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Why I'm Not Playing Plants vs. Zombies 2

Popcap's implementation of free-to-play mechanics in Plants vs. Zombies 2 may not be "that bad" compared to its rivals, but that doesn't mean we should defend it, says Pete.

By Pete Davison. Published 7 months ago

I'll say one thing up front before we get started on this: Plants vs. Zombies 2 is a reasonably decent game, particularly if you liked the first one. This is largely thanks to it being mechanically almost identical, but we can't criticize it too much for that -- it's pretty much what fans wanted. I do not, however, like it. At all.

You may recall that, shortly after Plants vs. Zombies 2 was announced as a free-to-play title, I made the argument Freemium Makes Good Games Suffer. I've seen too many games utterly ruin their balance and overall "fun factor" -- there's a term that takes me back to the '90s publishing industry -- by following the fashionable free-to-play model. And Plants vs. Zombies' publisher EA is one of the companies leading the charge in this direction, particularly on mobile.

I felt I may have been being a bit unfair to Plants vs. Zombies 2, though, particularly once reviews started emerging praising it as a solid sequel. At the same time, though, I noticed a curiously apologetic tone present in almost every review, blog post and tweet regarding the game -- a sense of "Well, it's good, but..."

Something didn't sit right with me about all this, so I downloaded the game and actually gave it a shot once it became available worldwide. Perhaps my worries were unfounded; perhaps PopCap had indeed found that magic sweet spot for the free-to-play model; perhaps this would be the game to finally convince me that free-to-play is actually as good for consumers as it is for publishers.

Shyeah, right.

See the "machine gun" pea-shooter there? Pay enough money and you can make all of them do that. If you want to.

I will say that the apologetic but positive reviews for Plants vs. Zombies do have a point. The game's monetization is neither overbearing nor obnoxious, and it is indeed possible to play through the entire campaign without having to pay a single cent. The game itself is reasonably solid for the most part, and doesn't rely on the more obnoxious tricks other free-to-play developers have in their arsenal -- things like wait timers, slowly refilling energy bars and artificial difficulty spikes -- and consequently feels reasonably well balanced.

So why don't I like it?

It's those little plus signs. One by your coin readout; one by your plant food indicator. Tap the former and you can spend real money to purchase coins, which can also be acquired through play. Tap the latter and you can immediately use said coins to purchase a "charge" for the game's one brand-new mechanic: the ability to "power up" a plant for a few seconds, usually tipping the scales back in your favor.

These plus signs aren't present in the game's tutorial, nor in the first couple of levels, lulling you into a false sense of security. By the time you're well into the game proper, though, there they are, just staring at you; waiting for you to tap them and enjoy their bounty in exchange for a few of your hard-earned dollars.

It could be worse, of course; it could be like a social game and regularly pop up messages inviting you to pay now for "special offers" and, to PopCap's credit, never once are you "nagged" to pull out your credit card. But those plus signs are, in effect, a form of passive nagging; the option to, essentially, pay to cheat is always there. And that bugs me. A lot.

More than anything, it's the message it sends that bugs me: I read it as PopCap having a lack of confidence in its own game. Why provide players with tools that, essentially, allow them to completely break the balance of the game? Struggling to complete a level? No problem! Don't worry about actually improving your skills, just whip out your credit card, buy some coins and invest in some more plant food and powerups! Don't mind us, we just designed the game this way; you go ahead and break it… just make sure you pay for the privilege.

Apologists for the game have noted that there's no need to pay real money for the coins if you go back and replay earlier levels to grind for coins. This is, of course, true, but… really? I don't know about you, dear reader -- you could be a huge PvZ fan for all I know, and if so, more power to you -- but wouldn't you rather play a continuous string of new levels rather than repeating the same ones over and over again? Plants vs. Zombies has never been interesting enough to me to justify playing through it more than once; this may just be me, however, as I will note at this juncture that my girlfriend has played through the original game several times on PC, iPhone and iPad, and I'm sure she's not alone in that.

The trouble with the rise of free-to-play is that it encourages publishers to drop consumable microtransactions into paid titles, such as Ryse (pictured).

Bennett Foddy, creator of the notoriously difficult-to-control games QWOP and GIRP, had a few choice words about this model on Twitter this morning. He was speaking with reference to the recent news that Xbox One launch title Ryse would feature microtransactions to boost players' progress through multiplayer, but it applies just as much to Plants vs. Zombies 2's situation.

