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30 in 30: PopCap Games

Making games for everyone, not just the hardcore

PopCap's original name was Sexy Action Cool, which came from an ad on the Seattle Metro for the movie Desperado. The three co-founders John Vechey, Jason Kapalka and Brian Fiete, because they thought it sounded funny. The first game they developed was, not, as commonly believed, Bejeweled, but Foxy Poker, an animated strip poker game that didn't actually feature any nudity. They tried to sell it to a porn site, but they laughed at them and told them to go away.

Changing their name to PopCap, their next project was Bejeweled, a game that has gone on to sell some 75 million copies, create an entire game genre and spawn a thousand spin-offs. Amazingly, no one initially wanted to buy this game either - Pogo.com said no, as did Yahoo Games, until eventually Microsoft Gaming Zone agreed to take it on a flat-rate deal. It was massively successful, clocking in around 60,000 users a day. The c-word (casual games) was about to enter the gaming lexicon.

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Since then, PopCap has made 56 games, including Peggle, Bookworm Adventures, Plants vs. Zombies, Zuma and Alchemy. There are a number of reasons why PopCap is important - firstly it's been called "the second coming of shareware" designing an online payment model where punters could play a demo version for free, and a 'deluxe' version for download for $20.

It practically created casual games, making a whole demographic of people who think they don't like games and aren't gamers play games. That can't be a bad thing - PopCap could be the gateway drug that gets more people into hardcore games. It's also generated a lot of good press about the industry and made people think that gaming might not be all bad after all. For example, in a PopCap funded study by scientists at East Carolina University, it was found that playing casual games like Bejeweled and Peggle reduced anxiety and depression. It's a welcome break from the tiresome video game violence debate.

Having resisted previous offers to buy them out, in July, PopCap became a subsidiary of megapublisher Electronic Arts, in a rumoured $1.3 billion deal.

OVERVIEW

Founded: 2000
Location: Seattle, Washington
Killer Quote: "One of our top franchise games will appeal to 98 per cent of the population, except 60 per cent of that population doesn't know if it likes games." - John Vechey

KEY PEOPLE

John Vechey

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John Vechey was just 19 when he co-founded PopCap along with his two friends Brian Fiete and Jason Kapalka. He was a college dropout, and grew up in a poor neighbourhood in Wisconsin. He's said in interviews that he "bonds with anyone who has ever eaten government cheese."

He went to college (briefly) at Purdue University, where he met Brian Fiete in a programming class. He suggested that they make a game together, which they did, a paintball sim called ARC. Sierra bought the game and they used the money from the sale to start PopCap.

John was interim CEO of PopCap until 2003 and his current title is VP of Internal Business Development.

Jason Kapalka

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Jason is another of the three co-founders of PopCap and currently holds the position of Chief Game Designer. Before founding PopCap, Jason worked for five years at Pogo, where he created over 20 games for the company.

He comes from a background in journalism before he made the leap to games design, and worked on strategy guides as well as at Computer Gaming World. He holds a master's degree in English literature from the University of Alberta. He never actually wanted to create video games, he wanted to be a novelist.

He's one of the biggest creative forces in the company, and designed games including PopCap's very first title Bejeweled, along with Alchemy, Zuma and Bookworm.

George Fan

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George Fan is the creator of one of PopCap's flagship titles, Plants vs. Zombies. It wasn't his first game for PopCap -- that was Insaniquarium, a virtual fish tank sim, which would be invaded periodically by aliens that try to eat your fish. Amazingly, George completed Insaniquarium in his spare time whilst working full-time as a programmer for Blizzard on Diablo 3.

He'd wanted to stay in San Francisco, which is why he hadn't taken a job with PopCap, which is based in Seattle. A year or so after he quit Blizzard, PopCap set up a San Francisco office and he went to work for them full-time. During his time at Blizzard, he also realised he was more of a designer than a programmer, so moved into game design, becoming Senior Game Designer.

He has a degree from the University of California, Berkeley in Computer Science. He's known both for bringing more hardcore elements into casual games, particularly real-time strategy, and also for his steady stream of slightly off the wall, crazy ideas.

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