PopCap's Plants vs. Zombies was, it's fair to say, something of a phenomenon. Marrying easy-to-understand gameplay and cute graphics with a significant amount of content that got increasingly challenging as you progressed, it was that rare thing: a game that successfully bridged the gap between "casual" gamers and the self-professed "hardcore."
Since its original 2009 release, Plants vs. Zombies has been ported to pretty much every modern platform out there, with the truly dedicated fans - my girlfriend being one of them - happily re-purchasing it every time it comes out, only to play it all the way through yet again. I must confess that it never quite "hooked" me personally, but I understand its appeal very well.
Given the game's "worldwide phenomenon" status, it's understandable that anticipation for the oft-teased sequel was high. Although Plants vs. Zombies is a great game and has seen a number of significant updates since its original release, it's now four years old. The community was hungry for more. And it seemed like they were going to get it.
PopCap, now owned by EA, officially unveiled Plants vs. Zombies 2: It's About Time recently, along with the surprising news that it would initially be an iOS-exclusive title, and that it would be free-to-play rather than a "pay once, play forever" kind of deal like its predecessor.
The message that "Plants vs. Zombies 2 is free-to-play" - with an implied disparaging tone - is drowning out the more important message "Plants vs. Zombies 2 is out on July 18."
The announcement was not received all that well. Of the 136 comments on our sister site Eurogamer's story about the new game at the time of writing, 68 of them express a considerable amount of negativity towards the new game purely because of those fateful words "free-to-play." Yet more are upset about its (initial) iOS exclusivity, while others take a more cautious approach, noting that "free-to-play" doesn't necessarily equate to "bad" - titles such as League of Legends, Dota 2 and World of Tanks all implement a free-to-play business model in a manner which doesn't feel like it's nickel and diming players.
On the whole, though, there wasn't a single comment that was unreservedly positive or excited about the new game; the closest thing was the few people who were saying "wait and see; it might not be that bad." And while this small sample obviously doesn't represent the views of everyone who might be interested in playing Plants vs. Zombies 2, it should be giving EA and PopCap cause for concern, since the message that "Plants vs. Zombies 2 is free-to-play" - with an implied disparaging tone - is drowning out the arguably more important message "Plants vs. Zombies 2 is out on July 18" by a considerable margin.
Are people overreacting? Well, to be honest, it's probably a little early to say, since no-one has been hands-on with Plants vs. Zombies 2 to see quite how much it is necessary to pay in order to have the most fun experience - perhaps we'll find out more at E3.
Speaking with Edge recently, lead producer Allen Murray claimed that PopCap is keen to prove that free-to-play doesn't have to be evil: "Frankly," he said, "it’s been something the team has really struggled with: how do we do it right? We’re just trying to find a really good balance. We want people to play and enjoy the game, and not feel like they’re being bilked all the time."
The cynical among us may point out to Murray at this juncture that a simple way to ensure that players don't "feel like they're being bilked all the time" is to eschew free-to-play altogether and just release the damn thing as a standard pay-once product. But let's give PopCap the benefit of the doubt for the moment: it may well be that you can play and enjoy the whole thing without paying a cent, and without having to "grind" at all. If that's the case, great, and it may yet happen. We just won't know for sure until the game is released on July 18.
What we can do in the meantime, though, is take a look at EA and PopCap's past implementations of free-to-play and extrapolate what might happen with Plants vs. Zombies 2. If we do that, unfortunately, things don't look quite so rosy for the new game.
The Rise and Fall of Bejeweled
The original Bejeweled was PopCap's first game back in 2000, and is widely credited with popularizing the "match-3" puzzle game subgenre that saturates the worlds of social and mobile gaming today. Like Plants vs. Zombies some nine years later, Bejeweled was ported to every platform under the sun - including obscure, now all-but-defunct systems such as Palm OS-powered PDAs.
Bejeweled went from strength to strength over the years, spawning two sequels, a spinoff (no pun intended) in the form of Bejeweled Twist, and the Facebook game Bejeweled Blitz.
The term "Facebook game" fills many people's minds with dread, bringing to mind shallow, tedious, busywork simulators such as Zynga's Ville series and its numerous imitators -- games that require nothing in the way of skill, have little of value to "say" and are nothing more than something to click on while you're bored at work. Yet Bejeweled Blitz broke that mold; it provided a satisfying, fun experience for both core and casual gamers alike, and it helped usher in an age of high score chasing that we hadn't seen since the golden age of arcades.
The term "Facebook game" fills many people's minds with dread, yet Bejeweled Blitz broke that mold.
For those who haven't played Bejeweled Blitz, the game takes the basic mechanics of Bejeweled - swap pairs of gems around to create horizontal or vertical lines of three or more like-colored gems - and adds a tight time limit rather than the original game's progression through levels. At the end of your time, your high score is recorded and you can compare it to your friends. That's it. Simple. Effective. Great.
At least, that was it.
Play Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook now and it's an altogether different, far more glitzy experience than the rather no-frills version that was originally launched in 2010 - one that's much more keen for you to open your wallet and spend money on it.
The original version of Bejeweled Blitz offered purchasable "boosts" that provided a small impact on the gameplay - though you still had to be skilled at the game in order to take advantage of them. These boosts cost in-game coins to use, which could either be acquired at a slow rate by playing the game or purchased with real money. The key thing about them, though, was that they didn't unbalance the game. Purchasing a boost was by no means a guarantee that you were going to top the leaderboards - it simply gave you more options. In other words, it wasn't a "pay to win" system; you could earn enough coins to make use of occasional boosters simply by playing, and when you did, they didn't break the game.
