PopCap CEO Dave Roberts
PopCap CEO Dave Roberts

Wow, that didn’t take long. Within an hour of hitting Apple’s app store this morning, the new Plants vs. Zombies game had rocketed to the top of the charts.

The much-anticipated sequel is certainly different from the original game that was released four years ago on the PC, and then later adapted for the iPhone in February 2010.

For one, Plants vs. Zombies 2: It’s About Time is … free.

That marks a different approach for PopCap Games. And while PopCap has taken some criticism for jumping on the free-to-play bandwagon, CEO Dave Roberts notes that it’s really not too much different from the business model it started with more than a decade ago.

We caught up with Roberts today on top of Seattle’s Space Needle where PopCap, now owned by EA, is hosting its own epic PR stunt. (More on that here: Photos: PopCap’s Zombies take over the Space Needle).

Here’s more from Roberts:

On the release of Plants vs. Zombies 2: “It’s a big release. It is the biggest release for PopCap. And, so far so good. The numbers are looking awesome, and the Apple promo hasn’t event kicked in yet.”

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Rod Mar photo via PopCap

On zombies as a game genre: “We were worried a year or two ago … would zombies be over by then. When PvZ one came out, zombies were just on the uptake, and it seemed like it would be a fad that wouldn’t last long. And it seemed like they went away for awhile, but they seem to be back to stay.”

On the initial downloads of Plants vs. Zombies 2: “The fact that we hit No. 1 in the app store charts, based purely on, I mean there’s nothing, seriously. I don’t think anyone at EA has seen anything go up that fast to the top downloads. By 6 a.m. this morning, it was already at number one. Literally, between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. My guess, by lunch today, we will have hit the same number of downloads that it took us five months to hit in the first version. It probably took us close to a year to hit that number on the PC.”

On the free-to-play aspects of the new Plants vs. Zombies: “We’ve gotten a lot of flak in the games industry for going free-to-play. Everyone is: ‘free-to-play is so evil.’ But, part of it is, look we can now talk to a million people in a day or two million people in a day or five million people, or whatever it is going to end up with today. That’s a huge deal. People forget that freemium can really be a great thing because we are really showing a lot of people the game, and they are excited about it.”

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A zombie at Seattle’s Space Needle

Do the economics makes as much sense with free-to-play, and can you make up the difference monetarily? “Absolutely, you can. Can you do it in a way that preserves what we believe is the great game experience and customer experience. We hope so. We think so. If you look at the top grossing list (in the app store) right now, I think you have to get down to 70 or 80 or 90 before you see a paid game. That’s the sad truth. People have decided that free-to-play is a better way for them to monetize. And, some of the purists would argue that the industry has made them do that.”

What do you think of free-to-play? “I think the model — like any other business model, it can be flawed, or it can be great. It depends on how you execute. People used to complain about … (when we started) we sold $20 download games. You had a 60-minute trial on, and then you had to pay $20 for it. And then you owned it. It was two percent conversions, and it was the same thing. A lot of people would try it, and a small number of people would pay for it. And that’s how PopCap grew up. We are not a stranger to that. There are ways to abuse that as well, and there were notorious games that had 63 minutes of great game play that sucked. I think there are ways to abuse any business model, and people sometimes say: ‘Yeah, you can do horrible things with that.’ Yeah, of course you can…. With PvZ we have a pretty important brand here and we are trying to protect it. Even the old game, the PvZ game, here years later, has millions of active daily users. It is a game that people love to play over and over.”

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