KING5 Tech Report: PopCap's sparkly "Bejeweled" anniversary



Posted on February 11, 2010 at 12:00 PM

Recall the year 2000, when the dot-com bust was claiming victims in the Seattle technology industry. It wasn't exactly the best time to branch out on your own as a company, but that's exactly what Jason Kapalka and some developer friends decided to do. Thanks to a suddenly-shaky economy, they weren't expecting a lot from their first effort on their own, a puzzle game called Diamond Mine.

"Truthfully, we didn't think it was anything too terribly important at the time," Kapalka told me. "We had worked on other small web games and thought this was just another one that we would do in a month or two. We were expecting to sell it to Microsoft and maybe it would help us keep food on the table."

Dreams of selling Diamond Mine for $20-30,000 were dashed when Microsoft refused to buy it - but did offer to license it for $1500 a month. "It was the best thing they ever did - to refuse to pay us a flat fee."

That's because Diamond Mine would go on to casual games success as Bejeweled, which at last count had been downloaded some 350 million times in the 10 years of its existence. Anybody who's killed time on a PC at home - or more likely, in your work cubicle when the boss wasn't looking - knows the uniquely addictive nature of this game. It validated Kapalka's hopes that people would pay to download web games so they could play when their modems were offline, and it provided the foundation for a company that now employs 260 people in six offices in cities around the world, while keeping its headquarters in downtown Seattle.

PopCap is using Bejeweled as the focus of a 10-month celebration of its 10-year anniversary by releasing new versions of its signature game.

But at a time when the focus in the gaming world was on consoles and store-bought titles, PopCap's initial success was a welcome surprise. Now, PopCap writes games for Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and the Wii, along with Nintendo's DS handheld device, and is branching out into the new world of social media and smartphone-based gaming.

Even though PopCap's bottom line is still driven by cheap, simple-to-play, quickly-downloaded web games, the latest recession did throw a scare into Kapalka, now the company's chief creative officer. "When the economy took a big nose dive, we were quite concerned about how badly that might affect us. But it hasn't had any major effect on our busienss. It has on a lot of the video game business. To some extent, with casual games, we're like the Walmart of retail. We're more affordable than a lot of comparable games. People still need entertainment and are willing to spend some money on it. They're just being careful how much they spend. For a company like us that focuses on cheaper entertainment, that means we were okay."

You can now play Bejeweled on Facebook, and Kapalka sees a huge opportunity for gaming in the social media realm. But because the venue is still developing, "it means it's kind of a wild west right now. There are other things that are not being done the way they should be, and it may take a few years to sort out. Spam is really a problem right now. Games that should be fun can be annoying." Farmville and Mafia Wars have their fans, but some games require that you recruit new players to advance. " You can either advance in the game and annoy your friends, or you can do worse in the game but not spam everybody you know. It's not a good way for a game to grow by forcing you to lose your real-life friends. I suspect there will be some changes as people in Facebook figure out ways to use that media."

In the meantime, Kapalka and company are seeing growth in their games for the major consoles. Gamers who live by first-person shooters like "Halo" and "Gears of War" are also downloading simpler games that involve unicorns, bouncing balls and lining up shiny diamonds, Kapalka says. The success of Nintendo's Wii also confirms that gaming is changing and attracting more mainstream users - a quality that PopCap had gambled on 10 years ago.

"Games aren't this special little genre thing that you has to be nerdy or exclusive," he said. "They're all about something that should be universal, and games are going back in that direction now."

Thriled For You

What's the phrase for weddings? "Something borrowed, something blue, something old"...and here's what's new: Thrilled For You, the latest consumer web effort from Seatle-based Jackson Fish Market.

Thrilled For You takes the wedding guest book concept and gives it new digital life - download the $99 software onto a Mac computer running the Leopard or Snow Leopard operating system, and you've got a video kiosk at your nuptials. Guests can record special greetings, best wishes, mazel tovs, etc. The video then can be replayed at the event, or uploaded to YouTube or Vimeo, or even transferred to your keepsake wedding DVD.

You also get to choose from 21 different theme background, customizable with the happy couple's names and the date.

What it won't do: throw bouquets and garter belts into the crowd at the reception. But I'm sure there's an app for that coming soon.

Kids Eat Free apps

Once you're married, then kids show up, and every once in a while you have to feed them. (Something to do with their growth and happiness, I hear.) But in tight budget times, families need all the help they can get.

There are smartphone apps that use the GPS and location-based services in handsets to find the nearest restaurants near you that are offering freebies for children. Kids Eat Free for Android phones is a relatively new app that includes the ability to call the restaurant from inside the app. You have to put up with a lot of ads for the free version (there is an ad-free 99-cent version) and it's supposed to cull listings from a database of "thousands" of restaurants, according to the website for app developer

Similar apps exist for the iPhone - Where Do Kids Eat Free Today? and Kids Meals Deals - and some give you the chance to add to the database when you find a restaurant with family discounts. Enjoy your budget buffet hunt.