With the announcement yesterday of layoffs and studio closures at PopCap Games, right after announcing development had started on Plants vs Zombies 2, editor Omaha Sternberg has decided to review the past year since PopCap Games’ merger with EA and whether that merger was a good idea for PopCap and gamers.
EDIT: PopCap Games’ co-founder John Vechey posted an alternative view of the issues in the PopCap Blog.
A little over a year ago PopCap Games made the announcement that they had merged with Electronic Arts, aka EA. Since that time, I’ve wondered just what that actually would mean. Would PopCap exist as it’s own separate entity under the EA banner, continuing to use their unique development practices and independently developing games which EA would then publish? Or would PopCap truly be merged into EA, assuming all of EA’s methods while PopCap personnel become EA personnel?
Events of the past year regarding PopCap Games have seemed to answer my question. And, I’m sad to say, I’m not happy with the answer.
Let’s start with December of last year, when I received notice from PopCap regarding my “user information”. The first statement in the notice was the phrase “Good News”. Ironically, when a company must place such a term in big letters at the top of an important announcement, that always seems to mean the opposite. The notice went on to say:
Along comes GDC 2012 in March of this year. An article on GamesIndustry.biz, noting developers presenting at GDC 2012, listed that “EA’s George Fan will discuss his design work on Plants Vs Zombies…” Except that George Fan is an employee of PopCap Games. Or, at least, he was. It was a very pointed indication that PopCap employees were now EA employees. EA indicated later that this listing was in error and should have stated that George Fan was from PopCap, but the seeds of concern were already sown.
If one looks at PopCap’s releases since the merger, one finds two original IPs: they’re both social games released for Facebook. For a company that has previously released casual arcade/puzzle games for computers, to suddenly be shifted solely to Facebook and social games seems unusual to say the least.
Now this August we’ve had a flurry of bizarre and concerning news. First out of Kotaku, who reports a strong rumor of work starting on a Plants vs Zombies multiplayer FPS. WTF?? Who would think that the PvZ IP would be suited to a FPS environment? The team that is doing the initial work is rumored to be former members of EA’s Black Box studio (Skate, Need for Speed) who are at EA’s Burnaby campus in Canada. However, the rumor continues that apparently PopCap Games must greenlight the project, and this has not happened…yet.
Then Monday the Internet was flooded with the great news that development had begun on Plants vs Zombies 2, followed by the terrible news yesterday that PopCap Games had laid off 50 employees in their Seattle office and closed or shrunk two other studios (of which, unfortunately, George Fan is one…I guess EA won’t have to worry about him standing in the way of the PvZ FPS). In fact, news is now coming out that PopCap has been quietly laying off employees for months.
The bizarreness of these two announcements in such quick succession cannot be understated. PopCap seemed to be doing fine with the employee count and studio number they had before the merger, releasing popular games that were well-received and sold well. If that is the case, then how will PopCap be able to keep up with their previous development and marketing process with all of these layoffs and closures. The answer is: they won’t.
Every indication is that EA has slowly, over the course of the year, been subsuming PopCap into the EA fold, as it were. PopCap was never meant to be an independent studio that tried out new and risky endeavors. EA only seems to have wanted the IP that PopCap already had so that they could use it in endless different endeavors. It even looks like they are replacing PopCap employees with their own now to use the IP they have purchased.
EA likes to remain with the tried and true model, just like most large game corporations who shake at trying something new. Would an EA owned PopCap Games have been allowed to push Plants vs. Zombies forward? What about Zuma or Peggle? I think not. It’s the little independents that take the risks.
Only PopCap Games is not an independent anymore. They’re just another trademark under the EA corporate name.