Learning from failure is easy. Learning from success - particularly slightly unexpected success - can be a lot more difficult. With failure, after all, there's no shortage of people offering to point out where you went wrong - "Your crafting system's wonky," "Lara keeps getting stuck on the scenery," "No, Denis, Cyber-Vikings aren't cool," - and then, of course, there's that little voice lurking in the back of your mind telling you that you saw all this coming in the first place, and just chose to ignore it. But success? Tricky stuff. Where do you start? How do you sift through the hundreds of different elements that made for a successful project, looking for the single magical idea that you should now be expanding upon for fun and profit?
I've been pondering this matter ever since spending the day with PopCap, in the developer's Seattle-based HQ. The last time I was here, immediately prior to the launch of Bejeweled Twist near the end of 2008, there was a certain air of confidence - politely understated, naturally - drifting through the corridors and cubicles. PopCap was on top of its game, and about to release the long-awaited follow-up to its biggest hit.
There was an unmistakable sense that the company knew what it was about, and, more importantly, knew who its audience was. In between rehearsals for a glitzy press launch involving gymnasts, light displays and a hulking mechanical prop that looked like Captain Nemo's steering wheel, I was shown a fleeting glimpse of a new game one of PopCap's many teams was working on, called, at the time, Lawn of the Dead. The PopCap founders knew it was going to sell well - it was so polished and witty, such a basic joy just to watch in motion, that it could hardly fail - but in the months following its release, after it had been retitled Plants vs. Zombies, it turned out that it was selling a lot better than just 'well'.
And it sold to what PopCap's not afraid to label the 'hardcore' audience, practically haemorrhaging copies all over Steam, sailing past Bejeweled's figures for the PC service, and doubling, tripling the kind of stats they were seeing Valve bring in even for something like Peggle, which the community had already claimed as their own. It was great news, but is it possible it was also enough to give PopCap pause?
None of which is to suggest that the developer's currently lacking in direction - after all, it sells a copy of Bejeweled roughly every 10 seconds - but Plants revealed strengths PopCap perhaps wasn't aware were so developed, and reminded the team of an audience it hadn't entirely focused on yet. In short, it was the kind of unexpected level of success to which you must listen.
You can still learn from mistakes, too, of course. And, as it happens, PopCap CEO Dave Roberts is learning from one right now, in the upstairs dining area of a ridiculously smart downtown Seattle restaurant. Roberts has invited the press here, in the middle of the city's Casual Connect games developer conference, to show off a few of his company's new wares - a free update for Bejeweled 2 on the iPhone adding the score-rush Blitz mode, which will allow players to post leaderboards on Facebook, and Bookworm Adventures: Volume 2 - but, perhaps foolishly, he's handed out a few iPod Touch units to the crowd in advance, and now, no-one's really listening to him anymore. They're not listening because they're all too busy playing PopCap's most famous game, notepads and pens sat idle while they stab away at the screen, sinking combos and lining up chains.
This is classic PopCap front and centre, then: match-three games, spelling games, intelligent sequels that are effortless to understand, and often impossible to put down. It's the same ideas that have been around since the days John Vechey, Brian Fiete and Jason Kapalka launched the company back in 2000. "We didn't have anything sophisticated in mind," admits Kapalka, later the same day, in a meeting room at PopCap's HQ. "We basically thought we could make Java games for the Web and sell them back to companies like Pogo and Sierra. We started at the absolute nadir of the internet boom, where everybody lost their jobs, but we didn't really notice that at the time. Mostly because we weren't doing anything - we didn't have any money, any investments, and we certainly weren't going over to talk to VCs at that point."
A measure of how the new developer initially saw its future playing out can be divined from its original choice of name. "We called ourselves Sexy Action Cool," laughs Kapalka, "because we didn't think we were going to be a public-facing company. We changed that after a while when we realised we were actually getting traffic to our website. It still caused a few problems, though. For a while, when I had a work visa in Canada, I had to explain to the border guards that I worked for an internet company called Sexy Action Cool. That was a little difficult."
Rebranding inevitably followed, as PopCap moved on from Java games to "deluxe" downloadable titles, practically inventing the "try-before-you-buy" casual market in the process. Some labelled the studio as a clone manufacturer - true at first perhaps - but that missed the skill with which the company's games came together, the fact that they were often simply better than any of the competition's, even if they weren't necessarily that different fundamentally. Today, the PopCap effect is unmistakable, coming on like a descent into a warm bubble bath, soothing and familiar - a combination of simple mechanics gently deconstructed until they feel like second nature, and a lush, colourful presentation riddled with positive feedback and unexpected jokes.
Still working out of the founders' apartments until 2002, games like Bejeweled and Peggle have seen the developer grow from three people to around 200 in the intervening years, with offices in Shanghai, Dublin, Vancouver, Chicago and San Francisco. So a lot's changed since the early days, but the company's unique approach to development has remained consistent. Despite its growing bulk, and the fact that its releases are increasingly seen as triple-A titles in their own right, each of the studio's games is generally built by a small team - often composed of just three core members - iterating furiously over a long period of development. Plants vs. Zombies took three years to make, Bejeweled Twist took closer to four.
Kapalka, who will admit, when prodded, that the extent of Plants vs. Zombies' success with more traditional gamers was "a little bit" surprising, is aware that the lengthy development cycles may make it hard for the company to capitalise quickly on surprise smashes. "It's tough," he muses, "because you want to learn from things, but at the same time, if you're a year or two into production on something, you may not want to change it around. A hit certainly informs things going forward, when we start a new project, though."
