When Ken Moss started at the video game company Electronic Arts a little more than four years ago, he was one of the only EA employees working out of PopCap Games in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood. The gaming giant had acquired the Seattle company, known for hit games “Plants vs. Zombies,” “Peggle,” and “Bejeweled,” for up to $1.3 billion in 2011.
He recalls having a “random” office at the time, surrounded by the hub of “creativity and awesomeness” that is PopCap.
Moss, EA’s chief technology officer, showed off the company’s new Seattle offices on Friday, on the fifth floor of 800 Fifth Ave. at the southern edge of downtown. Not only are EA and PopCap sharing a space in what’s billed as a “central technology” hub, but perhaps as a subconscious nod to the man in charge of it all, there is literally moss on the walls in one common area.
With about 100 EA employees and another 100 who are specific to PopCap, the office is looking to grow, and executives expect to reach a headcount of about 300 in the next year or so. Aside from the creative minds working on the next “Plants vs. Zombies” — or something, they wouldn’t say what — the office is home to teams dealing with cybersecurity, tech ops, the cloud, and developer/player experience. EA has more than 10,0000 employees worldwide, with headquarters in Redwood Shores, Calif., and offices in cities such as Vancouver, B.C., Austin, Texas, and elsewhere globally.
EA’s Seattle presence is focused on attracting top tech talent against the likes of Microsoft, Amazon and others. Moss, a Microsoft veteran and former eBay executive, thinks EA has an advantage in that quest.
“There are 2.6 billion gamers in the world. It’s a third of the planet,” Moss said. “Being able to to think about how we make hundreds of millions or billions of people on this planet a little bit happier is what we get to do every day. You’ll see this throughout the office. Certainly you’ll see it in me. It’s a very unique proposition that I don’t know that [other companies are] thinking about. And at the same time, I get to think about the most cutting-edge tech that is anywhere in the industry and it’s truly amazing tech.”
Rattling off such tech disciplines as cybersecurity, the cloud, artificial intelligence, physics, streaming and more, Moss can’t help but smile knowing that at EA and in Seattle they’re all being utilized in the service of gaming and happiness.
“That’s just something I think is incredibly fun,” he said.
The fun is sprinkled throughout the office, designed by Bellevue, Wash.-based JPC Architects. There are plants and plush zombies everywhere. Screens on walls flash through popular EA titles, such as “FIFA 19,” and desktops are covered with the toys of the trade. And there are games of all kinds, from billiards and foosball to console games, board games and full-size whack-a-mole-style PopCap arcade games.
The personality of PopCap is definitely being utilized to give the space — which could otherwise house any random tech operation — some charm.
Moss has assembled a team in Seattle that is dealing with leading technical challenges as the world of gaming evolves. Among them is Matt Thomlinson, who is EA’s chief information security officer. Thomlinson spent 22 years at Microsoft, including a role as head of security for the tech giant’s Azure cloud business.
Thomlinson’s global team deals with enterprise security, online security, and the games and products that are part of platform security.
“Security is a pretty hot space right now … so it’s a really difficult place to recruit into,” Thomlinson said. “I’d say we’ve done rather well. We compete against Microsoft, Google, Amazon, just here in Seattle. I’ve got folks on the team that I’ve pulled from the FBI for doing things like investigations. We even have somebody, not based here, whose last job was protecting the International Space Station.”
“We’ve got a great mission here,” Thomlinson added. “Protecting hundreds of millions of players globally is kind of cool.”
For all it is doing in tech, one of the most important things EA has to deal with as a company, Moss said, is the interaction between tech and studios. “And it’s not easy,” he said. “It requires a lot of work and a lot of communication.”
The hope is that it will get easier with all personnel on one floor of the new space, rather than the three or four floors they were split between at the old PopCap building.
Matt Nutt, head of PopCap and general manager for EA’s casual gaming business, said of three PopCap teams in the offices, one is working on new content and features for “Plants vs. Zombies 2,” one is working on forward-looking far-out concepts, and a third is working on the studio’s next game — which no one was ready to talk about.
PopCap was founded in Seattle in 2000 by Brian Fiete, John Vechey and Jason Kapalka, all of whom have since left the company to work on new projects and ventures.
The way games are developed and played has changed dramatically since the company was founded.
“It’s nice to be able to focus on the art and then partner with Ken’s organization so that we don’t have to worry about being masters of things like back-end services and digital platform and all the technology that we want to make games more social to give people a reason for playing games together,” Nutt said.
Nutt said PopCap has weathered a lot of change as a studio. In May 2017, it reduced its Seattle workforce by an unspecified number, and Nutt said in a memo to staff at the time the studio was “returning to our roots — smaller, leaner, pushing hard to build new things.”
With about 100 employees at PopCap now, Nutt said Friday that numbers are back to where they were and the studio is again hiring. He credited the studio’s survival in part to its acquisition by EA. Key to its continued viability will be its ability to find success in free-to-play mobile gaming, he said.
“There’s 3 billion smart devices worldwide. It’s a massive market for us,” Nutt said. “Our business used to look like putting games in boxes. In fact, the place that we just moved from, the first floor, we used to pack and ship ourselves. But, you know, success used to look like several hundred thousand boxes mostly to a Western audience. We now make games that reach hundreds of millions of players worldwide.”