With more than 50 million copies sold worldwide, Bejeweled is PopCap's biggest-selling game. Then there's Plants vs. Zombies, Peggle, Zuma, Bookworm... All success stories in their own right. The company's only been around for 10 years but from a foundation of three has grown into an operation of over 250 people, producing games that transcend traditional demographics and trends.
As casual gaming explodes on the App Store and Apple announces the iPad, we thought this would be a perfect time to kidnap PopCap co-founder John Vechey - not least because he had, days earlier, promised to make a game titled Johnny Minkley's Meat Ceiling. Read on for Vechey's thoughts on just about everything from Facebook to Peggle to striptease sims.
Eurogamer: Today, PopCap is massive. But life must have been different once upon a time...
John Vechey: PopCap was started by Jason Kapalka, Brian Fiete and myself. We were three friends. I was 19. We just decided to make games. We never said, "Oh, we're going to be this big company and we're going to make billions of dollars." We wanted to make games and we wanted to have a good lifestyle.
Jason had worked at Pogo and was very frustrated with writing documents to create games. That's not how games work. What logically works on paper doesn't always translate. So he definitely wanted a change of pace. Brian and I decided to start PopCap to do web games because no one at the time was really doing that. It was very simple and very new. So we started PopCap and made a game called Bejeweled.
Eurogamer: Who's the brain behind the PopCap games?
John Vechey: I haven't thought of any games myself. I feel like I made some great contributions to the games! I can't name them [laughs].
Jason, the creative director, is involved in a lot of the games. A lot comes from other people - it's kind of whoever has a good idea. Plants vs Zombies was completely George Fan's brainchild. Peggle was Sukhbir [Sidhu] and Brian Rothstein wanting to make a Pachinko game.
Eurogamer: How many people are in your core think-tank team?
John Vechey: We're all thinkers! Except for me - I'm the drinker! I think it's fine so long as you're surrounded by thinkers... The core team is around five to eight game designers, but not all working on new IPs. There's lots of adapting to different platforms.
Eurogamer: How many games don't make the final cut at PopCap?
John Vechey: It's hard to say. Jason had this idea for a dice game, like Tetris. It was called Demon Dice. They spent two-and-a-half months work on that. It never really came together but there were probably 20 different versions that were all a little bit different. Whether to count that as one or 20 games is hard to tell. So I don't have a percentage for you.
Peggle, for example: there was probably about 10 different, very distinct games that were created when they were looking for Peggle. About 5 per cent of the Peggle that got released was actually kept from the prototype.
Eurogamer: PopCap makes games for a casual audience. How valuable are core gamers to you?
John Vechey: Core gamers, oddly enough, are a really big part of our demographic. There aren't many great games on the casual side that don't appeal to hardcore gamers on some level. There are many games on the hardcore side that don't appeal to casual gamers, though.
A great game is going to appeal to a very broad spectrum. We just make sure our games are very accessible. Plants vs Zombies on paper is crazy: we're going to do a tower-defence game where there's a bunch of zombies that are trying to eat plants - it doesn't sound inherently casual, or hardcore. Or Peggle: we're going to have a unicorn and a bunch of trippy graphics. We don't ever judge a game on paper. We look at the personality or the theme of the game.
Peggle was the big crossover that helped us get the attention of the gaming community - gave us lots of street cred. And, you know... It had a frickin' unicorn and a rainbow in it! We had so much, [silly robot voice] "Oh I'm not playing the dumb unicorn game." And then they played it and were like, [silly robot voice] "I can't believe I'm addicted to the dumb unicorn game."
Eurogamer: You've got loads of money now. Will you use it to make a full-scale, triple-A game? An MMO about eating lots of meat?
John Vechey: Hahaha! Maybe. No, we really like appealing to the broad spectrum. We're going to keep making games that try things out. We're going to try and get more experimental games going- that's something we've been talking about internally.
Pixar has the ability to do these short films so they can try a new director out, and if they're successful they can do a full-on movie. And we don't really have that, and it's important for us to nurture the talent we have because we have a lot of people that really could be making great games but aren't. So we're experimenting with how to do quicker games - something that doesn't have to be Plants vs Zombies or Peggle.
But we're never going to do a big World of Warcraft-style MMO or Counter-Strike or Grand Theft Auto. We like playing the hardcore games but we don't want to design them.
Eurogamer: I don't know if you heard, but Apple announced a new iPad recently. I can't find anything about it on the internet. What do you think about this device?
John Vechey: We're excited - the iPad's going to be awesome.
Dave Roberts [CEO of PopCap] always had a laptop next to his TV. I never really saw the point, but when we were talking he'd look something up. It was just a simple little laptop. And I'm like, "This is really convenient! Everyone should have a laptop next to their TV!" So I got a laptop and sat it next to my couch. And I believe the iPad will fulfil the need consumers don't even know they have yet. It's going to be phenomenally successful.
I don't know if this is a PopCap position or my word, but we're certainly going to support it - I want to play Plants vs Zombies on that. It feels good to touch, right? The iPad would be perfect for real-time strategy. You can't have this really immersive gaming experience but it may actually be more fun than a lot of different game experiences you can get with a PC or console.
Eurogamer: Are you treating the iPad as completely different to the iPhone?