Speaking of going forward, it's tempting to read Plants as a subtle change in direction - it's one of the studio's most elaborate games so far, featuring a surprisingly dense ecology of units and towers. Is the studio starting to outgrow its 'casual' niche? "We're starting to see a little change," says Kapalka. "I think we're more willing to try some fairly radical ideas now. Not in everything - there will still be Bejeweled sequels and that sort of thing - but outside of those franchises, we're willing to do more adventurous ideas."
But Kapalka also suggests that the market is changing along with PopCap. "A lot of the casual games space has changed quite a bit," he argues. "I'm reluctant to say it's become more sophisticated, but there's some of that, and there's also more of a crossover from the hardcore into that space."
In short, the casual market is starting to get a lot more complex, and PopCap's games are starting to reveal the divisions. "Plants sells well on Steam, Bejeweled doesn't sell as well. Peggle sells well on Steam, but is only mediocre on some of the other portals like Big Fish," admits Kapalka. "It does kind of raise the question, is the audience segmenting? You could argue that the traditional casual PC market that we started in has stratified into a Hidden Object-dominated space; to some extent that's true and we do some stuff in that area, but it's hard to innovate there. At the same time, there's these markets like iPhone and Steam, and there's a different audience there. It's definitely interesting to see where you can go with that, because that's an audience that's new, still undefined, and growing, whereas the Hidden Object market is certainly stable, but I'm not sure it's growing. It's predictable, and it's not particularly responsive to radical shifts."
All of which could make PopCap's job a bit more difficult in the years ahead - but Kapalka feels the studio is in a good position to cope with any changes. "A lot of people who came up with us, doing casual games on the web, are still doing that, and that only. We've diversified a lot, sometimes by choice, sometimes just by luck. Our revenue is now split across a lot of difference sources, and that hopefully gives us a lot more perspective. If you're doing a bit of Facebook, a bit of retail, a bit of iPhone, I hope it gives you a bigger picture, a chance to see what's tough and what's becoming promising. There are some sectors that will get tougher: downloadable price points are going down, iPhone's getting overcrowded. You have to be careful with that." He pauses, and considers his words. "And it means the kind of games you felt you had to do five years ago, some sort of match-three puzzle game, now feel a little too simplistic. That may be a little incorrect, but it does feel now that that might not be what the best path might be."
All of which poses a potential danger - that PopCap, which has such success by making games simple again, might finally get tangled up in increasingly elaborate projects. "Yes. That is a hazard," laughs Kapalka. "As we've seen with games like Bejeweled, sometimes simple still works. I don't want to forget about that. I do recognise that it's a danger to say that we're making bigger games - like we'd announce we'd make an MMOFPSRPG and then do a horrible job of it."
But Kapalka suggests that, even while it presents a more complex picture of the casual audience than anyone might have expected, a game like Plants still makes the developer more willing to take additional risks: if it is at a quiet crossroads, it's not afraid to choose a direction and get moving. "Something like Plants certainly give us more confidence, both in our ability to execute it, and that there's an audience that's willing to accept it," he smiles.
In fact, in his keynote at Casual Connect, Roberts addressed this very issue, suggesting the next big battlefield is the crossover market itself, where hardcore platforms meet the right kind of casual games. Is that PopCap's new target? "That's an interesting one," sighs Kapalka. "We're seeing the crossover emerge, but it's not totally clear yet where it's going to end up. You see Steam, Xbox Live, PSN and WiiWare, and they're all figuring things out: taking the mechanics of the download market and bringing it to console owners who may not have been familiar with it yet.
"For a lot of console owners, the download market is a fairly new experience, and so the market is evolving rapidly as the audience figures out what games they like, and what's being sold. It's going to be an interesting market - and it's quite big. It may not be quite as big in raw numbers as the presumed casual space, but it's millions of people who are prepared to spend a lot of money. The barriers to buying something are really low, plus the psychology is already there: you are a person who buys games.
"Are we going full circle? Did we get out of hardcore games and are we getting back in? That's the kind of interesting thing that is not 100 per cent sure yet. You're not going to see people turning away from GTA to play Peggle 2, but as we've seen from Peggle on WOW, it doesn't have to be either or. We used to think that the Gears of War player, who we used to think of as a completely different entity who wasn't on our chart at all? Maybe they are. Maybe they're more important to casual than we initially thought. That doesn't mean you're abandoning an audience of presumed bored secretaries and soccer moms, but we may be able to come back to that market of classic gamers who have had their eyes opened to the idea of casual games being legitimate."
The interview over, Kapalka heads off into the warren of PopCap's offices: past cubicles filled with stuffed Chuzzles, past walls plastered with crayon drawings and carefully-lettered 'thank you' notes from local school kids who've been given a tour of the Kingdom of Casual, past computer screens filled with emails from gamers who bought Peggle on Steam and want to know how to score 16 million points with one ball, like that guy on YouTube managed. In the future, how many companies will have to become as broad a church as this one? How many will have the skill, and the desire to do it the right way? Casual and hardcore: it's strange to hear Kapalka himself using such terms, when you suspect his company's already calculating how long the distinction will have any meaning.
Or has it lost its meaning already? That depends on who you ask. But, taking a last look around at the colourful concept art and bustling cubicles, whatever happens next, it seems a safe bet that PopCap's best is yet to come. And, considering one of the company's last games was Plants vs. Zombies, that's something for other developers - whichever audience they believe in - to start getting worried about.