EA puts a ring on PopCap: What fits and what doesn’t

By Nathan Grayson
13 July 2011 12:58 GMT

EA and PopCap are officially an item. “Pegglefield” jokes aside, is the sky falling in? Is this a giant, JR-shaped nail in the company’s creative coffin? Nathan Grayson does the thinking for you.


Purchased by EA for $750 million.

Currently employs 475 people worldwide.

Creator of ubiquitous franchises like Bejeweled, Peggle, and Plants vs Zombies.

Took $100 million revenue in 2010.

Has – bar none – the industry’s most adorable zombies.

Gigantic numbers. Rainbows everywhere. “Ode to Joy” playing in the background. No, we’re not describing Peggle’s “extreme fever” mode. Instead, this is how we imagine things went down at PopCap after EA got down on one knee and popped the question. (The giant silver balls crushing terrified employees in the hallways, however, were purely coincidental.) There are times when total, unrestrained exuberance is completely appropriate. Your birthday. Winning a free car. Finding your missing shoe. For PopCap, yesterday was like all three put together. $750 million, as it turns out, will do that.

Meanwhile, in GamerLand, things couldn’t have been more different. Even the manliest of men wept bitterly, claiming it was merely an errant rain cloud passing overhead. PopCap, after all, is small, goofy, and charming. EA, on the other hand, has thousands of employees and billions of dollars. It’s like the epic battle between good and evil ended with the two grabbing ahold of each other and making out for three hours. In reality, though, nothing’s that black-and-white. As a developer, PopCap’s as colorful as they come, but this buyout’s riddled with shades of gray.

Iteration, iteration, iteration

In a lot of ways, PopCap’s development philosophies aren’t as much at odds with EA’s as you’d think. The Seattle-based company’s particular brand of quirk may have a certain tiny art house flair, but this is a 475-person operation we’re talking about. It’s not EA 800-lb gorilla-sized, sure, but PopCap’s far from a naive garage developer. It’s a business – and a sizable one at that. As EA CEO John Riccitiello put it: “There is no denying that what we announced today was a business transaction. The deal is compelling.”

For PopCap, the feeling is mutual.

And if you’re afraid EA’s going to transform PopCap into some soulless spin-off factory, we hate to break it to you, but PopCap’s hardly innocent of that perceived crime. Peggle, for instance, has been ported to every platform short of the Etch-a-Sketch, and has received numerous spin-offs including Peggle Extreme, Peggle Nights, and Peggle: Dual Shot. And then there’s Bejeweled, Bejeweled 2, Bejeweled 3, Bejeweled Blitz, and on and on and on forever. Point is, PopCap’s never been afraid to innovate, but that’s hardly all it does.

That said, PopCap still definitely believes slow-and-steady wins the race – especially where new IPs are concerned. And while EA once subscribed to an aggressive quantity over quality mantra, those days have long since passed. This year, EA dropped its “primary title” count from 36 to 22, opting to bet the farm on barn-sized “hits.” PopCap shares a similar hit-driven mentality, and initial reports suggest that EA won’t be tampering with that aspect of the developer’s secret formula.

PopCap’s never been afraid to innovate, but that’s hardly all it does.

So, why’d PopCap even decide to sell in the first place? Aside from the obvious answer, which is something to the tune of “humunah humunah almost a billion dollars yes please”? To be perfectly honest, there’s far less of a mystery here than people seem to think. Why do other game developers shack up with publishers? Simple: it makes life easier. Marketing, porting, distribution – it’s all taken care of. As a result, PopCap gets to, you know, make videogames.

“We can work with a team at EA to do ports more quickly, more effectively,” PopCap public relations VP Garth Chouteau told Kotaku. “We have fairly modest development resources and there are ways that EA can bring some of its very substantial resources to bear.”

“PopCap needs to do what PopCap does,” PopCap founder John Vechey told Gamasutra. “We’re going to take advantage of their world-class digital publishing, so we can just focus on making great games.”

“It’s the perfect fit,” EAi executive VP and GM Barry Cottle said in the same article. “The culture fits, the respect, the talent – they create killer IP. They’re the Pixar of the game industry. This just makes us a force to be reckoned with.”

