Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Thoughts On Plants vs Zombies

I just spent a bunch of time playing almost all of Plants vs Zombies. Then I watched my seven-year old daughter play it. She loves it. A fairly fun game, and, from an Indie gaming perspective, very, very interesting. If you haven't yet, first watch the viral video that's been selling the game like mad. After that, trying the demo (at the very least) is really worthwhile.

Some observations ...

1. You Could Have Written This Game. - Two or three dedicated people, in two years, could make this game. It'd take hard work and skill, of course, but that is always true. Even in the age of the blockbuster, a small, good team can still make a title that gets a lot of attention.

2. You Can Do Something New With An Old Genre. - If someone had e-mailed me a year ago and asked my opinion about whether it would be worthwhile to write a tower defense game, I would have been, like, "Are you crazy? The secret is to find an underserved market you can really rock, not an insanely saturated one." Shows how little I know. If a genre is popular, it's always possible for a really smart designer to find a new angle on it and gain some serious traction.

3. The Game Is EASY. - Wow, is it easy. Tower defense games are general about being ground down by stronger and stronger waves of implacable foes until your inevitable defeat. Not your cheery, casual-friendly sort of thing. Plants vs. Zombies starts easy and stays easy. Anyone with much gamer experience is going to chew it up and spit out the bones. Only the final survival mode levels (which you have to play most of everything to unlock) require any real thought.

This is GENIUS. I think, if the game is a real success, resisting the urge to make it hard will account for most of the victory. It made it a potential buy for a whole new universe of fans, and, to keep the hardcore around, it has a clever strategy ...

4. A Thousand New Things Is a Thousand New Things - There are dozens of plants you can buy and dozens of types of zombies to fend off. Even when the game is so easy as to be a bit tedious (as I found), the new stuff really helps to maintain interest.

The thing is, most of the new stuff is fairly shallow. "Here's a zombie with a special sort of shield." "Here's a plant that can shoot around that shield." Only a few of the plants and zombie types are really unique, but the constant barrage of pretty new stuff is enough to maintain interest.

In sum, interesting stuff. And the game is a bit on the casual side for me, but I did enjoy it. And it helped to pass the time until my XBox gets fixed.

14 comments:

  1. Point 4 is actually quite controversial. One of the things that I caution my students against when they are designing games is "verb bloat". If the gameplay for a verb is too shallow, they are always tempted to add new verbs, either as acquired skills, power-ups, or items. And for beginners, this almost always results in muddled gameplay. Particularly for a classroom setting when they only have one semester to finish their game.

    Achieving Point 4 without making the game confusing requires an awful lot of skill. I suspect the user testing for this game was a major undertaking (PopCap does not skimp on user-testing).

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  2. Point 3 killed it for me. I agree that easy games have a broader market, but I'm at the fringes of that market at best. Perhaps point 4 would have hooked me in the long run, but I didn't even make it through the demo. They added a few more plants, but I didn't have any reason to use those plants, because all I needed was the first two.

    Maybe I'll try giving the demo to my wife, see what she thinks...

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  3. I think part of 3 is that most tower defense games hide information from the player. PvZ "trains" the player on how to use the towers and what against, slowly. Even my favourite tower defense games don't really allow you to play with their small selection of towers and experiment. Also, by divorcing income from kills, you never get into the no-win situation of "the enemy is overwhelming me, and I can't kill enough to make to turn the tide." I'd be interested in how easy the game is if, the first time you play, you jump right into survival, having to learn everything on the fly, like most tower defense games demand.

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  4. Hello Jeff, thanks for sharing your observations.

    Bought and played PvZ as well, thought I'd share a few things too.

    1. Yeah, there isn't much level design required when compared to a RPG. All these mini-games probably took some time to code, though.

    2. Here's something I have noticed : players want more and more simplicity each year. They've become hostile to novelty because it takes some effort to learn new gameplay mechanics.
    Of course they don't want the SAME game again and again, what they're looking for is ultra-familiar gameplay mixed with a few "new" things and maybe a unique background. It pretty much joins what you said in another post, I think : "People hate change".
    I'm not blaming them for that; it's just how things are to me.
    Look at these popular and relatively recent games. Mass Effect, Bioshock, the latest Pokemon... Neverwinter Nights 2... Plants vs Zombies... all recycled mechanics with just a small amount of unique stuff. I'm not saying these games are bad, they totally aren't, but it shows that real novelty no longer works unless it's pure genius.

    3. Same as above. The future of games is easiness. All games are getting easier and easier each year, from World of Warcraft to Fear 2 to Mass Effect (the conversation wheel that indicates which answers are good and which are bad was a huge success) to pretty much everything.
    20 years ago you'd happily see the Game Over screen ten times while playing Super Mario Land, because you were indeed seeking challenge and were going further with each try. It no longer works that way. "Hard" games have all turned into niche games.

