Plants vs. Zombies 2 Interview

We had the pleasure of interviewing Bernard "Bernie" Yee - PopCap Sr. Producer for Plants vs. Zombies 2. Dustin Hill had the opportunity to ask him some questions about the new game. The text below is a lightly edited (for readability) version of the interview.

Bernie: Hey Dustin

Dustin: How's it going today?

Bernie: Good. How are you?

Dustin: Pretty Good.

Dustin: Have you had a lot of interviews today?

Bernie: Yeah. I've had a few already. It's the day after launch. I totally expect it.

Dustin: Do you have a few more yet to do?

Bernie: I don't know. It's a good time. After lunch I'm pretty relaxed. I'm happy to sit and talk about the work we have been doing the last year and a half.

Dustin: Could to tell us about yourself so our readers will know more about you? You're a game designer and also do a lot of business stuff.

Bernie: That's what production is really about - merging the business requirements with the design requirements. You have a finite budget and time to build a game. There are things you really want to do and keep it on schedule. Production is really appealing to me. You have to manage the constraints of quality versus time. It is a classic problem.

Bernie: I was previously at Bungie working on some of the mobile stuff for Destiny. I've worked on a number of games. MMO's such as Everquest and Shadowbane. I was at Atari and worked on Test Drive and Neverwinter Nights a little bit.

Bernie: My first job in gaming was as a teenager. I was a beta tester at Infocom. I was a tester on a game called Planetfall, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Suspended. They were fantastic.

Bernie: I've been around for a little bit. I've played lots of different games. I have to say that Plants vs. Zombies is one of my favorite games of all time. When I came to PopCap, I told the folks that hired me that I want to work on PvZ 2. This is the game I want to work on. And I got the chance to do it.

Dustin: Do you still do consulting for any of the companies that you've worked for previously?

Bernie: No. I'm not allowed to do that anymore. Even if I could, I wouldn't have the time. Working on a game is full time.

Dustin: I believe it.

Dustin: I watched the Developer Diary this morning and there was a cool cameo of you for just a moment.

Bernie: Yeah, I was probably rushing off to do something.

Dustin: Plants vs. Zombies 2 was released yesterday (at the time of recording) at midnight I assume?

Bernie: I think we actually hit the live button at 9:00 pm Eastern the night before - just to make sure that it got propagated to the Apple App store properly. We wanted to make sure it was up. The official launch was yesterday.

Dustin: I looked it up on the App Store already and it already had 16,000 ratings already.

Bernie: Really!?! Awesome! Are we still at 4.5 stars?

Dustin: Yes.

Dustin: I couldn't believe it. I figured there would be a few thousand of course, but 16,000 is pretty impressive.

Dustin: There are microtransactions, right?

Bernie: Correct.

Dustin: What kinds of things can you get with microtransactions?

Bernie: There are a number of things that you can do with money that you can also do by just playing the game. The big thing that you can either do with money or stars is unlock worlds. You finish Egypt and there is a Stargate that allows you to get to Pirate Seas. I believe that it takes 15 stars to unlock that gate. Or you can pay a small amount. I think it was $1.99? Either you can go back and play levels and earn stars or you can pay some money.

Bernie: The star challenges are actually all different. Some levels have one star. Some levels have three stars. Each star is a different challenge. One may say, don't plant for 45 seconds. One may be, don't plant more than fifteen plants. You can replay the levels with different constraints. Different strategies. Different plants.

Bernie: You can unlock side-paths with keys. The keys get dropped by zombies in a world. Or you can pay money to unlock the sidepath.

Bernie: There are game upgrades that you can get. Extra seed slots. Start with 25 extra suns. Some of these are purchase-only. Some of these can be unlocked by going through some sidepaths.

Bernie: The only thing that I believe that you have you pay money for, if you want to, are some of the premium plants. Jalapeno is one of them. Snow Pea is another.

Bernie: More than 95 percent of the game can be experienced without ever paying a penny. We feel that we want people to feel they want to pay to experience this stuff, not like they have to. Not that we're stopping them from playing or you've run out of energy so you've got to wait or pay money. You never have to stop playing. It's fundamentally a very different approach than some people in the industry.

Dustin: I've heard that some people are complaining that the game is free with the microtransactions. You get to play a lot of the game like other MMOs. You can play a lot of the game for free.

Bernie: League of Legends and DotA are free. I understand that. There are a lot of games that are free to play, but the player experiences them as "pay to avoid frustration." People don't like that.

Bernie: We want the game to feel like you can play this as much as you want and if you really want to rush through, you can pay some money and get to the next world. There's also a really rich way - just play a little bit more and you can get through some of this. For people who have a negative reaction that Free to Play have brought on them, we all say, "Just play the game. I understand that you're worried. Play the game and let us know what you think."

