It was quiet backstage at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on June 10, an edgy kind of quiet born out of the anticipation that accompanies high expectations. While some of the best-known video game industry executives and, strangely enough, the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, milled about, John Vechey sat alone in a chair. Next to him sat a zombie head. They made an odd pair, Vechey and the undead noggin. He’s tall and lanky, and despite being 34 looks like a boy in adult clothing; the head was mascot-size and a sickly shade of gray, with eyes that bugged out cartoonishly, like a stress doll squeezed to the point of bursting. It was a scene seemingly designed to elicit laughter, if it weren’t for the fact that Vechey looked so deadly serious.
He was clearing his mind, rehearsing, finding that little corner of Zen that athletes will retreat to when the moment threatens to swallow them whole. Because in a few minutes, just past 1pm, he was scheduled to slip that undead head over his own and walk out onstage to introduce the most buzzworthy upcoming releases from PopCap, the 400-person game studio he cofounded in Seattle more than a decade ago. And, as video game trade shows go, it was the biggest stage he’d ever have.
This was the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3 as it’s known to the geek world. Microsoft and Sony were using the event to formally introduce their new consoles, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, respectively. More than 4,000 industry members—designers, distributors, buyers—sat in the crowd, and several million gamers were watching a live stream of the event at home. Green and blue spotlights cut the air like lightsabers. Jumbo screens flashed with frenetically edited clips of digital war zones and football fields. Thumping electronic music oonce-oonced off the walls. It was like a rock concert for everyone who’d skipped rock concerts in high school to stay home and play Nintendo.
Vechey wasn’t nervous about anything he had to say, though. High expectations notwithstanding, he had no doubt that the slate of games he was going to introduce would score with everyone in the audience. PopCap fanboys and fangirls were already frothing at the mouth for Plants vs. Zombies 2, the inspiration behind Vechey’s headwear and the long-awaited sequel to one of the company’s most successful franchises. He even had a couple surprises that, at least as far as he was concerned, were sure to be blockbusters.
No, what was really weighing on Vechey’s mind was the Jump.
PopCap makes what have come to be known as casual games, but don’t use that term around Vechey. He hates it, even though he and his friends and cofounders, Brian Fiete and Jason -Kapalka, helped introduce it to the pop culture lexicon at the turn of the twenty-first century. Back then most games fell into one of a handful of categories—adventure, role playing, sports, first-person shooters—that required hours (and hours) to master and appealed to niche audiences made up of hardcore gamers who seemed to prefer virtual worlds to the real one.
But then, in late 2000, PopCap released its first game, Bejeweled. (Actually, at first it was known as Diamond Mine, but nobody’s called it that since PopCap changed the name in 2001.)
It didn’t fall into any of those well--established categories; it was a simple (and highly addictive) puzzle game that tested players’ ability to quickly arrange brightly colored gems in rows of three; think Tetris meets Connect Four. The rules were easy to follow, it wasn’t violent or scary, and there was no complicated backstory to learn or world to immerse yourself in. You could boot it up—remember, this is before smartphones took over the casual game space—play for a few minutes and then turn it off. In other words, it was a video game for crossword nerds, knitters, and everyone for whom gamer was a bad word. And in the process PopCap had laid the groundwork for a new category, one that needed a name to differentiate it from the more intense games dominating the industry. “And that name was almost based off of—self--hatred is the wrong word—an embarrassment that what we believed to be true wasn’t a reality yet,” Vechey says. “Which is that games could be for everybody.”
Whether Vechey likes the term or not, PopCap is saddled with it now. And, all things being equal, it’s not exactly a bad term to be associated with. Casual games, which these days encompass everything from the avian-slingshotting Angry Birds to the Scrabble knockoff Words with Friends, are, by some estimates, an $8 billion industry. When your customer is everybody—as Vechey genuinely believes—maybe everything really is possible.
Designing games for “everybody” would seem, on the surface, to be an exercise in masochism: Either you aim for the lowest common denominator that appeases all tastes without pleasing any of them, like the heavily focus-grouped approach that turned Hollywood into an assembly line of blockbusters only memorable for how unremarkable they are. Or you endeavor to discover a pleasure button in all of us that can be pushed with just the right combination of ones and zeroes. And good luck with that.
PopCap went another way entirely. Vechey and co. just trusted their instincts. In 2005 Bejeweled was on its way to selling more than 50 million copies; another massive hit, Peggle, was on the horizon; and PopCap was hiring in bunches. Vechey decided it needed a CEO, someone who could build a business around the studio that up to then had been flying by the seat of its pants. They hired Dave Roberts, a tech--industry vet who had worked at Apple in the ’80s and recently semiretired after selling a software company. “My first week on the job,” Roberts recalls, “I heard Jason and John say, ‘We make games that we like to play. If we don’t like to play them, they’re not going to be fun.’ ”
That’s great if you have confidence in your judgment—and Vechey is unquestionably confident about PopCap’s brain trust, almost to the point of cockiness—but isn’t fun an inherently subjective concept? “Not if you pretend it’s objective,” he says. “If you just say, ‘Hey, this is objective’ and you pretend like it is, you can push yourself to do some great things as an organization.”
Push being the operative term. “There’s a lot of arguing, discussing, coming to consensus,” Vechey says. There’s no all-seeing, all-knowing creative godhead who decides what’s fun. Which brings us back to Plants vs. Zombies 2, which is scheduled for release in late summer. Like Bejeweled, the original is strangely simple, yet insanely addictive: Waves of zombies advance on a house that you must protect by landscaping the front lawn with a variety of undead-diverting plants. The game has been downloaded 125 million times for nearly a dozen platforms, from Xbox to the iPhone, and within nine months of its release in 2009 Vechey and Roberts knew they’d need to produce a sequel.
They assigned teams of designers to find a concept that didn’t feel like a cash grab, but one after another was abandoned, in some cases as much as a year into production because once-promising ideas failed to gel. Inefficient? Maybe, but as Roberts puts it, “We’re not trying to be efficient. We’re trying to make great games.” In the end they settled on a time-travel narrative and subtitled the game It’s About Time, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the delay. (Which got uncomfortably ironic when, in late June, just three weeks before its original release date, the game was pushed back.) “When you calculate the years and years of misfires, changes in personnel, changes in leadership, only expletives can describe how long it’s been,” Vechey says.
You could ask him if it’ll be worth the wait, but when you know the answer why bother?
Back in LA, Vechey put on that zombie head and strode out to greet E3’s 4,000 attendees with a loping, arm-swinging strut. Over the next five minutes he’d discuss Plants vs. Zombies 2 and introduce an altogether different entry into the franchise, Garden Warfare: Available “sometime” in 2014 for the Xbox One, it would take characters that fans of the original had grown to love and place them in immersive, combatlike scenarios. Here was PopCap, making the very style of game—a third-person shooter—that was in many ways the antithesis of its brand. And yet, just as Vechey knew they would, the crowd ate it up.
But he still wasn’t done. He ended his presentation with the surprise announcement that PopCap would release a Peggle sequel later in 2013. And then to punctuate the news he leapt into the air—a full-on, lead-with-the-fist, giddy jump. It had been planned and rehearsed ad nauseam (“I knew if I didn’t give it my all, it was going to suck,” he said later), but there was still something a little…off about it. Almost instantly, gamers posted animated gifs of the leap on message boards, propelling it to meme status within minutes. But they weren’t mocking him so much as marveling at his geeky, awkward earnestness. Did he actually do that? they seemed to be asking themselves.
He did, and if you watch any of those gifs closely, you’ll even note a little swagger—the kind of swagger only a guy who really believes he can please everybody can muster.
Published: August 2013