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Why Plants vs. Zombies 2 Can't Make It To the Top
by Michail Katkoff on 10/11/13 02:08:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Personally I think that Plants vs. Zombies 2 (PvZ2) is a great game. The game has kept all the good from the first episode and spiced it up with new content as well as features like map and gesture operated powerups. The biggest change of the sequel though is that it went from paid to free. And as you know, this blog is all about game mechanic.

In hindsight it seems that dropping the price tag was a smart choose as PvZ2 broke briefly into top20 crossing on iPhone and iPad. This is a good result from a essentially paid game, but top20 isn't probably something PopCap and EA was expecting. Given the promotion power EA possesses, not braking top10 grossing is an evidence that PvZ2 monetizes poorly.

In this post I’ll present the 4 main reasons why PvZ2 is unlikely to ever reach top10 grossing on iOS.

1. Unsuitable for Different Play Environments

People play mobile games in the comfort of their home, where they have plenty of time and limited amount of sudden and unexpected distractions. But apart from home, games are also played while commuting, at work and in the solitary of the bathroom (source: Tech Crunch). Because of different play environment session length and the amount of concentration game demands can be seen as a crucial factor. 

As a developer you have two choices. Either design your game so that it suits different environments thus enabling players to enjoy it throughout their days and fill up their free moments with a few minutes of fun. Or you can ignore this fact of different play environments and just hope that players will launch you game when they get back home or into the bathroom – assuming of course that they won’t continue playing that other game they have been playing throughout the day.

Each level takes a lot of time and demands 100% concentration making PvZ2
unsuitable for quick game sessions in places with a lot of distractions.

PvZ2 is a good example of ignoring different play environments. First of all the session are always long. It takes around 4 minutes to give one level a go. That’s long comparing to a minute it takes to loose a life in Candy Crush Saga. Secondly playing PvZ2 demands absolute concentration, finger speed and both of your thumbs. Look away and you lost a Sun. Keep looking away and you’ve failed a level. It’s just not the kind of a game you want to play while commuting or when there’s a risk of distraction. 
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that in order to succeed, mobile game has to be similarly playable in all environments. Many titles avoid this problem simply by creating different kind of play sessions. For example in Clash of Clans attacking requires a lot of concentration as a missed tap results easily in a defeat. But collecting resource building, training troops as well as chatting with the clan can be done easily on the go.


2. Lack of Social Gameplay

Playing a game with real people, preferably someone players know, is essential for retention and monetization. Imagine Hay Day without the ability to trade goods with other players? How about Candy Crush Saga without the progression map showing how far your friends have progressed and how they have faired on each level.

Despite Facebook Connect and beautiful progression map there are no
social elements in PvZ2.

PvZ2 encourages players to login with their Facebook account to the game. PvZ2 also shows players’ progress on in a map format. Yet despite these two element that create social gameplay in level based game economies, PvZ2 doesn’t show players’ playing Facebook friends on the map nor offer any level based leaderboards.  And that’s just sad.
Monetization is driven by competition. Competition in level based freemium games is driven by map based progress mode and level based leaderboards. Having neither one of these two is a takes the legs off PvZ2’s monetization.


3. Fear of Disappointing Players

According to the freemium mantra games have to be easy to get into, constantly rewarding and leave players with a feeling of achievement after each session. Games like FarmVille, Sims Social and Hay Day followed this mantra successfully. They made sure that people new to games enjoyed playing them. They made sure that it is essentially impossible for players to ‘lose’. In short, these games aren’t about skills. Players’ success and progress simply correlate with time spent playing the game (or money spent to speed up the time). 

To some extent the freemium mantra is very true, but it has to fit the genre. Simulation games such fit the description but freemium puzzle and arcade games should be treated differently. As we all know, failing a level in Candy Crush Saga, Jelly Splash or Angry Birds just makes us try harder. And passing these levels gives that amazing feeling of accomplishment.

Sadly PvZ2 is ridiculously easy. It takes absolutely no effort to pass levels, making the game unchallenging and boring. Most of the people I know quit playing PvZ2 because of the lack of challenge. None of them have quit playing Candy Crush Saga even after being stuck on a level for over a week at a time.

