Social, Casual or Both? PopCap Sells Cows, Gives Away Free Milk

So strangely compelling...
So strangely compelling...

In terms of wide-sweeping brand recognition, Popcap is to casual gaming what Nintendo is to gaming in general.  Your Grandma knows about Nintendo, but your Mom might know a PopCap game or two.  Founded a decade ago, the company does a spectacular job of keeping their games in the public eye and maintaining a friendly, unassuming aesthetic.  It’s as if making boatloads of money is the pleasant side-effect of cranking out highly addictive puzzlers, and to be clear, casual games are doing big business.  Most of their games are available on multiple platforms, with free versions hosted at  Because the games are both robust and replayable, it’s no surprise that their perennial favorite Bejeweled 2 hasn’t left the Top 10 Highest Grossing list on the App Store since that category was unveiled six months ago .

After venturing onto Facebook with a high-speed variant called Bejeweled Blitz (one minute to rack up the highest score possible), they proceeded to add this mode to the existing iPhone app as a free update.  PopCap then spiced up the Facebook Bejeweled Blitz with boosts, which are stackable in-game bonuses that act like score-steroids for the following three games.  The boosts add to the fun, and PopCap took this addition in two great directions.  First, the boosts are completely free.  They cost in-game coins, which can only be earned by playing the game.  Players do not have the option of paying for them with real currency, unlike Facebook juggernauts like FarmVille and Mafia Wars.  PopCap is currently integrating these boosts into the iPhone app as another free update.  This sort of back-and-forth promotion (with try-before-you-buy appeal) casts a wide net that gently lures in new players, rather than bullying them with relentless Facebook Wall posts or in-game ads.

It’s an effective approach.  Case in point – this blogger was hooked on the Facebook Bejeweled Blitz for no more than 2 days before happily handing PopCap $3 to play the iPhone version, despite knowing about it for months.  It was the addition of Blitz mode that sealed the deal.  While it’s tough to make lightning-quick moves on the iPhone, and thus my PC-and-mouse scores are consistently higher.  However, it still scratches the same itch and was thus a worthy purchase.

Other titles, like Armor Games’ fantastic Crush the Castle, are available free online or as nearly-free, inexpensive iPhone apps.  While some players may scoff at this model and play for free to their heart’s content, many others will be hooked and invest in the game.  The flash version of Crush the Castle mentions the iPhone app as it’s booting up, just as the Facebook Bejewled Blitz encourages users to check out PopCap’s other games, both free and paid, on the web and iPhone.

Bejeweled Boosts go Bzzzzt

Bejeweled Blitz is a fantastic union of social and casual games, though it’s clearly the same basic game that self-described non-gamers fell in love with ten years ago, and just happens to live on Facebook rather than PopCap’s own site.  It’s the company’s first foray into social gaming, and could use more team-based elements.   There’s some sort of outside contest that can be entered when the “team score” reaches a certain level, but it feels superfluous. An obvious (though overused) approach would be to reward the player with boosts if they recruited their friends to the game.  Rather, PopCap has chosen to let the word spread organically, opting to sprinkle their free games with subtle reminders of the associated paid versions.

In the world of bite-size games, a powerful triumvirate is emerging – free Web version, free Facebook version and paid mobile app.  Armor Games would be wise to follow PopCap’s lead and venture onto Facebook.  With the minimal costs associated with porting games from one platform to another, expect to see more and more of this any place, any time, any platform approach.  Consider yourself warned = ]