Interview: John Vechey on founding PopCap, making Bejeweled

Graham Smith

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PopCap Games are the creators of Bejeweled, Peggle and Plants vs. Zombies, each of them one of the biggest and most lovable games on PC. When casual and social games are reaching ever larger audiences and their developers are getting a bad reputation for poor design practices, how have PopCap managed to find fans amongst gamers and grannies alike? To find out, I visited the studio and interviewed everyone I could find. We're running those interviews each day this week and calling it PopCap Week .

We begin with John Vechey. As one of PopCap's three co-founders, he's been with the company since the beginning and instrumental in growing the studio from three friends working from home, to a massive operation with hundreds of people. He also played a key role in developing the studios biggest game, Bejeweled. I spoke to him about when PopCap was originally named Sexy Action Cool, what he thinks Activision and EA are screwing up, and about where the idea for Bejeweled came from.

PC Gamer: To start at the beginning, how did you get into game development?

John Vechey: Well Brian Fiete and I, one of the co-founders, met in college. So I never had a computer growing up and I remember my friend had got a computer. I went over to his house and it was AOL, the internet. I was like “holy cow”, I had no idea what it was, and my first thought was, “Man, I want to play games”, and this was a time of Tempest, not Tempest. What was that game where you could rotate in any direction? It was like a first person shooter but you had no – it might have been set in space or underwater.

PC Gamer: Was it Descent?

John Vechey: Descent! Yeah, Descent. I was like, “Woah, I want to play against people!” and he said, “It's much harder than you think,” and so then I personally thought “that's a bummer” because what's the point in connecting things unless you can play games? But other than that I had an Atari and Nintendo growing up, I never had a computer, and then at college my dad got me a computer. He actually got me – he cosigned for a loan for me to get one, which was almost like him getting me one! And I met Brian Fiete in class and then we were both programming, he was a good programmer and I was a bad one, and I said, "Let's make a game."

So we made this internet only action game called Ark, and we ended up putting that live on the internet and we had rented a server and everything. Jason, the third co-founder was working for Total Entertainment Network which became Pogo. He saw the game online and was like, "Hey that's a pretty cool game, let's chat.” They ended up licensing the game for us, and then my Aunt's friend's parents were next-door neighbours with Ken and Roberta Williams, the founders of Sierra. Through that connection Ken called us up and was just like, "This is kind of cool what you guys have done, you've made this game, that's sweet, the internet is going to be big for games, let's chat,” and we got hired to go work for their internet division when we finished college, which I thought was cool because I was totally failing out. So it really worked for me, frankly!

PC Gamer: How did you get on at Sierra?

John Vechey: We were in the internet division, WON.net, and it was a really a pretty bad division in that it didn't know what it was trying to do. Was it trying to do games technology and support the next CD ROM titles, or was it trying to make internet games? In fact, Brian Fiete and the programmer of Peggle didn't go to a game developers conference one year and so they spent a week and made this little boardgame called War Dogs. They actually got in trouble for making War Dogs, right? Then the company launched it anyway and it did phenomenally well and they had to backpedal and be like, "Oh no, we're glad you made it now!" But it really didn't know what it was trying to do.

We lasted about 2, 2 and a half years. I worked on some game technologies that let you swap skin and map files for Half Life, Starsiege Tribes and a bunch of games at the time, so I ended up getting a lot of sales experience by talking to these game developers who had a need to put this extra technology into their games to make it easier for users to download and install them, because at the time you had to download the zip file, you had to know the directory structure, it was kind of a pain, and we were trying to make it easy. But after 2 and a half years at Sierra we decided, let's start up a game company making simple games in your internet browser.

PC Gamer: What prompted the decision to leave Sierra?

John Vechey: Brian and I had always talked about starting a company together, but we wanted some more professional experience. We'd kept in touch with Jason and maintained a friendship and I talked with him on a lot of different things. We'd done some prototypes on the side, we had this, like, we called it Junk Tank. It was this first person, or third person shooting tank game that we'd done that Brian and I had worked on.

So we had done a fair amount of little things and were always thinking about eventually starting something and, for us what it came down to was: web browser games are things you can do with three people. We had all the talents needed to make a business out of that. Jason could do the art, the production and a lot of the game design, Brian was a great programmer, I would do the business side and be dead weight for our initial couple of games, and we just decided to make the company.

