For Bejeweled developer PopCap Games, tablets are in the mix 'from the very beginning'

by Seamus Bellamy

March 21 2012

TabTimes recently sat down with PopCap Games’ Franchise Business Director Giordano Bruno Contestabile to discuss tablet game design, strategy, and why freemium is a better play right now for Android tablet developers.

Founded in 2000 by John Vechey, Brian Fiete, and Jason Kapalka, PopCap Games is one of the world's leading publishers of casual games designed for the mainstream masses. The company's flagship game, Bejeweled, has sold over 50 million copies worldwide across all major platforms. 

In 2011, the company was acquired by Electronic Arts for $650 million. 

Given the company's success, we decided it was time to quiz PopCap about how it sees the tablet market, what kind of growth/success the company is seeing there, and what they see for the future.

Executive Giordano Bruno Contestabile, who has worked for PopCap since 2007, was the subject of our interrogation. 

TabTimes: When you’re trying to decide on a new project, how much consideration to you give to tablet development? With the amount of casual games being played on tablets these days, do you give the hardware any priority?

Giordano Bruno Contestabile: Absolutely. We see tablets as one of our key platforms.

Right now in the West, the main platforms for us are Facebook, smartphones and tablets. The reasons why we see those as key platforms is because in terms of user base, they’re the biggest ones right now, but also because they’re the platforms that allow us to deliver our products with social features.

On all these platforms we can connect our players to our back end, we can deliver terms of service, we can deliver the game for free and then sell content inside of the game.

In terms of tablets, we see tablets as a great platform for games. In most cases, you can do stuff on tablets that you can’t do on smartphones given the size of the screen. We know that our players love to play on tablet devices. So when we designed a new Bejeweled game for example, tablets go into the mix from the very beginning.

We see tablets as one of the key platforms for us to target. As for the tablet platform we target first, right now it’s the iPad. There are two reasons for this. One is that by volume, it’s by far the most adopted tablet, and there’s a very good ecosystem for app consumption for iPad, and because iPhone is our lead platform for smartphone.

We can develop for iPhone and from there, we can go right into iPad. In terms of code base, it’s very similar. Even then we need to design a whole new UI, we need to create new assets and often we also try to create custom content that is only available on tablets, because again, there are so many we can do on a tablet that aren’t really physically possible on a smartphone that we really like to take advantage of it.

The games PopCap offers currently lend themselves amazingly well to touchscreen play, even if they were first developed for use on PC or a gaming console. What do you think it is about your company’s games that lend themselves so well to use on tablets and smartphones?

My impression is that for casual games and for casual puzzle games—Plants vs. Zombies might not be a traditional puzzle game, but Bejeweled for sure is a puzzle game—touch is a very good interface. Usually the game mechanics are very straight forward. Typically, there is one dominate game mechanic. In Bejeweled for example, there’s jewels.

Another reason why I think that our games are well suited to a tablet or a smartphone device is that they’re really designed to be played in short bursts. A Bejeweled Blitz game is one minute. A game can go on forever, but you can play it for a few minutes, drop it, and then come back and keep going. That’s also why they’re well suited for touch devices, because people get tired playing long form games on a mobile device.

For use, we know that a lot players play on average 30 or 40 games of Bejeweled a day, but every game they play is just a few minutes in length.

Mozilla’s developing a hardware and platform agnostic app market. Do you have any plans to work with them in bringing your products to market?

What Mozilla is doing is similar to what Google is doing with their web store. We actually launched a version of Bejeweled on the Chrome OS store about a couple of months ago. It’s a free game that we put up as an experiment. It’s the first version of the game developed in HTML5. For us, it was great way to get more familiar with the platform and what can be done with HTML5.

HTML5 is also the main platform that Mozilla is pushing, and it holds a lot of promise because in theory, you can design and develop a game once and then have it on every platform. The reality is that we’re at least 12 or 18 months away out from having HTML5 being a completely viable platform for every device.

A game like Bejeweled, which requires real-time interaction, needs to be very responsive when used on an attached device. It’s doing really well in a browser, but it’s still not there on mobile devices, unless it’s a very powerful device.

The other issue is that for right now, there’s no consistent ecosystem right now for HTML5. For native apps, you access a store on your iOS or Android device and it’s really easy to find and buy apps. That’s just not there with HTML5. I think initiatives like what Mozilla, Google and Facebook are doing are good in a sense because they are aiming to create this same sort of ecosystem. I think that having something similar to what we see with Apple or Google’s app stores for HTML 5 won’t be until 2013.

Not all platforms are as successful as others. How do you decide which platforms to gamble on?

There are different ways to get a game on to a platform. PopCap is now part of a bigger organization which is Electronic Arts. That happened last year. Now we have access to a larger number of developers and there are also now broader, company-wide initiatives that we are a part of.

So in terms of internal development, what I can tell you is that the resources we have internally at PopCap right now are devoted to iPad and Android, but we do have access to to the rest of the teams in the wider organization and we usually work with them to get our games on to devices like the Playbook, which is an interesting device, and it has a large amount of users who want our games there. This way we can issue them without having to rely on internal resources. It’s interesting for us to do this because it gives us a good view of the health of the platform.

So for example when we have Bejeweled or Plants vs. Zombies on Windows Mobile, Playbook or other platforms, we are able to understand better what the results are, how players behave and what kind of feedback we can expect from them. That’s a good thing to know overall when you’re talking mobile and tablet development, because it allows us to keep an eye on the platform and respond more quickly if the platform starts to gain traction.

Looking past the number of users associated with a given platform, are there any other trends associated with the various platforms? Do iOS users play games differently than Android users do?

In terms of how they play, we don’t see a lot of difference. The key differences are that iOS is a closed and very efficient ecosystem, with Android being a more open and still not full developed ecosystem.

The reality is that with iOS it’s perfectly feasible to sell premium games: games that cost $1, $5, or even $10 dollars and build a business on it. On Android, thanks to the different way in which the platform developed, it is much more difficult to do so.

What is more successful now on Android is the freemium model. If you want to work with the Android platform, I would say that the most important thing to do is to find a way to give your game away for free and find ways to then engage players inside the game. Right now Android’s not a good platform for premium games.

Aside from the fiscals associated with it, what’s the hallmark of a successful game?

There are a few indicators. One that is even more important than revenue is the number of customers who are not only downloading and trying the game, but also staying with the game. We look at stuff like how our user’s attention to the game looks after seven days and after one month. We want to measure engagement. Do they come back every day? How long do they play? How many gamers do they play a day? These are all metrics that we look at.

This is all quantitative stuff, but there is also qualitative stuff. We look at the feedback they give us: The ratings in the app store, what they say in forums, and whether or not they come to our Facebook page and interact with us. You need to monitor all of this stuff, as it gives you a good feeling of how people are playing and enjoying the game.

In my opinion, the single most important metric that shows you how much people are enjoying the game is really their attention span. Do they come and play with the game for a week and leave, which is not very good? Or do they stay with it for months and years? When you create a game that people can play for a very long time and still not get sick of it, that’s when you’ve got a success.

Seamus Bellamy resides in Victoria, Canada with a Blackberry Playbook, Motorola Xoom and an iPad 2

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