Bernie: We've seen articles that say, "How is PopCap going to make money because we don't turn the screws on the player?" There will be people who want to pay money and there will be people who experience everything for free. The players will ultimately be the judge.

Dustin: For me, that makes me want to come back. Say that there is a Plants vs. Zombies 3 or even the DLC - new worlds. I would desire more to actually pay money if I don't have to.

Bernie: That's exactly it. PopCap, like Bungie or Blizzard or Valve - they are a beloved company and their games evoke expectation from the players. We don't want to break that trust. People are suspicious about Free to Play, but play the game and see what it's like. You'll see; It is really a different model than some of the other free to play games out there.

Dustin: Thank you for addressing that as it is a minor concern for me. I usually just play a free game and check it out. I have seen a lot of people that do worry about that. "Is this a game I should spend time on if I'm just going to have to spend money later?"

Bernie: PopCap also pioneered a lot of the try before you buy stuff. There were the original versions of Bejeweled where you could buy and play for 60 minutes. I think our games speak for themselves. What I really love seeing is on the boards and reddit, there are a lot of defenders that are saying, "Hey, I was skeptical but I played the game and it's cool and you should just try it. Don't criticize it before you play it." I'm happy about that.

Dustin: How about on to the actual game. Each level has a way that you can approach it. What are some of the features that were tweaked from the first game?

Bernie: From a technical standpoint, the original PvZ - the original character animations were 15 frames per second. The current one is double that. The game just looks smoother - the characters move. You notice that the zombies have a stumbling gate. They walk and halt and walk and halt. It allows the game to be much more expressive character-wise. So much of this game's beauty is the characters. Plants. Zombies. The art direction is fantastic. That leads to the thing that I really love. What really flicked the switch out of a pre-production phase into full production was plant food. Anyone who has played Mario and gets the mushroom or gets the flower power-up - they understand what this is. Plant food allows your plant to have superhuman err super plant powers for a little time. It really expresses a different side to the character. Just like double size Mario or invisible Mario. The walnut almost does the Iron Man armored up thing. It gets covered in the steel plating of armor and a sunflow will erupt in a shower of suns. The peashooter puts on an Army helmet and lets of a stream of peas and destroys almost every zombie by the time the stream is done. It's super whimsical. The characters express more of their little personalities to plant food.

Bernie: The second is a big favorite of mine. We argued about this internally - the world map. Each map can be viewed almost like a Mario map. There are different nodes, different challenges, it really expresses its sense of place. Each world has its own theme. It's not just a cosmetic theme. It actually impacts gameplay. Ancient Egypt with its pyramid things. Gray stone pop up. Storms happen. Pirate seas - you've got the planks and water - swinging zombies and parrots steal your plants. Cowboy - you've got little mining carts on rails where you can plant a plant and move it up on and down on the board. All these things are really spectacular replayability exploration moments.

Bernie: That last thing that we did differently that we really love is the power-ups. You've got pinch, zap, shove, flick. In a lot of ways PvZ 1 came into its own on the iPad - on a touch device. We wanted to build stuff that was specifically touch-centric. You could reach onto the screen and pinch a zombie and his head pops off. When you use the zap feature its almost like a lightning spell in D&D. Where you place your finger, an arc of electricity jumps out to the nearby zombies and electrocutes them. Flick is exactly how it sounds. You flick the zombie and the zombie flies off of the screen.

Bernie: These are things that really make the game much more expressive and much more whimsical and fun and really expand on the core premise of the original game which we really love.

Dustin: So, returning fans will find everything they love in the first game and a whole lot more. You still have the cool gameplay experience that you're used to and a lot of cool extra things to experience as well.

Bernie: Yes, Absolutely! It's not just more of the same. A good sequel takes what you love and builds on top of it without losing the thing that made the first game great. That's always been our challenge. The team did a really great job.

Dustin: I know the game just came out but do we have a timetable for new worlds. I'm sure someone has already beaten everything by now - a really hardcore fan. Do you have any idea when some new content will be coming out.

Bernie: There are no announcements yet. Certainly it is on our roadmap.

Dustin: Are there any plans to release on Android or PC at this point?

Bernie: We haven't announced any specific platforms but certainly other platforms are going to be supported, no question.

Dustin: That will make a lot of people happy, for sure.

Dustin: Is there anything else you want people to know about Plants vs. Zombies 2 - other than it's pretty sweet?

Bernie: (laughs)... I look forward to everyone playing the game. What I think about the game is biased, but I think that this is the most finely crafted, lovingly made on the app store this year. I don't know if you've played Last of Us, but one of the things I really loved about the game is that it is the other spectrum of hardcore zombie games. You could tell that the team really loved that game. They poured everything into it. I play our game and see the same thing. There are some games that you see that the team just loved and I think it shows. The players see that.

Dustin: Thanks for your time today, Bernie. I appreciate it. It was really cool talking to you.

Bernie: Thanks, Dustin!