Lack of difficulty can be seen not only in falling retention but also in diminishing IAP revenue. PvZ2 offers boosters for real currency, which enable players to clear levels with some consumable super powers. But to create the demand for these boosters players need to have those moments where they’re just about to clear a level and realize that they’ll lose without the help of a booster. Lack of challenge results in low demand for boosters, which causes stagnant revenue.


4. No Core Loop

In my mind what truly makes a freemium game is the core loop. Core loop models single full session from the mechanics point of view. And as we’re talking about freemium games, restriction mechanics are essential part of any successful core loop.

Core loop doesn’t have to be complicated. For example Candy Crush Saga’s has only one restriction mechanic in form of Lives. Lives are consumed during every session creating a natural end to the session when player runs out of them. At this point player can wait, request Lives from Facebook friends or use real money to refill Lives.

Candy Crush Saga's core loop is very simple and very effective

Hay Day on the other hand has much more complicated core loop. In Hay Day you start off by planting Crops, which initiates the first timer of the loop. After crops are ready player harvests them and uses them to produce other resources initiating additional timers depending how developed products player wants to create. Also to be noted that after each production phase players have an option to sell the produced good via P2P marketplace or to an NPC character.

Hay Day's core loop is typical for simulation titles.

From core loop perspective the goal in Hay Day is to convert time into in-game currency, though the price of time unit gets lower as player spends more time refining the products. A super efficient player in fact would make more money by being constantly in the game and selling basic items instead of over-refined items that take long time to manufacture. Though from player’s perspective they feel great when they spend hours producing a Pumpkin Pie and selling it for 100 Coins when they could have saved time and just sold 10 badges of Wheat in the same time for 15 Coins each.
PvZ2 has no restriction mechanics and thus no core loop. An ideal core loop for the game would have been similar to the one in Candy Crush Saga, where sessions are restricted with energy mechanics. I’d argue that energy based core loop would have increased monetization of the game by creating consistent demand for energy and increasing demand for power ups – when level restart have a cost, not failing a level becomes valuable. 


Plants vs. Zombies 2 is Essentially a Free Paid Game

In the end of the day, PvZ2 is pretty much a paid game without the price tag. Sure, it offers IAPs, but free-to-play is so much more than that. Without restriction mechanics there are no core loops and without core loops creating demand for IAPs is very hard. The demand for IAPs is so much lower also because lack of social integration, which are essential in creating collaboration and competition between players.

Free-to-Play is not just adding IAPs. Far from it.

Transforming a paid franchise into free-to-play is very hard especially from the organization point of view. There are a lot of internal battles resulting from people being afraid to upset players. But in my opinion this is fundamentally wrong way of thinking because it is based on an opinion, that free-to-play is something players don't like. If players wouldn't like free-to-play games, top charts would look very different. 

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Michael Mullins
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If they put exactly the design you counsel them to add, they lose me (the pvz1 fan). The game and my expectations would differ. I'd be highly disappointed by the difference and they would lose the brand loyalty they built up with their last game, thus lurching between segments of the fan base that don't overlap well.

As it is they made the game mostly good for first game fans with their loose monetization scheme. So while I agree that their expectations haven't been met, I'd say that the solution isn't a lurch to "proper" f2p monetization but continuing to build brand loyalty in charging for the game up front. I'm sure there's lots of opportunity in PopCap's stable of properties to engage this without veering off the direction they'd started to go in for the first game. I might add that PvZ 1 itself was an unexpected and welcome lurch itself for PopCap.

Ethan Verrall
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I have a question though, you say they would lose you as a player, but have you actually put any money into their game?

Rik Spruitenburg
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I suspect there is more than one way to make a successful free-to-play game than just borrowing the "you need energy" and "you need to bug your friends" ideas. I suspect further that players are becoming more and more resistant to those tricks.

Chris Clogg
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Players are indeed becoming more resistant, and even more so, the companies that use those ideas aren't able to acquire users for the same price they used to. It's just math for them: how much will it cost me to acquire a user, how long can I keep a user addicted (ie timer based games), how much virality will a user generate, and then basically from these things (and top-charts), how much organic traffic can I get.

This math is becoming increasingly more dismal for all those guys, because there's too much competition and people are wisening up. But I guess it was really good for a while, which is why the top-charts are basically all freemium click-around games (fewer midcore games these days), but hopefully this will start to unravel :)

In the end, PVZ2 should probably have been paid, because brand name and EA marketing will easily get them lots of initial sales. They don't need to fight the freemium war, because you're going to have a very tough time optimizing like Clash of Clans does.