PC Gamer: Was always the plan to set out on your own?

John Vechey: Yeah, Brian and I often talked about it. When we were working for Sierra we were like, "We could probably make more doing our own thing but hey, it gets us out of Indiana.” I don't know if you've ever been to Indiana?

PC Gamer: No.

John Vechey: It's like a shithole, but shitholes are nicer.

The soon to be superseded Bejeweled 2.

PC Gamer: PopCap's first big success was Bejeweled. How did development on that begin?

John Vechey: I'd seen a game that used some similar rulesets to Bejewelled, but there was no animation, no sound effects, and they were very indifferent rules. We simplified it and changed it and then I sent a link out, then Brian did a version that was just circles and then Jason added the gem graphics. So it was three days of boom, boom, boom, and then we had it.

We knew how to make browser games because Jason was doing that at Pogo and felt that they were spending too much money and weren't making very good games because they were very structure oriented. In fact, Pogo to this day still has, a game designer can do a prototype, but once they get a prototype then they have to write a design doc that has every element and game design choice already made, and then a programmer programs it, and then the artist does the art. Jason was like, it's not the best way to make games. It's expensive and making some okay games, some pretty good games, but nothing spectacular. Our goal was to say, "Hey, we're going to make these simple games and make them really awesome, and spend a lot of time and make a very iterative process."

PC Gamer: How long did you spend making the game before it first launched?

John Vechey: We spent about a month making the game and then we started showing it to companies. We were trying to sell it outright, so we tried to sell it to EA for $60,000 dollars, and they said no, thank goodness! And then we showed it to Microsoft and tried to sell it for $30,000 and they said no. But they said they would do a licensing fee for $1500 dollars a month. We had two games at the time, we had Bejewelled and our second game, Alchemy. So, okay, $1500 a month times two is $3000 a month. If we get about ten of these we're actually okay, right? And our third game we licensed exclusively for ten grand a month, so we ended up not being a great business, but for three guys it was working out okay.

Then Bejewelled experienced disproportionate success to any money we were making. I think it was getting 50/60 thousand peak users during the day. I don't know what that is in monthly users, or daily users, but a lot of people were playing it, yet it took a while for us to find the financial success behind that.

PC Gamer: MSN the first place it appeared?

John Vechey: I think it appeared on Sexy Action Cool, which was our company name at the time. We always thought we were just going to do licensing and didn't think we were actually going to be a consumer brand, so we put the games up, Bejewelled and Alchemy, and were like, "At some point we should get a better name”. So that's how we actually solved it. We had PopCap, and PopCap.com, as more consumer facing brands, instead of Sexy Action Cool.

Click for a massive, high-res gem.

PC Gamer: How did the company start to grow? You're being licensed, you're making some money, there's three of you. At that point, did you have an office?

John Vechey: We didn't have an office, we were just working from our apartments. That was probably, it was about a year and we were barely getting by. I had to borrow some money from some friends who never thought they were going to get the money back, so I have good friends, and we started making around 15 thousand/17 thousand a month, so it was here and there, a couple of deals.

Then, in 2001 we created a downloadable version [of Bejeweled]. A lot of people at the time were connecting using modems, and people wanted to play it offline so they didn't have to take up their phone line. We created a downloadable version that people could download and play for an hour trial, then if they liked it they could pay $20 for it. Now we're making like, 30/40 grand a month just from that one downloadable version on our website. Brian and I moved to Argentina for a couple of months. I was working there when I got Yahoo to do downloadable games and then...

PC Gamer: Why did you move to Argentina!?

[Continue to page two to find out why they moved to Argentina!]

PC Gamer: Why did you move to Argentina!?

John Vechey: We were making money and we wanted to learn Spanish and they had good steak and wine and we could work there, right? It was just the three of us making games. It didn't matter where we were. I stayed a couple of months longer than he did, but then I decided to come back and said, "Hey, let's grow the company. We're actually making a fair amount of money."

PC Gamer: Was there any point when you thought, "This isn't going to work out, I'm going to have to go get a job in another company”?

