PopCap’s Jason Kapalka on the state of social games, Zuma Blitz and the future of downloadable games

 Jason Kapalka

If it’s up to PopCap’s co-founder and chief creative officer Jason Kapalka, we would never the see inside of a retail store in the near future and download all our games from home. At least that’s what he’s been doing the past couple of years. Readying up to launch a new social game called Zuma Blitz, Kapalka took the time to talk with us about the current state of social games, PopCap’s development philosophy and the future of the casual downloadable game market.

The Facebook Nerf

“Some of those games, if they substract the viral and monetization foregoings, there’s very little left.”

Many industry professionals believe that social games on Facebook have gotten a beating recently. Nevertheless, Kapalka does not seem to worry. “It’s true that Facebook has neutralized a lot of more effective viral channels,” Kapalka admits. “From our point of view, we’re doing fine. Bejeweled Blitz is actually going well. Its peek was just last week. I don’t know if that’s because we’re really smart or really lucky. I think part of it is that we never really relied as heavily on some of those viral channels as other games have.” That might as well be the reason Bejeweled Blitz is still doing so well. As Kapalka told his audience during his talk at GDC Europe 2010, the social and viral features were only added once Bejeweled Blitz was done. “Some of those games, if they substract the viral and monetization foregoings, there’s very little left,” Kapalka argues. “In some cases, the game is just an excuse to get a viral spam moment and the next viral spam moment. Which can be effective, but once you burn out your audience on that, there’s really very little game left.”

More recently, PopCap CEO also addressed his concern with the nature of some social games, while PopCap’s own new social title Zuma Blitz is scheduled to come out soon. Using some of the same formulas and building forth on the successful elements from Bejeweled Blitz, Kapalka confirmed that his team will also be adding a whole new set of features to Zuma Blitz. Kapalka also admits that this is also a small scale project and emphasized that this does not mean PopCap will have a more than regular interest in social games. “We think social is really interesting, but because it’s not our main business we don’t have to throw everything we have into it,” he admits. “We can experiment with stuff there, the same time we were working on other avenues.”

Kapalka also recently spoke out about the risks and instabilities that social games are currently having, pointing to certain degree of self destructiveness he saw in certain social games. “Sometimes, you have to be very aggressive and in some cases desperately so with efforts to drive traffic and monetize it,” he argues. ”Anyhow, at a certain point it starts eating on itself. You start putting more and more spam things in there and it will work temporarily. But when you eventually hit that critical mass, you won’t have a fun game anymore.”

No grace periods for the wicked

“It feels like we’re true to ourselves and our kind of developing. My hope is that this model continues to work”.

Having had the same type of development philosophy, PopCap has remained on a steady course with their work in the casual downloadable market, keeping social games on the side as a small-scale side-project. “Within the casual downloadable space, the one thing that space encourages, well forces, is that games have to be good,” Kapalka explains. “When you’re doing a downloadable game with a 60 minute trial, it has to be good. You can trick people in downloading it with a brand or some sort of clever hook. But they need to fill in the 60 minutes and say alright, I’ll buy it.”

This is the main challenge Kapalka beliefs PopCap and many other companies in the casual downloadable market are currently facing. “It’s kind of different than the game where there has to be the hype before even,” he says. As an example, Kapalka points out to the success of several long lasting franchises such as Call of Duty. Fueled with marketing dollars, another possible sequel would not require any quality to gain massive sales numbers. “For the casual downloable games, there’s no grace period like that,” he says.

For ten years, this is the sort of environment PopCap has specialized itself in. “We have to build games that are fun and accessible,” Kapalka says. “It feels like we’re true to ourselves and our kind of developing. My hope is that this model continues to work. The scary part for many people is that if they look at some of the social games that are developed, seemingly made by a completely alien method of game development where it doesn’t appear to be made by humans, but generated by some sort of marketing algorithms. I know they’re successful, that’s the scary thing.“

According to Kapalka, this alternative method to game design and development has sent many game developers thinking they’re not developing their games the right way, or perhaps using the wrong tools. “They’re thinking ‘holy crap, I’m in the wrong business’”, Kapalka jokes. “They’re all struggling to make a game awesome and aren’t finding the necessary funding.”

Developing the downloadable market

“In a few years, everything will be downloadable”

With the casual downloadable market being PopCap’s primary focus, Kapalka argues that every successful title has made a major contribution to the transition from physical to digital distribution. “Developing an innovative game as a downloadable title, that strengthens the entire channel,” Kapalka argues. “The last time I bought a PC game in a store, I can’t remember. I buy them all on Steam. That’s what I do. I think a lot of PC gamers are in that position now. So I think those downloadable channels, the more games we’ll be there, the stronger it will get”. Kapalka considers the big challenge for developers to be in dealing with the current generation of consoles and their possible successors. “In a few years, everything will be downloadable,” he suggests. “It’s probably going to have a lot to do with the next console cycle, which is a very scary area right now.”

Zuma Blitz currently in development by PopCap Games and has been scheduled to be ‘coming soon’.

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