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Plants Vs Zombies 2 Senior Producer Bernie Yee Talks Monetization, Development, And Bonk Choy

Plants Vs Zombies 2After years of speculation and old fashioned waiting, fans of PopCap's famed Plants vs Zombies are finally enjoying the sequel, Plants vs Zombies 2: It's About Time, now that it's arrived exclusively (for now) on the App Store for the iPhone and iPad.  The new game keeps the core experience of lovable plants lashing out at invading undead hordes while adding new mechanics such as the plant food boost option, touchscreen-based power-ups for quick zombie extermination, and a pack of new plants with their own unique attacks.  Time travel sets the stage for a series of levels based around eras such as ancient Egypt and cowboy adventures in the wild west.  It's not all smiles and sunshine, though; the most controversial aspect of Plants vs Zombies 2 has to be the inclusion of paid upgrades bought with real money instead of in-game coins.  The plants have gone freemium allowing PopCap and publisher Electronic Arts to offer the game as a free download with the expectation/hope that players will kick in a few dollars for additional plants and enhancements.  PopCap Senior Producer Bernie Yee recently had the chance to sit down and answer some of my questions about Plants vs Zombies 2, and I asked series superfan and my Power Button podcast co-host Blake Grundman to kick in his questions as well.  Here's what Bernie had to say about the free-to-play aspects, elements left on the cutting room floor, when the game will come to additional platforms, and so much more.

PTB: What is your background and role at PopCap?  What were your responsibilities on PvZ 2?  

BY: I’m the Senior Producer. Game development is a collaborative process – designers come up with ideas and systems, the artists come up with a visual world, and the  programmers implement it.  Inevitably, there are more things we want to do, than we have time to do.  Sometimes this means that we  have to make hard decisions on what to cut and what to keep. Producers work to make those tradeoffs, and keep things aligned with the product vision and the schedule. We work across all the disciplines, and with the business folks, to make sure we know how things are going at all times, to raise warning flags, and to solve problems.

PTB: How did the PvZ 2 project start?

BY: After the original game, we wanted to follow it up. (This was before my time on the project, by the way.) So folks at PopCap spent a lot of time prototyping new  ideas. Nothing really stuck until the team prototyped the Plant Food system.  The team felt  like this was the mechanic that preserved a critical element of the game – the charm and whimsy of the original characters – and gave it a new dimension. That kicked off actual production, and everything fell into place after that. And by “falling into place” I  mean, all the sweat and tears that is game development.

PTB: How did the freemium aspect come into play?

BY: The market’s changed; we wanted to be on mobile devices, and the best way to reach players was to make it free to play. PvZ is a game that reaches an unusually broad audience – parents playing with their kids on their laps, to World of Warcraft gamers. We WANT to reach everyone, because PvZ is really a beloved game. We decided to go F2P, but we wanted to do it the PopCap way.

PTB: How do you address the biased criticism based on folks that misunderstand how PvZ 2 implements microtransactions?

BY: It’s easy: play the game. Just play it. We don’t put in any of the energy mechanics or hard pay walls that other games implement. You can experience over 95% of the game without paying for a thing, including completing all three worlds. Yes, you have to earn stars, but earning stars means playing familiar levels with all new victory conditions. A level that was pretty easy all of a sudden becomes a new challenge when you have to lose no more than 2 plants and not use a lawnmower. But you can do it – and have fun doing it. And earn stars.

Plants Vs Zombies 2
Crazy Dave is your guide through time in search of a delicious taco from the past.

PTB: What was left on the cutting room floor?

BY: Oh man. Like every game, we had to cut things to get the game done and shipped! But unlike a lot of other games, PvZ 2 is a service – that means a lot of stuff that got left of the cutting room floor actually will come out later! In fact, in my opinion, the best world is yet to come. No offense to the designers who did the first three, but even the first playable of the next world is so good.

PTB: What was the most challenging part of development?

BY: Expectations. PvZ is like those old Bugs Bunny or Simpsons cartoons – they appeal to so many different people, and they all get something else out of it. And it’s so beloved. We did not want to be the team that screwed it up; we didn’t want to be the team that changed it too much, or changed it too little. We want to keep all the original fans happy, and we want to make sure all the new players love it even more. And so far, the critical reception has been fantastic. As have the fan response.

PTB: Aside from free-to-play mechanics, what helps differentiate PvZ 2 from the original?

