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PopCap on the iPad, 3D, and crying goats (Q&A)

CNET sits down with PopCap CEO David Roberts and co-founder John Vechey to talk about porting games over to the iPad, the rise of 3D gaming, games on Facebook, and the many Bejeweled copycats.

Popcap's co-founder John Vechey (left) and CEO David Roberts (right). Josh Lowensohn/CNET

It's been a good year for PopCap Games. The Seattle-based developer and publisher has found success in its latest title--Plants vs. Zombies, which was recently ported over to the iPad and now sits in the top 10 grossing apps on the platform.

But what might be more impressive than that is the continued growth of the company's now 10-year-old title Bejeweled, an iteration of which is available as an application within Facebook. According to the company, the 11 million or so monthly active users average a staggering 43 minutes per session. All this for a game that only lasts a minute.

PopCap CEO David Roberts and co-founder John Vechey stopped by the CNET offices last week to talk about these two titles, as well as a few other topics, like digital-rights management, 3D gaming, and competing social games like Zynga's Farmville. Here's an edited transcript of our interview.

Q: When the iPhone first came out, you guys had one of the first Web apps. Was that more of just a tech demo? What's the backstory on that?
John Vechey: Someone had actually made it. They didn't actually call it Bejeweled, but it was basically Bejeweled. We were like, "this kind of sucks, but it's kind of half-way there, and they used their own operating stuff." So we contacted this guy in Poland, and were like, "Hey, we'll give you some money to fix it up a little bit and respond to our feedback, and we'll buy it from you," and he said, "That would be awesome!" So that's how that happened.

Didn't you do something similar for one that could be played within World of Warcraft?
Vechey: Someone did a Bejeweled-type game in WoW that was also kind of neat, but then it was kind of crappy in all these ways, so we said, "Hey this is pretty cool, want to make it Bejeweled?" and it turned into the same sort of deal. That guy now works for us.

David Roberts: John was trying to get him to come work for us before he finished college.

Vechey: He did! My arguments worked! It was like, "What do you want to do after you graduate college?" and he said "make games and work for a games company like you guys." We're like, "All right, so you can spend two years to do the thing that you can do right now, it's your choice."

Roberts: Our anti-education person John Vechey...

How long did it take to port Plants vs. Zombies to the iPad?
Vechey: Two months maybe?

Roberts: It actually didn't start until the iPad got announced, so we didn't know about the iPad before it got announced. So it wasn't very long. The team was working a lot of late nights.

PopCap's Plants vs. Zombies on the iPad. PopCap Games

In these ports, who decides what features make it and which ones don't?
Vechey: There's a producer who's in charge of them, and they're working with the developers and the original game developer to find that balance. And really, the producers have to be experts in the platform and know what should be kept, and what shouldn't be kept, and then know when to include the original game designers.

For example, Xbox is a platform that we go to. And we think of it more of an "adaptation" than a port, so we do end up doing a lot of changes. So Peggle on Xbox, for example, had multiplayer. Every Xbox game we're going to make is going to have multiplayer. For Peggle they spent a lot of time making the multiplayer mode and working with Sukhbir Sidhu, the original game designer, and they have to own that [game] and design it, but really get good feedback from the original game teams.

Speaking of Peggle, you guys promised you'd be bringing the game music to the iPhone version of Peggle in a future update. This was late last year. Is it still coming?
Vechey: Is the future gone? No, the future is still coming.

Roberts: I thought we shipped that already. I guess we didn't.

Vechey: I have a feeling that might have been an empty promise. But I'm going to stick with "the future is not passed yet!"

The app store is full of games that borrow heavily on other franchises. Last year this became a problem for iPhone app Stoneloops of Jurassica, which is similar to Zuma. As the makers of Zuma, you guys didn't take legal action, but another publisher, MumboJumbo who makes Luxor, asked Apple to remove the app because it was too similar. How far does a game have to go, in your opinion, to warrant action?
Vechey: If they steal our art, or if it's too similar. I don't think the whole copycatting argument or cloning argument is very good, because any way you could remove the ones that are negative or that don't add value, you're also going to remove the ones that add value.

