PopCap co-founder: anyone can make great games (if they want to)

14 Oct 2011

PopCap's Jason Kapalka

Jason Kapalka, the co-founder of PopCap Games which is being bought by EA for US$750m, says that opportunities to enter the games business are there for anyone with the right drive and plenty of ideas.

It emerged in recent months that EA will pay US$650m in cash and US$100m in shares, could pay up to an extra US$550m if PopCap Games reaches performance targets in two years.

PopCap, which was founded by John Vechey, Brian Fiete and Jason Kapalka in Seattle in 2000, is behind top titles like Bejeweled and Plants vs Zombies.

PopCap has had a presence in Dublin for more than five years. Earlier this year, it announced plans to expand its workforce in the city to 110. It employs 400 people worldwide.

The company’s games titles are designed to work across most platforms – web, PC, consoles, tablet computers and smartphones.

Kapalka attended a gathering of global games chiefs in Dublin earlier this week. Forfas research predicts that the global games industry will grow from US$55m last year to an US$82.4bn industry by 2015. Ireland has the potential to create an additional 2,500 gaming jobs if it makes the country a global hub for the games industry.

I asked Kapalka about the prospects for people building careers in the games business. “Of course you can always go to schools for various related things. The truth is that two out of the three PopCap founders actually dropped out of college – I don’t mean that anyone should – but the truth is these days especially there’s nothing to prevent you from making video games.

“If you want to create a game you don’t have to join a big company. You can make a game in Flash or for an iPhone or whatever and that could be done by a single person or a tiny team of people.

“People sometimes ask me how I got into the games industry, it’s often – you can do it right now, you don’t need my help or anyone’s , just do it. In fact that’s usually the most impressive thing, when we look at someone’s resume it’s not where they went to school or where they might have worked or done, and someone who’s created some games on their own and that you can look at and may be the graphics aren’t so good but there’s some good ideas, that’s usually more impressive than any resume or work experience they might have had.”

The future of casual gaming

On the question of where gaming – especially casual gaming – is headed, Kapalka says the propellant of the last few years has certainly been social and mobile but he suspects that casual games accessible via browsers on TVs might be one of the big disruptive changes coming.

I asked him what key lessons he learned along the way as PopCap grew from three friends building games into a multi-million takeover target. “Well gosh, that’s not a question to ask us because we didn’t set out to do any of that. We were just three guys who just wanted to create games and it grew organically. We’d be different from your classic Silicon Valley venture capital thing where they set out to create this big company.

“From where we did start – as a small group of like-minded individuals making something we were passionate about, that’s something you can easily do in Ireland and many are starting to do that. The possibility of doing something similar to that in Ireland is very high. You have a well-educated, passionate group of people here who have a lot of experience in related industries like the internet and other computer related things.

“All the conditions are right so I wouldn’t be surprised in a couple of years if you saw a couple of home grown Irish companies that came out of nowhere and went on to create great games.”

I asked Kapalka about Ireland’s contribution to PopCap Games. “We’ve been here for five years in Dublin and it’s been great. Over the years the operation has developed from localisation to now where doing a lot more of the actual development for things like iOS version of Plants Vs Zombies, all of that is being done by our Dublin studios. We’re seeing the team being a lot more creative and working on game-based content rather than localisation or customer support.

“That’s been great for us and the idea is to let Dublin take on more of its own identity as a game development studio in its own right rather than be dependent on other parts of PopCap,” Kapalka said.


John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years