Opinion: What does PopCap get out of the EA deal?
It could only have been EA, of course. Early reports said that Zynga had bowed out of the reckoning, balking at an asking price that ended up in a deal that last night became clear was worth $750 million. Besides, PopCap's surely too big for Zynga to absorb into its fleshy sides. No other gaming company has the heft and the ambition to even think about taking PopCap in.
With its seven international studios, over 400 staff and highly distinctive identity, PopCap has become a pride of the game industry, demonstrating that the traditional value of care in design and development can translate into creating a vast and incredibly broad new gaming audience.
It’s easy enough to see why EA would want all this. Building Riccitiello’s “$1 billion digital business” demands big outlays. Maybe the price is very high, but PopCap has been growing at a furious rate since its inception, crafting valuable IP and steadily and imaginatively developing experience on social networks and mobile platforms. And its playerbase? Only Nintendo and maybe Zynga command such a wide and devoted set of gamers, many of whom were not gamers before PopCap entered their lives. If you had a spare few hundred million dollars, I'd say PopCap isn’t such a bad buy.
The question is, then, what does PopCap get from EA? "By working with EA, we'll scale our games and services to deliver more social, mobile, casual fun to an even bigger, global audience," said CEO David Roberts in the public announcement of the deal.
But didn't PopCap already have this? One of its key strategies, and one that is behind a good degree of its success, is that its games are everywhere. They're on every platform, from consoles to handhelds, mobiles to browsers. And they're distributed any which way you like: via the App Store and as PC downloads, free Flash embeds and on CD-ROMs in shops. If you have a computer, there's little chance that you can't play a PopCap game.
PopCap has invested heavily in the know-how and relationships that have gone into creating this system, which spans sales forces, web development, platform porting, designers, marketing and probably a lot more besides. And if it hadn't already built it all, EA's existing infrastructure would look incredibly attractive.
More resources, more games?
Regardless, PopCap is claiming that EA's resources will free it up to concentrate on making more games: "We're going to take advantage of their world-class digital publishing, so we can just focus on making great games," co-founder John Vechey told Gamasutra. Hopefully, this won't mean that all the company has done to build up its publishing machine will go to waste. "So what should you really expect from us in the future as part of EA? More! More games, more platforms, more players, and more fun," says a post on PopCap's website (which, incidentally also describes EA as a "small mom-and-pop boutique software publisher" and a future that includes "Plants vs. ZombEAz: NFL Lockout Edition").
Hooray! It's been a while since PopCap's introduced new IP, other than through the cheerful trinkets that have come out of skunkworks division 4th And Battery. But this is a little confusing, too. There’s never been the sense that more resources would lead to more games at PopCap. Chief creative officer Jason Kapalka has close involvement in every project, whether it's a port or a new game. Plants Vs Zombies was largely the work of just four people and took three years to develop. It was not under resourced – rather, it's PopCap's culture to hone its games with small teams, allowing them close and personal control over them.
Will PopCap be able to retain its famously exacting standards if it is to scale up? That’s a question that will only be answered over the next few years. Until then, we can feel confident that EA was the only viable partner for such a deal. No other publisher has demonstrated quite the same zeal for pushing into new forms of gaming while maintaining its grasp on the traditional areas, too. With care for PopCap’s individual culture, this can only cement its strategy.
And there lies the point of the question mark that hovers over the deal so far. Success will lie in how EA manages PopCap's culture, because ultimately it's this that lies behind its true value.