This past Friday VentureBeat posted a lengthy and all-encompassing interview with George Fan, the creator of Plants vs. Zombies (Free). So lengthy and all-encompassing in fact that it’s taken me several days to fully finish and digest the interview. However, it’s an absolutely excellent read that offers a ton of insights into the creation of one of the most popular games of all time, as well as the inner-workings of a fantastic game designer. There’s some tidbits of information that have been divulged by Fan in interviews before, like why exactly it’s plants fighting zombies (there is a reason for it, it’s not just a random mashup) and how the concept of the game was partially inspired by the Disney classic Swiss Family Robinson. It’s still fascinating stuff even if you’ve heard that history before and is actually a bit more interesting in the context of the tenth anniversary of Plants vs. Zombies which occurred just over a week ago.
What really struck me though, and what prompted me to want to share this interview with our readers on TouchArcade, is Fan’s take on free to play gaming, which obviously dominates the mobile space and is one of the most divisive aspects of the mobile gaming world. The iOS version of Plants vs. Zombies launched in February of 2010, about nine months after the desktop version, and was wildly successful. The game was just really well-suited to the touchscreen and the nature of on-the-go play. In fact, looking back Fan says that the iPhone version was “what really made the game become a cultural phenomenon" and that “people think of Plants vs. Zombies more as a mobile game than anything else" which I think is absolutely true.
However, the early part of this decade is when free to play was finding its footing in the mobile space. Plants vs. Zombies launched on the iPhone as a paid title, but by the time PopCap had officially announced a sequel in the summer of 2012, EA had already swooped in and bought the company for a cool $750 million the year prior and they saw the free to play writing on the wall. The sequel would be a free to play game, and this is something George Fan was not a big fan of. In fact, this fundamental disagreement over pay models is what led to Fan leaving PopCap in 2013. “My initial mission in coming to PopCap was to make the best games I could. I wanted to make them as fun as possible" Fan says, and when you’re designing a free to play game you’re putting the monetization factor ahead of the fun factor. Here’s a killer quote from Fan on free to play game design:
“I guess I’ll say that not all of the ways things were evolving led to games being more fun overall. There are some aspects of this business model that make it so — you’re not making games to be fun anymore. You’re playing to — here’s the stuff that addicts players, that makes people come back. You’re implementing these strategies to hook people, but they’re not necessarily having fun with your game anymore. They’re compelled to play because they need to increase their level or feel like they’re making some other kind of progression. But if you asked them, “Hey, take a step back. Strip away all of this. Is the moment to moment gameplay fun for you?” in a lot of cases I bet the answer would be no."
I think those of us who have enjoyed a free to play game in the past, and I’m most definitely in that camp, has felt this way at some point or another. I’ve come to describe it as hamster wheel gaming, as most free to play games have this very artificial sense of progression, and you may play for months or even years making progress bars go up and upgrading characters or whatever, but at some point you just stop and think “What am I even DOING with my life!?" There’s just no satisfaction to the experience. I can look back over my 3+ decades of gaming and remember fondly the feeling of beating certain games and the sense of accomplishment that came with it. That’s missing in the majority of free to play games because more often than not there is no end, there’s nothing to “beat." There’s only the next plateau as you climb a mountain where the peak is constantly moving ever higher into the sky. You’re running on a hamster wheel and you’re going nowhere.
I should add that I don’t think this is always a bad thing. I actually appreciate the occasional mindless experience on mobile where you can kill time doing something that you only half need to even pay attention to. I think that’s an important option to have on a mobile device like a smartphone. But free to play most certainly doesn’t suit every type of game, and it absolutely hampers the design of most games that could otherwise be very fun. A lot of this has to do with the market shaping itself over the years too, as mobile device users found themselves with an abundance of choice on the App Store and developers rushed to drop their games to 99¢ to try and gain that all-important top-of-charts exposure that was almost necessary to be successful in any way. There are tons of factors that have led to our free to play reality of today, and while the finger of blame could be pointed in multiple directions the bottom line is that there are far more crappy and hollow gaming experiences on mobile than there are satisfying ones.
All of this said, there is a silver lining. For one, there ARE developers out there who have continued to create premium experiences for mobile and focused on fun and great game design over a monetization model. I’ve been saying for years that if you’re a lean enough dev team and can live with not being in the top of the charts, you can make a living selling premium mobile games in the ~$10 range to the smaller niche of gamers looking for that sort of thing. And with things like GameClub and Apple’s own Apple Arcade on the horizon, it feels like there’s a mini-renaissance of premium gaming in the mobile space. I’ve even been working behind the scenes on various ideas for how to make TouchArcade more focused on premium gaming and more of a valuable resource for the mobile gamers seeking that type of experience (Stay tuned).
It’s easy to forget how young the mobile gaming market actually is. It has moved so fast there has been numerous changes in the past decade, but maybe things are starting to stabilize and, similar to music, there will be the pop music that’s mega mainstream (aka free to play games) and then the more niche market of underground bands (aka premium games) that aren’t selling out stadiums but are finding a passionate audience and making a living doing what they love. The nice thing about the App Store is it’s at such a massive scale that even if 99% of everything is garbage, that 1% that’s not is still more than your average person could reasonably play in a lifetime. I for one still have a huge backlog of premium mobile games to play through, and more and more I’m ignoring whatever the latest free to play hit is in favor of focusing on that backlog, and I’m much happier for it.
My madman ramblings aside, you should absolutely check out the full interview with George Fan over at VentureBeat if you’re interested in this topic, and if you want to gain some insight from the creator of one of the most popular mobile games ever. There are just too many fantastic quotes to include them all here, so give the full interview a read. Fan’s latest project Octogeddon, which launched on Steam last year to critical acclaim, is heading to Nintendo Switch later this week so if you’re one of our faithful SwitchArcade Round-Up readers be sure to keep an eye out for that.