Plants vs. Zombies

Plants vs. Zombies, the latest crack-infused Oreo cookie from Popcap Games, is an excellent strategy game. It succeeds in essentially everything it sets out to do: It's approachable, it is indeed strategic, it's replayable and it's funny. As a strategy game, it may very well be a gateway drug which lures an entire generation of casual gamers over to strategy gaming, a genre that, like flight simulators, was once an everyman's pasttime, but has become a rarefied niche.

George Fan, the game's designer, should be proud. Unfortunately, talking to him made me realize how much I want the game he almost made. The game that Plants vs. Zombies almost is. Because Plants vs. Zombies is almost the best computer based non-collectible cardgame ever made.

George Fan isn't a household name among designers. His first game practically nobody ever played, despite having the excellent title of Wrath of the Gopher. But right after that he made Insaniquarium, a game about feeding fish that poop money, which you use to buy bigger and better fish. Oh, and you fight off aliens once in a while. Seriously.

And here's the thing about Insaniquarium: Yes, it's a "casual" game, one that got picked up by Popcap for the deluxe treatment, to be pawned off on people who don't consider themselves gamers as part of Popcap's stealth-rise to the multi-continent, millionaire-making giant it is today. But it's also really addictive, because it combines a few core mechanics that just don't seem to get old:

1: Resource development (feed the fish, buy new fish)
2: Resource collection (fish poop money)
3: Combat (aliens attack!)

Insaniquarium is a very, very simple game, a classic flash game that you consume in one sitting, and quickly forget. But because the mechanics are sound (and it sold well), it only made sense that Fan would want to get a little deeper. "Someone mentioned doing a sequel," recalls Fan, "and there were things I wanted to do with it that I didn't get to: I wanted to do something more defense oriented -- like buying fish that protected you well, if hordes of aliens attacked you." But ultimately the metaphor just wore thin. So, being addicted to tower defense mods for Warcraft 3, he shifted from fish to plants: plants seemed like a natural immobile "tower," and they would allow him to have a game where the towers had character, and could be funny. "So, what can attack you?" posits Fan. "Well naturally it would be the aliens from Insaniquarium. Now they're hungry for vegetables instead of fish!"

That's how the game we have now, Plants vs. Zombies, started. It was called Weedlings back then, and it was essentially a gardening game. A gardening game with aliens. But the problem was, the whole plant-nurturing gardening-game genre actually started to fill up. In the casual game space, gardening was the new black in 2005-2006. "That's where the zombies came about," says Fan. "I thought 'nobody's going to make a game where plants are going to fight zombies before I finish this game. And nobody has. So that's great."

In Plants vs. Zombies, the Insaniquarium paradigm is repeated -- the board's even similar, with a hand of "cards" at the top of the screen, fueled by resource (sunpower) collection dropped from a critical asset (sunpower-producing plants). Through the game's "Adventure Mode," players pre-select a handful of seed-packets, which they can use to plant different species of plants with different powers and different amounts of sunpower. The actual field of play is even more restrictive than the free-form aquarium: a 6 by 9 grid. It wouldn't take long for aliens to get across. "The grid is relatively small ... so you need a slow-moving antagonist," explains Fan. Zombies were the natural enemy to replace the fast-moving aliens from the aquarium assault. "Plus I think they're funny."

And they are. Plants vs. Zombies' core 5-8 hour game mode succeeds as much because of it's charm as its gameplay. The game introduces new plant types and new zombies with deliberate slowness, something I found tedious at times. But each level lasts only minutes, and almost always includes a genuinely funny punchline or a twist, and thus more often replaces tedium with joy.

It's this deliberate trickling that makes me long for the game that Fan almost made. By the end of the game, players have 48 plants at their disposal against 26 zombie types -- not an outrageous variety, but certainly as many as most real-time strategy games. Most of the time, you select 7-10 of these plants, and you can field your forces based on your collection of sunpower (every plant has a sunpower cost) and the recharge time of each plant (no spamming allowed). While this is a mechanic that's easily conveyed, it wasn't how the game started out.

"I didn't want it to just be a normal tower defense," recalls Fan. "I was teaching my girlfriend how to play Magic: the Gathering at the time, and that kind of inspired me to work in some of the things I liked about Magic. That's how the seedpackets came about -- I was trying to make it more like a card game."

