Inside Suite 502 at the Olympic Block building in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, there’s a little PopCap Games reunion going on. Rick Schmitz, a former PopCap art director, is in one corner sketching up a design. Close by is producer Michael Santora, who spent more than seven years helping teams release games over at PopCap’s Seattle office just a 10-minute drive from here.
But these guys aren’t getting together for old times’ sake. Instead, the ten developers and producers here — all ex-PopCap employees — are pumping out mobile games for Wild Tangent Studios.
WildTangent, the 15-year-old Redmond-based games company, opened this office exactly one year ago to house its new mobile-focused game studio, four years after the company had stopped making games to focus on sales and distribution. WildTangent veteran Matt Shea, an executive VP with the company, was assigned to head the new WildTangent Studios, and his first hire was PopCap’s Schmitz.
It’s not like everything was going down the drain at PopCap when people made the transition, but the company was definitely in the midst of some big changes. It had grown rapidly since its inception in 2000 and in July 2011, EA acquired PopCap for $1.3 billion.
Some at PopCap enjoyed having the freedom to be creative and be involved at multiple levels of game development. That’s exactly what WildTangent Studios offers, they say.
“It was cool opportunity to work in small studio again,” producer Ty Roberts said. “It almost kind of had that early PopCap feel, like, ‘We can do anything.’ “
Santora shared similar feelings about the benefits of working with a small team. When he first started at PopCap in 2005, there were fewer than 50 employees at the company. Everyone wore different hats and shared responsibility for a variety of tasks.
That changed as PopCap grew, especially after the EA acquisition, Santora said. Employees in specific teams were responsible for specialized jobs. No longer were people wearing those different hats.
A chance to start working with fewer people again intrigued Santora.
“The big thing for me was transitioning back to the environment where I really thrive in, which is smaller environments with less direct compartmentalization,” Santora said. “I do best in environments where I have to just figure out how to get something done.”
Roberts and Santora make it sound like the classic story of an employee moving from a big company to a startup, where you have more control and ownership over the final product or service. WildTangent employees are encouraged to throw out crazy ideas because in this environment, those ideas have a real possibility to come to fruition.
“We absolutely have that startup vibe,” said Roberts, who previously worked on the Bejeweled team at PopCap. “With WildTangent, there’s always an opportunity to do something awesome.”
It’s not like Shea was head-hunting solely for PopCap employees, though he did know there was some serious talent at the company. But once he brought on a few, many others noticed.
“I think we got really lucky getting some of these guys that worked on fantastic titles at PopCap,” Shea said. “When we had a conversation with them in terms of where we were going with mobile and how we were focusing on building out the studio, I think that resonated with where they wanted to go, compared to some of the things PopCap was focusing on in conjunction with EA.”
Shea is quick to reiterate that he has nothing but respect and admiration for EA and PopCap, which is a “very close partner” with WildTangent, he said.
“There is no one winner-take-all in this industry like how Google dominates search,” Shea said. “This is just about making the best product you can.”
While PopCap has been shutting down offices due to EA’s restructuring phase, it’s been more smooth sailing for Shea and his mobile-focused team. They’ve released two titles worldwide already — Polar Bowler 1st Frame and Penguins! Escape — and both have been well-received. There are two other titles soft-launched in Canada and a number of other projects in the works.
One advantage WildTangent Studios has is the safety net of its parent company, WildTangent. This allows the studio to operate in its own style, but also have the luxury of established relationships with nearly every smartphone maker and several carriers, along with extra support in departments like paid acquisitions and marketing.
In addition, the studio has the flexibility to work off of successful WildTangent brands like Polar Bowler and Fate, but also come up with its own ideas that range from family friendly titles to more intense and serious games.
“A lot of of times a studio can get boxed in with the first success and be like, ‘Hey, I only have to make casual or core games from here on out,'” Shea explained. “We are lucky in that regard. We can build a playground of a small studio with a handful of folks in one place, but with the support of something like WildTangent on the other side. It’s been a nice balance for us.”
Shea said he’s hiring to fill positions at the studio and it isn’t clear where he’s looking to find talent — although at this point I think we all have a pretty good guess.