John Trauger
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OT: I like your avatar, Rik. "The Prisoner" was a favorite of mine too.

Bob Johnson
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Exactly. The novelty of some of these things will wear out fairly quickly just like they did with "social games."

emily sunderman
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I agree, no one really like to have their friends know what they are up to at all times.

Kujel s
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I can only speak for myself but when I heard PvZ2 was f2p I swore of it and I really enjoyed PvZ1 but I can't in good faith support f2p.

Tyler King
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I've enjoyed PvZ2 and have not spent a cent, and never will. Good game that sadly went the way of f2p as I would have gladly paid full price for it.

Ron Dippold
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That's the worst bit - PvZ (the basic game, not the universe, perhaps the shooter will work better) is fundamentally unsuited for F2P. Why is it F2P? Some exec must have heard a buzzword and decided they needed some of this Candy Crush Sugar [sic] all up ins.

Michael Mullins
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I'm going to guess that it got wrapped up in EA's cumbersome mobile strategy. I.E. alll Popcap games are ordered to comply with this strategy, to use business-ese, "going forward". PvZ just got caught up in the ham-handed sweep. It doesn't explain that first person monstrosity, though. I'm not sue what to make of that.

I don't hate EA, but man have they got an effective blandifying corporate culture machine. I am truly in awe of it.

Eric Salmon
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Is it just me or does free-to-play always feel like the developer themselves doesn't think their game is worth paying for. That's my honest reaction as a consumer, at least.

Rob Graeber
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That or the developer thinks their game is worth paying $99+ for.

Troy Walker
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F2P has to have a "hook in the jaw" or it doesn't work... good article.

Dane MacMahon
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I hope they make very little, which teaches them not to abandon their original fanbase for a hoped-for new one. My wife is still sitting at her laptop wondering what happened to all those Popcap releases she used to buy and love. They just vanished.

Michael Santora
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If you think that's the best way forward, say goodbye to any future PvZ games that are not heavy-duty MTX-based F2P titles. Expect Clash of Clans, Candy Crush, and nothing else. This is the chance for gamers who complain about F2P "ruining gaming" to vote with their wallet. Here's a great game, with great art, and great gameplay, that does Free to Play in a way that is not in your face or necessarily following the tried and true model.

If you pay them and the model succeeds, expect more good games in this vein. If you don't, then don't.

Dane MacMahon
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She enjoys playing casual games on her laptop while watching TV, but no one is releasing them anymore. They all went F2P on phones, so she can't spend any money.

Not sure why she would play this and spend money on it when it's not what she wants?

Rik Spruitenburg
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Someone pointed me towards an android simulator for the pc the other day. Maybe something like that would help?

Amir H Fassihi
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The thing is that the game is not as good as the first one because of the noise the f2p model has injected into it. I just wished this game and a lot of other games would have followed the paid model and kept their core. Some games can be great games and f2p but some just can't.

Ryan Dancey
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Anyone who says F2P doesn't work or players don't like energy loops and social requirements isn't paying attention to how much money Candy Crush is making. The data clearly indicates your personal preferences don't match the market.

Wes Jurica
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It doesn't matter to me how much money a business is making. If they are using an unethical model to make that money then the model they are using is worthless to me.

Dane MacMahon
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Yeah, I'm sure heroin sales make a lot of money too.

Rik Spruitenburg
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I don't think anyone said F2P doesn't work at all. Clearly for the people at the top of the list who can get players to harass their friends to play all the while searching for those few that will pay out there is a lot of money to be had.

But that's not money to be had easily. King made over 200 games on their website, testing lots of game mechanics and window dressing to find the ideas that audiences would latch onto quickly. Then turned a handful into Facebook games, and cancelled half of those.

I am saying that ever one who quit Farmville because it was "turning into a second job" is quite a bit more savvy when they see your "energy loop".

Dean Boytor
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Its lack of platform is what stopping me from playing. I don't own any ios systems. I would prefer it was like it was when I first played pvz 1.

In a box, for pc (even digital download)

I feel its not too late, but I would appreciate it if they end up releasing this for PC as well, paid, with all the premium stuff.

As of right now, I'm just twiddling my thumbs and waiting.

Martin Mueller
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I think you mean monetizes poorly, not portly....)

