Archive for the ‘ PopCap ’ Category

Problem with Climate Hawks

Climate change has a PR problem. It’s true. The spokespeople for climate change often feel like they’re preaching to the choir, or in a language few understand. While Bill McKibben’s writing is great, he’s still writing for a pretty intelectual audience about some pretty heavy science. Al Gore has been most successful at opening up the discussion from the movie An Inconvenient Truth, which was a call to action in lecture format. While it did well for a documentary, calling an issue as complex as climate change a moral imperative isn’t exactly actionable mass-market material (especially from a left wing politician).

This is where I come in. I’ve spent my whole career trying to make something for a niche audience and take it mass market. When we started PopCap, video games pretty much fell into the 15-24 year old male demographic. Sure, Nintendo skewed a bit younger, but for the most part, gaming was for 15% of the population. Thanks to innovations on the Internet and the advent of new platforms, we helped lead the wave of gaming for the masses. Twelve years later, most everyone plays games whether on Facebook, the web, or on your phone.

We didn’t succeed by making pandering games. We took game concepts that we loved and spent a whole lot of effort, energy and craft to make that fun accessible for everyone, even if the player had never played any games before. That’s what climate hawks need to figure out. Their message is good. The content is there. It’s just completely inaccessible, and as I’ve learned in games, something inaccessible is pretty much by definition unappealing.

 

 

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Listening in Meetings

I’ve been attending Quaker Meetings this year at University Friends Meeting (UFM). You can learn a little bit of back story about Quakers on my earlier blog post. There are three types of activities that I’ve participated in:

  1. Meeting for Worship – The (mostly) silent hour long meeting in which people speak when compelled to
  2. Adult Education – An hour long discussion group covering a wide range of topics (peace activism, brain science, role of religion in quakerism are all topics that have been touched)
  3. Meeting for Business – Once a month UFM limits their meeting for worship to about 30 minutes, the clerk then has a reading, and an agenda-led meeting about the corporate life of the community ensues

My first meeting was actually a Meeting for Business. It blew my mind. The main topic for discussion was highly controversial and sensitive but the general civility and listening of all the community members still astounds me. Nearly every point along the spectrum of opinions was represented, while everyone had a chance to speak, more importantly everyone who spoke was also listened to.

This is pretty amazing. How many times in a work meeting do we say something, but yet no one is listening? How many times is someone talking, and we’re just thinking about something else, either waiting to speak, or waiting for the meeting to be over?

Since attending quaker meetings I’ve started to pay attention to the amount people listen in meetings at PopCap. I’ve started by first paying attention to how much (or little) I’m listening, but also watched others. Additionally, I’ve tried to notice the effects of not listening. I’ve really tried hard not to ascribe judgement to non-listening and have focused solely on awareness.

My summary is this: we don’t listen much, and this causes all sorts of problems.

We waste so much time because we’re not listening. People repeat themselves (which is funny, because it doesn’t seem more people are listening on the second, third, and fourth time around), circular conversations don’t stop, idealogical differences pop up, we question peoples motives instead of looking deeper at what they’re trying to say, others can’t step in and help clarify, frustration rises, people feel unsatisfied, it’s harder to receive or give buy off, we don’t fully understand the problems we’re facing, and more.

Basically we waste our and other people’s time. If we could somehow capture the listening the quakers have instilled in the culture of their spiritual community I’m willing to bet job satisfaction and productivity would increase, we’d make better decisions and ultimately have a way more successful company.

 

 

 

 

PopCap – Now the Worst Company in America

The voters have spoken over at consumerist.com. Loud and clear they told me: We sold PopCap to the worst company in America (2012 edition). Wow. Of all the companies we could have sold our souls to, we picked the deplorable, evil, Electronic Arts. The company that has the gall to release a new football game every-single-year! The company that had the audacity to create a game which inspires anger with the ending! A corporation in America that has made hard business decisions and had to close studios! The company which has bought studios that didn’t work out! EA! You tricked me! You promised perfection and now I see the truth! YOU EVEN SELL DIGITAL GOODS! DIGITAL GOODS!!!!!!!

