Interview: John Vechey on founding PopCap, making Bejeweled

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.

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.