PopCap: EA 'knows that PopCap isn't just a collection of IPs' [Interview]

Joe Osborne

When veteran games publisher EA announced that it had acquired Bejeweled Blitz creator PopCap, it was scary to think of what might happen to the Seattle-based casual and critical hit machine. Game company acquisitions have a history of killing creative direction and even axing entire game franchises, so the fear wasn't entirely unfounded.

Even Peggle franchise director Joe McDonagh might have been a little squeamish at the thought of telling his staff that everything was going to be OK. Now that the dust has settled since the buyout, we recently sat down with the Peggle head to get an idea of what things are like at PopCap HQ since EA. There isn't much of anything intense to report, but according to McDonagh, PopCap has had an interesting if profound effect on the publisher.

Now that it's been a few months since the EA acquisition, what has it been like at PopCap--specifically in the studios--since?

I can honestly tell you that nothing has really changed. EA has been incredibly respectful of what they bought. I mean, think about it: They spent $1 billion acquiring this company. They obviously value what we have. They want us to keep on doing what we've always done. So, they've been incredibly respectful, they've really allowed us to carry on doing what we do.

Well, there have been some good things--there have been some interesting things. I would say that our day-to-day hasn't changed, but what has changed is we're certainly part of this big organization. And there are certain opportunities that have opened up to explore some things that we couldn't have done before.

In fact, one of the reasons I was so excited about the deal is that EA has got some awesome teams--some of the best teams in the world. And this was a chance for us to explore working with these people. So, we've had some meetings with the folks at DICE [Ed. Note: creators of Battlefield 3], at Bioware and the folks at Playfish to see what ways that we can work together. And that's been really exciting.

PopCap Zombies letter to EA
PopCap Zombies letter to EA

Now, EA CEO John Riccitiello has said that the publisher will treat PopCap with a "if it's not broke" approach. Will you say that's largely been the case?

So, when we did the deal, I was really lucky and got an hour with John Riccitiello one-to-one. I asked him, "Look, John. I've got to go back and sell this deal to my teams. And they're gonna ask me, you know, the elephant in the room is what happened to these companies that you bought back in the late '90s, sort of the Bullfrog's and the Origin's and Westwood?" And I said, "I've got to be able to look these guys in the eye and say that that's not going to happen to them."

He was incredibly candid with me about his experiences with the company and said, "Look, we've learned from that. And we've learned that this is about talent, and that if you don't create an environment to keep that talent happy, it's gonna leave." So, I really believe that he was sincere about that, and I believe that EA is sincere in its belief that it's learned its lessons about the importance of talent management. And that, when it looks at PopCap, it knows that PopCap isn't just a collection of IPs [Ed. Note: intellectual properties].

It's essentially about two things: It's about the talent that's here and it's about the culture around the creation of those games. And the thing that I can say about PopCap that's very true is that the people that work here really love the company. That's reflected in the games that we make, and I think that, if you're going to spend a billion dollars on something, you know there's something special there. They have really been true to their word, and I really believe they respect what we do. I couldn't be happier with the way it's gone.

Before PopCap was acquired, it opened 4th & Battery, a label where designers could create and release whatever games they wished. But ever since, no games have been released under that label. Will any more creative outlets come from that label or PopCap proper now that EA is in the picture?

So, this week we're actually going through a thing called PopCamp, which is a thing we do we do every quarter, [and] I think it's quite unique to PopCap. It's basically like Google 20 Percent Time, which is once a quarter the whole studio downfalls all around the world. And people some to studio management and say, "I have this crazy idea and I want to work on this thing, and I got a bunch of people that want to do it, too. Can I do it?" And we're like, "Yeah, you can."

This week is PopCamp, and that has not changed since EA bought us. Further to that point, and even more excitingly, I think that idea is taking hold even within EA. A bunch of studios at EA are actually excited about doing that themselves. And I think that people like Frank Gibbeau, president at EA Games, have seen that, and think, "How can we take some of PopCap's magic and spread it wider inside EA?" Not only have they not clamped down on that creativity and freedom, I think they're sort of trying to take lessons from that and apply it to their own studios.

Peggle in action
Peggle in action

Talking about the future, how will PopCap fit into EA's larger social/casual games strategy?

I believe I'm right in saying that EA's kind of core strategy is digital in that on one side, EA wants to grow its digital business and the recognition that the business is growing away from retail goods and more towards online and connected. And secondly that the implicit recognition that the growth, at the moment, is coming from the arrival of hundreds of millions of new gamers coming to vehicles like Facebook and smartphones. Most of those gamers are, by definition, casual gamers. I think that was the driving force behind the acquisition. So, I believe we're kind of right at the heart of what they're doing.

Will PopCap simply create go on creating PopCap games, or will it also have a working relationship with EA's other companies like Playfish or Bioware's social studio?

I personally would love to work with some of those guys. I believe it will happen where it makes sense. I mean, are we suddenly going to turn into a place that starts churning out EA-licensed games? I think you can safely say no, right? But also, where there's some really cool collaborations to work on, we'd be crazy not to. So, we retain to a larger degree our creative independence, but I think there's an opportunity to do some cool stuff with other studios.

PopCap's Blitz games have been largely successful on Facebook. Will we see more of those, and how are those games performing financially compared to the downloadable games?

Social's been tremendously successful for us. But I think, going back to the reasons EA bought us, I think that one of PopCap's core strengths is that we are one of the few publishers and developers in the world that can develop great games across different platforms. If you look at the PC, console, social and phone spaces, we're right up there in the top 10 publishers of all those businesses. Our success has really been based on that cross-platform strategy. So yeah, we will probably focus on a lot of new social games, because it's been successful for us. But we'll also stay true to our cross-platform heritage.

Kindle Fire
Kindle Fire

PopCap has been bullish on mobile for some time, too. What are your thoughts on tablets, especially more emergent devices like Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet?

What I can say as the franchise director for Peggle is that I'm very excited for the Kindle Fire. That's something I'm watching very closely, and the reason why is because I think the success of the iPad is really about the store as much as it is about the device. That's why some of the competitors to the iPad have not been as successful is because it's not just about the hardware itself, but it's the consumer experience.

I think the Kindle Fire is a really interesting an exciting device. I'm really excited about tablets. I don't know about you, but it's really interesting. My experience is the change in the relationship I have with my PC over the last year relative to the tablet. You're seeing huge growth in that market, and you're going to see some really interesting, exciting games coming out on that that will really focus on the touch functionality.

Generally speaking, where do you see social games going in, say, the next few years?

I think social games are at the place MMOs [Ed. Note: massively mutliplayer online games] were at before the release of World of Warcraft. I think there are lots of commonalities in the core gameplay loop. A lot of sort of grindy, character growth-driven experiences that are presented in a lot in an unpolished way.

Every game that comes out in the social space is sort of an evolution. I was just playing CastleVille a few weeks ago and really seeing that that's a jump forward from where Zynga was before with a lot of its other games. I'm actually really excited about it, because I think this is the start of something huge.

I'm really excited to start making social games, because it's a chance to get my games into more people's hands. But I also think that it's a rapid-evolving design environment and what we see today is not what we're going to see in two-three years time.

[Image Credits: PopCap, Amazon]

What do you think the EA acquisition means for PopCap? Are you excited to see what finally comes of the deal in 2012? Sound off in the comments. Add Comment.