"'Micro-monetization [allows you to] trade a couple of bucks for a couple of hours,'" said Foddy, quoting Ryse's multiplayer producer. "Note: not to trade a couple of bucks to get to play a couple of hours. To trade a couple of bucks to avoid playing a couple of hours." [emphasis mine]

This is, I think, the crux of the matter when it comes to a lot of freemium (or freemium-style -- Ryse is a $60+ game) monetization models: they're essentially asking you to pay not to play the game, and pushing you in that direction by making the option of, you know, actually playing the game incredibly tedious and unappealing. This is bad game design, but good business sense; the two are often at odds with one another. It's not something we, as players, should be defending, though; as players, we have no responsibility to publishers' bottom lines, and as such we shouldn't be apologizing for games that have deliberately made themselves dull and boring in an attempt to coerce you into paying real money.

"I can think of a cheaper way to avoid playing a couple of hours of Ryse," continued Foddy, to which one of his followers replied "I can earn a couple of bucks in a couple of hours, probably more."

"This is probably a good reason not to play games that deliberately waste your time as a money-making strategy," retorted Foddy. "This idea: 'we have time-rich players and money-rich players' is nonsense. Nobody has to play your game! What is the value proposition here?" [emphasis mine]

I'm with Foddy here: why should I suffer through a game that's been deliberately designed to waste either my time or money when my backlog would probably already reach the ceiling of my apartment if I were to stack all the disc cases on top of each other? I see absolutely no reason to defend an experience such as that which Plants vs. Zombies 2 offers, and I'm yet to hear a convincing consumer-friendly argument from anyone as to why the game adopted the free-to-play model. And no, "publishers are businesses and need to make money" doesn't count.

Freemium made Plants vs. Zombies 2 suffer. How many more games like this must we suffer through before publishers like EA realize that free-to-play isn't a one-size-fits-all solution?

The best community comments so far 13 comments

  • Terpiscorei 7 months ago

    Part of the problem, at least with Ryse, is that these crappy leveling mechanics have been shoehorned into almost every AAA multiplayer game now. It's a design intended to keep people playing, even if they're not enjoying themselves, until they finally unlock whatever it is they think will make the game fun. This kind of disrespect for player time has been around for a long time; early western MMOs and many eastern MMOs have been some particularly egregious offenders. With that in mind, it's basically a no-brainer for a developer to try to make some money by allowing players to bypass some of it.

    What bothers me is that there's been little to no resistance to this design until the introduction of microtransactions to ameliorate it -- instead, it's being cast as a problem unique to F2P games. If Ryse weren't letting you pay to get past some of the grind, would there be any criticism of its multiplayer model at all?Edited August 2013 by Unknown

  • MojoBox 7 months ago

    I swore off freemium games after spending some time with Candy Crush (because many of my friends were playing it at the time). I quickly saw how the business model completely impinged on the game design. Yes it was theoretically possible to play the whole game and never spend a cent. In practice though? Absolutely not. It's bad enough to deal with the slowly recharging lives mechanic, but what is absolutely unforgivable is the way the game was clearly intentionally poorly balanced in order to coerce you into paying for extra lives. Some times it's just absolutely impossible to clear a level no matter what. So much of the game is left up to absolute pure chance, many times you are screwed from the word go in a particular puzzle. As a long time fan of puzzle games it quickly became evident to me that my skill was hardly a factor, and I'm fairly certain that many of the boards are intentionally designed to be massive time-sink roadblocks. Everyone who's played that game has the experience of being stuck on a particular board for WEEKS until one day, randomly, boom! You pass it. Did you get better? Were you playing at the peak of your skill? Nope, just pure dumb luck. The freemium model definitely encourages this kind of half-assed, ill conceived game design. Thanks, and no.Edited August 2013 by Unknown

  • reza666 7 months ago

    "These plus signs aren't present in the game's tutorial, nor in the first couple of levels, lulling you into a false sense of security. By the time you're well into the game proper, though, there they are, just staring at you; waiting for you to tap them and enjoy their bounty in exchange for a few of your hard-earned dollars."

    Exactly why i hate Free to play model. It tricks you into false security as you say and bam its there and tempt you to buy. I like to pay upfront and know what i get. The micro transaction is really bad and can cost you much much more if your not careful.

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