And that's how he built the game the first time around. Players would have to make a deck of "cards" -- seedpackets in this case -- and those cards would be dealt out in real time. "We tested the CCG gameplay out, right after I joined PopCap," says Fan. " And the feedback was that people might not get it." And so the CCG version of Plants vs. Zombies was turned into a simplified minigame that still exists as an interstitial event in core game. Instead of buying plants with sunpower, they are simply fed to you on a conveyor belt.

This is the game I wish I could play. The irony of Plants vs. Zombies is that for a "casual" game, there is essentially no randomness in it. The field of zombies will vary slightly when replaying a level, but in practice, any given level will always feature the same distribution, no matter how many times you play it. The recharge system that dominates most of the game, while easy to understand, easy to explain, and perhaps easy to implement, leads to extraordinarily predictable game play. The "build order" for almost any set of 7 cards is almost always the same: Get resource production going while putting up a minimal defense, then build up quickly to withstand the big onslaught that will inevitably come at the end of the level.

A true CCG mechanic -- one that involves deckbuilding, distributions and just a hint of chance -- would add that extra element that would turn what is an excellent game into once-in-a-genre breakthrough. Is that sour grapes? Perhaps. Plants vs. Zombies is $10 if you pre-ordered it through Steam. It's $20 if you spend the maximum amount of money possible on it. The core game is tremendously fun, and the unlocked minigames and modes are deep, strategic, and have already eaten my brain for hours. But it's excruciatingly clear to me that there's an engine underneath Plants vs. Zombies that could have been even that much better.

Comments

Cool insight. Now if the game would just unlock on Steam . . .

I have been going back and forth with buying this game. So much to finish first
Really upsetting to see how much more potential it had with the CCG element in it.
People are so getting it! And otherwise, this would be THE way to introduce this
element for these people. Hopefully there will be an update with this in it, or a version 2.
A sure buy then!

Great review!!

Downloaded the demo last night and got $10 worth of entertainment just out of that, so immediately pulled the trigger on Steam. Looking forward to playing through the whole thing. I can understand wishing that it was more than it is, especially since you had a chance to see its unrealized potential in your conversation with Mr. Fan, but a brilliantly made $10 diversion obviously has its own merits.

I preordered this game. Not sure why, I don't buy games cold very often. Something about it appealed to me. I look forward to giving it a go after work today.

I don't know. A lot of journalists or fans critisize a game for what it is not... yeah, you wish it would be a CCG... but it is not. Maybe it looks like it had CCG potential, but

that would turn what is an excellent game into once-in-a-genre breakthrough

Maybe, maybe not. And they tried, but dropped the idea for a good reason.

cheers,
brof

brof wrote:

I don't know. A lot of journalists or fans critisize a game for what it is not... yeah, you wish it would be a CCG... but it is not. Maybe it looks like it had CCG potential, but

that would turn what is an excellent game into once-in-a-genre breakthrough

Maybe, maybe not. And they tried, but dropped the idea for a good reason.

cheers,
brof

Valid points, I admit. But in this case, I felt in talking with him that they knew they had it -- it was right there -- and they essentially had to back off because of its complexity. I still love, love this game though.

What does CCG stand for?

elewis17 wrote:

What does CCG stand for?

Collectible Card Game.

Rabbit, there you go again. Causing me to add another game to my never ending but continually growing list. Seems like a great intro for my kids to strategic gameplay. Any thoughts Rabbit on age level appropriateness due to complexity and content?

I loved Insaniquarium so much. I'm really glad that PvZ keeps some of the same ideas, rather than just putting a cute skin on a casual tower defense game. Sorry you don't get a CCG fix from it, Rabbit, but did you really want a game like this to be more addictive? I ended up playing nothing but Insaniquarium for way too long, just because I like fish. I think these games should stay somewhat disposable. They're a tasting menu of addiction, but for the real stuff, we go to WoW or whatever genre really scratches that itch.

Buying this one solely based on my Insaniquarium addiction. There is a D on an 8th grade Latin final somewhere on my record because of this game.

