Despite working for six years on what might be the most famous casual gaming IPs in the world, the inner workings of PopCap’s Dublin still studio remain something of a mystery.
In the heart of a city that also plays home to Google and Facebook offices, the European headquarters of the company behind giant brands like Peggle, Bejeweled and Plants Vs Zombies houses an ever-growing workforce.
But little is known of the creative culture, people and practices at the outfit recently acquired as part of an EA deal worth at least $750 million.
In Dublin some 80 PopCap employees – half of whom are from outside of Ireland – are busily adapting existing properties and crafting original titles. Three months ago they were 50 in number, and by 2012 their ranks will have swelled to over 100.
AUTONOMY FOR THE PEOPLE
In fact, so successful is PopCap Dublin as a studio, that it has now earned itself a significant degree of independence from the Seattle base that is the company’s global HQ.
As well as developing games, the office on Ireland’s east coast has its own localisation department, PR team, and all the other elements that allow it to operate as a self-sufficient studio.
“The studio here is younger than the Seattle studio, so we do look to it for a few things, such as to source any technical knowledge we may not have here,” says Dublin studio general manager Paul Breslin.
“But then we are very much autonomous in that we have our own teams and specific game projects, and these teams work fairly autonomously, occasionally reaching out to Seattle for any knowledge sharing.”
Part of the reason for that independence is PopCap Dublin’s track record with regard to its specialty: smartphone development. While the studio isn’t restricted to portable devices, its efforts on mobile are what affords the outfit its self-determination, says senior game designer Dave Bishop.
“We’ve earned our freedom from Seattle over the last couple of years,” he asserts. “If you looked back two years ago, here we were adapting PopCap games for mobile. That was really the focus of this studio, and then they made the decision that they effectively wanted to create ‘PopCap in a box’ here in Dublin, so that we could have some creative and developmental autonomy.”
For that reason the studio opted to install someone creatively who could be an opposite number to the key creative team in Seattle, picking Bishop for the role.
And it seems that they have succeeded in building that studio in a box.
On a recent visit to Ireland, EA’s infamous CEO John Riccitiello declared PopCap Dublin ‘a company in it’s own right’. With the new boss suitably impressed, the Dublin team are clearly doing something striking.
While the PopCap Shanghai operation is more autonomous, the Dublin base has still begun to blossom into being one of the most significant and influential casual studios on the planet.
Part of the reason, argues Breslin, is an increased focus on game design.
IT’S IN THE GAMES
“We’ve got a number of designers here, and that’s evolved over the past few years,” he explains.
“We now have three very strong designers on board, and that has changed our ability to create new IP and new IP adaptations. Around those individuals we’re building teams to create games.”
But what of PopCap’s sometimes controversial new owners? It would be reasonable to assume that with Electronic Arts now at the helm, the waters of autonomy at PopCap Dublin could be upset just as they are settling.
The studio’s staff, however, are confident EA’s role can only be beneficial.
“The company culture won’t be changed, and that PopCap magic is part of our culture,” offers Breslin.
“None of that will be touched. But what does change is that EA gives us the ability to accelerate our plans to get our games into more people’s hands. There’s 8,000 people at EA, and EAi, which we’re a division of, has a very good distribution capability. We can now tap into that distribution network and get more of our games out there.”
Physically, the EA acquisition will have very little effect on PopCap Dublin. The team will remain in their current building, and for the foreseeable future are unlikely to find themselves sharing space with EA’s Irish Bioware operation.
EA’s capacity to localise into huge numbers of languages will be a significant boon to the team, and the giant publisher’s experience with platforms that PopCap has only really touched on such as Android is something that has Breslin and his colleagues feeling clearly optimistic.
But there was some scepticism from PopCap staff about EA’s influence. The Dublin team, however, insist Riccitiello and his colleagues have done much to reassure them that they will keep a hold on creative freedom and the cherished company culture.
Bishop, for example, isn’t afraid to admit he wasn’t sure how EA’s influence would manifest itself.
“I’d known lots of people at Bullfrog and lots of people at Westwood,” he says. “But I think this is a different EA to that era. Riccitiello and everybody else like Barry Cottle went to great lengths, sometimes in person, to emphasise that PopCap was being bought because of what it is and how it does things; they’re not just buying the rights to some brands.
“I take Riccitiello at his word, and I know people at Playfish, and it seems that in recent times, for the most part, EA’s acquisitions have been left to be who they are. I don’t have that many concerns.”
In fact, there’s even personal excitement within the EA walls about the opportunities the deal might bring about.
“Who knows; one day we might want to take an EA property that no one else has touched,” says Bishop with a smile, before making clear he’s allowing himself to stray from the company line.
“I would love to do Dungeon Keeper on iPad. That would be awesome. Maybe one day I’ll send an email to Mr Riccitiello and suggest it. Never say never.”
Just nine months ago PopCap’s biggest challenge was where to go next. Ideas and ambitions were plentiful, but to take on everything at once was close to impossible. Today, on the shoulders of EA, that is no longer an issue, insist the senior staff.
Globally the company – which once spent three months working on the speed the gems fall in Bejeweled – is preparing for significant and rapid growth.
MORE IS MORE
Inspired by a belief that the more they deliver, the more autonomy they’ll enjoy, the Dublin staff are creating higher numbers of games for a wider range of devices than ever before, and are focusing intently on ‘social connectedness’ as they build their reputation as PopCap’s centre for excellence in smartphone.
“We want to do more here in Dublin,” concludes Breslin.
“We want to create more games and we’re now nicely set up to do that. We have a number of teams working on both new titles and adaptations of our existing IPs right now. We’ve just got a new floor here we’re going to open up, and we’ll be hiring people to fill that space and create more games. We’re very ambitious and the road ahead is there for us to make full use of.”