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

WiredAsylum wrote:

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

Yeah, I got to the last level (I hope) of the rooftop last night and the corn throwing butter is awesome.

Also, those f*ckers with the goddamn ladders can go die in a fire.

I really like the having to choose which seeds you bring mechanic, and by like, I mean it frustrates the hell out of me because I want to bring way more stuff.

Once that ladder is stuck on your walnut, just dig the thing up and replant it. It's the only solution.

Jerrak wrote:

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.

I barely got my 7-y-o daughter to school this morning because she kept looking over my shoulder wanting to play. And then she kept looking over my wife's shoulder as she played it on the laptop. Bad daddy! Bad! But I agree that it looks to be a good intro - she really wants to play, and will tonight, I'm sure.

rabbit wrote:

Once that ladder is stuck on your walnut, just dig the thing up and replant it. It's the only solution.

But the cool down is so long, I can't replace them all. (Although I've taken to bringing both the 50 and 125 sunshine versions). I haven't played with it yet, but do I have to dig up the pot too? Because that would make me a VERY sad panda.

Loving this game. I feel as though it may be like Peggle all over again except this time with a new genre and more depth. Still beautiful and refined yet utterly simplistic at its core. The true test for me will be to see if it appeals to the family the way Peggle did. Baby steps.

My daughters (7 and 9) watched me play for two levels (later in the game) and they were instantly hooked. In no time they were yelling "Watch out, he's eating your spoilerflowername!" and "Don't forget to pick the spoilerplantname! You don't need a..." etc.

It was near bed time, so I promised them they could each play the first couple of levels tonight, if they're good. And eat their dinner, and clean their room...

kaostheory wrote:
rabbit wrote:

Once that ladder is stuck on your walnut, just dig the thing up and replant it. It's the only solution.

But the cool down is so long, I can't replace them all. (Although I've taken to bringing both the 50 and 125 sunshine versions). I haven't played with it yet, but do I have to dig up the pot too? Because that would make me a VERY sad panda.

There's also another item you can plant that helps against ladders (and some other equipment)... But it takes two card slots...

Oh screw it. Its freaking 10 bucks.

boogle wrote:

Oh screw it. Its freaking 10 bucks.

Exactly.

Arovin wrote:

All I can say is:

4am
bloodshot eyes
feel worse than hangover
filthy enablers

That's ummm...well...your poem isn't very good, Arovin.

kaostheory wrote:
rabbit wrote:

Once that ladder is stuck on your walnut, just dig the thing up and replant it. It's the only solution.

But the cool down is so long, I can't replace them all. (Although I've taken to bringing both the 50 and 125 sunshine versions). I haven't played with it yet, but do I have to dig up the pot too? Because that would make me a VERY sad panda.

This is why a plant a Chomper right behind the Wallnuts.

Can it still be bought for $10 anywhere, or was that just a preorder price on steam?

rabbit wrote:
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.

Actually I love RTS games so yeah I'm sold.

Sonicator wrote:

Can it still be bought for $10 anywhere, or was that just a preorder price on steam?

Thats normal price on steam. Wooohooo!

rabbit wrote:

Once that ladder is stuck on your walnut, just dig the thing up and replant it. It's the only solution.

Wont the magnet take it off?

WiredAsylum wrote:
rabbit wrote:

Once that ladder is stuck on your walnut, just dig the thing up and replant it. It's the only solution.

Wont the magnet take it off?

Yes. As will Cherry Bombs and Jalapenos.

I love me some Jalapeno.

rabbit wrote:

I love me some Jalapeno.

One of my favorite tools in the game! So far this is only 1 zombie I can not effectively deal with. With out blowing way more sunpower then is intended.

boogle wrote:
Sonicator wrote:

Can it still be bought for $10 anywhere, or was that just a preorder price on steam?

Thats normal price on steam. Wooohooo!

Sweet! Thanks.

Nitpick: The original Insaniquarium was a Java game, not a Flash game. It's that old! People used to make games in Java! =)

Sorry to dig up old news, but I just burnt an entire day with this little beauty. I love trying to set up the Gattling Pea with Torchwood and make a little cash with Merigold.

Plants I like taking along: potato mine, gatling peashooter, twin sunflowers, garlic, pumpkin shell. I swear, this game's campaign is better the second time around!

Anyone tried typing in "Future" or "Mustache" while playing a level?

Bullion Cube wrote:

Anyone tried typing in "Future" or "Mustache" while playing a level?

Why would one think to type that?

breander wrote:

Why would one think to type that?

Isn't it questions like this that show the glory of the game?

When you grow the Tree of Wisdom in your garden, it recommends you try typing those words. I keep forgetting to do it.

Rise, zombies ... rise!

Finished Adventure mode last night. I just want to say that, at $10, PvZ is one of the best gaming values I've ever come across.

To think that the bulk of the game begins after you've finished the campaign is amazing. I've already got 14 hours into this one, and I'm just getting started, having just unlocked Survival, the Zen garden, and tons of the mini-games. Not to mention that the campaign is replayable, now with ALL your unlocked plants.

Great game!

Best 10 dollar game ever

A Youtube video by the writer / singer of the Plant's versus Zombies theme song, singing it live (very casual)

Audio of course..

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OqpMF....

Fun to see two of the people behind the game (George Fan) / song (Laura Shigihara).

I love that video, especially with George's zombie shuffle and sound effects. And I suspect Laura is the model for the sunflowers.