In today's incarnation of Bejeweled Blitz, however, we have the added mechanic of "rare gems" to contend with. These gems are very occasionally acquired by chance through sending invites and requests to friends, but the only way to acquire the ones you want with any reliability is to pay the exorbitant in-game currency costs for them. And the thing with the rare gems is that, unlike the boosts, they have a significant impact on your score. Without them, you simply will not top the leaderboards unless you make a pact with your friends to not use them - even then, there's no way to know for sure when someone has used one.
For a game based solely around beating your friends on a leaderboard, that's a real problem: it upsets what was once a relatively level playing field, turning Bejeweled Blitz from a simple, fun and highly addictive score-attack game to play with friends into something that is unbalanced, unfair and simply not fun any more.
Time is Money
Earlier this year, EA released the third incarnation of Firemint's visually-impressive iOS racing sim Real Racing as a free-to-play game; the previous two versions of Real Racing had been premium-priced offerings - although bear in mind that "premium" on mobile means something very different to in the rest of the industry. At around the $5-10 mark depending on which version you went for, they were a fraction of the price of equivalent computer or console games while, unusually for a mobile title, offering a similar amount of depth.
Real Racing 3 had been designed from the outset with continuous monetization in mind.
Real Racing 3 offered the same flawless presentation and depth of content as its predecessors, with one important and rather big difference to its gameplay: it had been designed from the outset with continuous monetization in mind. What this meant in practice was that every so often, your car would get damaged, or need its tires replacing, or need an oil change, and when that happened you had a simple choice: wait or pay. Granted, this problem was somewhat mitigated a little later in the game when you had several cars in your garage, but in the early stages, while you were still struggling to earn enough cash to get by, it interrupted the flow of gameplay to a significant degree.
This kind of strategy is nothing new - the vast majority of free-to-play Facebook and mobile games are built around a variation on this "wait or pay" mechanic. That doesn't mean that it doesn't suck, however, and Real Racing 3's implementation of it sucked in a particularly noticeable manner due to the fact that in all other respects it was a deep, complex and engrossing game that, unlike most other mobile games, you'd actually want to spend more than two minutes with at a time.
Telling your players to cough up or come back later is fine in a game designed to be a disposable timewaster; in a game that clearly wants to be the mobile Gran Turismo/Forza Motorsport, however, it's an issue. Personally speaking, I prefer the time I spend playing a particular game to be on my own terms rather than at the behest of a mechanic over which I have very little control, and I will happily pay up-front to avoid that ever happening, rather than continuing to pay indefinitely. With Real Racing 3, that option simply isn't there - I could always play the older Real Racing titles, of course, but then I miss out on the cool things that 3 introduces, such as the asynchronous multiplayer races and improved presentation.
It Doesn't Have to Be This Way
Free-to-play doesn't have to be bad - titles such as Team Fortress 2, League of Legends, Dota 2 and numerous other (largely PC-exclusive) titles set a good example of how to implement this business model in a manner which is fair, inclusive and which doesn't punish players for not wanting to hand over their card details. They do this by allowing players to customize their experience, not by gating off playable content or putting up artificial paywalls to progression through "lives" or "energy" systems. Those who play casually can have a completely satisfying, uncompromised experience for free; those who are dedicated and want to make themselves stand out - or simply to show their appreciation for the developer - can pay as much or as little as they like.
The trouble, however, is that more often than not free-to-play is implemented in such a manner as to be actively exploitative, unfair and game-breaking. Why? Because a significant number of people - many of whom, not being long-time gamers, presumably don't know any better - engage with it and make it both profitable and worthwhile for developers to continue in the same mold. That doesn't mean it's a good direction for the industry to move in, though. Want to know how much respect free-to-play developers and publishers hold for the people who spend the most money? They call them "whales." Nice, huh?
More often than not, free-to-play is implemented in such a manner as to be actively exploitative, unfair and game-breaking.
At the time of writing, the top grossing iOS app on both iPhone and iPad is King's Candy Crush Saga, a free-to-play Bejeweled knockoff that charges you for extra moves if you can't finish a level; charges you for extra lives if you fail levels several times; charges you to unlock levels if you don't want to bug your Facebook friends repeatedly; charges you for temporary boosters; charges you for permanent powerups (in one case, $40 for an item of somewhat questionable usefulness) and generally makes it abundantly clear that the developers would very much like your money, please. Naturally, you can play through Candy Crush Saga for free if you're willing to put up with a significant degree of inconvenience -- waiting for lives to restock; bugging Facebook friends until they accept your requests just to get you to leave them alone; repeatedly playing the same level until the luck of the candy draw means you can finish it -- but, frankly, why would you? The port of (non-Blitz) Bejeweled 3 for iOS costs $0.99 and never asks you for another cent after that, and is basically the same game as Candy Crush Saga.
This is the concern that people have with regard to Plants vs. Zombies 2: many - though, crucially, not all - of the most successful free-to-play games out there are also the most obnoxious ones: the ones that actively sacrifice well-designed, well-balanced gameplay in favor of encouraging people to spend money through subtly inconveniencing and annoying them; the ones which allow you to buy your way to the top of the leaderboards. Is this really a direction we want to continue encouraging games to go in? PopCap's Murray seems keen to assure us that this is not the direction Plants vs. Zombies 2 has taken, but it remains to be seen.
As I said at the outset of this article, it's by no means a foregone conclusion that Plants vs. Zombies 2 will fall on the more obnoxious side of the free-to-play line. But it's something those negative commenters are right to be wary of. We'll have to wait until July 18 to find out the truth once and for all.