I must start this editorial by bolding stating that I believe Peggle and Plants vs Zombies are impeccably designed games. They are the sort of titles that do such a good job at decision making in the development process that they do not seem as creative as they actually are. Peggle is easily written off as nothing but Pachinko and Plants vs Zombies is just another tower defense game. But these misleading assumptions are actually to the credit of the games in question. It makes the barrier of entry lower for newer gamers, but also provides the sort of hidden depth that makes more hardcore gamers like myself sink so many hours into the games. Of course, Peggle is far from the greatest game ever made, but I have great respect for Popcap’s later games before EA got its claws into the developer, especially after I have been venturing into the world of development myself the past few years.
The reason I mention my own – however amateur – experiences in development is because I have started to realize the mind-numbingly large number of decisions that are made in the development of a game. I begin to see what sort of things are implemented to give positive feedback and how games are laid out to make gamers never want to stop playing. The original Plants vs Zombies is a perfect example of this. The levels masterfully build up the player’s skillset, slowly attuning them to the balance and strategy in the game so that defeating each level is just satisfying enough to feel like tackling another one. This is good game design.
Therefore I had been highly anticipating Plants vs Zombies 2 for quite some time. Perhaps its mobile-only release should have been the first thing to tip me off, but I suppressed the memory somewhere down the line that Popcap had been bought by EA. More likely, the news had come at a time when I was more naive and had less personal insight into the power dynamics of money and creativity.
For it is not only my work on LFoPD that helps me notice sinister changes in game design, but also my experience in a creative field that is ultimately run by corporate suits. Let us say this experience is not in relation to my current job. Nope. Love my employer. Yes. Keep me employed. The point is that such culture is a constant battle between creative minds with good ideas and corporate minds who are well-equipped with focus group results and who know how to make the most money possible. I have seen smart and funny people say things on television that they would never say normally, only because the people with the money have the power, and small battles do not feel worth fighting in the grand scheme.
I am aware of the vast conjecture that I am producing, but I feel like I am seeing this battle when I play Plants vs Zombies 2. EA is so successful not only because they know how to make money, but because they know that they have more money than people who know how to make games better than they do. They also know how far to push their influence with which developers. The Mass Effect series is made up of more hardcore gamers, so the changes – while certainly present – are cognisant of the vocal nature of lifelong gamers and affect more subtle things such as the distribution of downloadable content and the downplay of more complex elements that might create a high barrier of entry.
The effect on Plants vs Zombies 2 is far more overt. My experiences over the past number of years combined with my love for the original has made it obvious which exact decisions were made as a direct result of EA buying Popcap. I have previously been able to ignore questionable business practices for the sake of enjoying a game because the shady stuff tended to surround the context, not the core design principals of a game. This has changed. The original Plants vs Zombies had players pay up front and then packed the game with value within. There was a main campaign that enforced limitations on a second playthrough to balance the fact that the player would have more experience and upgrades. There were mini-games and puzzle modes and a whole “Zen Garden” section purely designed to relax the gamer in charming dangling carrot gameplay. Plants vs Zombies 2 does away with not only that, but more obviously with the carefully constructed path for the gamer designed to not only keep him playing, but increase his skill. This point is important. In Plants vs Zombies 2, the store full of upgrades is done away with and now the only function for in-game currency is to activate powerful spells inside the levels.
Let me recap this because it is that important. In the original Plants vs Zombies, in-game currency is gathered in levels, but is only able to be spent in between levels on upgrades. It is a common and effective way to give the player a feeling of earned progress. In Plants vs Zombies 2, in-game currency is gathered in levels, but is only able to be spent in levels on spells that counteract the challenge and balance of the levels themselves. If a player runs out of in-game currency, he can spend real money on more.
