Casual Gaming: Serious Business

With annual revenues at $50 million, Seattle-based PopCap is a gaming force to be reckoned with

While PopCap originated as a Web-based form of entertainment, CEO David Roberts told Next-Gen that extending the company’s platform reach is one of the keys to growing its business. PopCap games can be found on the web, mobile phones, Xbox Live Arcade, Valve’s Steam platform and at retail. If it were up to Roberts, it sounds like he’d love to have a version of Zuma and Bejeweled on everything from your microwave to your washing machine.

"A couple years ago we were on lots of platforms, but now we’re certainly on just about every one you can find for casual games. Maybe Tetris has got us beat but they’ve had a lot more time to do it,” Roberts said.One of the more interesting areas of expansion is the console arena. PopCap already has games including Astropop, Bejeweled 2, Feeding Frenzy and Zuma on Xbox Live Arcade, but the Wii and PS3 are future platform possibilities as well.“We love XBLA,” confessed Roberts. “We were on the XBLA bandwagon early, and we actually have Heavy Weapon shipping very soon now. That’s our first sort of Live-enabled multiplayer version of any of our games.”

Arcade Offerings

With the success of Xbox Live Arcade, Sony and Nintendo are following suit with their upcoming online-enabled consoles. PopCap certainly is keeping an eye on the two console manufacturers’ future Arcade-like offerings, but as of right now Sony and Nintendo are behind in the area.“[Sony and Nintendo] clearly haven’t been as far along in their planning process as Microsoft was just before XBLA went live,” Roberts said. “The first time I saw XBLA was before they shipped it, and I was truly astounded at how much work they had done to make the kind of ecosystem around it. It seems like it’s simple, but like a lot of things that seem simple, there’s a lot of work that went on to make it that way.“As far as the guys at Sony and Nintendo getting [up to speed], … [an arcade service] isn’t something that is really a quick development. I’ve heard it really does take a lot of careful thought and planning and stuff. Just given the amount of time that they’ve spent on it versus Microsoft, I think that they’re a little bit behind, but I do also think that they’re putting a lot of resources behind it. I actually haven’t personally been exposed to the latest offerings by them. As you probably would guess, they are evolving pretty much every day, but they started with a time disadvantage. Microsoft literally worked for years on XBLA and I think that it caught Sony and Nintendo a bit off guard when it was not just a little bit successful but a lot successful for Microsoft.”

Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo and Apple with its iPod aren’t the only notable companies that are standing up and seriously acknowledging the wide appeal of casual games. In late August, hardcore-friendly Valve, developer of the Half-Life series, announced that its Steam content delivery platform would play host to some of PopCap’s casual titles. “It made a lot of sense for us to give [Steam] a shot because there’s always been a belief, especially after XBLA, that even the hardcore gamers would have fun with casual games,” Roberts said. “[The games are] still fun, and just because women over 40 like playing Bejeweled and Zuma doesn’t mean that they are the only people that play Bejeweled and Zuma. You know, we don’t make ‘games for girls.’ A lot of people think that’s what casual games are; that they’re games designed specifically for women over thirty-five. …We make games for people—not games for girls or boys or teenagers or adults.”And as the business and appeal of casual gaming is gaining legitimacy, competition is rapidly rising. “The good news and the bad news is that people are starting to notice it,” Roberts admitted. “Success across other platforms has been great, so the success of XBLA means that now Sony, Nintendo are thinking about a similar platform. … You’re seeing places that didn’t think about these games before, and now they’re going, ‘Hey, there might be something here!’

Expansion Efforts

The company’s plan for platform expansion is rooted in its acknowledgement that “casual” is just another term for “wide appeal”—anyone is a potential a fan. There’s a fairly simple reason that casual games have such popularity potential.Roberts explained, “There is a lot to be said for games that don’t take forty or fifty hours to get to be good at. It’s fun to sometimes just be rewarded right away. Casual games sort of serve a different need for fun that’s different than a very immersive hardcore game.”

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