BY: There are three things we really rallied around, design-wise:

  1. Plant food. If you know what happens when Mario gets the mushroom, you know what happens to your plants when they get Plant Food. A sunflower erupts in a shower of suns; a pea shooter straps on an army helmet and lets loose a machine gun barrage of peas. It’s super pleasurable to watch each plant’s unique power.
  2. Power ups. PvZ really hit its stride when it arrived on touch devices, and we wanted to take advantage of the interface from the beginning. It’s super satisfying to pinch a zombie – literally with your fingers – and watch its head pop off. Or touch the screen and watch lightning arc out of your fingertip to fry the undead.
  3. We’re off the lawn – we take the player to different eras, which allows us to really expand the visual design of plants and zombies. Each world has a unique mechanic, sandstorms, raiding parties, movable mine carts – that make each theme look AND feel unique.

PTB: Can you give any hints as to additional worlds in the pipeline? Any worlds that you would like to explore that you are currently not working on?

BY: You’ll have to wait for future announcements! I can tell you that the best is yet to come.

PTB: Are there any timelines in place to bring the game to other platforms? Android at least, in the short term?

BY: Other platforms are definitely planned. You’ll hear about it soon!

PTB: What was it like trying to live up to the expectations of fans of the original game?

BY: Oh man, so hard. I’m a huge fan of the original game – in fact, PopCap and PvZ was one of the only job opportunities that I moved my family for! But the entire team are huge fans. We were our own worst critic. And I have to say, the team is fantastic. Everyone was on the same page, we all shared a vision together.  A team like that can move mountains.

Plants Vs Zombies 2
Ancient Egypt features zombie mummies and new plants such as the bonk choy.

PTB: Are content updates for PvZ 2 going to be on the fly or more in the form of expansion packs?

BY: Both, really. Some will be huge events, some will be smaller updates.

PTB: How hard was it to strike a balance between charging consumers for content and not turning them off with microtransactions?

BY: We had a design commandment – don’t make the player pay out of frustration or boredom avoidance. Lots of things sprang from this. Make the non-payment option fun to go through – harder, sure, than paying a few bucks – but still fun.  Don’t make the player feel like you’re pulling out a stop sign and holding your hand out. Let the player keep playing.

Once you have those pillars, it makes your choices a lot more clear.

PTB: What was the logic behind the New Zealand rollout first, then waiting a month to release the title in North America?

BY: PvZ 2 is a really complex game. We want to make sure that we tested critical features, made sure the game was stable, that our servers could handle the load,  and there were no hidden bugs that could be disastrous. A soft launch is a best practice, and that’s why we did it. We didn’t want to fall over as soon as we opened the doors!

PTB: It has been over 4 years since there was a new version of PvZ.  How long has this title been in development?

BY: It’s been in a prototyping phase for quite a while, but in full production for about half that time. PopCap has a cultural thing where we don’t want to rush games. We’re known for polish and care, so it took a little more time than maybe some of us wanted! But we think the results are worth it.

Plants Vs Zombies 2
Zap zombies in the wild west with new tricks.

PTB: What is the development process like at PopCap?  Has that been influenced at all by EA's acquisition?

BY: It’s super collaborative, small teams, cross disciplinary ideas flying across desks. There’s a real sense of pride; we want to ship quality. If you look at the world map, look at background painting, the ambient animations, the sod roll moving between unlocked levels – we didn’t need to put in that amount of effort. There’s no monetization associated with it. Hell, you’re not even taking out zombies! But it looks great. Hell, I tried to argue that we should not spend the effort to do the sod roll, that we had so much to do. Good thing our art director and engineer behind the map just shook their heads at me.

But that’s what makes our team great – they knew what I wanted, they thought it was important anyway, and I trusted them to do it without threatening other work. And damn if they weren’t right.

PTB: Any plans to cross streams and bring Bjorn the Unicorn into the PvZ universe?  And where is Peggle 2 already?

BY: Peggle 2!!! It’s coming. I just played a build last week, it was cool. I dunno about Bjorn; he’s not a plant, which means he’d have to be a zombie? That won’t do.

PTB: What is something about PvZ 2 that nobody has asked you that you want people to know?

BY: Did you play The Last of Us? I rarely say this, but I vaguely thought, “I wish I worked on that game.” It was so good. But what I really meant, was I wish I worked on that team, in a way. Because you could tell that the way the story and game and visual direction came together, from the title screen to the little high five you can give Ellie, that the team loved that game. Loved it. Every little thing. You can’t do something so ambitious without across the team commitment.

And really, that’s how I feel about PvZ 2. You’ll play and I’ll hope that you’ll see that it’s the most finely crafted game on the App Store you’ll see this year. You’ll see that the team loved the game. And really, loved working with each other. As a producer, man, I could not be prouder.

The thing that nobody knows, and no one asks because really, it’s the sort of thing that only producers remember, is that our team hit our planned dates after we finalized the scope and feature set of the game.

It’s no bonk choy, but it makes me happy. Because only a fully trained Jedi with the Force at his side can do that. Or, an awesome team.