John Vechey: You know, we're still trying to figure that out. It is a different thing but it's not that different. On iPhone we made the interface smaller and made touch controls. On iPad we've got the touch part down and now we need to make the UI better.
Eurogamer: Are you converting any of your existing games to iPad?
John Vechey: I believe so.
Eurogamer: Which ones?
John Vechey: I don't know [laughs].
Eurogamer: Is the iPad the most important thing that will happen this year in gaming - even considering the launch of Project Natal and Sony's PS3 wand?
John Vechey: The iPad's important but I think it's going to be more important in three years. Facebook and social [gaming]: the important thing is happening right now.
What's going to happen is you are going to see Facebook connectivity in hardcore games. It feels good when you're playing on Xbox Live it feels broken if you don't connect. With Facebook you will know your friend's playing the game - you'll always know they're there. Things like that are going to come from the casual into the core stuff, and that's actually what's going to happen in the short-term that's going to really start changing gaming.
The iPad is going to take three years. Look how long it took the iPod to get the momentum where everyone has one. It's probably going to take the second generation [iPad] to make it really, like, "Wow!"
From a web standpoint, Facebook is definitely going to be the biggest thing in gaming this year. In a couple of years there's going to be Facebook or social integration in all of our games across all of our platforms.
Every game could be more fun with social connectivity, even if it's seeing what level your friend got to. Not if it's an embarrassing game; we played a lot of this weird strip Pachinko game called [Pachinko Sexy Reaction] - I don't think I'd want that to be social because I'd be embarrassed playing that.
Eurogamer: Is the App Store the most important digital platform now? Are Nintendo and Sony wasting their time with DSiWare and PSP Minis?
John Vechey: Well, we just launched some games on DSiWare so I'm certainly not going to say that is a waste of time [laughs]. The App Store has been phenomenal for digital distribution. I can't say if it's the most important but it's certainly in the top five greatest things that have happened to PopCap.
Eurogamer: What do PSP Minis and DSiWare need to do to compete?
John Vechey: I hate to say this, but I've stopped travelling with a DS. I use my iPhone - I already have my iPhone with me, it's in my pocket. It's one less thing to charge. So I play games now on the iPhone.
Making the experience better overall, it's still a bit clunky. That's getting in the way. And it's going to come down to devices in hands. The PSP's going to have more of a challenge than the DS. Look at the PSP and look at where the iPhone's going... The DS has the Nintendo thing and that differentiates it: it's very obviously not an iPhone. Whereas the PSP; where you see the iPhone going is getting better graphics, better hardware - the PSP is going to have trouble differentiating itself.
Eurogamer: PopCap recently trademarked the names Robodojo and Yetitrain. What was that all about?
John Vechey: I can not tell you what the Robodojo and Yetitrain trademarks were all about! But we definitely had a different name for Plants vs. Zombies before it launched and we weren't going to use it for copyright reasons. There's certainly no guarantee that the game names Robodojo and Yetitrain are really some game. But there's certainly, on some level, us thinking about those games potentially.
Eurogamer: Is there a completely new game by PopCap coming out this year?
John Vechey: I don't know.
Eurogamer: Is there a completely new game by PopCap being announced this year?
John Vechey: Er, I don't know, actually. It's one of those things where we wait until we're really sure a game is going to be released before we announce anything. There are definitely new games coming this year.
Eurogamer: You managed to get Peggle and Bejeweled into none other than World of Warcraft. Are you doing anything else there?
John Vechey: Er... Not... We're talking to them. We're official friends of Blizzard, and of Valve. I don't know if we'll do something official with [Blizzard], even Peggle was sort of unofficial. We've had some conversations.
Eurogamer: How did they come about?
John Vechey: This guy had created a Bejeweled game in WOW and it was great but he got these five things wrong and the graphics kind of sucked. And so we contacted him and gave him a little bit of money and had him make some changes to the game to make it better, put our art in it, call it Bejeweled and that was pretty cool.
For Peggle it was like, we could do it, so we did it. I wish I could say we had some great plan to take over the world with that or some strategy, but I think it actually really annoyed a lot of our sales and marketing team, because they were like, "Why are we spending time on this stupid thing that we're not going to get value from?" They got a little irritable.
But for us it was cool. "It was like putting a bunch of crack cocaine into heroin," I think was one of the quotes. That's my favourite quote about PopCap ever.
Eurogamer: Your most famous partnership is with Eurogamer. You promised Johnny Minkley you would make a game about him if he ate an enormous piece of cow in a restaurant. He did, plus a starter, two side dishes, Cat and Ellie's leftovers and a dessert. A real, genuine hero. How's work on Johnny Minkley's Meat Ceiling going?
John Vechey: Well, PopCap has an official policy to not talk about games in development. I can assure you that the proper amount of care and attention that Johnny Minkley's Meat Ceiling needs to have put into it, will be put into it. We're really good at taking multiple platforms and putting the right game on them. And I assure you that the exact proper amount of care and attention will go into Johnny Minkley's Meat Ceiling that needs to be in Johnny Minkley's Meat Ceiling.
Eurogamer: That's Johnny Minkley's Meat Ceiling. And what platforms will 'Meat Ceiling' be on?
John Vechey: None of those things are announced yet.
John Vechey is co-founder of PopCap and a jolly good sport.