‘Plants vs. Zombies 2’ and the Rise of “AAA Casual”
If you never played the original Plants vs. Zombies, the 2009 tower defense masterpiece from PopCap Games, turn off your computer right now and go outside. Tell your loved ones that you care about them. Let me know what fresh air smells like. If, like me, you’ve lost months of your life to the Vasebreaker Endless minigame alone, you’ll be excited/horrified to learn that the sequel launched yesterday on iOS. I spoke with Lead Producer Allen Murray on what’s new for PvZ 2, the new genre “AAA casual,” and his personal favorite games. No word on a formal apology from PopCap for the trail of destruction and broken relationships this incredibly addictive game has left in its wake.
Alli Reed: First things first: what’s new for Plants vs. Zombies 2?
Allen Murray: There’s a lot. There’s obviously a bunch of new plants, a bunch of new zombies. You also travel through time to three different worlds: Ancient Egypt, Pirate Seas, and Wild West. Mechanically, there are two really big things that will fundamentally change the way people play the game. The first is plant food — pellets that you earn by destroying certain zombies. You collect these pellets and place them on top of the plants and it creates this temporary bonus, so the pea shooter instantly turns into a gattling pea and wastes a whole lane of zombies. Each plant has a secret plant food effect. We hope that players spend time exploring and trying out different strategies with the plant food. Because of this new mechanic, we were able to add in moments in levels that keep the player on their toes. In Ancient Egypt, we have a sandstorm appear and zombies pop up out of nowhere. We give you moments where the player is put up against the ropes and they have to use plant food to figure out how they’re going to counter the onslaught.
The second new mechanic really takes advantage of the touch-based interface mechanic by adding power-ups. Right now we have three of them – the pinch, the flick, and the zap – which cost in-game coins to use. You use your fingers to actually pinch the heads off zombies, or zap them with a bolt of electricity, or flick them off the map.
Those are the two big mechanical ones, but another big change is that we’ve gone free-to-play. That meant we had to really re-think the level-to-level structure of the game and balance the in-game economy. We wanted to make sure that we have the largest install base as possible, and we want to get this in the hands of many more players than we’ve ever had before, so the decision to go free-to-play was definitely a huge design change.
AR: When did you decide to make the game free-to-play with in-app purchases? It seems like that would really affect the development of the game.
AM: We decided around the middle of last year. It took a lot of soul-searching before that. Going free-to-play was the single biggest design problem that we faced. We told PopCap’s executive team that we need time to come up with ideas and try some things, knowing that our first ideas weren’t going to work out. We were able to keep working on some core ideas regardless of if the game was free-to-play or not, and meanwhile took a slice of the development team to tackle the free-to-play issue specifically while maintaining the legacy and fun of the game.
The thing is, PvZ 1 isn’t just a successful game, it’s a beloved game. People LOVE it. We really hold that in high regard and don’t want to ruin it for everyone. I’m really proud of the solutions we’ve come up with for making PvZ 2 free-to-play. There’s no special sauce, it’s just getting smart people who are good at their jobs together, present them with the problem, and give them the time and the resources to solve it. We tried a bunch of stuff, we messed up a bunch of stuff, and tried again until we found an approach we thought was really good.
The game strikes a great balance; it’s not pay-to-win in any way, it’s still skill-based. You can unlock all the content through gameplay. Our philosophy is giving you dozens of hours of quality gameplay for free, and that players will understand the value proposition of the items we have for sale.
AR: What did the design process for PvZ 2 look like, outside of the free-to-play issue?
AM: It really came from all directions. Ever since PvZ 1, there have always been at least one or two people working on prototypes and ideas that would be cool for another PvZ game. We eventually came full circle and decided to go back to the lawn grid structure from the first game. Our lead designer had the idea for plant food, and we built a prototype that proved that mechanic was fun. That became the cornerstone for the sequel and we built it up from there. Plant food fundamentally changed the core gameplay in a way that didn’t break it and you still felt like it was a PvZ game, but was new enough and fun enough that it added an extra element and made the overall experience better.
AR: PvZ 2 seems like a much richer, more complex game than a lot of other casual games that are on the market. Do you think that trend will continue for PopCap?
AM: That’s a hard question to answer. I used to work on AAA games, especially the Halo series, for many years, so I’m used to these really big games that have a big legacy, lot of staff, large budgets. I’ve been with PopCap for a couple of years now but with PvZ 2, I’m personally calling it “AAA casual.” The team is big, the quality is big for this type of team, and the quality bar is really, really high. It’s kind of ridiculous that we’re giving it away because the level of polish and attention to detail and balances to core gameplay are so refined that I hope we’re setting a new bar for quality. The simple answer is yes, this will continue, especially as players’ expectations continue to increase over time. Right now we have a really great problem in the app store: there are a ton of games, so as a player you have this tyranny of choice. Our hope is that the players will naturally gravitate toward quality games and tell their friends about those games, so our focus is just on making a really great game.
AR: Do you think that word of mouth element is significantly different for mobile, casual gaming than it is for console or PC gaming?
AM: Absolutely, a billion percent. There have been a lot of qualitative studies about this, but the largest influencer of people downloading a mobile game is word of mouth. You’ll be sitting at a cafe with a friend and they’ll say, “Have you heard of this game? It’s really cool,” and you’ll pick up your phone and search for it, and then you download it, and that’s huge. Those sorts of behavioral patterns that we see in the mobile space really influenced the development of the game – making the initial download small enough to get through cell networks, for instance.
AR: You used to work on big-budget AAA titles. What drew you to PopCap away from the more hardcore gaming side?
AM: These were the games I was mostly playing. I realized I was spending a lot more time playing games on my phone than my Xbox, and I was really enjoying smaller, more focused gameplay experiences. A lot of my experience had been working on these really massive projects on such a huge scale, so I wanted to see how you can make a game with 4 or 5 people. That’s a different skill.
AR: What’s happening next for your PopCap team?
AM: Right now we’re supporting the launch – all hands on deck for that – and we’re already thinking about what’s next for Plants vs. Zombies 2. Like I mentioned, there are three different worlds you travel to, and our intention is to release new worlds every few months. We have a bunch of new worlds we want to explore, so the team is focusing on some of those right now as well as some other features we want to add to the game. And taking some vacations.
AR: This question is very hard and intentionally vague: what is your favorite video game, and why?
AM: Can I pick more than one?
AM: Okay, the first one is Myth, by Bungie, because that was the first game that made me realize I wanted to be a developer. I was really, really good at that game and I made a lot of mods for it. I loved it.
The second is Shadow of the Colossus. That is one of my all-time favorite games. I love everything about it: I love the mood, I love the level structure, I love the puzzles; that game is forever a classic. I play it again every year or so.
Lately, I’ve been playing two games that have really stuck with me. I just played Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons by Starbreeze, that’s out on XBLA right now. That was an amazing experience. It was quality on every level; they had a great idea and they committed to it. It’s the first game that brought me to tears.
The other one isn’t out yet, but I was fortunate enough to be an early tester on, called The Novelist. It’s a game about life choices; you play as a ghost in a house occupied by this gentleman who’s writing a novel and living there with his wife and his son. You help the man make choices about his life and how he focuses on the balances of his career obligations and his responsibility as a husband and father. I personally struggle with those balances, so it was amazing to play a game that didn’t have a binary win/loss condition and was just about the choices you make in your life. It was eye-opening.