Plants vs. Zombies 2: Between Scylla and Charybdis

The following two articles form an interesting diptych on Plants vs. Zombies 2:

In other words, the first author believes that the game is ruined by microtransactions while the second author believes that EA didn’t do nearly enough because it was “afraid to upset players.” Did EA ruin PvZ2 by going free-to-play? Or did it simply not go far enough? These two pieces seem to emerge from parallel dimensions.

Indeed, the two writers are from very different worlds. Faraday is the founder of Pocket Tactics, the premier mobile strategy game blog. As it caters to core gamers, free-to-play is generally considered a dirty word there. Katkoff, in contrast, was a Product Manager for Supercell’s cash-cow free-to-play strategy MMO Clash of Clans, a game notorious for attracting whales willing to drop thousands of dollars on the game.

For Katkoff, PvZ2 represents great unfulfilled potential as a free-to-play game because EA did not aggressively tempt players enough to spend. For one thing, the game is not hard enough to force players to buy boosters:

Sadly PvZ2 is ridiculously easy. It takes absolutely no effort to pass levels, making the game unchallenging and boring. . . . PvZ2 offers boosters for real currency, which enable players to clear levels with some consumable super powers. But to create the demand for these boosters players need to have those moments where they’re just about to clear a level and realize that they’ll lose without the help of a booster. Lack of challenge results in low demand for boosters, which causes stagnant revenue.

Furthermore, the game lacks the gates that typically restrict players in free-to-play environments, which then creates demand for various unlocks and powers:

PvZ2 has no restriction mechanics and thus no core loop. An ideal core loop for the game would have been similar to the one in Candy Crush Saga, where sessions are restricted with energy mechanics. I’d argue that energy-based core loops would have increased monetization of the game by creating consistent demand for energy and increasing demand for power ups – when level restarts have a cost, not failing a level becomes valuable.

EA created plenty of ways to spend money – plant unlocks, special powers, extra plant food, and so on – but the game is not engineered to push players to spend. Hence, the game quickly dropped out of the top 20 in the Top Grossing list for iOS games and now hovers around number 50, which Katkoff considers a failure for a game with such high promotion and anticipation.

In contrast, the game simply disgusts Faraday; the experience is ruined because commerce becomes a constant and unwelcome guest, poisoning the atmosphere and taking the focus away from pleasing the player:

Plants vs. Zombies 2 is designed to be fun, of course, but it’s very obviously designed to be just fun enough that the frustration of playing it will force you to open up your wallet to buy an early unlock of a plant for $5, or spend $6 to see a new part of the game world. It’s crass. It’s gauche.

After praising the charm and originality of the original, Faraday declares that “the biggest mistake EA and PopCap could have made with Plants vs Zombies 2 would have been to make it a slow, grindy treadmill.” Unfortunately, to extend the gameplay and create room for an in-game store, EA did just that:

After the first eleven levels, PvZ2 grabs the treadmill’s speed control and slams it all the way back. Once you’ve finished the 11th level in Egypt and seen everything that that game world has to offer, Plants vs Zombies 2 informs you that to progress to the next world, you have to go play all of the levels over (and over) again, gaining stars to unlock the pirates. Or you can just pay six bucks.

In some ways, the two authors seem to differ factually (the star system Faraday describes does sound a bit like the type of core loop, with built-in gates restricting the player, that Katkoff recommends). Nonetheless, that both Faraday and Katkoff view PvZ2 as a failure is damning for EA; if they couldn’t please either the free-to-play money guy or the original fan of the series, then who were they trying to please? Perhaps the ugly lesson here is that if a company decides to risk losing its core audience, then it might as well go all the way and make sure it gets the money.

EA is caught between the Scylla of core gamers and the Charybdis of whales. Core gamers care about what they play, and for decades, they made EA a very wealthy company. Unfortunately, whales are going to make other companies even wealthier. They turned Supercell into a $3 billion company from just two free-to-play games, which now generate over $2.5 million per day at an insane 75% profit margin. By comparison, EA had an anemic 2.5% profit margin last year, and they made a lot more than two games. As a public company, how can EA ignore whales and compete with companies like Supercell which cater to them? The answer is that they can’t, and Popcap won’t be making games like the original Plants vs. Zombies anymore.

3 thoughts on “Plants vs. Zombies 2: Between Scylla and Charybdis

  1. Well, one is a gamer, the other one is a leech on society, which to agree with…. Hmmm…

  2. Pingback: Plants vs. Zombie 2:無料化の悲劇 | スパ帝国

  3. On the gamer chart, I’d say I’m probably even one step further than Katkoff–not only do I enjoy free games (sorry, Pocket Tactics), but I enjoy them as a normal human being, and not a professional reviewer (sorry, Deconstructor of Fun). I like games a lot but I don’t live up to my neck in them, so I don’t judge games based on the sorts of criteria that professional (reviewers) do.
    Personally, I think Plants vs. Zombies 2 is a real success as a game (both before and after the recent large update). Compared to many, many other free mobile games I’ve played, the number and types of prompts for making purchases has been extremely tame. There aren’t any obnoxious ads that obscure the game as you play, and though there are quick prompts between maps asking you to buy this or that plant on sale, they really don’t slow down the experience to a noticable degree. Perhaps some people would pay $1.99 – $2.99 for an ads free version, but I’m quite content with what I have.
    And what I have is, I’m happy to say, a game that’s fun and challenging enough (either Katkoff was playing an earlier version or I’m just terrible at playing games) to keep my interest and let me play when I have some free time on my hands. More important, though (and where it seriously beats Candy Crush Saga) is in the fact that it is player agency and skill that determines how well you do on a map, rather than random chance. Each map is designed and even balanced in a way that CCS (with its randomized color placement) simply isn’t. True, you might reach a level that would be easier to complete (or re-complete for additional stars) if you first earned some new plants on another level first, but I’ve yet to hit the kind of brick wall that I so frequently found with CCS (note, I include the term “brick wall” despite the fact that the designers allow me to avoid it by pestering friends who play for additional lives).
    I haven’t played completely through PvZ2 yet, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it for what it is–a well-built, well-balanced game that lets me have bouts of fun with a minimum of frustration (and, so far, without having spent a penny on it). It’s not breaking barriers in design or setting new markers for narrative immersion, but it’s been a damned good time for a price of $0.00

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