle Extreme, which would feature Headcrabs and all kinds of bonkers Half-Life based ideas. “We kind of figured the Steam crowd would just hate it, but in fact they were really into it… which I think was the first time that hardcore crowd was open to these silly, lighter games.”
The brilliance of Peggle came to represent a break for gamers, to pause between their intense periods of shooters and RPGs, with a relaxed game that required only a little skill and a lot of luck. Peggle aped the Pachinko machines from the East, where the player fires a ball to watch it careen down a board hitting pegs and racking up points. The pegs would slowly disappear, where the game would end with the ball falling into a bucket to add on bonus points. It was simple and effective, better yet, it was addictive. Games of Peggle would last only a few minutes and burst from the screen with colours and sounds, leading to that last moment where ‘Ode to Joy’ would ring out. It was a game that slowly evolved, bringing in new layouts for levels, new characters with skills to boost your game and even seasonal themes.
“Peggle was based off a semi-pornographic pachinko game our producer Sukhbir Sidhu had been playing, and we really wanted to keep the random feeling you got from pachinko… there’s some skill, for sure, but it’s not an icy game of logic like chess.” Some members of the community complained about the luck factor and began insisting that PopCap add in Pinball style paddles and flippers, but PopCap enjoyed the flow that Peggle had, the way the ball moved on its own leading the player to either a ground breaking high score or a damp squib ending. Plus, Jason adds, “you could keep playing it while you smoked your bong.”
When the mention of XBLA and PSN crops up, Jason is quick to remind that the success of PopCap wasn’t just due to Peggle, Bejewled and, later, Plants Vs Zombies. “We did have a number of successes on XBLA, besides Peggle, like our tank game Heavy Weapon, but in truth the console crowd was never that big for us.” Of course, while the console market was making PopCap money and allowing them to tap into a new crowd of players, it was with the casual crowd still, that PopCap found the most success. And the arrival of social media, lit a fire under the company. “It was the dawn of Facebook games and then smartphone gaming that really took PopCap, and casual games in general, to the next level of popularity.” Says Jason, and he’s right. Their games were designed for quick bursts of gameplay, which was ideally suited to Facebook and iPhones.
However, PopCap soon wanted to sink their teeth into a deeper game. Something that would bridge the gap between what they saw as hardcore gamers and the legions of fans with Bejeweled on their phone. Jason had worked with George Fan on Insaniquarium and he was aware that George wanted to work on an idea he’d had for a while — about zombies trying to break into houses and the gardens themselves being the line of defence for homeowners. Jason wanted George to work on the idea for PopCap, but the designer was contracted at Blizzard. Eventually George joined the team. After working for years on Diablo, he could work on his idea.
“The basic structure of PvZ came together pretty quickly, but a lot of the little details took a long time to complete, so the original PC game was I think 3 or 4 years in development. Ironically our biz guys didn’t expect much from it, as they didn’t think the casual Bejeweled crowd would be into a relatively hardcore tower defence game featuring the undead.” PvZ captured audiences with the usual PopCap colours and humour, while grounding the game in a deep strategy title that could be easily dipped into by a more casual player, but the “biz guys” were partly correct, “PvZ didn’t do very well with that [casual] crowd. But it did get a pretty sizeable following on Steam, which led to us doing an Xbox version, which also did fairly well. Though the game hadn’t been conceived with smartphones in mind, that was where it really took off and became a sensation.”
The game appealed to so many — fans of strategy games, zombie films and PopCap generally were open to this new idea. And PopCap had fun with it, “For years PvZ was known internally as Lawn of the Dead. But just before launch we ran into legal problems with the company that had the Dawn of the Dead rights. We even tried begging George Romero directly to intercede, but no dice. Ironically, his production company approached us a few years later to see if we wanted to do some kind of PvZ tie-in for one of his later movies, I think Survival of the Dead.”
It’s pretty clear from Jason that PopCap, unbeknownst to them, were actually laying the foundations for the future. Sure, their games were fun and they were making money; players were enjoying themselves and revelling in the competition of high scores, but the real success came with those touch screen devices in our pockets. This didn’t go unnoticed throughout the industry. Those developers who once looked down on PopCap and their quirky casual games, were becoming aware of the money that could be made at taps of fingers and it wasn’t long before EA Games came knocking.
“Suddenly casual game outfits like PopCap were really hot, and we were in the middle of a bidding war between EA and, well, another company that I won’t name.” In June 2011, EA Games acquired PopCap Games for the acquisition price of $650 million plus $100 million stock and a multi-year earn-out. The total price was estimated to be as much as $1.3 billion. At this point, 80% of PopCaps games were digital and had been installed over 150 million times across the world. “We had always turned down acquisition offers in the past, but this time it was hard to say no.” says Jason. This was a huge sum of money for a company that hadn’t seen vast success on consoles, but EA believed they could extend the reach for PopCap titles, while developing new ideas with them, as we’d later see with the action game version of PvZ, Garden Warfare.
“The EA acquisition definitely led to a lot of changes at PopCap, and a lot of the old school people, including me, eventually left to go their own way. But new people came in. Ultimately every business has to change!” On the topic of changes in business and our arrival at the subject of EA Games, our conversation turned around to loot boxes, microtransactions and DLC, which aren’t a far cry from the business models of PopCap. “I think EA gets a bit of a bad rap just because they’re this big corporate monolith. PopCap was doing free to play games with microtransactions and whatever for our entire existence. The old 80’s arcade games everyone loves were basically pay-to-win machines designed to get you pumping a quarter in every 30 seconds.”
“I think EA still has a harder time with small games, because their whole structure is set up to manage these giant projects. But something like the Garden Warfare games could never have been done by us at the “old” PopCap.” Jason bears no ill will to EA, after all, they paid a fair price and he eventually left to pursue other projects including the recent release, Camp Slayaway. In his words, “Despite their ups and downs, EA has been around for several decades now, and I suspect will be around for decades still. I hope they’ll be a good steward of PopCap’s legacy. Not every studio acquisition works out, but then again, there’s plenty of attrition in video game studios whether they’re independent, corporate.”
Throughout all of the success of PopCap and the games they made, they will always be known as the company that brought ‘Match-3’ games to the masses. Jason has a fondness for all of the games he saw released through the company from conception, to acquisition and he has a “secret love” for one of their early games, Seven Seas, which now seems lost in the annals of history and the internet. But, there’s no ignoring or denying the success of Bejeweled, “I’m maybe proudest of Bejeweled Blitz, in that it was one of our biggest hits and was pulled together very quickly with very limited resources.”
With all of that success, there must have been some regrets and Jason agreed, “We were very close to acquiring Runic Games, just while they were working on Torchlight, when the financial crash of 2008 hit, and we had to bail on the deal due to the risks involved. In hindsight, of course, Torchlight and Torchlight 2 were terrific and very successful, so who knows what might have happened if PopCap had branched out into action-RPGs in 2008?” Jason is not one to dwell on regrets and is immensely proud of everything PopCap achieved under the leadership of a small group of guys who met and worked together for a love of games. They found their niche and rightfully pushed it. They made money, found acclaim and enjoyed life. Sure, there were bumps in the road along the way, but Jason looks back and notes, “there’s no use in crying about missed opportunities, there were lots of other ones where we got lucky!”