Goin' mobile: PopCap pushes casual game biz


Casual games are the stuff that fuel mobile gaming. If you play on a cell phone, a PDA, a Blackberry, an iPod or even on an airplane seatback, chances are your games of choice are the simple, yet addictive creations of developers like PopCap Games. Of the top 20 downloadable games at each of the mobile carriers, 13 or 14 of them are likely to be of the "casual game" variety -- easy to pick up and requiring no long-term time commitment or special skills to play. That's why Seattle-based PopCap has taken two additional steps forward into the mobile space where its titles -- like the now-classic "Bejeweled" -- are so popular. Its release of the game "Chuzzle Mobile" marks the first time PopCap has partnered directly with mobile carriers to distribute one of its games rather than depend on middlemen, like aggregators Glu and Jamdat.

At the same time, PopCap has created a new post -- that of director of mobile business development -- and appointed Andrew Stein to fill it. For the last three years, Stein ran the downloadable games business at AT&T Wireless (now Cingular). HollywoodReporter.com columnist Paul Hyman chatted with Stein about why innovation won't come from the big five publishers, about why hits will be ported from mobile to console rather than vice versa, and why convergence isn't right around the corner.

The Hollywood Reporter:Mobile is nothing new for PopCap; it's been in that space for three or four years now with games like "Zuma," "AstroPop," and "Insaniquarium." What's the significance of this new foray?
Andrew Stein: Yes, "Bejeweled," for example, has been one of the top five best-selling games with almost every mobile carrier since it came out in 2001. It's been pre-loaded on 50-million-plus handsets globally. Mobile has become a very big piece of PopCap, and it came time to start working directly with the carriers and to develop more games internally. That's a reason why PopCap acquired a studio in Dublin, Ireland last year. At some point you need to control the development and the distribution in order to expand up the value chain.

THR: And by eliminating the middleman, it's surely more profitable for PopCap, no?
Stein: Probably, yes. But, at the same time, we now have significant costs to develop our games that we don't have when we're just licensing out games that others have developed.

THR: Your first mobile-specific game -- "Chuzzle Mobile" -- isn't really a new game but a variation of "Chuzzle" that Raptisoft Games developed and you published two years ago.
Stein: Correct. It's the same game, but we've added some specific control enhancements that have been optimized for mobile -- which is a pretty distinct platform from the PC with very different input mechanisms -- to make it even easier to play. Just a one-button push is all you really need.

THR: What's the schedule for future mobile games?
Stein: Well, this is the first internally developed one, but there are at least a couple more that are in development at the studio. PopCap doesn't talk about future titles. Its goal isn't to bring a ton of titles to market. Maybe there'll be one a quarter.

THR: One a quarter? Sounds like quite a hectic schedule to me.
Stein: Remember that we're talking casual games here. It's the larger, hardcore games that take a year or two to build.

THR: There seems to be sort of a "perfect storm" situation going on -- at the same time that consumer use of mobile devices is taking off, there is a growing interest in casual games by the mainstream audience.
Stein: The downloadable games business is close to $1 billion in the U.S. and is projected to grow to $3 billion to $8 billion in the next couple of years, depending on what numbers you read. But only 3% to 5% of the installed base of mobile phones has ever purchased and downloaded a mobile game and that percentage hasn't changed significantly over the last 2 to 3 years.

THR: What's your plan then to attract more mobile gamers?
Stein: To get beyond that 3% to 5%, you need to get the attention of people who aren't console gamers or PC gamers. We believe that it is our kind of game that is going to crack open the mass market for mobile gaming. I mean, 76% of the people who come to the PopCap Web site and download a game are female, 90% are 30 or older and 71% are 40 or older. You're not going to see those types of customers playing "Halo" or "Madden" on their phones; they are geared to a much smaller, niche market. Almost 50% of the people who download a PopCap game then play it every single day and 90% play it two times or more per week. So they're familiar with our titles, they like to play them often and they will see it as a great opportunity to be able to take our games with them and play them on their phones.