Bob Johnson
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Pull the lever, get virtual coins, buy cool new things or levels etc. All free. Or to speed it up you can buy virtual coins instead.

That's the basic premise underlying most of these mobile F2P games.

If I had to say why P&Z2 isn't the ultimate sellling F2P game then I'd say it is because the original game wasn't designed as a F2P game and it is too complicated to be one. I'm no expert but most of these F2P mobile games have a really low learning curve and one little game mechanic to them aka the equivalent of pulling the lever on a slot machine.

Also not having really played PZ2. I have it just really haven't played it more than a minute or two. I'm not seeing where they can go with it. And why I should play it again. I just saw the same game. It's not new.

Pallav Nawani
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Hindsight is 20/20, but PvZ2 should have been Paid + IAP. Worked very well for Kingdom Rush.

Chris Dunson
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I personally don't consider things like Farmville to be games. Anything that says I can't play without waiting or paying is not going to hold my interest. My favorite free game is easily Chocolate Tycoon. It's just a fun game and I can ply it all I want. Well actually I bought the game on iPhone and got the free version on Android when that came out. I always keep an eye out for com2us games because I know their good stuff.

Michael Thornberg
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While I think PvZ 2 is good, I am also highly annoyed by the constant reminder of the 'cash-wagon' at the corner of the screen. I like my games full and complete. And I can't express strongly enough my dislike for those who keep luring money from small children.

Aidyn Kulick
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Awesome article. I loved the game but in some ways it felt like a repeat and I felt like it was a slap in the face for all the PC gamers out there who were fans of the first one...There are lots of reasons but I think in the end this comic pretty much sums up why it didn't make into the top ten list:

Ken Totten
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Here is my prediction for the future, after everyone is burned out on "coin slot" IAP mentality: All games will be a single .99 IAP with a try before you buy level or two (this is the same as buying a song after listening to part, or a book after reading a chapter). This is a "race to the bottom" and those who don't understand that yet will continue to experiment and ultimately fail with different models. This race to the bottom will also, pleasantly, have the effect of improving quality. If you can't get millions of people to pay you .99 after trying out part of your game, then your game isn't good enough to "make it." Another aspect of this race will be to wipe out many of the big developers. The reason: there won't be enough profit to pay all their expensive staffs with only .99 total per title. One more thing this gets rid of is all the asinine calculations (as mentioned in the article) that go into making games this way. Game designers should just make a great game... calculating rates is a job for accountants and, last I'd heard, not one of them ever made a single game, let alone a great one.

Troy Walker
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I think F2P gamesare for a particular segment of the populous... I for one am not in that segment, and have no interest in playing them at all.

Like I mentioned earlier, this style of game is a "hook in the jaw" and feeds a particular type of persona... one that I have a hard time relating to.

For myself, I don't really call it F2P... it is an "Emperically Valued Inhibition Lure"

(see what i did there?)

Wes Shull
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It doesn't work on a first gen iPad w/o serious work-around. I'll bet that has a lot to do with it. I wonder how many people (like me) wanted it but couldn't get it.

Jeff Alexander
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Here's another possibility: poor price for value. On iOS, PvZ1 has always cost $3 (and sometimes $1 or nothing) for the full content of the original PC/Mac game. (Sure, the original launch price on PC was much higher, but that's not the price that iPad customers are going to compare PvZ2's costs against.) PvZ2 gives you almost everything -- and certainly everything essential -- for free or with minimal play, then charges $3 or $4 to unlock *each* of half a dozen *individual* bonus plants. Side by side, it's a poor value comparison.

Wes Shull
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If they add hats it'll work...

Rik Spruitenburg
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I'm expect them to run sales that trigger the brain to compare the normal vs sale price, instead of the normal vs free.

Michail Katkoff
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Wow, awesome conversation around the post - exactly what I wished for.

There's a lot of F2P vs. Paid going on. These models aren't competing because paid game is essentially different than a F2P game. Paid games have a beginning and an ending, following exactly the same design as all the games before. F2P games on the other hand are (or at least should be) never ending loops where players' progress is based on time spent playing instead of skills.

F2P games will always be grossing better because they are services. Paid games are products, and they just can't compete against F2P when it comes to retention. See retention requires content updated but because of the capped CLV (price tag) paid games can't afford to upkeep live teams.