My big analogy is Half Life 2 and Quake. Half Life and Quake, when you add it up, are the same game. Different settings, but the same game right? You've got a bunch of similar weapons, and blah blah blah. And there's no real advancement--at least on paper. Well, in reality the games are very very different. And I think that any way you define the law to to protect little or big guys' IP like that, is going to hurt the consumer, because you actually want genres being created.

The difference between a clone of a game and a genre extension is a pretty hard to define line. So we have the kind of attitude that says, "Don't steal our stuff, and if you're a big guy and encroaching on our IPs, then we're definitely going to enforce it." But if you're just a little guy making something out of your garage, we'll see how we can work with you, or politely say, "Could you change this or that?"

So you had said that you ended up basically owning two efforts like this that were similar to Bejeweled, but have you ever had to move on someone that was outright infringing?
Roberts: We've sent some letters and takedowns. Almost always, when it's using our name, stealing our Flash code and putting it somewhere else, or stealing our art. We chase a pretty bright line on that stuff. Usually it's when there are trademark or copyright violations. We've never tried to do the whole "it's a similar game," thing for a lot of the reasons John said. Tetris has made a whole business out of that, and that's fine, but it's just not who we are.

Vechey: It's kind of cool now, because some of our games like Bejeweled have spawned countless clones and stuff, and none of them have managed to succeed more than Bejeweled. But a lot of them have added really cool features, so the next time we do a Bejeweled, what are we going to do? What do all those other cool clones do? Let's take some ideas back, right? But again, overall it's good for the consumer.

11 million monthly players average 43 minutes a session while playing PopCap's Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook. The game is 1 minute long. Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Outside of the Facebook integration in Bejeweled on the iPhone, one thing you guys haven't done yet is integrate any third-party social networks like Open Feint or Plus+ to your iPhone apps. Are you planning to do anything with Apple's Game Center now that it's going to be a part of OS 4.0?
Vechey: Oh yeah, it's going to be awesome. We're really excited about it. I just never saw a good customer experience in any of those. Especially for our customers. It's like "OK, Open Feint--what is this?" I never felt like they provided enough value to the customer or the customer experience. I've never found Open Feint to be relevant to me as a player, and if it's not relevant to me, then it's even even less likely to be relevant to our audience.

I think with the Apple stuff, though, because it's going to be ubiquitous and like Xbox Live Arcade, it's going to be awesome. They've done a really good job with that. And I think Apple is going to take a look at that, and none of these other things, hopefully. So I'm looking forward to supporting that.

Roberts: I have heard from some other devs, though, that they have a long list of feature requests for Apple. So that after they've seen the first version of it, I suspect our guys as well as theirs are going to want it to do as much--or more than--Xbox Live does for things.

Coming back to Facebook, you guys have close to 11 million monthly users playing Bejeweled Blitz. You've talked in the past, in other interviews, about avoiding being spammy. So what have you done with Blitz to keep that high level of user interaction without nagging people to come back and play?
Vechey: There are really two key factors to Bejeweled Blitz' success and virality. One is that when we did it, we made it one minute. It seems silly, but getting it so that it's always really easy to just get on and play a little game is good, right? The average session length is 43 minutes. Average. That's [expletive] up. That's just crazy right? That the average play time is 43 minutes of a 1-minute game. Which is funny, because I have played it for three hours before...usually at work [laughs].

The second thing we're doing is resetting the leader board every week. So it was kind of obvious in the first few weeks that we were resetting the leader board every week. And we also made it so you can't sort by someone's highest score.

So my analogy here is of pool. My dad is really good at pool and I am mediocre at pool. In the way most leader boards in games work is like a lifetime leader board, which is like saying my father's best game at pool is versus my best game at pool. And that means that he's always going to win that because he's really good at pool. And that's not fun, right?