John Vechey: No. Basically, it was kind of sad because we were doing our own thing and pretty quickly we were making enough money to support our own little lifestyle company. Yeah, you're making 40 grand a year, you're single guys, it's fine. We could do what we wanted, we were having fun, we were making games. We'd spend four days playing Counter-Strike. Well, Brian and I would spend four days playing Counter-Strike and lie to Jason, and tell him what we were working on was really hard. He didn't understand technology at all at the time, and still kind of doesn't, so he would think something would take a long time. As soon as he'd say, "It's probably going to take a while to do this," we could screw around and play Counters-Strike! Don't tell him. We had a pretty good lifestyle company and then, we were trying to find better business models so we could grow the business. It wasn't like we were just hanging out. But we were fine, we weren't really stressed out. Then by the time we actually grew the business, we were making a crap-ton of profit. We were paying ourselves ten grand a month at the time.

The Facebook version, Bejeweled Blitz.

PC Gamer: You hired an artist, and that was your fourth employee?

John Vechey: Yep. Hired an artist, and then hired an Office Manager, part time, because I was pretty bad as a bookkeeper. I think we did this sailing trip with a buddy of mine who had just gotten his sailboat license, but we get back and there's an eviction notice on my door because I forgot to pay the bill. And there's a silence from Jason, and he says, "I think we should hire a bookkeeper", because I was in charge of all the corporate documents.

PC Gamer: At what point did you open your first office?

John Vechey: It was in 2002. The first office had Brian and I, Cathy, Alison and then we were looking around for employees so we hired two guys from college. This guy George Fan, who actually was the game designer on Plants vs. Zombies. He had done this game Aquarium, which we had licensed the rights to make a downloadable version of, and he recommended. "Oh, you want to have a look at my buddy Tyson, he's cool." So Tyson ended up being employee number five, I guess, and then he was like, "Oh, my buddy Jeff is moving to Seattle, too,” so we interviewed Jeff, we hired Jeff and he was employee number seven. Sukhbir, the Producer behind Peggle, was like eight.

We just hired some games people, because we didn't want to be anything more than a games company, a game developer. That was really the focus. I'm glad to say that for the first five years, it was trying to be a great game developer exclusively.

PC Gamer: How did you transition from that point, of being a small company just developing some games to what is now a huge company with half a dozen floors in this building?

John Vechey: I got really drunk one night and blacked out, and woke up and this was here, I'll be honest. It was bad! You know, slowly I guess is how we grew. Again, we've never tried to grow for growth's sake. We've never set revenue targets like, "We've got to hit this number”, we've never set employee targets. We're kind of like, we'll just do our own thing. Every decision came at different points, right?

You sort of see a stair step with growth. It's not this linear thing. You stair step in emotional relationship to the growth, you know. You go through different phases. So we were fourteen or fifteen people for a couple of years. All game developers, really no-one doing business development. We had an offer to buy the company for 60 million dollars, which was amazing. We were like "Holy cow”, and we didn't [sell]. We weren't really happy with it. We weren't really happy with the company that was potentially going to acquire us. We felt like they were kind of missing the big picture, and we felt like we were more valuable than that, and it's not like we wanted a bunch of money. We didn't start PopCap to make millions, but we really did feel like they had undervalued what we had created so far.

But then we knew, if we stay independent... there's all these areas that we could see the world changing, right? We could tell that downloadable games were going to get pushed and challenged. Other platforms were going to become more important. We were going to have to look at the business side of our business and, not that we didn't take the business seriously but we never took the deals side, you know, the sales and marketing, we never did anything like that. We took the business seriously. We always wanted to make more money and we were being conservative, but we were never just like, "Let's grow the business side." It was just, "We're a game developer, we make games."

And so we decided to hire a CEO, because we might have a vision for where we need to go, we might know where we need to be but... We had some consultants at one point, who were like "You guys are doing a good job. You've got some problems, here's what you need to do.” They were here to give us a proposal. Their proposal was, "Give us three percent of the company and founder shares and we'll be the co-COOs and we'll make all the decisions.” And we knew that was wrong, right? But we're searching for something that might have been right, a real answer to how to grow the company. So we looked around for a CEO and found Dave Roberts.

PC Gamer: How do you maintain the original goal of trying to make really good games, and the company culture of fun?

