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Analysis: The Universal (Brain-Eating) Appeal Of  Plants Vs. Zombies

Analysis: The Universal (Brain-Eating) Appeal Of Plants Vs. Zombies

May 20, 2009 | By Kris Graft

May 20, 2009 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC

[It’s yet another zombie game to add to the festering pile, yet PopCap's Plants vs. Zombies is attracting both the core and the casual in droves. What can we learn from it about universal appeal? Gamasutra's Kris Graft investigates...]

I could be blowing off the high-def heads of the athletic zombies of the superb Left 4 Dead with a few friends, or tossing incendiary grenades at a group of the persistent undead (and screaming in frustration at the shoddy co-op A.I.) in the blockbuster Resident Evil 5.

Heck, I haven’t stepped into the motherf***ing shoes of Agent G in House of the Dead: Overkill lately " perhaps I should. I could even revisit that mall in Willamette, CO.

But no, there are more urgent matters " the real threat is right at my front door. My immaculately manicured lawn is a no man’s land and the only thing between me and an undead, looming doom is an army of flowers, nuts, fruits and tubers.

I had gotten so used to the grabbing the nearest shotgun to defend against the zombie apocalypse that I overlooked the potato that would be my savior.

Of all the multi-million dollar so-called triple-A games out right now that I bought for $50 or $60 a pop in recent weeks, the game I end up playing is a cheap (as in inexpensive), low-fi, pixilated dandy known as Plants vs. Zombies from PopCap Games.

Why PopCap's Fastest-Ever Selling Game?

Apparently I’m not alone. PopCap PR man Garth Chouteau told me that Plants vs. Zombies is selling “incredibly well” and “At this very early point in its history, it’s the best-selling game PopCap’s ever had.”

It’s received much love from critics and gamers on blogs and message boards, where people can’t stop talking about this mixed up plant-zombie premise that, strangely enough, seems to become more feasible the more you play the game.

And it's not just the core gaming, internet denizens who are picking up Plants vs. Zombies. PopCap's "casual" market is picking up this game too.

I love the big-budget interactive adventures as much as the next person, but it’s always a bit of a relief (okay, for me, a big relief) when something comes along so pure and fun like Plants vs. Zombies. But it’s not just that: it’s weird, and I like that too, and the market responds to that.

The name of the game tells you what it is, and your interest is piqued to where you need to know how those two entities can possibly be at odds. (The gaming blogosphere was abuzz on the game's announcement on April 2 -- people weren't even sure whether or not it was a belated April Fool's day joke.) Next thing you know, you’ve bought the game and the entire afternoon is shot.

The unique premise of the title draws you in, and the gameplay makes you stay (and also compels you to tell all your friends about the experience).

Long Development, Big Rewards?

The development of Plants vs. Zombies is also a bit weird. Part of the appeal of developing pick-up-and-play games for the mass market is that you typically don’t have these extended development periods.

But the first prototype for Plants vs. Zombies was completed three years ago, says designer George Fan, who was also the man behind the fish vs. aliens game Insaniquarium. Over the years, Plants vs. Zombies transformed from more of a plant-nurturing game originally called Weedlings to a plants vs. aliens game before becoming what it is today.

Two years into development of the game, tower defense-style games amassed a big following, and zombies proliferated interactive entertainment even more than previous years. As much as we’d like to be the jaded snoot that looks down on such cliches, the goofy and beautiful cartoon presentation has been inescapable.

“I thought, hey, I could do plants. No one would expect plants to move. So they really made great towers to me,” Fan says in a podcast with Blog Critics’ Multiplayer Chat. He almost makes it sound logical.

He says the game was inspired by gardening games that were coming out around a few years ago, but he wanted his game to stand out. “I thought zombies would be really cool.” Plus, they move slow enough for gamers to set up their plant defenses.

So here I am, yet again, playing another zombie game. Yet I am not ashamed.

The Hardcore Vs. Casual Conundrum

And that brings us to another element of Plants vs. Zombies that is unique, or weird: for a PopCap game, it has a very strong appeal to the hardcore.

“There’s certainly a larger contingent of ‘hardcore’ gamers purchasing [Plants vs. Zombies] than most of our other titles, with the notable exception of Peggle,” PopCap's Chouteau said. “At the moment, we’d estimate that at least half of all buyers of PvZ would fall into the ‘hardcore’ category.”

Other than proving that hardcore gamers are the most predictable bunch around (marketing tip: add zombies to your game), Plants vs. Zombies makes me even more annoyed with the term “casual", because Plants vs. Zombies shows that the term doesn't really mean much at all -- everyone's buying it, the hardcore set and the "non-traditional" set.

And everyone's playing it. A lot. But I can either use the term "casual", or “mass market pick-up-and-play interactive entertainment that appeals heavily to atypical gamer demographics.” So I’ll probably stick with casual, much to my distress.

To the game's credit, Plants vs. Zombies’ appeal to hardcore gamers isn’t just a product of our love of the festering, shuffling undead. PopCap was more methodical in its launch of the game.

The Deceptive, Rotting Depths

Chouteau adds, “There are several possible reasons for [the game's hardcore appeal] beyond the game itself: casual buyers tend to take longer to go from trial to purchase; [Plants vs. Zombies] has been available on Steam, an essentially ‘hardcore’ service, since launch and at a discount; et al.”

Plants vs. Zombies also draws from conventions of more "core" games such as MMORPGs and RTS games, such as the recharge times for plant "weapons" and the use of sunlight as a resource akin to Tiberium.

But Chouteau claims that PopCap doesn't really try to pigeonhole its games, or actively try to address a particular audience.

“At this juncture, we don’t worry much about ‘casual vs. hardcore’ " we try to make games that will appeal to both audiences more or less equally. In this short attention span century of ours, this can be tricky since people tend to judge things quickly."

"However, our games can be ‘deceptively deep’ in some cases, and require 50-plus hours just to unlock all the modes and access all the power-ups or ‘towers’ or etc. Thankfully, Plants vs. Zombies is engaging enough that people end up spending a ton of time in the game before they really realize that an afternoon has just evaporated.”

I’m sorry, what was that again, Garth? I got distracted by a zombie on a Zamboni.

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