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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

July 19, 2011 at 10:34 AM

10 things PopCap boss hates about casual games

A week after orchestrating the sale of PopCap Games for up to $1.3 billion, the company’s chief executive, Dave Roberts, unloaded on the casual games industry.

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Roberts was an opening speaker at the Casual Connect industry conference that’s running today through Thursday at Benaroya Hall.

Roberts took the opportunity to let loose a string of rants, urging game companies and developers to take the high road.

His speech was titled “10 things I hate about casual games.” They include:

1. Gamification. He suggested it’s a trend enriching conference organizers trying to get corporate money into their pockets by promising to make anyone an “engagement expert.” “Really? Is everything a game?”

2. Portals. “I am sick to death of portals,” he said, specifically the commissions they charge game developers. “How can you charge developers 60 or 70 percent? I’ve been predicting for years that this would end … and it continues to mystify me.” Even with competition from Apple, Facebook and others, the portal rates haven’t come down. Roberts said he makes more money selling a copy of “Bejeweled” at Wal-Mart – with physical stores and greeters – than at Yahoo’s portal.

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3. Get rich quick. “More than any other business I’ve ever worked in it seems to attract people who think it’s going to be really easy,” he said, noting that “Angry Birds” was something like the 52nd game made by Rovio.

4. Commoditization. “We have to figure out how to stop making shovelware … it really cheapens the whole industry.” Distributors need to be more selective and developers need to focus on quality, he said.

5. Money over fun. This was a reference to “evil social games” that trick people, lead to people pressuring friends on social networks and let players pay their way to the top of leaderboards. “Really those games make you feel like a beggar,” he said. PopCap is also making social games “but we don’t start in the dark underbelly” and the company doesn’t “want to ruin the environment for everybody.”

6. Simple games are easy to make. “This notion has been bugging me for years … making simple products is way more difficult than making complicated products,” he said. “Simple is more complicated, simple is elegant, simple is harder.”

7. Attack of the clones. Roberts showed a slide for a mock game called “VilleVille,” then lambasted developers who look at the top-selling game charts and then copy the leaders. “Really do you think you can out Farmville Zynga? What’s the point.” This is “a blight on the industry that drives me crazy.”

8. Stupid venture money. A lot of investors Roberts talked to over the years “look at our business as if it’s a manufacturing business” and expect it to be able to speed up production of its widgets. Money from these investors can “disrupt the entire ecosystem” putting in money “that makes it harder for people making great games.”

9. Middleware mania. Roberts called out “snake oil” vendors with tools promising to magically and instantly convert a PC game into a mobile and social title by pressing a single button. It never works, he said. “Usually the stupid venture money funds the stupid middleware companies,” he added.

10. Independent game companies. This was a self reference – PopCap was a standout independent, until last week’s sale to EA.

Roberts also added one thing that he likes about casual games:

“We sell fun for a living. How awesome is that?”

He didn’t say anything about the awesomeness of the $25 million-plus bonus that he received last week.

During a question session, Roberts touched on “frothy IPO” prices and said he doesn’t envy chief executives running companies such as LinkedIn with high valuations based on expectations of their markets three to five years in the future.

Zynga’s going to have to “grow into” the valuation set by its offering, he said.

“I don’t think you can read into the frothy IPO market as a gauge of how the market will look three or four or five years from now,” he said.

Roberts said he’s restricted in what he can say about the sale to Electronic Arts until the deal closes, but mentioned briefly at the end that “we did prety well with the deal with EA and we’re excited about it.”

Even though he put up a slide showing EA as the Death Star

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