John Vechey: You know, I don't think there's one answer to that. That way we're approaching our company culture and growth, it's very similar to our approach to game design, right? We're always iterating our game design. Working on games design is all about iteration. It's doing something, “Hey that's going to be good enough for now and we can go back to it,” and then going back to it. We do go back to it. So I think, growing a company culture, a lot of it goes back to iteration. Sometimes it's from the organisation structure, sometimes it's people. We've had to get rid of a lot of people; some people who love PopCap very much and who we loved. Some of my best friends haven't been happy here, and haven't worked out here, and so it's tough. Realising that we always need to be committed to working with both really competent people and good people. We need both to have a great company. I think that's one.

Two is, if there's one thing I think we do that when I look at EA and Activision I just think they're fucking up, right. Now, we're very different companies, EA, Activision and us, obviously, but I do think when I look at Blizzard or Valve, or PopCap I think, okay, there's something there that's a better business. Not just because we make games and I like game developers. But I think it's that Blizzard, because they're a force of nature and have been since Warcraft 1, they just do the things they do, right? And [to] the people on the business and marketing side, they're basically like, "Don't touch our studio." And though they've been owned by a couple of different companies, they've always had that.

When [our CEO] Dave came round, we said, "Don't touch the studio, we know how to make games, we're going to keep making games." But what happened is, Dave started to see what balance we had between sales and marketing and the studio. And Dennis Ryan who's in charge of sales and marketing for the company is amazing. We do monthly revenue forecasts, we always know where the business is going to be, every six months he'll be doing planning. He's really involved in the long term product roadmap like, “Hey, social's becoming more important” and “Hey, cross platform is becoming-”. He influences like that, but never, ever does he or anyone in his team try to make their numbers by saying, "We have this product date, we need to hit it.” It's always the studio that chooses: this isn't ready enough.

There's this trust that's frustrating for those guys because when products slip a year or six months, they have to scramble. They are trying to hit revenue numbers. They are trying to keep the growth up, but they never say, “No, that's the wrong choice”. They never say, "No no no, we need to ship it anyway”. They don't have that power, but they don't want that power. They're not trying to make it work like that. We have this culture that says there's a balance between these two things, and the product team is dedicated to doing the products, and making good games, and I think that's probably one of the key things. By maintaining that, it's allowing other things to be difficult or challenging, and it's been okay because that core of making great games has allowed us to keep going with that. That was a really rambling answer, I apologise!

PC Gamer: How does someone like Bobby Kotick then strike you?

John Vechey: I haven't met him, so I don't know, I definitely hear a lot of things. I know a lot of people who like him that I respect and some people that don't like him that I respect so it's kind of like, eh, it's always hard to say. I was a little sceptical. I do think some of his quotes are taken a little bit extreme.

PC Gamer: They were taken a little bit out of context.

John Vechey: Yeah, but he's hardly a gamer.

PC Gamer: Activision put out that release saying he doesn't have time to play games these days, but he loves games, he's played games in the past. I don't know.

John Vechey: It's a bad sign, though, when you have to do a press release to say, "No, he really plays games!" You can nail in a conversation whether someone plays games.

PC Gamer: Where do you want to take PopCap and where do you see it in five years time?

John Vechey: In five years, I think we'll be touching more people. We're always trying to get to more audience. I think that's where Zynga have done a great job with Farmville, in that there's a bunch of people playing games who didn't know they could play games before. It's really positive, right? I mean, everyone can slag FarmVille all they want, but when you look at it, there's a hundred million people playing that per month. A lot of those people haven't played games before. That's cool in my book. So really for us it's really trying to get out to more people. Where are they playing: whether it's region, geographies, platforms, game design styles, I don't care. I want to be out there more and more to people. I think we're going to be bigger.

We're really dedicated to franchises. We've got five or six major franchises and we can't do near as much for Zuma as our audience would like us to do for Zuma, or even Bejewelled, right? It was over five years before we had the sequel to Zuma. That's too long. People wanted something way sooner than that. So we have a whole lot of growth we can do in really getting more versions of our games out there, and not just to sell more units.

I don't know if you've ever played Diner Dash, but they basically whored out that franchise. They had a new one every three months, and it didn't do the franchise or the customers a service, so I don't want to do that. But we can get more out there, and keep iterating on new game designs. I hope we have new Plants vs. Zombies style games every year. We've got this thing where it's like, "Holy crap, it's a completely new twist on a game design genre." New design, like Peggle, it's just really fun, and just continue to make great games. I hope we never lose that particular thing. I hope we're always making great, high quality games.

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