If it is not apparent how detrimental this concept is to game design, perhaps this next example will help. Plants vs Zombies 2 introduces an overworld structure to its levels. This is simple enough and even a little exciting. The problem arises when one realizes that every branching path is blocked by a door that requires a certain number of keys, and these keys are only gained through random enemy drops. Alternatively, a gamer can purchase his way instantly through the door using real money. It is worth mentioning that new plants and upgrades are on these alternate paths, and that these plants can also be purchased separately in-game.
This is usually when corporate suits or naive gamers might step up to say “but Ethos! The game was free! Are you so cheap that you cannot shell out a few bucks here and there? It is just a new model. Get used to it. Plus, real gamers have the patience to not have to buy these shortcuts.” This shows a lack of perspective. On a purely theoretical level, the freemium model is not the absolute worst. If a game is designed in full without a single thought of in-app purchases ever crossing anybody’s mind, and then purchasable additions are made that do not alter said game in any way except for providing impatient gamers a faster and unearned way to the ending, then I do not see much of a problem. But this is the sort of concept that only works in theory. The design process can simply not be unaltered if the decision has been made to make it freemium. Especially when the decision is made by EA. The entire design of Plants vs Zombies 2 hinges on the fact that its profit will be provided through in-app purchases and so urges users to make these purchases by taking advantage of addicting game design that had far more noble origins. Queue some joke about how now the developer is rooted in much darker Origin(s). Ha ha ha ha ha ha.
This is where I believe I can feel the conflict between artists and businessmen when I play Plants vs Zombies 2. Perhaps I am just projecting, but after playing the original so thoroughly and becoming convinced of its loving focus on a positive experience for gamers, I wonder about those people on the development team who are obviously being told to take a new direction more similar to the thunderously deplorable The Simpson’s Tapped Out, a game with no noble origins, indeed a game with a core design principal consisting of nothing but squeezing money out of poor addicted suckers.
Maybe I just want to see the good in a once-favourite series of mine, but it feels like Plants vs Zombies 2 had good developers fighting for it the entire time. Interesting and creative new plants and level designs continue to inhabit the game, albeit with far less commendable focus, and charming wackiness still crops up when it can. Unfortunately, this begins to highlight the fact that this sequel is a soulless shadow of its predecessor. Good game design with greedy overall structure turns into wasted good game design.
As if in an effort to confirm my theories, an even nastier surprise waited for me when I decided to pay $0.99 for the original title on my new iPod in order to cleanse my palette. It has been “updated” to an almost joke-like state. Despite the fact that the game still costs a dollar, EA has made sure to wring every last cent it can out of the franchise. The plentiful and creative options still exist, but they are now behind paywalls that can still be “earned” in game. But gaining the in-game currency to buy options that used to become readily available just by playing the game is a tedious task similar to finding the keys in Plants vs Zombies 2.
Free-to-play is not a gift. It is not just a new model to get used to. Especially in the case of EA and their incredibly smart and equally devious business practices. No, freemium is a malicious trap that ensures that gamers never truly own content.
This mentality surely gets the most money. EA is proving that. But it is so thoroughly anti-gaming that it boggles my mind. While money must be made and success should be lauded, there is a line when the art that is making the profit becomes a shadow of its former self. Plants vs Zombies contrasted with its sequel (and the mobile updates to the original) are the perfect model for this. Corporate suits will never understand because they believe everybody wins. They do not know that if Beethoven wrote his piano sonatas on a free-to-listen structure, they would necessarily have to be written differently in order to squeeze more money out of people. Money would be first instead of the art, and our minds and the collective progress of human thinking would be the worse for it. Beethoven made enough money. He did not need even more to change the world, he just needed enough to continue writing without restriction. Yes, I am using Beethoven as a point of comparison in an article about Plants vs Zombies. That is how desperate this situation has the potential to become if the industry follows EA’s horrible but profitable example. EA has no love for games. Well, except that they love that they have figured out how to manipulate the industry in order to make as much money as possible. Believe no developer that states being bought by EA will do nothing to their freedom as a developer. There are always strings with that much money. Plants vs Zombies 2 is the definitive proof.