Senior Producer at PopCap Games, Brian Lindley on all things Plants Vs. Zombies Garden Warfare.
We recently got a chance to interview Brian Lindley, Senior Producer at PopCap Games, the developers behind Plants Vs. Zombies Garden Warfare. Lindley spoke about gameplay mechanics, microtransactions, parodies, potential PS4 version, Xbox One’s resolution and more.
Note: This was a round table interview. We have also included questions asked by other journalists.
Plants vs Zombies has always had its comedy jetting through its rotting cheek. And looking at it now it’s clear that this parody is a good fit for the brand. What initially made you connect Plants vs Zombies and modern shooters?
Brian Lindley: I think the seed for this sort-of started when PvZ originally released on mobile devices a few years back. At PopCap we just kind of saw an explosion in popularity.
People were really drawn to the characters and the world. PvZ 2 at that time was kind of already in its initial stages, but there were some folks at PopCap that had some crazier ideas in terms of trying to go broader with the universe of PvZ. The thought of making it a shooter, while sounds insane on its face it was something that was sitting on the background for a year or two.
When PopCap was acquired by EA there were some resources that fringe up around early 2012. So we started having some more serious discussions around. Well, can we take a look at this concept and others ideas how we can expand PvZ in a different direction and that’s where Garden Warfare was born. We started with a number of different concepts. Immediately with the prototypes we were playing and messing around with multiplayer and PvZ characters were just immediately fun and it felt like it was the right direction go. Here we are, 2 years later launching the game in less than a week!
"In terms of the character variants there is 5 per-class beyond just the default versions. One of those variants is just earned through progressing that character, so if you get to level 10 I believe you''l get a character variant and the rest are through the sticker shop system."
Given the fact that Plants vs Zombies has always been a traditional single-player experience. How much risk do you think is involved from going to almost an entire multiplayer experience?
Brian Lindley: It’s definitely risky, but I don’t see it being greater than just the idea taking Plants vs Zombies turning into a shooter to be honest. I think once players get their hands on it and they get the gameplay to see how the experience comes together. The fact that its a multiplayer experience is definitely is a-lot different than the original, but I think it makes sense for the type of game we’re making and all of that kind of comes together.
We’re not entirely multiplayer as well. The other comment that I would make is that in the Garden Ops mode players can play alone if they want to survive themselves against the endless waves of zombie hordes. There is kind of a technically single-player experience there if you wanna have it, but you’re absolutely correct it’s pretty much multiplayer at its core.
Can you talk a little bit about the gameplay loops that you might have in place that specifically keeps players coming and have that “1 more round” mentality when they finish?
Brian Lindley: Definitely, that hook comes in the customization and sticker system. As players playing through the game they’re earning coins, kills, healing and then at the end of every round they can go into a sticker shop and decide if they want to buy some packs to fill up their reinforcements or chase after other character customization; crazy hats, goggles, eye-wear, tattoos, you name it. You can customize and personalize your character that way. On top of having additional variants of each character class that has their own sort-of spin on their primary weapon.
There is just a ton of stuff to earn and unlock though that system and that’s what’s gonna keep players playing. Session over session, are they gonna save up their coins cause they want to get that next character? Or they’re just opening stuff as they go and just get cool stuff in a constant feed of new things for their characters?
Which parody is your favorite? And are there any parodies on the upcoming shooter Titanfall?
Brian Lindley: I am trying to think what my favorite parody is right now (laughs). I think the entire game of its own is kind of a parody in itself. I personally think the title is my favorite. Honestly, the history on that is we sort-of dreamed up in a meeting early on. I’d fully expected that we’d come up with something better, but that stuck (laughs). Just the sort-of thematic parody of Garden Warfare is probably my favorite piece of it.
If we have anything planned for Titanfall, we did already release a spoof image in kind of our marketing PR lead up that was Bitenfall image. I don’t know if you guys saw that one with the Zombos Robot and Dr Zombos in his hand. We’d kind of taken a swipe of Titanfall already, but once they release and we get to play that game some more I am sure more ideas will find their way into our future content for sure.
"“Mirrors Hedge” that was the one that we saw comeback in comments on some of the articles and that was the one that gave us a chuckle internally. We still might have some more surprises to come on the spoof run (laughs). I don't know if “Mirrors Hedge” will be there, but it definitely was the one that came up after the “Grass-effect”."