This has been posted in all the other threads (not always by me, I swear), but if you haven't seen the Plants vs. Zombies Music Video, well, you should.

boogle wrote:

Buying this one solely based on my Insaniquarium addiction. There is a D on an 8th grade Latin final somewhere on my record because of this game.

This makes me feel very, very old.

Nyles wrote:
boogle wrote:

Buying this one solely based on my Insaniquarium addiction. There is a D on an 8th grade Latin final somewhere on my record because of this game.

This makes me feel very, very old. :(

Boogle's an expert at that, in a number of ways.

Nyles wrote:
boogle wrote:

Buying this one solely based on my Insaniquarium addiction. There is a D on an 8th grade Latin final somewhere on my record because of this game.

This makes me feel very, very old. :(

I was high school when it came out!

I just got done playing the demo and I have to say I was really surprised by how much fun it was. Throw down some sun flowers throw down some of those plant spitting things and watch the zombies get cut down. Debating on weather to pick up the full version or not.

breander wrote:

I just got done playing the demo and I have to say I was really surprised by how much fun it was. Throw down some sun flowers throw down some of those plant spitting things and watch the zombies get cut down. Debating on weather to pick up the full version or not.

If you actually like RTS games, the real fun doesn't even start until you finish adventure mode, so I can't recommend the purchase enough.

So, Rabbit, if you're a PC CCG fan, what's the best out there? I definately have that itch, but it's not big enough to actually do any research - outside of asking

Just played the demo. Certainly it's a fun game, and I as previously heard about it am surprised of the depth to the game.
Yet, I'm quite used to the version of these TD kind of games where you rather build paths etc, but I could imagine that would add a level of complexity to the game that they're not aiming for. At the same time that I'm fascinated by the game and wouldn't mind going deeper into it, I'm not certain that I will be playing for the money it's worth in the end, as I'm quite pleased with the demo I got.
/edit/ Ok, or so I keep telling myself...

Shoal07 wrote:

So, Rabbit, if you're a PC CCG fan, what's the best out there? I definately have that itch, but it's not big enough to actually do any research - outside of asking :)

I believe that in order to be a healthy strategy gamer you're contractually obliged to have tried Armageddon Empires. On top of that it definitely fits into the category of a good PC CCG.

Shoal07 wrote:

So, Rabbit, if you're a PC CCG fan, what's the best out there? I definately have that itch, but it's not big enough to actually do any research - outside of asking :)

There's Star Chamber, and PoxNora, both part of SOE now.

And actually, the CCG inside Free Realms is really interesting.

Thank you, rabbit!
Between your enthusiasm and the demo I've been sold on this game.

After hearing the interview with the rep from PopCap and seeing the video on Steam, I decided to give it a whirl. Im playing the game on a netbook and I have to say its a perfect game for a portable PC. The game is really fun, though i've only gone through 5 levels, and looks fantastic on a 10 inch display. I am looking forward to playing this further but wanted to share my initial impression. For anyone who has ever looked for a high quality game for a netbook, this is it:)

I have a friend who worked on a real time card game a while back (requires the unity browser plugin). It wasn't this polished, but the multiplayer was fun.

I'm downloading the demo now -- can you play as the zombies?

Some jerk on Metacritic left a player review of zero, because he wants PC developers to only create games that are worthy of his powerhouse gaming machine.

Feh (I say as the owner of a powerhouse machine myself).

Pre-ordered this based on the interview, and now getting to bed too late because of it. Even though the levels are predictable, you can play it an amazing number of ways...

OH MY GOD!

This is about the most ridiculous piece of gaming crack I have played...

*BOWS*

All hail PopCap!

*Grovels on the floor*

All I can say is:

4am
bloodshot eyes
feel worse than hangover
filthy enablers

There really is nothing better then ears of corn slinging butter.

cmitts wrote:

Seems like a great intro for my kids to strategic gameplay. Any thoughts Rabbit on age level appropriateness due to complexity and content?

I let my 5 year old play last night. The zombies heads drop off before they die...but it is very a very cartoony animation, and will not cause any nightmares. My daughter could play the first 3 levels without much trouble....but the game gets too fast very quickly. I wish you could throttle down the speed because if you could slow things down, PvZ would be an excellent game for teaching strategy game fundamentals to younglings.