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Originally published Sunday, July 18, 2010 at 10:02 PM

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Brier Dudley

How Seattle's PopCap stays at the top of its game

On the eve of the annual Casual Connect game conference in Seattle this week, Roberts explained how PopCap has kept lining up jewels despite the constantly changing landscape.

Seattle Times staff columnist

You'd think the $3 billion casual-games industry centered in Seattle would be under pressure.

Companies that created the category by selling low-priced, downloadable PC games seem to have been eclipsed by upstarts.

Lately the buzz and big bucks from investors are swirling around companies building social games played via Facebook. Before that, the hype was about iPhone games.

But it's all good from the perspective of Dave Roberts, chief executive of PopCap, the Seattle company that started the casual-gaming gold rush a decade ago with its runaway hit "Bejeweled."

On the eve of the annual Casual Connect game conference in Seattle this week, Roberts explained how PopCap has kept lining up jewels despite the constantly changing landscape.

The secret has been to focus first on the content — creating new games that are fun to play — and then figuring out how to make them work on whatever new platforms emerge.

Extra time spent getting games right has also paid off, as PopCap has extended its franchises from the PC to phones, Xbox Live, Nintendo DS, Facebook and recently Apple's iPad.

Roberts said the new platforms are an opportunity because they're getting more people to play games, expanding the market.

"Our challenge isn't about competing with other game companies as much as it's convincing people they can play games — people who didn't think they could play games," he said. "That's why when you see the advent of big platforms that bring new people into the gaming fold, like an iPhone or Facebook, that's what we're looking for all the time — how do we get millions and millions more people to realize they can play games."

Meanwhile, the PC business has continued to grow and now generates about half of PopCap's sales, including games downloaded from the Web and sold on discs at retail stores.

Mobile devices account for 25 percent of its sales. PopCap has done especially well on the iPhone, where Roberts believes "Bejeweled" is the best-selling paid app of all time.

"We're selling more than 100,000 apps a week on the iPhone," he said. "It's just crazy when you think about it — that's a lot of people who are paying. This isn't free downloads; this is people paying us money to buy our games."

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Roberts, 49, joined PopCap five years ago, after leading business groups at Apple and Aldus and starting stock photography and CD-ROM content companies.

Now he's leading 275 employees — plus a resident dachshund — at headquarters in Belltown and satellite offices in Ireland, China, Korea and Japan and studios in Chicago, Vancouver, B.C., and San Carlos, Calif.

Roberts wouldn't discuss PopCap's profits but said sales have grown an average of 50 percent a year over the past six years.

The privately held company's getting big enough to go public and doing small things to get ready. It has added outside board members and "doing the housekeeping kinds of things in case we did choose to do something like that," Roberts said.

"Personally, I would be both scared and excited about it," he said. "We'll do it if it's the right thing and we won't if it's not the right thing for us."

Rumors are circulating about Google putting money into game companies, but Roberts didn't have much to say about that.

"We've had acquisition talks since the day I started at PopCap, of varying sorts," he said. "We're a pretty good small company. Who knows? We may just stay private forever."

The bigger accomplishment for the company has been proving that it wasn't a one-hit wonder.

"For us it's really taken 10 years to establish the fact that it's not really a fluke we succeeded on the Xbox or that we succeeded on this platform or that platform," Roberts said. "It starts with great games. If you do that and you really work at it and are patient, you can make a great company."

So has PopCap outgrown the casual-games category?

"Nobody's ever liked the casual-category name, but we can't think of a better one," Roberts said, then told of a dinner he had at last year's Casual Connect with Sebastian de Halleux, of Playfish, a London-based social-games company.

"He said, 'Gosh, I really get tired of being called social games, I wish they would just call us games,' " Roberts recalled. "I kept thinking to myself, 'Oh dude, you have no idea how tiring it is to have a moniker you're tired of. Talk to me in four years.' "

Roberts said the "casual-games" umbrella should include mobile games, social games and other niche categories.

"You can call them casual," he said, "but if games are going to appeal to everyone they have to be great games."

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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