THR: What sort of effect do you think next-generation devices, like the iPhone, will have on companies like yours who are developing for mobile?
Stein: The iPhone looks like an amazing device. To the extent that it can bring a great entertainment experience to consumers, that's going to be great for us. Because our games appeal to everybody, the bigger the audience for a specific device, the bigger the audience there will be for PopCap games.

THR: I've heard you say that we'll soon see hit games introduced on mobile that will then spread to console systems and to the PC instead of vice versa. I find that hard to imagine since mobile games are typically simpler or "dumped down" versions of hit games on other platforms, aren't they?
Stein: Well, I'd hate to call them 'dumped up' or 'dumped down,' but I do believe that there will be a lot of very innovative mobile games that will bring very interesting game mechanics. The mobile platform is a relatively simple one on which to develop. It's a platform that is very constrained in what you can deliver in terms of graphics, sound, processing power and input. So it really forces developers to focus on what makes the game really fun, and it provides a lot of fertile ground for original thinking. I believe these games will be easily translated to enhanced versions for downloads on PC and consoles like Xbox Live Arcade. I suspect that it will go both ways -- which will mean a lot of cross-pollination among different formats.

THR: Talking about innovation, you've said that it won't come from the top five publishers who are all about console spin-offs and licensed IP.
Stein: That's right. It will come from the smaller developers. If you look at what the big publishers are doing in mobile, many of them -- like EA's mobile games -- are derivative of what they've done on console or PC. And Gameloft's are dominated by games that are derivative of Ubisoft's. That's not to say that they aren't great games, but they are based on existing game mechanics and designs.

THR: Why is that?

Stein: To minimize risk. They are factories and they put out 30 to 40 games a year. They've got to keep those factories full with products that are going to drive revenue for their publicly-traded companies. But many of the casual game developers are about innovation. They're used to quick development cycles because, in the casual game space, as soon as your game is a hit someone else comes out with a derivative title, and the only way you're going to stay ahead of the game and be successful in the long run is to continue to innovate. So I believe that, in mobile, the next big hits will come from players who are used to taking risks, who push the boundaries of game design and try lots of new things.

THR: Forward-thinking casual game developers have said that the way to attract hardcore gamers is to attract them with "lite" versions of what they're used to -- perhaps lite role-playing games (RPG) or lite sims. Does that make sense?
Stein: I think so. One of PopCap's big successes was the spelling game "Bookworm." Recently we came out with "Bookworm Adventures" which added a whole story element and power-ups to the original. So it's just on the verge of being an RPG with elements that appeal to people who are into console-type games.

THR: The Casual Game Association's conference takes place next month in Seattle from July 17-19. I suspect "convergence" - in other words, allowing a gamer to start playing on one platform and continue playing on another -- will be a hot topic there.
Stein: I believe we're years away from, say, playing a game on your PC and then continuing that experience on your console or TV and then playing the same game on your mobile phone. Microsoft has publicized it a lot with its "Live Anywhere" concept. But it's a really complex thing to achieve and just isn't going to happen until the infrastructure is built. I suspect that when it happens, you won't be taking "World of Warcraft" with you on your cell phone. Instead, you'll be seeing something like multiplayer "Bejeweled," which is much smaller and lends itself more to convergence.

THR: So you're saying that casual games will be the earliest titles to take advantage of convergence?
Stein: I think so. Because they can be designed to really take advantage of each platform, and there are compelling reasons to play them on each platform. I play casual games when I'm out because I have my phone with me and it delivers a good entertainment experience. As opposed to trying to cram some huge, massively multiplayer game onto a small cell phone that really wasn't designed for such things.

THR: It sounds like PopCap intends to benefit from convergence when it arrives.
Stein: Certainly, but we're talking perhaps five years from now. Maybe even 10. I know Microsoft has said that it's right around the corner, but they've been saying that for a while now, haven't they? And they're just bringing Messenger and Xbox Live together; they don't even talk about including mobile anymore. So there's a lot of work to be done to develop the infrastructure. And then a lot of work to develop the content that can take advantage of that infrastructure.

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman was the editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He's covered the games industry for over a dozen years. His columns for The Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.