Plants vs. Zombies Heroes Interview: Creative Director Talks Strategy

Plants vs. Zombies Heroes Interview: Creative Director Talks Strategy

PopCap Games and Electronic Arts’ latest mobile game, Plants vs. Zombies Heroes, has been out nearly a week. Trying to carve out a market share against heavyweight contenders like Hearthstone and the upcoming Gwent: The Witcher Card Game, Creative Director Devin Low sat down with DualShockers to talk about what Heroes brings to the table in the online card game genre.

In our conversation below, we discuss the atmosphere over at PopCap, how Heroes hopes to capture both the CCG market as well as Plants vs. Zombies fans, and what new elements you can expect to see in the fledgling title. You can check out more on Plants vs. Zombies Heroes below, which is available immediately:

Devin Low: I am excited about Plants vs. Zombies Heroes coming out and I’m eager to share what I can!

DualShockers: Yeah, it’s coming out tomorrow – how’s the environment over at PopCap? Everyone excited – worried?

DL: We are excited – it’s been a long road to release. It’s been a while in development and we’re excited to have people finally get their hands on it.

“We really want to… take all the fun out of collectible card games and open it up to a wider audience.”

DS: I’m going to start off with probably the most difficult question with this. PopCap is going into the collectible card game genre which has Hearthstone on the field – Runescape just came out with one. What’s going to set Plants vs. Zombies Heroes apart?

DL: Yeah, so I used to be the head developer of Magic the Gathering, and the lead developer of Lorwyn, Planar Chaos, and Shards of Alara. I’ve spent a long time making card games and digital collectible card games.

And the historic challenge in that genre, which has been a pretty niche genre with not a lot of folks who are getting into that, and so what we really want to do with Plants vs. Zombies Heroes is to just take all the fun that is inside collectible card games and open it up to a wider audience. Make it more accessible, bring that same kind of fun that I enjoyed and many people enjoyed from so many years out to a much wider bunch of folks.

And I think that Plants vs. Zombies – to add one more thing – is a great vehicle to that because it has proven in the past to take genres that is somewhat niche and open them up and had a wide audience. Like tower defense was a pretty small part of the gaming industry when Plants vs. Zombies first came out, and Plants vs. Zombies is a tower defense game. It doesn’t necessarily look like all the other ones and it proved to be wildly popular: I think we will do the same kind of thing here.

“We don’t want to remove strategy and depth in order to be more accessible”

DS: You said you worked on Magic the Gathering – what did you work on in regards to that?

DL: I was the head developer of Magic the Gathering and had a team of game designers there working on taking the initial cards and designs and refining them, making them really fun to play, focusing on tournaments, balance for both kitchen tables and the Pro Tour, and just making sure the game played really, really well over not just a few games, but hundreds and thousands of games.

People play collectible card games so much. I was also the Lead Designer of the Marvel Superhero Squad Online card game and also the lead designer of Marvel Legendary, the deck-building game that’s in paper and all its expansions.

But anyway, we wanted to build a team that worked a ton on various collectible card games for all kinds of companies, and it’s important to us not only to make it really accessible to a wider audience, but also to have the same strategy and depth that those other games out there have.

Now we want to be a game that has really compelling decisions like a Hearthstone, like a Magic [the Gathering], like the other digital card games out there, and we don’t want to remove that strategy and depth in order to be more accessible. We want to have our cake and eat it too – we want to do both. And that’s a challenge but we’re a really good team, we’ve worked a long time and we think we’re finally ready.

“I started to notice some parts of the Plants vs. Zombies brand that are a really good fit.”

DS: If I remember correctly, Plants vs. Zombies Heroes has a bit of an interesting path where it started off as a real-life card game – is that correct?

DL: Yeah – once upon a time I was working at PopCap on another product and I started to notice some parts of the Plants vs. Zombies brand that are a really good fit to the kind of game that makes a great collectible card game.

Then I started tinkering around on a paper prototype kind of in my spare time. Showing it to people, getting some feedback, making it better, showing a few more people, get some more feedback, make it better. Eventually I said to my boss, “Hey, I want to put some work hours into this – is that okay?” He said, “Yeah, okay. Here’s this web programmer. See if you can make some sort of prototype.”

So we did that, we showed some people, they liked it; got some more people, made a bigger prototype, had half-a-dozen folks working on it. And then just growing, and growing, and growing until we’re finally a major release from PopCap and EA: so, it’s been a long road but we’re excited to finally be ready to launching.

Plants vs. Zombies Heroes Screens

DS: That’s fascinating – so it’s basically your brainchild, with the help of your entire team of course.