Is the Xbox One version going to be 60fps, and also how would that compare to the PC?
Brian Lindley: The Xbox One version does run at 60fps. The PC version is still kind of being worked on, but obviously that will depend on the players settings. I think the way it will work for our game will probably very similar to Battlefield 4. I think if you disable v-sync the framerate will fluctuate and go over 60. If not, then it will hold it at 60 and hopefully assuming that you’re hardware can support running at 60.
And is it 1080p on the Xbox One?
Brian Lindley: The Xbox One outputs it to the 1080p. We’re getting this question quite a-bit. The internal resolution….actually I need to follow up with my team to get the exact answer on that, but it does run 1080p/60 fps on Xbox One, but I am not sure what the exact internal resolution we’re using.
The parodies were brought out recently so I had a question in regards to that. Those spoof posters that you did were quite popular, but I feel like there were missed opportunities. Did anybody ever suggest “Mirror’s Hedge?”
Brian Lindley: “Mirrors Hedge” that was the one that we saw comeback in comments on some of the articles and that was the one that gave us a chuckle internally. We still might have some more surprises to come on the spoof run (laughs). I don’t know if “Mirrors Hedge” will be there, but it definitely was the one that came up after the “Grass-effect”.
I was playing the game last night and it was struggling to find players to play with and obviously it’s understandable that only review copies were sent out. How many unlockable characters are there going to be beyond the base 4 that players can get. Through the sticker packs how many variety of plants are they going to be able to plant themselves if they play?
Brian Lindley: In terms of the character variants there is 5 per-class beyond just the default versions. One of those variants is just earned through progressing that character, so if you get to level 10 I believe you”l get a character variant and the rest are through the sticker shop system. In terms of number of plants and different variations you can plant, I think we’re at about 12 right now at launch. I need to double check that to be sure, but I think we’re in a range of dozen.
"I think if we enable it we'll probably start with just giving the players the option to purchase coins. Probably not offering specific packs for money, but that again that's something we're gonna adjust once we kind of see how things go at launch. "
I assume you’re planning DLC to complement that as well?
Brian Lindley: Absolutely, I think we start to look at how we’re gonna expand the content on the game. That’s a real obvious place to look.
There was a headline running around today, I think it started with the GameSpot article regarding the absence of microtransactions at launch, and then that kind of fluctuating based on community’s perception of the game. If microtransactions do wind up in Garden Warfare, where will you be applying them? Will they be specifically to buying card packs? Or what’s the plan there, if it happens?
Brian Lindley: I think if we enable it we’ll probably start with just giving the players the option to purchase coins. Probably not offering specific packs for money, but that again that’s something we’re gonna adjust once we kind of see how things go at launch. But I think coins we’ll probably be the first place we start, so if players want to accelerate their pack purchasing they can do that through buying some additional coins.
How important is Garden Warfare to more publishers and developers trying to developer some more light-hearted games versus a-lot of the serious and more mature games that we tend to see?
Brian Lindley: I think its important in the fact that if we launch this game and it proves to be successful and right now things are trending that direction, fingers crossed. That it demonstrates to the developers and publishers that you can take risk and you can kind of turn the concept of existing genres and settings on their head a-bit and trying to figure out where to take either existing franchises or coming up with new IP.
So hopefully if our game succeeds out in the marketplace that it shows that there is an appetite in the market for something that just isn’t a you’re run-of-the-mill modern military futuristic shooter kind of experience. You can do anything with a-lot of these Ips and go to a-lot of different directions provided you’re willing to take the risk and invest in it.
Obviously you guys have expressed interest in bringing the game to possibly other platforms. Specifically maybe the PlayStation 4 and what-not. If that does happen, do you guys plan to take the full advantage of the PS4’s architecture capabilities, despite the fact that you have a timed exclusive deal with Microsoft.
Brian Lindley: Absolutely, I mean anytime we take the game to any platform we wanna make sure we take all of the advantage of what that platform provides. That would hold true for any future platforms the game might finds itself on including Sony platforms and what-not.
What sort-of difficulties that you encounter in transitioning from a flat cartoony style to full 3D?