    What today's typical player want is: Buy game, play game, win game, buy another game. No challenge needed. Challenge is frustrating and boring, it requires you to think. You already think at work, why would you want to think at home too?
    Players play games like they'd watch TV. Except they actually do something (usually kill stuff), so it's better.
    Again, I'm not saying that's necessarily a bad thing... games ARE supposed to be relaxing after all.

    4. Yeah, somewhat. I am quite a hardcore gamer and found the game fairly enjoyable because of this, but with still a feeling of boredom.


    Sorry if I talked too much about non-indie games, but in my opinion PvZ shows that two rules for maximum success are the same for both: familiar gameplay and easiness.

    By the way, I was quite surprised by the two last facts about Popcap in their "By the Numbers" section (http://www.popcap.com/press/). Over 65% female gamers? Really? I had guessed it'd be rather high, but that's huge.
    And over 75% customers above 29, that's huge too.

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  5. Look at these popular and relatively recent games. Mass Effect, Bioshock, the latest Pokemon... Neverwinter Nights 2... Plants vs Zombies... all recycled mechanics with just a small amount of unique stuff. I'm not saying these games are bad, they totally aren't, but it shows that real novelty no longer works unless it's pure genius.You are looking at the latest story-driven AAA games. These games are content hungry; they cost as much as a cheap movie to produce (upwards to around 25 million). Damn right these games are going to be conservative in their gameplay. They cannot afford to do otherwise.

    On the other hand, look at PopCaps' wider selection. Or at the Flash portals like Kongregate. These smaller games are cheaper to make, and so they are much more likely to have experimental gameplay. And this is the right place to do this. There is no serious financial loss if they do not make it; their financial model is all about maintaining a diverse portfolio. Just put it out and see what works.

    And if something catches on, then it gets picked up by the majors.
    Look at the amount of money that Sony gave Jenova Chen after flOw. Hell, the Tower Defense genre has become "tired" simply because of the massive amount of innovation that was going on in the space in the Flash market. Before, then Tower Defense was limited to user-created maps in existing RTS games.

    If anything, experimental gameplay is in right now. The experimental session at GDC this year was very exciting. The fact that it hasn't made it to AAA story-driven titles says nothing.

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  6. Here's something I have noticed : players want more and more simplicity each year. They've become hostile to novelty because it takes some effort to learn new gameplay mechanics.

    Games have been (or were... I haven't played enough new games to be sure) in a trend of increasing complexity for a long time. When you have to read the manual and watch three in-game tutorials, you're playing a badly designed game. Innovation is not about changing all the rules for the sake of confusing people.


    20 years ago you'd happily see the Game Over screen ten times while playing Super Mario Land, because you were indeed seeking challenge and were going further with each try. It no longer works that way. "Hard" games have all turned into niche games.

    20 years ago, games were almost pure gameplay. Games now take more time... have longer animations, more cutscenes, etc. Who wants to sit through the same tired dialogue fifteen or twenty times in a row because their timing is less than perfect? Of course, there are people who want easy, entirely relaxing games, but I think you exaggerate the case. Of course, adjustable difficulty levels should make this a non-issue, but I guess developers consider it too much of a hassle.

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  7. 20 years ago, games were almost pure gameplay. Games now take more time... have longer animations, more cutscenes, etc. Who wants to sit through the same tired dialogue fifteen or twenty times in a row because their timing is less than perfect?
    To continue what I said above, games have become more story-driven. Dying in Nethack is not all that big a deal because there is no story to the game (other than the one you make up about your character outside of gameplay). If the story is a large part of the game, then people want to finish out the story. This is at odds with making death a regular event.

    The presentation at GDC's experimental session on Rogue-likes had some interesting insight on this. With the move towards more sophisticated random level generation (like what Nethack and Rogue had), there is a possibility that players may become more accepting of death.

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  8. I'd probably a "medium" gamer. I like challenge, but I also like to have time to experiment and learn mechanics. PvZ excels at this. I do, however, think it might be better to let players access survival mode whenever they want if they're good enough to find the normal game boring.

    I did find the first minute or so of each level boring (I haven't bought it yet, just finished the demo), only because there wasn't a whole lot happening. I'd rather start out with more money and have more zombies attacking faster. But once the level gets moving I was never bored - I never came close to losing but enough stuff was happening that I didn't really care (my little plants were so cute that trying not to let any of them die was motivation enough for me).

    I also think that not using any of the new plants because the first two were enough is missing the point - the early levels make it easy so you are free to experiment, so when you finally get to harder levels you'll have worked out a better strategy.

    Finally, I thought the graphics of the game were a good example of simple graphics being used effectively. I'd like it if the next spiderweb game tried something that used graphics that were simple (even 2d) but were fun and stylized.

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  9. Plants Vs. Zombies: 300 flags on survival endless with this setup.

    http://plants-vs-zombies-survival-strategy-e.blogspot.com/

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