Every week I would check out Consumerist’s NCAA style bracket of evil companies and every week we won. We beat Sony, Best Buy, Comcast, AT&T and Bank of America to reign supreme as worst company. Why did EA win over other companies? Here are my thoughts:

  • The business of games is hard – Unlike movies the technology of games is constantly changing. Production values rise, new platforms come and go, sports games get outdated within days of shipping, acquisitions fail because of the acquirers, acquisitions fail because of the acquired, marketing costs are huge, customers are fickle, it’s tough
  • The art of games is harder – Come on. Make some fun games. Go ahead. Heck, just make one. Make a game that you have to update every year or customers complain. Make a game that has thousands of hours of dialog and story telling. Make a game that requires empathy. Make a game that excites, engages, and inspires. Now do it again. And again. For 30 years. In every genre. On every platform. I double dog dare you
  • Everyone makes mistakes – Yup. EA does not have a perfect past. It’s made HR mistakes. It’s made huge game design screw ups. It’s messed up studios, marketing campaigns and beloved franchises (sometimes all at once). It will do so again. There is no perfect company, and I won’t promise perfection from PopCap
I’m very glad EA acquired PopCap. I believe in EA’s leadership. John Riccitiello has a vision for EA that is important. Every year he’s been boss, the company has made fewer, better games than the year before. The transition to digital is a hard, difficult road, and John has been leading the company through since he started as CEO. Gamers may complain about paid DLC, but there has to be something that sits between Farmville and the $60 price point, EA has been relentlessly trying to find that balance. I’m proud to have my studio sit next to DICE, Visceral, Maxis, Tiburon, Black Box, BioWare and more.

It was a bit frustrating to read EA winning, but when I look at the list of companies, I only see one or two others that actually inspire any emotion or passion. Apple. Google maybe. I may rant or complain about DirectTV’s atrocious customer service, Comcast’s flakey connection speeds, Bank of America’s ATM fees, or ticketmaster charges, but do I really care? Naw. No matter how angry I’ve been at them, I ultimately don’t care.

But man… you miss my expectations on the ending of an epic three game space opera that I’ve spent hundreds of hours enjoying – go f yourself EA!

Importance of Hurling

I play a competitive Irish sport called Hurling. It’s not caber toss, curling, or projectile vomiting. It’s an ancient stick and ball sport that looks like a cross of field hockey, rugby and lacrosse.

 

I’ve been playing for the Seattle Gaels for the past five years. Hurling is the only team sport I’ve ever seriously played. We compete locally in a city league, in regional games and tournaments, culminating in a season finale at the North American Gaelic Athletic Association’s national tournament (which has over 5,000 competitors).

Amidst rain, chilling wind, and triple rainbows, the season started today with my first practice of the year. About midway through practice, it hit me: a new season. For the next six months I will dedicate my Tuesday and Thursday evenings, plus many Sunday afternoons to this team. I will work my ass off to get in and stay in shape. I will be honest about my weaknesses and strive to improve. I will cry out of frustration and I will cheer for joy. I will bleed for the Gaels.

I don’t know what I was thinking when I first went out onto the pitch to play this weird, hyper aggressive sport. I certainly wasn’t aware of all that it would bring me. How it would enrich my life by keeping me healthy, physically, mentally and emotionally. I didn’t realize how many great friends I would make, friends for the rest of my life. I wasn’t aware of how much I’d learn about teams. About camaraderie. About leadership. About myself.

Most importantly: I didn’t realize that hurling would keep me sane.

A few years ago I was struggling at PopCap. I wasn’t succeeding in my role. I was having problems with my peers. I was adrift in failure. I felt absolutely powerless, frustrated and alone in my own company. Every Tuesday and Thursday though, I suited up, forgot all that, and just played. Hurling helped remind me that life wasn’t only PopCap. That my identity wasn’t only as a founder of the company. It helped keep me humble, for I was still learning. Hurling kept me in the world just enough to keep plugging away. It gave me enough energy, enough of a sense of self worth outside of PopCap, that without the Gaels, I don’t know if I would’ve survived that year still employed.

Last year we were in the middle of selling the company. It was the hardest time of my life. After a particular long day in a rather long week which was a part of a especially difficult month, we had a city league match. On the way to the match I was on the phone with a potential acquirer. While talking I had to make a snap judgement on whether we’d communicate our desire to move the relationship forward. We had been previously focused on the soft stuff (cultural fit, vision) and he was pressing hard to start actual negotiating. I was representing where the founders “heads” were at. I made the decision to say yah, the founders are feelin’ it.

After I hung up I slowly walked to the pitch. Every ounce of me was drained. I almost turned back, headed home or to a bar, but instead plopped my gear down and started suiting up. After I laced up my cleats, there were warm ups, stretches, the first half, half time pep talk, the second half (victory!), warm downs, which then ending with a lap around the field. It was on that lap that I realized I hadn’t thought of the deal, lawyers, accountants, bankers, social gaming, PopCap – any of it, for an hour and a half. Joyful tears streamed down my face as I jogged.

Up the Gaels!

PopCap Olympics: Rockband Competition

Culture can be a double edged sword. One of the things I like about our culture is the amount of extra activities we provide and encourage employees to enjoy. While sometimes it’s abused these days, I’m very grateful we have a corporate culture that has a cornerstone of fun for the sake of fun.