Trouble in paradise

According to EA and PopCap, the sky’s not collapsing; it’s blue and perfect and rainbows are dancing with baby unicorns. Sound too good to be true? That’s because it is. Storm clouds are on the horizon, but only time will tell whether they’ll develop into a full-blown typhoon or an inconsequential drizzle on PopCap’s parade.

First up, there’s the matter of ports. Yes, we know the words a couple paragraphs ago told you that everything is wonderful on that front, but those words are liars and racists. Recently, PopCap worldwide game development head Ed Allard spoke about his company’s approach to ports, painting an entirely different picture.

“Well the rolling platform release strategy has been something that’s evolved out of, not out of a business plan – although it turned out to be pretty good from a business perspective – but it’s more about being able to approach these platforms with such individual care and attention. Releasing them all simultaneously, well, we worry about that forcing us into a kind of lowest common denominator thinking,” he told GamesIndustry.biz.

“They create killer IP. They’re the Pixar of the game industry.”

“When the console industry started hitting a point where everything was coming out multi-platform, you started feeling that. If you’ve got Wii, 360 and PS3 day and date, you kind of end up playing a Wii game on your PS3 as opposed to playing a great PS3 game, because that’s sort of what it takes from a development perspective.”

It’s that kind of unique attention to detail that gave games like Plants vs Zombies and Peggle new life on platforms like iPhone and iPad. The franchises managed to become synonymous with iOS long after initially launching on PC. Without a doubt, that’s an incredibly important part of PopCap’s ubiquity, and – unless handled with care – it could be one of the first things to go under EA’s rule.

Similarly, EA has a way of slowly warping developers to fit its mold. Doubtless, the publisher gives its studios a greater degree of autonomy than most – especially a certain particularly enormous competitor – but it’s like slowly raising the temperature in a beaker of water: eventually, the frog comes out far worse for the wear. For instance, BioWare’s Dragon Age II was very obviously a rushed product, and we imagine some – though certainly not all – of the blame could be laid on EA’s shoulders. Suda 51’s Shadows of the Damned, meanwhile, was apparently a completely different game before EA stepped in – and nearly complete to boot.

Perhaps even more pressing, meanwhile, is the imminent fear of lay-offs. EA’s track record with dropping the hatchet shortly after big buys is far from spotless, with numerous heads rolling after the publisher’s Playfish purchase and – before that – during Pandemic’s slow, painful demise. Granted, EA’s a much healthier company now than it was back then, but with purchases this large, there’s always danger of employees bringing home pink slips instead of dollar bills.

“Games as a service”

Oh, hey, look: an elephant. In this very room. Careful now. Wouldn’t want to frighten it. Its name? Origin. The digital platform is EA’s new standard-bearer for online expansion, and its impact on PopCap could range from great to terrible to completely negligible. At this point, EA’s still moving all its pieces into place.

Really, though, some sort of Origin tie-in for PopCap is a no-brainer. EA’s “games as a service” motto may not initially appear to fit the newly acquired casual colossus, but it was already making strides in the space without EA’s involvement. Bejeweled Blitz, for instance, arrived on Facebook for free and gave the franchise social functionality across multiple platforms – including mobile phones. Of course, there ain’t no such thing as a free game, so Blitz also included (highly profitable) microtransactions.

Oh, hey, look: an elephant. In this very room. Its name? Origin.

“We are changing a lot of our game designs to reflect the way people are buying and consuming content,” PopCap director of mobile business development Andrew Stein told GigaOM. “It’s moving to lower price points with updatable content. If you look at the top 20 grossing (iPhone) apps, many of them are freemium. It’s something people are getting pretty used to. A year from now, we’ll have more of the freemium and more snackable types of content.”

PopCap, then, stands to round out Origin’s lineup quite nicely, providing casual appeal to what’s currently an overflowing font of bullets and biceps. Just don’t be surprised if PopCap’s Next Big Thing ends up Origin-exclusive. Sorry about that, Steam.

Really, the same goes for EA as a whole. PopCap’s a fantastic buy, and it bridges a gap between casual and hardcore that EA was struggling to cross – even with purchases of Playfish, Chillingo, and Firemint. The question remains, however: Is this a net gain for PopCap? And – perhaps more importantly – are consumers the real winners here? Doubtless, the coming months will tell a fuller tale. For now, though, we’re forced to wonder: EA spent $750 million, but did it purchase PopCap’s soul?

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