Brian Lindley: We spent a-lot of time trying to nail the visual look. I think one of the wasy ways of doing that is hey we could have just made a 3D game with cel-shading on it. We messed around with that, but it didn’t really pop. Just didn’t look the way we felt we wanted it to look, so we kept iterating on it and kind of settled on more of a CG/Pixar movie style versus “hey I am just playing PvZ with cel-shading on it”. That was something we focused a-lot of time, effort and energy early on just to look at all kinds of games, all the different types variants of more cartoon-style experiences in 3D. Trying to figure out how we make this still feel like PvZ visually, but make it distinct and make it high-quality from a fidelity perspective, so spent a-lot of time with that.
The other place where we spent a ton of time is just on the characters themselves, because they’re really kind of the start of the experience itself (laughs). The plants were really simple and straight forward, so we lifted them right out of the original PvZ, but we spent a ton of time on the zombies trying to figure out how do we create kind of characters that are mult-dimensional, that are expandable through different variation/classes or occupations if you will. That took us a-lot of time, there is definitely a-lot of re-working and re-designing of characters as we went along.
The way the game works and stuff, did you guys give any serious consideration during development to add a second-screen experience to it. Maybe having somebody working separately planting things or controlling where the zombies were gonna go. Was that something ever on the table that you went for or if you didn’t?
Brian Lindley: Well, we do have the boss mode second-screen experience on SmartGlass for the Xbox One. I don’t know if you had the chance to play it that much. We considered it and we did it (laughs) with boss mode. I’d encourage you to check that out and mess around with it. Our goal with second-screen was to take something similar like Battlefield’s commander mode, but use it as a way too create a local multiplayer experience.
I think what a-lot of games are doing with second-screen right now is create more information or add ways for the primary player to interact. In my opinion, primary players wants to focus on the TV and the controller (laughs). Let’s use second-screen to get other people involved and that was kind of our tact with boss mode, which does allow players to collect resources and deploy support items and so forth to help their team during battle. We achieved that, but definitely it’s just the beginning, we wanna start to think about and explore how else we can expand the experience on second-screen.
"Microsoft made a-lot of changes and improvements since Xbox 360 with the Xbox One. Connecting those two worlds together is not as straight-forward and simply as you might expect"
For the soundtrack itself, the music in the game has been pretty exceptional, are you guys planning on releasing that independently for fans to purchase or download?
Brian Lindley: I believe we are. I am not sure exactly what the plans are just yet, but I think we are definitely considering how to distribute the music from the game. I would stay tuned for that one, but I believe something is in the works for that.
Was there ever any consideration to try to make this game cross-platform multiplayer experience between 360 and Xbox One? If not, what would it take for that to ever happen?
Brian Lindley: This questions comes up really frequently just in any multiplayer game about cross-platform play. Between Xbox 360 and Xbox One I think we considered it for a short time, but their online architecture between those two platforms is actually very different. Microsoft made a-lot of changes and improvements since Xbox 360 with the Xbox One. Connecting those two worlds together is not as straight-forward and simply as you might expect (laughs). At some point in the future to have a game that can kind of have multiplayer experience that lives across all the platforms. It’s one of those that just never seems to technically line up and it’s obviously a minefield if you try to cross-platform with 1st parties as well.
Can you delve into more details on the two exclusive game modes on the Xbox One version will have?
Brian Lindley: Definitely. The first is the split-screen co-op mode which is really kind of a variation on our four player Garden Ops mode, but it’s built for two players playing split-screen on the same console. The other caveat there is that the Garden Ops mode kind of ends after 11 waves, but the split-screen mode is endless. You can get yourselves into the teens or multiple-dozens of waves depending how good you are (laughs), but it ramps up in difficulty pretty crazily. That’s one of them. The other one is Boss mode, which I described a little bit earlier.
It leverages both SmartGlass or Kinect depending on what your interface of choice is and that is kind of our version of commander mode for Garden Warfare where players get a top down view that way they can collect resources. If you’re on the plant side you collect the sun, for the zombies you’re collecting brains and then you’re using those resources to kind of drag and drop and deploy support items for your team out on the battlefield, which turns out really fun. It’s a great way to get non-hardcore gamers to get involved in the experience as well.
EA PR: Allright Brian you have any last words?
Brian Lindley: I dont think so… I just sent a quick note to my team about the resolution. I believe we’re actually internally at 900p. I know I’ve always been a little bit evasive on that question, but I think I can confirm that for you guys.