Plants vs. Zombies: Monetization in Video Games – “I would’ve fought to keep it pay-once-and-play”

By: Isael Vega

The Development of Plants vs. Zombies

George Fan was a senior game designer at PopCap Games where he worked on one of his most popular games, Plants vs. Zombies. Fan was initially working on a sequel to his previous game, Insaniquarium, but developed the idea into a new game. Plants vs. Zombies (PvZ) is a tower-defense game inspired by other games Fan played and experiences building forts in his childhood.

Fan sketched ideas that would become core gameplay mechanics such as the peashooter, sunlight resource, and the five-lane layout. The characters of plants and zombies were conceptualized in this sketch, moving away from fish and aliens. Plants were chosen because they are stationary and zombies are slow. Fan primarily developed the game with a small team of four people at PopCap. PvZ was released on PC in 2009 and on mobile in 2010. The game was ported to nearly every device available, had two spin-off games, and a sequel that changed everything.

Electronic Arts’ Acquisition of PopCap Games

In 2011, Electronic Arts (EA) purchased PopCap Games in a $750 million deal. PopCap’s CEO said, “By working with EA, we’ll scale our games and services to deliver more social, mobile, casual fun to an even bigger, global audience.” PopCap Games was successful with its casual games, Plants vs. Zombies, Bejeweled, and Peggle. EA was already a major player in the console market and wanted to tap into the casual market on mobile. A year later in 2012, PopCap announced the long awaited Plants vs Zombies 2 for a 2013 spring release.

A day later, PopCap confirmed 50 people were laid off from their Seattle headquarters as part of a reorganization. The move was done in order to focus on free-to-play mobile games. Fan was included in the layoffs and was only involved in the conceptual stage of Plants vs. Zombies 2. Fan was against making PvZ a freemium game. Fan stated, “I think it’s a bad idea to force a new monetization scheme onto an existing game that already worked. If you’re gonna make a freemium game you gotta design it that way from the ground up.”

Plants vs. Zombies 2 and Microtransactions

Plants vs. Zombies 2: It’s About Time (PvZ2) changed a few things. It took the player from the familiar backyard levels to themed levels such as Ancient Egypt, Pirate Seas, and the Wild West. New plants and enemies were introduced. The game went from a one-time purchase to a freemium game with microtransactions. The microtransactions included plant food to supercharge your plants and additional plants for purchase. The original game was $2.99 for a wholesome experience. Some plants that were unlocked for free in the first game were purchasable in PvZ2 for $4.99 each. Although it’s possible to make it through the game without spending money, it makes the game feel like a chore due to the amount of grind required to get through later levels.

It takes away the feeling of accomplishment the first game presented you with after each level. According to Fan, PopCap wanted to hit “astronomical targets” and going freemium was the only way they could achieve those numbers. It’s by no means a bad game, but they fundamentally changed it by monetizing basic gameplay features. They also abandoned the fanbase on PC in their efforts to focus on the mobile market. The game was first released on iOS and later on Android.

Monetization in Video Games

The freemium model may be great for developers to get their game into as many hands as possible, but it’s not always great for the consumer. Nearly every freemium game has its gameplay centered around microtransactions. In city simulators, you have to pay to speed up your construction or wait hours. Candy Crush is one of the leading freemium games with its microtransactions including items to clear levels and purchase more lives.

Games like this limit the player from actually playing the game and are designed to get them to spend money. Some games do a better job at implementing microtransactions because they are designed with them in mind and not as an afterthought. On PopCap’s decision to make Pvz2 freemium, Fan stated, “My instincts told me that going freemium with PvZ2 was a bad idea because you’re trying to shoehorn in a monetization scheme onto game that wasn’t made for it.”

Game Designers vs. Businessmen

EA has a reputation for buying studios, putting them to work on games, canceling said games, and then shutting down the studio all together. EA the “Studio Killer” has also been named the worst company in America twice. Despite its reputation, Fan feels no animosity toward EA or PopCap and acknowledged, “In some ways, I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if EA didn’t buy PopCap.” Although the PvZ franchise didn’t turn out the way he wanted, Fan is happy to continue working on games the way he wants.

One of Fan’s biggest challenges as a game developer was, “Dealing with the feeling of pouring my heart into making the PvZ IP and then having it pretty much ripped away from me.” It’s clear Fan devoted a lot of hard work and passion into Plants vs. Zombies. His absence from the second game shows and it’s a problem when the creator says “that’s a bad idea” on trying to shoehorn in monetization.

Fan is now an independent game developer with his own studio, All Yes Good, and has released a new game, Octogeddon.

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