However in real life, when we play pool, it's reset every time we play. If I win, we then have the social context to know that, "I'm a mediocre player and I just beat your ass, dad, haha!" He grumbles and tries to kick my ass the next time we play, and it's fun. So by resetting the leader board every week, it makes it more about the temporal experience. You know Dave here [pointing at Roberts] might be better than me, but if I beat him in a certain week because he hasn't played much, I can still feel good because "oh, I beat you"--even though normally he's beating me.

How big of an uptick did you see in users when you updated the iPhone version of Bejeweled to include the Blitz mode that integrated with the Facebook game?
Vechey: It actually helped our iPhone sales more than the number of Facebook users. We didn't really track it in the other direction.

Based on what Facebook announced this week with its Open Graph initiative, are you going to put "like" buttons on the Flash games that are on PopCap.com?
Vechey: Oh, I think definitely. That's pretty cool. I don't know when and how we're going to do it, but I'd be shocked if we didn't.

How has it been as one of the few developers already using Facebook's currency system?
Vechey: We use it exclusively, and we love it. I would be really happy if Facebook said, "You can't use any other currency system but ours." I know it's controversial to say, and I think people like Zynga are afraid of it, but I think it would actually only be good for everyone.

Roberts: We also don't begrudge them the 30 percent. Some people are like, "30 percent for a payment provider!?" And that would be like begrudging Apple for taking 30 percent as a payment provider for iTunes. Apple gives us a lot more customers and an entire ecosystem, and Facebook's doing the same thing. Frankly, we were begging for this before they told us about it, saying, "Please just do this. If you would just do it, we wouldn't have to."

How important is story in your games? You have some titles with a narrative, but others like Zuma, Bejeweled, and Plants vs. Zombies don't offer a whole lot of explanation on why you're blowing up colored blocks, balls, and zombie brains.
Vechey: We try. For Bejeweled we're not going to have a main character or a big back story right? That's just what Bejeweled is. It's not going to be a game with much of a personality. Its generic theme is part of it. With Zuma we have the frog, and we have the characterization for what it means to be the frog.

The Zuma frog doesn't have a backstory. At least yet. PopCap

For us, I liken it to some other games, like let's look at Mario Brothers and Street Fighter. Those are two franchises that have strong characters, and a sense of story. Well, how did they start? They didn't start with that. So when you look at things like the first Mario Brothers, there was no story there. And in every version, the character and the story became more fleshed out, and more in-depth.

When you look at our games, that's kind of how they're growing. Take, for instance, the first Peggle. It had some characters and they just had power-ups. The backgrounds were a little themed to the characters, but not much. But then you look at Peggle Nights, which was like a Peggle 1.5, and suddenly it was what the characters wanted to be--but secretly. So suddenly there's this extra dimension to the characters, and in Peggle 2, I imagine it will be a further elaboration of that.

Picking on story versus no story--it can work, it can not. Games are not a good story-telling device; games are good for character and a moral, though. Those are where we focus on exploring.

Roberts: We have people in PopCap who care passionately about story, and some who don't. It's the religious war you may have heard about.

Vechey: I have a fight with Jason [Kapalka], one of the chief creative officers and game designers, and I actually think that games can do a great job at telling stories. I just don't think many companies have done a great job with it. Have you played Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time? That game was awesome.

Let's talk about 3D. Nintendo is coming out with a 3D handheld, the 3DS. Does this seem like a gimmick to you guys, or something that's just as exciting as the movie industry is trying to make it?
Vechey: I don't think anyone should write off anything Nintendo does as a gimmick. Nor should they assume anything Nintendo does will be successful. You're talking about guys who came up with the concept called the Wii, and made it one of the most successful things to get new gamers into gaming. If I had a dollar for every time I had mocked both the controller and the console, I would feel silly, because we'd have lots of money, but we would have been really wrong. However, they also did the Virtual Boy. Everything about that, which seemed cool, wasn't.

