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.
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.
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?