DL: Yeah, and I’m grateful that PopCap and EA is the kind of place that can listen to a pitch from one person and let it build up until finally it becomes a big deal. And the team definitely poured their heart and souls into it, so it’s definitely way more than a one-man project. It’s a labor of dozens and maybe more.

“The team definitely poured their heart and souls into it.”

DS: If you could pinpoint one feature, or one thing specifically that separates Plants vs. Zombies Heroes apart from the other games out there, what would that component be?

DL: Good question. In Plants vs. Zombies the two sides play very differently, right? The plants are very defensive; they have lots of different rows of guys working together and the zombies kind of attack more as a horde. You don’t really know where they’re going to come from. They have a lot of unexpected things that they throw at you.

And so in Plants vs. Zombies Heroes, we really wanted to mirror that asymmetry. So in the game, one person is always plants, one person is always zombies and the two sides are not symmetrical at all. They have very different things that they use.

The turn structure is both players sharing a turn. The zombies do one thing to start the turn, the plants take a chance to play their cards, the zombies have a final chance to play their last minute tricks before you start fighting. And so you couldn’t play two plant decks against each other in the game – the game’s just not set up that way.

Instead, it embraces the asymmetry and the ways that those two sides fight in different ways and you get to figure out which side you like better – maybe play both sides – and take that key part of the brand (Plants VERSUS Zombies) and make that a big part of the DNA of the card game. That’s not something you’ll find in any other CCG’s that are out there.

“That’s not something you’ll find in any other CCG’s that are out there.”

DS: So you’re going to have people who are specifically playing as Plants and specifically playing as Zombies. Do you include something in the game that will promote people to try out the different sides? Will there be a daily bounty system?

DL: We do want people to try both and see what they like, and I think a lot of folks will be playing a little bit of both sides over the course of the lifetime of the game. Just within the context of a single game it’s always Plants VERSUS Zombies, one on each side.

We have daily quests that encourage you to try out winning games as Super Brains or as Z-Mech or as Rose or as Citron, and reward you for doing specific things within those games. And we also have a hero quest system that says for every hero you unlock, there are ten quests in a row specifically for that hero that sort of teach you some of the cool combinations that the hero can use to be successful.

“That’s very important to us — to be the true heir in that famous lineage.”

DS: Here’s a bit of an abstract question – how would you describe or measure success for Plants vs. Zombies Heroes. Of course, we are going into this interview before this game has launched. Logistically, or abstractly, what exactly are you hoping to see come out of Plants vs. Zombies Heroes?

DL: I’d love to have players of existing Plants vs. Zombies games such as Garden Warfare or Plants vs. Zombies 2 come into the game and say, “Hey! This really feels like PvZ. It’s funny, it’s easy to learn, it’s quick moving, it’s exciting, I can unlock cool new things as I go.” Those are all hallmarks of all the games so far that we really tried to embrace and be a part of that legacy. That’s very important to us – to be the true heir in that famous lineage.

It’s also important to me that a wider audience of players who never played collectible card games because “Oh, it’s a little too scary… too intimidating” can finally, through [Plants vs. Zombies Heroes], embrace that genre and see what’s fun about it – see what all the fuss is about, in a way that’s easier to learn and easier to play.

And finally, I would love for existing players of collectible card games, either paper or digital, to take a look at this one and say “Wow! This has unique things that I don’t find in any other game. They have a lot of cool characters that have the flavor and abilities that match really well. It’s really fast to play with short session times, so it kind of fits in my lifestyle really well.” And yeah, so those are the highlights.

“It’s important to me that a wider audience of players… can finally embrace the genre and see what’s fun about it.”

DS: How do you get balance right on the first run before it hits everyone? What have you guys been doing to make sure the game comes out balanced from the start. And is that such a big deal to you guys now that you can throw patches in?

DL: So we have a whole team of design experts that create and develop the card content, including people that are big in the board games community as well as those who’ve worked on a lot of card games before. And we use a combination of digital playtesting techniques that sort of can run tens-of-thousands of games and can report on the win-rates between different strategies, having computers play both sides.

We can analyze real-world data from soft launches and see how different heroes and strategies do against each other. And we can also apply the time-honored paper card game technique of playing, analyzing things in spreadsheets, talking to each other, trying stuff out – so sort of the best of both worlds.

DS: Okay–

DL: Working on a paper card game, I often wished we could look at math data and analyze it – we didn’t always have that, and so having access to it here is really helpful.

Plants vs. Zombies Heroes Starter

DS: Is there anything specifically you’d like to say to game-playing audience for Plants vs. Zombies Heroes? Maybe some solid tips to start off, where people may want to focus their energies to begin?

