The transformation of the video game industry into one of the pillars of modern entertainment has been a war fought on multiple fronts. Sure, the relentless march of immersive, high-tech experiences has been one of the most visible, but just as important has been broadening the player base outside of young men through games that appeal to multiple different demographics. And an important victory in that expansion was won 20 years ago when a trio of Bay Area friends released a puzzle game that would create a genre.
In the late 1990s, Jason Kapalka was working at Total Entertainment Network, an online gaming service that gave PC players a way to compete against each other in titles like Duke Nukem 3D and Quake using special low-latency phone lines. He was introduced to a pair of young Indiana developers, John Vechey and Brian Fiete, who were working on a top-down shooter called ARC for TEN. When his employer tried to put him on a Java-based online bingo project, Kapalka decided to split and take Vechey and Fiete with him.
The trio started a new studio in Kapalka’s apartment, dubbing it “Sexy Action Cool.” They knocked out a strip poker game, Foxy Poker, with the intent of licensing its engine to other companies. It wasn’t a hit, but they had enough of a nest egg to try something else. Inspired by a primitive color-matching game Vechey had seen, Kapalka started messing around with a simple mechanism of swapping colored tiles and removing them from a board.
Called Diamond Mine, the Java-based game was pitched to Microsoft, which enjoyed the concept but hated the name. Their suggestion? Bejeweled. The trio agreed and granted Microsoft a license to the game for $1,500 a month.
Bejeweled rapidly became the most popular game on Microsoft’s portal. The puzzler was racking up tens of thousands of simultaneous players at a time, and the studio—now renamed the more palatable “PopCap”—was regretting its deal. It offered to just sell the game outright to Microsoft for $50,000, but Redmond didn’t bite. Instead a deal was brokered—since the name was their idea, PopCap would let them license it to advertisers in exchange for handing it over.
In addition to making web deals, the team decided to experiment with a retail version. A price tag of $20 seemed ridiculous for such a simple game, but it wasn’t long before they discovered that the market was there. Eventually they worked out a revenue split with Microsoft, but the casual games model—where players could download a limited version and then digitally unlock it for a one-time payment—was in full effect.
As personal computers became ubiquitous in the American home, a new generation of game players was being born. Uninterested in high-skill action games or difficult strategy titles, they just wanted something to kill time with in between spreadsheets and checking their AOL mail. It wasn’t long before dedicated portals popped up to get these games to buyers.
One of the happiest accidents that came from Bejeweled was the game’s tutorial. PopCap had implemented a timer bar for the full game, forcing players to make quick decisions to maximize their score. But the introductory level lacked that timer, and it wasn’t long before they realized that most players preferred that. Internally, they dubbed it the “Games For Mom idea.” That low-impact challenge became the baseline for the casual genre.
It’s A Match
The company wasn’t just a one-hit wonder, though. It quickly realized that although Bejeweled was a steady seller, it would eventually run out of steam. So, using a development philosophy that took simple, easy-to-understand interactions and gussied them up with high production values, PopCap quickly became one of the most dominant forces in the space.
Games like Bookworm and Zuma cemented its reputation as a company that made satisfying experiences that had low skill ceilings but piles of replayability. The vast majority of casual games in that era were slapdash efforts knocked out quickly and with little replayability. Even though not every PopCap game was a winner, they all helped refine their approach. In addition, PopCap used its clout to publish games by other fledgling studios, and even absorbed some of them as they grew. The steady income from Bejeweled gave it a long runway to refine and develop ideas until they were market-ready.
One of the other keys to its success was a willingness to license titles to any platform that would have them. Industry wags thought PopCap was diluting the brand by putting Bejeweled on cell phones, but as the casual market pivoted to mobile devices, PopCap was at the front of the line as a featured developer in the iPhone’s app store at launch. It also worked with Microsoft to leverage its games to Xbox consoles. In 2007, Peggle became a cultural phenomenon, and 2009’s Plants Vs. Zombies took tower defense and refined it with iconic characters.
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Over the last two decades, PopCap has released over 50 titles, the vast majority of which have been successful. The legacy of Bejeweled is even greater—its interaction model came to be known by the “Match 3” moniker, and powered massive hits like Candy Crush Saga.
In 2011, the founders finally sold. Electronic Arts paid a massive $1.3 billion for PopCap at the height of the casual games market. The company had grown to over 600 people across multiple offices, sprawling onto platforms like Facebook and Steam. But the sale also came at the beginning of the predatory microtransaction model, and many of the remaining employees found themselves working at a company where the joy of making games for everyone, mom included, was gone.
Fiete left the company before the EA acquisition. Vechey left PopCap in 2014 and went on to co-found VR company Pluto. Kapalka also left the company that same year, founding Blue Wizard Digital to create campy horror games as well as opening a bar franchise in Canada. PopCap continues to be a subsidiary of Electronic Arts, cashing in on successful IP like Plants Vs. Zombies and, yes, Bejeweled. But the spirit of freedom and simplicity isn’t there anymore.
As for “casual gaming,” it has continued to grow and flower. Now that everybody has a powerful touch-screen computer in their pocket, games that follow Bejeweled’s lead of simple mechanics, tons of polish, and easy challenges have become a worldwide obsession.
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