PopCap Launches Casual Game With a Twist, Wants To Make Everyone a Gamer

I’m not really a Frank Gehry fan, but I have to say the Gehry-designed Experience Music Project at Seattle Center was the perfect venue for PopCap’s gala last night. The Seattle-based casual game maker was celebrating its new release in its bestselling “Bejeweled” series—Bejeweled Twist—and it pulled out all the stops. If the quality of the food and entertainment were any indication, PopCap is doing very well indeed.

After partaking in kebabs, salmon, and roasted vegetables, the crowd of roughly a hundred gathered in the Sky Church room for an ironically over-the-top presentation and skit, which included a mad professor and six space-age-uniformed female acrobats doing stunts on suspended rings. PopCap chief executive David Roberts took the stage and first addressed the issue of the economic climate. “We planned this event well before the economy started its recent slide,” he said, adding that casual games are as important as ever. “The need for fun in our lives may never be greater than in the next year.” The gaming business has been resilient so far, Roberts said, and PopCap continues to see “record revenues and buy-ins from partners.”

PopCap has been growing in recent years, and now has more than 200 employees worldwide, including offices in Dublin (working on mobile games) and Shanghai (working on multiplayer games and addressing the Chinese market, where the “try and buy” business model used in the U.S. doesn’t fly). From 2003 to 2008, PopCap’s consumer game sales have shot up from $10 million to $170 million. Bejeweled, a puzzle game that involves lining up gems in a grid (a bit like Tetris, to my grizzled eyes), makes up about 40 percent of that revenue.

Founders Brian Fiete, Jason Kapalka, and John Vechey then said a few words and demoed the new game for the audience. Bejeweled Twist, four years in the making, is a variation on the same theme, with a new type of spinning action (you rotate groups of jewels to line them up properly) and some other cool-looking features. It costs about $20 and runs on computers, consoles, and mobile devices (soon the iPhone).

After the presentation, I chatted with Fiete, PopCap’s chief technical officer. He told the story of how he and Vechey had built a multiplayer online game while they were undergrads at Purdue University circa 1997, and how they dropped out of school to join a division of Sierra Online in the Seattle area. Kapalka was already in the game industry, liked their work, and founded PopCap with them in 2000. As for their goals at this point, Fiete says, “We want to be true to our roots. We’re still gamers at heart.” (His personal favorite is the core shooter game Counter-Strike, developed by Bellevue, WA-based Valve.)

Fiete also talked about democratizing casual games—a common theme in the industry. “We want to broaden it out and expand, to try to put Bejeweled or Bejeweled Twist on other devices,” he says. “The goal is to make everyone a video gamer.”

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