"Plants vs. Zombies 2" was finally released last month to critical acclaim and 25 million-plus downloads. But for PopCap, this is just the beginning.
After waiting more than four years to get their hands on a new Plants vs. Zombies title, gamers finally got another chance to kill the living dead with aggressive garden plants this summer with "Plants vs. Zombies 2: It's About Time." The result? By mid-September, the game had been downloaded more than 25 million times, with players racking up more than 140 million hours of gameplay in the process.
"It's About Time," it seems, was worth the wait. But even the most dedicated Plants vs. Zombies fans couldn't help but notice, something was different. Between the first PvZ game and its sequel, the game's developer, PopCap, had been purchased by game industry behemoth Electronic Arts (EA). What's more, the once-premium game was now free-to-play — a "try it before you buy it" introduction that eventually hits up players for cash to continue. Free-to-play is tolerable at best, and ruthlessly manipulative at worst. ("The Daily Show" memorably compared one free-to-play game developer to a drug dealer in 2011.) So why risk tarnishing the image of such a beloved franchise, as some critics felt PopCap did?
Meanwhile, publisher EA revealed a console-based multiplayer shooter PvZ spin-off, "Garden Warfare" in June. The new game resembled Call of Duty more than the beloved original Plants vs. Zombies tower defense game. Combine that with the fact that none of the creative leads on "Plants Vs. Zombies 2" had worked on the original — George Fan, PvZ's creator, having been laid off unceremoniously just a day after the sequel was first announced in 2012 — and gamers were left with a troubling question: Did this mean the end of PvZ as we know it?
Maybe so. In an interview with NBC News, the new game's designers revealed the motivation behind the wild expansion of the franchise. When planning for the future direction of Plants vs. Zombies, they dismiss comparisons to hit casual gaming hits like Candy Crush Saga or even Angry Birds, instead aiming for that ultimate pie in the sky: Super Mario Bros.
Early concept art for the "Bonk Choy," a new plant in the sequel that punches zombies who walk within close range.
Gaming in 2013 is a very different beast than it was in 2009, when a then-independent PopCap released the original "Plants Vs. Zombies" on the PC. And while PopCap is mindful of alienating its audience with free-to-play gaming, the Electronic Arts subsidiary thinks it's a necessary evil. Mohan Rajagopolan, senior game designer on "Plants vs. Zombies 2," and Tony Leamer, franchise business director on the series, both told NBC News that while they were "super, super sensitive" to concerns about making the game free-to-play, it was the best way to expose the game to "the greatest possible audience."
Which gets to developer PopCap and publisher Electronic Arts' ambitions for Plants vs. Zombies. While the first game was made when PopCap was an independent studio, ever since its acquisition by EA in 2011 "Plants vs. Zombies" has started thinking big. Hence "Garden Warfare" and the reams of merchandise now available through the PvZ store.
So what is it about the Mario mega franchise that appeals to the PvZ team? Expanding upward while always being mindful of, well, the roots.
"There's a million different Marios, but there's also a core platformer," Rajagopolan said to explain how the "Plants vs. Zombies" universe will expand in the coming months and years. "There will always be a core tower defense game, but we want to push it way beyond that."
Rajagoplan admitted he was overjoyed that his non-gaming friends and family finally knew something about the franchise he was working on, so it's easy to recognize the appeal of building a Plants vs. Zombies empire.
But it's not like Super Mario was built in a day. If PopCap wants Plants Vs. Zombies to get to that level, it still has its work cut out for it — particularly when its core product is no longer a "premium" one.
Unlike the original "Plants vs. Zombies," which takes place around a single modern-day house, "Plants vs. Zombies 2" travels through space and time, letting players battle with colorfully themed undead like pirate zombies.
But you have to admit they're trying. To give an idea of how hard PopCap worked on "Plants vs. Zombies 2: It's About Time," Rajagopolan walked me through the design of a single plant: the "Bloomerang," an offensive unit that throws a projectile back-and-forth down a single lane.
At first, the plant was too expensive, which made it hard for players to access it, but lowering the cost and damage made it too disposable. Ultimately, they found a middle ground — it would be roughly as powerful as the standard "Pea Shooter," cost slightly more, and hit just three zombies rather than a whole lane.
"We literally spent months just working on that one plant, trying to figure out how to make it work," Rajagopolan said.
That kind of obsessive detail recalls the groundbreaking design work of a game maker like Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto, no doubt. But is the market even ready for another Mario? Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, told NBC News that free-to-play might help Plants vs Zombies "if their goal is merchandising sales," might like it does with another casual mega-hit, Angry Birds.
But if it's just about the games themselves, he's not convinced.
"I think it certainly has franchise potential, but not on the same scale as Mario," Pachter said. "Keep in mind that Mario games typically cost $30 or $50, and PvZ historically has cost $10, so there actually may be as many PvZ players as there are Mario players. "
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.
First published September 13 2013, 9:08 AM