Today marked the 3rd PopCap Olympics Rockband challenge. Five teams competed with voice, plastic guitars, and crazy outfits to best each other in an epic battle of the fake bands. It was awesome. Highlights for me were James’ cracking an actual whip (not his) to Devo, the band which combined sexy space uniforms, dalek costumes, facepaint and homemade unicorn horns, or my personal favorite, the anti-anchovy band which teamed up a singing slice of pizza to duet with the radical Ninja Turtle, Michelangelo**.

The weirdest of all was the passing out of buttons with my likeness on them. It started last olympics thanks to Sharon Bruhn and company making a John Vechey fan club song parody. Thanks to her tireless buttonizing, this meme has lived on. And to clarify, yes, those are rainbows out of my bum.

**I believe the eyemask was orange which is Michelangelo. It could’ve been red, which would’ve been Rafael. I want to make sure there’s no confusion as my memory of colors is bad, not my recollection of which turtle was which.

Wealth of Thirds

Met with a rather wealthy killionaire today. I inquired about his strategies for dealing with his success. He had put a lot of contemplative thought into the subject and had good insight to share. He tries to divide his time and energy into thirds. One third of his time he spends on generating more wealth (starting or investing in companies), one third on public / civic service (politics, charity), and the final third on contemplative activities (things that keep his mind flowin’).

I really appreciated the way he balanced things in a way that worked for him. My balance would be a bit different as I feel my job at PopCap is more than just a paycheck, and requires contemplative thought to be successful (even though on rare days it feels like civic duty). He also gave some very great advice, that marks some of the best I’ve heard. Paraphrased here:

Be wary of the path of least resistance. Everyone will want you to spend your time, wealth and energy to merely generate more wealth. The easiest thing to do with success is create more success. Though not bad necessarily, it may not lead you to the life you want to live.

It’s true. So many people have assumed that I’m going to become a VC, or asked me when the “golden handcuffs” expire before I start another company. No one believes me when I explain that I love making games, I love PopCap and if I’m making games I’m going to do so for EA / PopCap. Candidly, there would be a lot easier ways to spend my days, but few would bring more long term satisfaction.

The Rules have Changed Back Again

When we first started PopCap there was no casual or  mass market gaming. There was no facebook, iOS app store, or Steam. There weren’t portal partners nor a downloadable business, and mobile phones couldn’t even play text games. When Bejeweled (then called Diamond Mine) first launched on MSN games it became the most played game on the Internet.

The idea that games for everyone would take over the world became believable. Games evolved. We released a few more web games. Discovered $19.95 downloadable business. Started making some revenue from other platforms. Success was all about fun, innovative new gameplay. Partners like Real Networks were growing the audience. Xbox Live Arcade was another place for new ideas. We invested in games like Peggle and Plants vs. Zombies, knowing that it was about innovation in gameplay.

Then it all stagnated. Big Fish Games and Real fought to steal customers from each other. XBLA became crowded. Big publishers started throwing money at the business. Developer margins were shrinking. It wasn’t about gameplay it was about market share. Merely a game of margin control. PopCap was lucky that we had hired a CEO and developed a publishing organization. We were lucky that our games appealed to hard-core gamers, lucky that we invested in retail, but the traditional casual channels were flat.

While that was happening Apple was experimenting with an app store on iPod scroll wheels. Facebook was opening up its platform to developers. Platform focused developers like Zynga and NGMoco were started. Their whole raison d’etre was to master a platform, not innovate on gameplay. Some were experimenting with gameplay. Doodlejump, Flight Control, and Pocket Gods come to mind, but they were still the exception. It was the era of these new, weird platforms. Companies succeeded not through great games, but by harnessing and mastering the new platforms. Angry Birds succeeded by pioneering the top ten lists while leveraging their charm. Zynga exploded by being one of the best online service operators in history.

Thankfully, Facebook is more known now. Developers no longer question the Apple App store viability. Microtransactions have ceased to be weird. Things have settled. Which is great. Gameplay innovation is in the air. Whether on Facebook, Apple, or Android new gameplay is coming out and thriving every day. Soon Xbox, Nintendo and Sony will join this new connected world.

Tiny Tower. Jetpack Joyride. DragonVale and Temple Run have all shown that great, new gameplay can happen. OMGPOP has destroyed the charts with Draw Something. Innovation is now vital again. It’s about great gameplay. It may look a bit different than it did in the downloadable days, but the audience is bigger, the developers more innovative, and potential for greatness amazing.

The rules have finally changed back again. I look forward to playing all the new games that are going to come out in the next couple of years. I look forward to PopCap making some of those games.

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