Nintendo's DS, which is about to get the 3D treatment. CNET/Sarah Tew

I am excited about it, though, because of what they've shown with the DS. I wasn't a big believer. I thought, "Man, the PSP is going to destroy it," and I was wrong. And with the Nintendo Wii I thought the name was really bad, but now it doesn't sound as stupid as when they first announced it. I've been proven wrong enough times by Nintendo.

Roberts: On the other hand, the Wii is really great for everybody, but only Nintendo and a couple of other developers are making money off it.

Vechey: Nintendo is the only company that's had great success on the Wii.

Do you think the system they have for selling content there is prohibitive?
Roberts: I think Wiiware is going to make it better. They've never really had the comprehensive experience that even Xbox has. It just takes a long time to get there.

Vechey: It's kind of funny how all Sony and Nintendo had to do was clone Xbox Live Arcade, and neither of them did a very good job of it.

Roberts: And part of that is to give Microsoft a little more credit. There's a lot more to the Xbox Live Arcade...

Vechey: All they had to do, though, and I'm not saying it's easy, is clone what Microsoft did. And they didn't even do the minimum of that!

Roberts: [Nintendo's] DSi store, the last time I looked at it, which was when the DSi first came out--I felt like I was in 1984. It was like reading ASCII, like "this is how you want me to buy games?!" There were no screenshots, it was like buying on a mobile phone in 2006. It was just nuts.

The Wii was almost a victim of its own success on that stuff, though. The "shovelware" on the Wii was so bad in the first year that consumers and retailers just thought that unless it had the Nintendo name it won't sell, and that kind of became self-fulfilling. So the Wiiware stuff, to the extent that they can actually beef it up and make it usable, will be great. We've got some Wiiware stuff coming up, but we don't see it as a game-changer yet. We're pretty good at saying, "Well, look, this could be cool, let's try it." And as a result we have a long list of successes and a long list of not-so-successes.

Some other publishers have had to resort to some pretty invasive DRM solutions in their titles. What kind of DRM do you employ in your PC and Mac games, and what are your thoughts on games that require an always-on connection to check in?
Roberts: We do have DRM on our games, but it's pretty mild. Cracks for our DRM are everywhere. My philosophy is the same as what PopCap had when I got there, which is put it on there enough to protect us, but don't inconvenience real, paying customers with it. And that's a fine line.

I'll date myself here. Back when I first took over Pagemaker [at the Aldus Corporation] a long time ago, we had DRM on the floppy disks, and you had to insert the floppy disks and do all this stuff. It was a horrible customer experience, and our customer service people were having to spend a lot of time on it. And when we took it out, sales went up. So it became pretty clear that the obtrusive DRM can be worse than what you're protecting it from. And look, we sell $20 games. If people are determined to steal them, they're going to steal them.

We do have DRM on our games, but it's pretty mild. Cracks for our DRM are everywhere. My philosophy is the same as what PopCap had when I got there, which is put it on there enough to protect us, but don't inconvenience real, paying customers with it. And that's a fine line.
--PopCap CEO David Roberts

Vechey: It's the same thing with [Ubisoft's] Assassin's Creed 2. I mean I'm sorry, but if you want to steal it, you can steal it. You're going to find a way to do it.

Roberts: Our customers are less likely to go steal it. Your grandma is not really going to go hop and search through BitTorrents to try and find it, whereas the target 15- to 25-year-old target of more of the hardcore games is more likely. I'm certainly not in the right position to make comparisons. I do also believe that if DRM or any of those sorts of protection technologies inconvenience paying customers, then the cost is a lot higher than you can know.

You guys are doing more iPad stuff though, correct?
Roberts: We will do more iPad stuff, that's a pretty safe bet. It's hard to know how the pricing structure is going to fall out.

