Casual Affair: PopCap on Casual Gaming and Beating the Crunch

Casual gaming – simple, family friendly games as opposed to the mainstream industry – has seen a massive rise in recent years. According to researchers at DFC Intelligence, the sector has grown at more than 50 per cent per annum for the past five years and looks set to continue at a similar pace for the next five.

Casual games developer PopCap’s games can be played on multiple platforms including the Web, desktop computers, various portable devices – mobile phones, smartphones, PDAs, Pocket PCs, iPod and more – popular game consoles, such as Xbox, and in-flight entertainment systems. PopCap’s games include the popular Peggle online pinball machine and Bejeweled, which has sold in excess of 25 million copies worldwide. NMK spoke to the company’s European PR Director, Cathy Orr, about PopCap, the industry and its prospects in the current economic climate.


Firstly, how do you define ‘casual’ gaming? Why is it different from ‘normal’ gaming?

The ‘casual games’ moniker is notoriously difficult to pin down. In contrast to traditional shoot ‘em up hardcore games you might say casual games are family friendly puzzle, word and simple action games defined in relation to the casual nature of the audience that plays – in other words, anyone and everyone. Generally, ‘casual games’ fall into one of four categories: puzzle, word, trivia and simple action games.

Some elements common to casual games include simple game rules, easy, straightforward game controls, maddeningly compelling game play and extremely broad appeal. Anyone from six to 106 should find the game fun and engaging.

How did PopCap come about? What was the inspiration?

PopCap was formed in 2000 by Brian Fiete, Jason Kapalka and John Vechey. They had all formerly worked at online game companies and thought they could do a better job making their own games and simultaneously control their own destiny in what is largely a mercenary industry in which creators lose control of their creations. 

When PopCap was founded, there was no such thing as the casual game industry. The PopCap plan was to work on Java web games, which could be licensed back to bigger companies to make enough money to enable them to work on more games. PopCap had an ominous start when the dot-com industry collapsed. The new plan was to try the ‘shareware’ model first used in the earliest days of personal computers: try the game for free, and if you like it, send money!

Who designs the games?

Generally speaking, each game has a development staff of three to six people and takes 12-18 months to bring to market. As we begin to make more elaborate casual games, the time spent making some of the games has increased. For example, Bookworm Adventures and Peggle each took two and a half years from concept to completion, while Bejeweled Twist was four years in the making! PopCap starts with ideas, build lots and lots of prototypes, and we don’t take a game into production until the prototype itself is fun. Only then do we commit to making it into a full game.

Is there a ‘social element’ to PopCap’s games? Can you compete with others online?

We’ve only just begun to incorporate social elements into and around some of our games and we’ll be doing more in this area in the coming months. At the moment virtually all of our games are single-player experiences online. 

We’ve launched a new version of Bejeweled on Facebook called Bejeweled Blitz. This is a free, two-player version of Bejeweled in which you compete against a friend to top his or her score in a five-minute version of the game. We also have Facebook groups focused on individual games such as Peggle, Bejeweled, Bookworm and so forth and we have a main PopCap group on Facebook hosted by us, where news, tips and other information about current and upcoming games is posted. 

In 2009 we’ll significantly augment these existing social elements as well as adding others.

You say the games appeal to six-106 year olds – which age groups are downloading your games most? Is it mainly under-30s?

Everyone is a potential player of PopCap games. PopCap research shows that casual games naturally skew towards an older, female audience – 89 per cent of players are aged over 30 and 76 per cent are female – but those are just the people who buy the games on the PC. Many of our games are on Xbox Live Arcade, for example, and are doing well with traditional gamers, while PopCap’s mobile games do very well with younger gamers.

Your Bejeweled Twist game is coming out on a mobile format – do you see mobile as a major revenue stream going forward or is the PC/Mac format going to continue to be the main force for you?

For PopCap, the aim is to make our games accessible for anyone, anytime, anywhere so all platforms are important to the brand. 

Given that the penetration of mobile phone gamers is so low – between 5-8 per cent, depending on what study you look at – the initial mobile audience tends to be those who are already familiar with our games and brands. However, that PopCap-aware audience most likely covers most mobile gamers in North America and Europe. This is the reason we pour so much into our mobile games as we need to ensure that the phone experience is up to the quality expected from our PC games. 

How do you think the economic downturn will affect PopCap and the casual games industry?

In difficult economic times, the most broadly appealing, cost-effective forms of entertainment tend to not only survive, but thrive. Witness the rise of feature films during the Great Depression, for example. Our games represent great value and offer a fun, stress-free distraction from the worries of the day. Nearly 90 per cent of our customers say that playing our games helps them relax and feel less stressed.

We at PopCap believe that casual games are about as ‘recession-proof’ as any entertainment-oriented product or service. While casual games typically cost £15 or less, they provide hundreds of hours of entertainment for virtually all members of the household. Compare this to the purchase of a traditional ‘hardcore’ video game that provides perhaps 50-80 hours of entertainment and usually for only one or two members of the household.

What releases are planned for 2009?

As a company policy, we tend not to talk about releases before they happen however we have bent that rule of late by announcing Bejeweled Twist Mobile, Peggle on DS – in the US initially – and Peggle for Xbox Live Arcade. We’ve also provided a few hints about our forthcoming ‘zombie survival’ game, which will launch in April of 2009. 

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