The Seattle casual-game studio is launching “Bejeweled Stars,” a new version of the massively popular game and the first “Bejeweled” title it has produced as a subsidiary of gaming giant Electronic Arts.
Five years after being scooped up by Electronic Arts, PopCap Games’ Seattle home still resembles a quirky startup.
A human-sized zombie statue greets visitors in the lobby. A main meeting room is packed with arcade and board games, and the Belltown office space boasts only-in-Seattle office views stretching from Elliott Bay to the Space Needle.
But next to a conference table among a cluster of PopCap developers, a large flat-screen monitor hangs on a wall, hosting a live video feed to a room in EA’s Redwood Shores, Calif., headquarters.
The goal of the always-on, two-way webcam is hardly Big Brother. The feed lets PopCap’s developers collaborate face-to-face with EA counterparts working on the same project, a more human medium than phone calls or emails.
Most Read Business Stories
- REI to sell its never-used Bellevue headquarters and shift office work to multiple Seattle-area sites
- Grocery workers say morale is at an all-time low: 'They don't even treat us like humans anymore'
- Boeing deliveries slow to a trickle, while 737 MAX cancellations grow
- The nation wanted to eat out again. Everyone has paid the price.
- Why did it take more than 2 months to stop the largest fraud in Washington state history?
Still, the video screen is a reminder that the swashbuckling studio is now working in an arena where many others have failed: trying to thrive as a subsidiary of a major gaming company.
PopCap on Tuesday released “Bejeweled Stars” for Google and Apple mobile devices, the first addition to its flagship matching-game franchise in six years. It is also the first “Bejeweled” title PopCap has released as an EA subsidiary.
“ ‘Bejeweled’ is what started it all,” said Heather Hazen, who oversaw “Bejeweled Stars’” 50-person development team, about 40 in Seattle and the rest at EA. “It’s been the lifeblood of who we think of ourselves as.”
“Bejeweled” fueled the rise of PopCap, helping the company grow during the 2000s from a startup initially dubbed Sexy Action Cool by its trio of young founders into a giant of casual and social-media gaming and a major presence in Seattle’s thriving video-gaming scene.
The “Plants vs. Zombies” franchise is PopCap’s other best-known hit.
PopCap was weighing an initial public offering in 2011 when EA, the gaming juggernaut that produces such series as “Madden NFL” and “The Sims,” came knocking with an acquisition valued at as much as $1.3 billion.
In the video-gaming business, such acquisitions can end poorly for the subsidiary studio.
Since the EA deal, PopCap studios in Vancouver, B.C., and Dublin, Ireland, were closed. PopCap’s two remaining founders left the company in 2014.
The company now employs about 165 people, down from about 500 at the time of EA acquisition.
“Acquisitions are always tough,” said James Gwertzman, a former PopCap executive who left in 2013 after nine years with the company. “What hurts isn’t ill will — it’s not like anyone sets out to spend $1 billion on your company and purposely ruin it.”
But cultural changes — even things as simple as plugging in to the new corporate parent’s payroll or human-resources bureaucracy — can start to hamper what made an independent studio unique, he said. “Those things add up, they start cutting against the culture,” Gwertzman said. “Culture is where acquisitions go wrong.”
PopCap’s business model — selling paid, casual games — was also upended after the deal by the rise of free-to-play smartphone and tablet games.
Under that new model, exemplified by such games as “Candy Crush” and “Clash of Clans,” game studios try to amass a giant base of gamers and make money down the line through in-game advertising or small purchases that unlock new features.
In a market flooded with free-to-play games, the industry’s thinking has shifted from creating a game its creators want to play to one targeting what experiences aren’t out there, said Cara Ely, PopCap’s creative director. “What are they missing in the marketplace?”
Ely is one of PopCap’s co-studio managers, along with Steve Mauri and Jon David.
For “Bejeweled Stars,” PopCap pulled out all the stops, focusing on satisfying details such as the way jewels move after players match a set, and creating challenges that keep gamers coming back.
After completing a level, players are serenaded by a “cat choir” meowing in harmony. The human singers behind the cats are members of the Northwest Sinfonia and Chorale, a group that also pitched in on Microsoft video games like “Halo” and “Gears of War.”
Compared with previous “Bejeweled” releases, PopCap has ramped up the game’s slate of unlockable upgrades and social-media aspects. Players can collect emoji-like charms to complete daily riddles, opening the door to a way to play and interact with other players that isn’t just about racking up the highest score.
PopCap also has invested in keeping the game fresh. “Bejeweled Stars” will come with content updated daily and new slates of levels released down the line.
“This is a living, breathing experience,” Hazen said. “Our job starts the day we launch.”