Plants vs Zombies is boldly going where no popular gaming franchise has gone before: to a land of over-the-shoulder camera angles and gleefully bobbing crosshairs, whereupon things will be shot mercilessly. OK, maybe it's not the boldest move ever in the grand scheme of things, but Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare is quite a departure for PopCap's vegetable stew of a
tower porch defender, and it's looking admirably silly. But so far, all we've seen is a quick bit of co-op. What about large-scale (24-ish player) competitive multiplayer and the ability to play as zombies? Also, stepping back a bit, why make a shooter out of Plants vs Zombies at all? I spoke with creative director Justin Wiebe to find out.
RPS: Why did you decide to do this with Plants vs Zombies, of all series?
Wiebe: We really wanted to grow the franchise. We knew it could be more than a 2D tower defense game, but we weren't sure. So we had a team say, "You know what? Let's try something different. Let's just go for it. And if it doesn't work out, that's fine." Because if it's not fun, we're not gonna release it. But we worked on the demo for a while and it turned out that this thing was just awesome.
But we knew we couldn't just tell everyone, "Hey, we're making this really cool PvZ action-multiplayer game," because it sounds crazy, right? It shouldn't work. So we knew we had to show them, not tell them. So we had to keep it secret for two years.
RPS: Why a shooter? Why not a farming simulator or epic space opera role-playing game?
Wiebe: We explored different genres. We knew we wanted to build an action game that allowed players to play in the fight between the plants and zombies. That felt like the right way to go because it'd let the series evolve. We explored different design ideas. We put a bunch of possibilities together, like maybe an open-world game or a straight-up single-player action game. But at the end of the day, we kept coming back to multiplayer. Multiplayer brings that random fun element to it - the ability to play with friends or strangers. It just worked for us.
RPS: We've seen one level, but how much variety are we looking at? What sorts of map sizes and objectives?
Wiebe: This is truthfully our very first reveal to the world. This is our four-player co-op map. It's also the first game mode we're unveiling. But when we started off, this was actually billed as a very competitive multiplayer game. So we've got a lot more details that we're gonna be unveiling over time. So essentially, this is just the tip of the iceberg for us. But you can imagine if we head toward a 24-player competitive Plants vs Zombies experience... just let your imagination run with it.
RPS: So naturally, there will also be modes where one side plays plants and the other plays zombies, right? I mean, it is called Plants vs Zombies, after all.
RPS: Will players mainly be controlling the big boss zombies, then?
Wiebe: That's interesting. It remains to be seen.
What we've done is we've worked very hard with our team. We're very passionate PvZ players, and we went through all the characters trying to nail down what are the four core plant classes that we wanted to have. Which characters fit those classes. And it's the same way for the zombies. It's very difficult to whittle it down to what are going to be the essential core of your multiplayer experience.
RPS: How many original PvZ members are also working on Garden Warfare? I mean, I don't imagine many of them came with a working knowledge of Frostbite 3.
Wiebe: We actually assembled a team of Frostbite veterans. People who'd been working in the engine for years. People with experience in shooters and other action genres. And that experience basically allowed us to have a playable version of our game up and running honestly within two weeks of starting development. We just went right for it because honestly we needed to create a demo and prove whether this was gonna be fun or not very, very quickly.
RPS: It all looks very tongue-in-cheek and self-aware, though. But, at the same time, I think a lot of people feel like you're morphing PvZ into some seriousface rah-rah-rah shooter. Do you think that's shooter fatigue talking? Are you worried about shooter fatigue?
Wiebe: Well, I think shooting is actually a core part of PvZ, right? I mean, you look at your Pea Shooter. You've got your cactus. There's a lot of projectile-based characters within the core game. Basically, all we did is find the characters that made the most sense as projectile characters. But if you look at the Chomper, he's not projectile-based. He's more of a platformer kind of character. He just wants to run around and eat as many zombies as possible.
RPS: Well, sure. Things do technically shoot other things in PvZ, but that's not the main verb of the game. In PvZ classic, you're strategically arraying cheerful green things that do the shooting for you. Garden Warfare is actually about aiming and pulling the trigger. That action, that central goal. That's what I mean.
Wiebe: Well, I think what we're gearing it toward is fans of Plants vs Zombies first and foremost - and fans of the action genre. So if you take that, add some depth, and mix in some humor, this game is not gonna be positioned in a place where we would necessarily compete with the likes of Call of Duty or Battlefield. We want to be the game that players play when they want to relax from managing their KD ratio. Something where they can just sit down, enjoy the game, and laugh out loud.
RPS: Yeah, and humor's obviously a pretty big thing here. The Call of Duty call-out at the start, especially, got some good laughs. But frankly, a lot of EA games seem to get a little too wrapped up in themselves. They lose sight of how silly most of what we do in games really is. What are you doing to avoid that?
Wiebe: I think the important thing in this game is to not take itself too seriously and look strategically at where we can poke fun at other games - including our own titles. We've already made fun of a lot of EA-owned products, and I think there's a lot of good humor in that. We're gonna carry that on because it's part of the core humor of the game.
RPS: Is Garden Warfare going to be free-to-play like Plants vs Zombies 2?
Wiebe: We're not releasing any kind of details on finance models or anything of that nature at this point. That information will probably be coming at a later date.
RPS: OK, but you're working with EA. They've become quite, um, fond of microtransactions recently. Presumably those will be in Garden Warfare as well, right?
Wiebe: We're not releasing any financial details at this time.
RPS: Right. Well then, can you explain why Plants vs Zombies 2 is coming to mobile first even though the series got its start on PC?
Wiebe: Unfortunately, I'm not qualified to answer that question because I wasn't working [on it] at that time.
RPS: Ah, oh well. Thank you for your time.