Speaking of which, have you had a lot of backlash from people who might have bought Plants vs. Zombies on their iPhone, saying, "Hey, we've already bought this!"
Roberts: You know, we haven't. And if we had a better way to give iPhone people a discount on the iPad game, and if there was a mechanism for that, we'd do it. There wasn't a particularly easy way for us to provide an upgrade path to people. I think Apple will get there. The whole universal binary thing would have screwed up the iPhone game for us, because the big, over-the-air downloads wouldn't work and all these issues start to come back and forth.

Correct me if I'm wrong here, but you guys also don't have any "light" versions of your games.
Roberts: We haven't yet, and we should have been the company that tried that first, but somehow we didn't. We liked the idea. In fact, when the iPhone first came out, Apple expressly prohibited the free-to-paid version upgrade. And we actually played by the rules, even though most other people didn't--which kind of annoyed us. But Bejeweled and all our other iPhone games did real well, so I guess we can't complain too much.

I think you'll see some more stuff that takes advantage of downloadable content and stuff like that. We've got some pretty good ideas of stuff we'll do on there, but as you've probably observed from us, we're sort of deliberate and slow usually. Except for the Plants vs. Zombies iPad port that is...we beat the crap out of ourselves to get that out.

What about the Nintendo DS? Even with the bad store?
Roberts: Oh yeah. In fact, oddly enough--retail DS stuff we had kind of given up on a little bit. And then we shipped Bejeweled Twist for the DS this year, and it has been selling like a mother! It's just crazy. We're on our fourth reprinting of the game. It's our first game ever to succeed at Gamestop, which is not a place where you expect that.

Vechey: I think that's less of a "gamers don't like this game," and more of a "they're console, and we're much more PC" type of relationship in the past.

Roberts: It's been really weird to see. I think I just got a note here that for the fourth week in a row we were No. 1 on Wal-Mart's game list with Bejeweled Twist for DS, so that market continues to astound me. I don't really understand it.

Is there any one platform right now that's the most exciting to be developing for?
Vechey: Just the smartphones in general. Apple has done some great stuff that's going to pave the way for us. Same with Windows 7, and even Android's getting more out there. And of course social is cool.

It's amazing to me how many people I can trip across and I'll say "are you playing anything?" and they'll say "no." then I'll say, "oh well, we do this game called Bejeweled," and they'll yell "Oh I love Bejeweled on my iPhone!"
--PopCap CEO David Roberts

Roberts: Facebook, definitely. If you had asked me, over the last five years which two platforms have been most influential for us, not necessarily because of the revenue, but where the gamers are, it would be the iPhone and Facebook. Any platform that will bring millions of new people who didn't think they were gamers to start playing games is good for us. It's what we want. And that's kind of been the charter for casual games since we were named that.

It's amazing to me how many people I can trip across and I'll say, "Are you playing anything?" And they'll say "no." Then I'll say, "Oh well, we do this game called Bejeweled," and they'll yell, "Oh, I love Bejeweled on my iPhone!" So there's a lot of that.

Coming back to Facebook, I'm still trying to wrap my head around the 43-minute average play time. That times 11 million users is staggering.
Roberts: Yeah, you really don't want to do the whole "how many collective hours of world time are being wasted playing Bejeweled" and then, by implication, Farmville and all the other ones. It's a productivity hit to the world economy.

What's amazing is that a third of them come back every day. One of the things I come back to when thinking about Bejeweled is that we don't have an incentive to come back every day. And most of the pure social games have a "come back today to do x."

Vechey: [holding up his phone] Geez, it's 34 million days per year are spent playing Bejeweled on Facebook by humanity.

Roberts: Make sure you check his math, John's not good at math. But it wouldn't surprise me.

So to have 3.5 or 4 million a day, which is our daily uniques. That ratio is higher than everyone else, and it happens organically, not by tricking you into coming back. Not by giving you a prize to come back every day.

Vechey: Or making their goat cry or something. We don't make goats cry on Bejeweled.