DL: I would say that the hero quests that I mentioned are a great place to get rewards while learning the different heroes’ combos, and also there are tons of rewards in ranked multiplayer play where people can rise through the ranks really fast and get a lot of gems. There’s also the single-player content of 400 battles.

“You can dress up as the full-sized zombie in a seven-foot costume if you want to.”

DS: Now do you think the atmosphere in the office is different from game-to-game? It seems like, at least from the consumer end, that Plants vs. Zombies has a lot of humor, a lot of craziness and wackiness behind it. Does that translate to the office? Is it a little light-hearted back there?

DL: I would say for sure, there are tons of Plants vs. Zombies toys around the office, costumes – y’know, you can dress up as the full-sized zombie in a seven-foot costume if you want to.

People are often coming up with crazy puns that they thought up on the weekend, or someone is like, “We got a recorn dog – that’s the perfect plant we’ve got to make!” or “We’ve got to have atomic bombegranate or blade of grass.” And you’re just like, “Okay, let’s write that down. Let’s not let that get away.” We definitely want to include that.

DS: And you mentioned that EA was supportive through this process.

DL: They’re PopCap’s parent company, they have a lot of reach, they have a lot of knowhow, they have a lot of support systems and they’ve launched big games before and now they’re helping us launch this one in a big way. We’re excited about using all the services they have to offer to help this go really well.

DS: Now Plants vs. Zombies: Heroes is iOS and Android only. Do you guys have any prospects to branch this out to the PC space or even the console space?

DL: Yeah, that’s a place where I have to refer you to our PR team. They have a little more ability to say what we can say about that topic.

Electronic Arts PR: At the moment, we are mostly [talking about the] mobile games.

“Electronic Arts is helping us launch this one in a big way.”

DS: Do you have a favorite card, Devin?

DL: Uh… let’s see…

DS: I know it’s like asking you what’s your favorite song.

DL: Right right. I like a lot of strategies, one card that comes to mind is Mad Chemist. He’s a Zombie that hides in a gravestone – so the Plants can’t see what he is until he flips up.

With the gravestone mechanic, sometimes the Zombies show up hidden inside gravestones – the Plants don’t even know what’s inside there until they crack open later in the turn. So the Plant kind of has to make his move thinking “Uh-oh, is that a gravestone that is going to reveal a Zombie that is really good when it hits me? Is it going to reveal a Zombie that is really good fighting Plants so I may not want to play a Plant in front of it?” There’s a little bit of a guessing game there, and as you see your strategies come to life [Editor’s Note: no pun intended], you are able to do a lot more predictions over which gravestone can be played.

One of those gravestones, obviously, is Mad Chemist who says “Whenever you play a trick, you get a random trick the entire game.” So tricks are like spells, or one time effects. So as you are playing the tricks you put in your deck, Mad Chemist is feeding you tricks from other colors, from other heroes, from all parts of the game so you end up with tons of crazy stuff in your hand. And you’re like, “Wow! I would have never put stuff like this in my deck, but I guess I’ll find a way to use it now.”

“Wow! I would have never put stuff like that in my deck, but I guess I’ll find a way to use it now.”

DS: Now who’s the best player on the developing team?

DL: [Laughs] Now that is a hotly debated subject, but we have some ranked multiplayer modes in the game and if you connect to Facebook you can see what your friends’ ranks are and watch them march up in real time.

But anyway, I’m pretty sure I know the official answer to this question, and it’s that Joe Stolla, an engineer, is the highest ranked member of the team. He’s a powerful duelist.

DS: [Laughs] You weren’t willing to admit upfront it wasn’t you–

DL: It’s not me, no – I’m going to catch him though.

“We try to consume a lot of different media as well as games to try and learn… and also, it’s a lot of fun.”

DS: I imagine Plants vs. Zombies Heroes is your life right now, but do you guys end up playing other games around the office from time to time? Are you guys going through other card games?

DL: Yeah, we definitely have wide-ranging interests. We definitely play a wide range of paper and digital collectible card games that are out there, we play a lot of board games. People are playing first-person shooters, playing open-world games, playing sidescrollers.

The team has a lot of people from varied backgrounds, and we try to consume a lot of different media as well as games to try and learn…and also, it’s a lot of fun.

Plants vs. Zombies Heroes

DS: I’m running out of questions myself, so I’m going to end on the most important question. When you play, do you play as a Plant or a Zombie?

DL: Well, I do play both, I must admit. When you’re a Plant, it’s more about teamwork and Plants working together. When you’re a Zombie, it’s more about that last minute option to do tricks, hiding zombies in gravestones and surprise the Plants, and so there is a lot more ways to keep the Plants guessing and throw them off guard.

Editor’s Note: Brief correction regarding phrasing