Interview with Plants vs. Zombies creator George Fan

By Erin Bell |

George Fan is the mastermind behind PopCap’s Plants vs. Zombies, a game that’s often been described as “crazy.” (Crazy good, crazy addictive… or just plain crazy. It’s all accurate.) We spoke to George about Plants vs. Zombies, his previous PopCap project Insaniquarium, and what kind of hidden object game he would make if he could.

Plants vs. Zombies designer George Fan (he’s the one on the left)

Zombies are unofficially considered “taboo” in casual games (along with ninjas and robots!), but Plants vs. Zombies has gotten a great response from both the hardcore and the casual crowd. What’s your secret?

Hmm… I don’t really have a secret… I think it’s a just result of personal taste. I’m not into games that are too gritty or take themselves too seriously, nor am I into themes that are too pandering or sickeningly sweet. So when I set out to create Plants vs. Zombies, I made sure it struck the right balance for me thematically. Yes, you have these cutesy plants, but the existence of zombies prevents it from being to sugary. Yes, it’s a PopCap game with zombies, but they’re goofy, cartoony zombies so it’s all good.

More than that, however, I think it’s the gameplay that really strikes a balance between the casual and the hardcore. I’m big on strategy in games, so I made sure to include a heaping spoonful of it in this one. So there you have the hardcore side of the game. On the other hand, I despise games that make you go through walls of tutorial text to teach complex game mechanics, so I tried to keep it extra simple in the beginning of the game. And that’s the casual side for ya.

After designing Insaniquarium and working on Diablo 3 with Blizzard, what made you decide that your next project would be a tower defense game?

I was messing around with some new game ideas after completing Insaniquarium, one of which was to make a more defense oriented version of Insaniquarium. I was also playing Tower Defense mods in Warcraft III at the time. I looked at the towers in Warcraft III and thought that plants would make some pretty good towers, being stationary and something I could inject a lot of personality into.

And that’s how Plants vs. Zombies became a tower defense game. I wanted to make sure to bring something new to the genre, and that was the impetus for re-envisioning how tower defense games could play. Traditional tower defense concepts like ‘mazing’ and ‘juggling’ always felt awkward to me because it would force you to play against the ‘pathing algorithm’ of the enemies. It was a little too esoteric for my tastes, so I worked to pare the gameplay down to the 5 lane configuration you see today.

Plants vs. Zombies is your second project with PopCap Games; prior to that you also worked with them on Insaniquarium. Was the process significantly different the second time around? If so, how?

I was freelance when working on Insaniquarium and didn’t have the resources to hire a full-time team. As a result I had to wear many hats, as I did a majority of the programming and game design while writing some of the music as well as doing the concept art. During Plants vs. Zombies, I was a full-time employee of PopCap, so they helped me put a team together for the game, which really let me focus a lot more on just the game design due to having a team of programmer (Tod Semple), artist (Rich Werner), and musician (Laura Shigihara) working with me from pretty much the get go.

George’s first project with PopCap was the fish tank sim Insaniquarium.

How much input did PopCap have on the game design process? Were there any game design choices that came as a direct result of PopCap’s suggestions?

PopCap has this great internal forum where one can post in-progress versions of games and get a ton of good feedback from the rest of the company. This was of immeasurable help since there are a lot of smart people within PopCap.

One of the critical points in the design process was when it was pointed out that the sun collection mechanic was hard to learn for players who had never played Real-Time Strategy games. These players would plant peashooters but not enough sunflowers, and often lose because of that. So we took the sunflower’s price down from 100 to 50 (the cheaper price would encourage players to buy it over the peashooter). That one change required a rebalancing of the entire game, but it was well worth it.

What were some of the games that influenced Plants vs. Zombies?

The 3 biggest game influences were:

Warcraft III Tower Defense – inspired the whole idea stationary turrets gunning down hordes of enemies

Insaniquarium – the resource system is lifted straight from this game. Also, the new plants are drip-fed to you at the same pace as Insaniquarium‘s pets, and you choose plants in a similar fashion to how you choose your pets at the beginning of each level of Insaniquarium.

Tapper – the idea of multi-tasking five different lanes of your lawn is similar to the gameplay of this old arcade game

Tapper – this old arcade game helped to inspire Plants vs. Zombies.

The team must have had a blast coming up with all the characters. What zombies and plant types are you most proud of?

I like that the torchwood (the fiery tree-stump that ignites peas) makes you think about how your plants interact with each other. The cob cannon took a long time to design due to us coming up with so many variations in the search for the ultimate version. I think we landed somewhere good with that, though.

And the tall-nut just has so much character, standing there with his determined gaze, just shedding a single tear when hurt. My girlfriend can’t bear to see that, so she immediately protects one with a pumpkin always. Keeping those pumpkins around the tall-nuts seems more important to her than passing the level sometimes.

As for zombies, the pole-vaulting zombie is awesome for the sheer hilarity that takes place when I’m watching someone play for the first time. They always wonder “What is that guy going to do with his stick?” as they place a wall-nut down in hopes of blocking him, only to have the wall-nut promptly vaulted over.

Hidden object games are currently the most popular genre in casual games. If you designed a hidden object game, what would it be like?

It’d probably be something wacky, like “find the fleas on the llama!” You’d lift up tufts of llama fur searching for fleas… cute and cartoony fleas that would make happy noises when you find them. And the llama would lay a big wet kiss on you/the monitor after each level. It’d also probably have cameos from Goofus and Gallant to pay respect to the thing that started it all, Highlights Magazine.

Can you give us any hints about your upcoming projects (besides your brilliant hidden object game)?

Nothing I can specifically talk about, but I strongly value innovation in games, so I’m always looking to bring something new to the table with each game I make. The next game you’ll see from me will likely be a whole new setting & new concept.

Any last words for your fans?

Thank you so much. Your love for games is what drives me to want to keep making ’em.

Chat about Plants vs. Zombies in our forum, or read Gamezebo’s review of Plants vs. Zombies.

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