When Brian Fiete, Jason Kapalka and John Vechey started PopCap Games in 2000, they had a simple plan: Design one game a month, which they would then sell to the highest bidder.
It was the early internet era, and advertising-funded websites were the rage. Fiete, Kapalka and Vechey had been working for Total Entertainment Network, which would become Pogo.com. AOL and Microsoft had sites offering free-to-play games. The games were small and simple, built for dial-up modems, intended to drive traffic. They were the first of what would come to be known as casual games.
PopCap's first game was called Diamond Mine. It was a simple puzzle game in which players moved colored gemstones left, right, up and down to form lines of three or more identical gems. Matched gems disappeared, and the stones above dropped down to fill the holes, new ones flowing in constantly.
The business model of developing and selling games like Diamond Mine had great potential. Then came the dot-com crash.
Chief creative officer Kapalka says that he and his partners weren't really aware of what was going on. "We weren't very savvy about the business stuff. We like to think that our ignorance was blissful."
Blissful and fortuitous. Rather than selling Diamond Mine, the young PopCap had to settle for licensing it. Instead of getting a one-time $50,000 payout, PopCap kept the rights to the puzzle title that would eventually be renamed Bejeweled and go on to become one of the top 10 bestselling videogames of all time.
It's been inducted into the Computer Gaming World Hall of Fame, after Tetris the only puzzle game to receive the distinction, and in January 2010, Guinness World Records named Bejeweled "The Most Popular Puzzle Game Series of the Century."
The games have been played by more than 500 million people worldwide, and a company release boasts that 798,000 years of leisure time have been spent playing Bejeweled. That's equivalent to having 70 people playing the game without stopping since the end of the last ice age.
"I think it's done something like $500 million in revenue," says Kapalka. "Some crazy number."
Not bad for a game created by three guys in the span of a couple of months.
Beyond merely just selling well, Bejeweled also birthed the match-three puzzle game genre. Its popularity is why it's been copied countless times; Kapalka describes many examples as "mostly just depressing," though he has no problem when the imitation is done well. Kapalka's a fan of Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, the match-three-RPG hybrid developed by Infinite Interactive and released by D3Publisher in 2007, and admits that he wishes he'd thought of it, calling it "a really cool idea."
Cool enough that PopCap co-developed a similar hybrid game with Square Enix. Gyromancer is a downloadable title for PC and Xbox 360 published last fall. "As an experiment, I don't know if it was completely successful," says Kapalka, "but it was interesting. What it also proved was that Puzzle Quest was a lot harder to do than it looked."