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Can Plants vs Zombies sprout a good shooter?

By Connor Sheridan on Tuesday 28th Jan 2014 at 4:00 PM UTC

Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare is an unlikely game. At first blush, it's a multiplayer third-person shooter which bears little resemblance to its iconic 2D tower defense predecessors.

But as details creep in, it becomes clear that this is still a PopCap game. Despite Garden Warfare's class-based competitive and cooperative modes, which have cross-pollinated with EA's typical shooter stylings, the series' immutable personality sprouts up before us.

Fans won't have to wait too much longer to play, as the game's coming to Xbox 360 and Xbox One on Feb 25, and about a couple of months later for PC. Potentially, "other platforms in the future." But until then, we wanted to know more.

We filled out the rest of our Punnett square by speaking with senior franchise manager Gary Clay. Read on for more on how PopCap hopes to firmly root Garden Warfare with casual and hardcore shooter fans alike.


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CVG: What made you guys want to make a Plants vs Zombies shooter?

Gary Clay: Honestly, we didn't start off by thinking, "Let's make a shooter." We explored a lot of different options. So a couple years ago, a guy called Mike Scott, he's one of the development directors at PopCap, started exploring a few different avenues that we could take the Plants vs Zombies franchise in. Obviously THE FIRST Plants vs Zombies was released on a lot of different platforms and countries. And we wanted to see if we could do the same thing to tower defense that we did to another genre. We think the first game was so successful because it made tower defense really accessible and fun to play.

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So we wanted to see if we could do the same thing with a different genre. We went and we talked to DICE out in Sweden about what kind of ideas that they might have for the title. We spoke to a bunch of other studios as well. And eventually we started speaking to a couple of guys internally, and Brian Lindley, the producer of the game, put together a concept for a shooter, a third-person shooter, that took all of the different action games that their team liked and our team liked and really put a Plants vs Zombies spin on it.

What we really wanted to do, our main objective, was to do what we did with tower defense to a third person shooter, which was to make it accessible but with loads of strategy and depth and just incredibly good fun.

One of the things you're starting to show off is couch co-op play with a tablet. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

Gary Clay: Basically you can play 24-player online multiplayer and that is in both team deathmatch and also in Gardens & Graveyards which is our homage to Battlefield's rush mode but with a little twist on it. And then you've got the four-player co-op online.

For the gang at PopCap, split-screen is something we really miss from old games. There's a lot of games that come out nowadays, and especially over the last few years, that just don't support split-screen any more. It seems it's coming back in now, which I'm pretty pleased about, because my brother and I used to play Goldeneye back in the day, and those kinds of split-screen experiences were amazing for me, and really inspiring. So we really wanted to add split-screen mode in.

So we have demoed split-screen for the first time, and in that game mode you play one plant each, and you choose a class, and you manage your garden and your potted plants, which brings in the tower defense element, and then you have to see how long your garden can survive and see how many waves you can get to. And then also today we showed tablet play on SmartGlass, which is our boss mode. And that can be played in any of the game modes that we showed at the demo.

So basically you've got two guys on the couch playing split-screen and one person on the tablet, and the tablet's bringing in things like air strikes, air-drops, the ability to heal people. You can revive people when they go down and also you can put in coconut spotting stations which are like mini UAVs for scouting... and from the view of the tablet you can see all of this happening from bird's eye view.

If you're playing plant team, you're in Crazy Dave's RV, if you're on the zombie team you're in Zomboss's den. And if you're in a game mode like Gardens & Graveyards, the enemy can actually shoot that down as well.

"You'll want to come jump in this game and play it for a few hours, and you'll realize you've played it for six"

Plants vs Zombies has enjoyed some of its greatest success on tablets. Is that a way to tie it back, so if you're not so comfortable with shooters you can revert to the original game's ideas?

Gary Clay: Absolutely. There's two kind of forms to it really. The first thing we wanted to do with SmartGlass was to make it so that, if you've ever played a Plants vs Zombies game on a tablet, you're going to understand it immediately.

The way we bring in those different abilities, you're collecting sun pieces in the same way that you do in any of the other Plants vs Zombie games. Then you have to do resource management, so you've got a certain amount of sun and all these different abilities to spend it on. You have to manage that.

If you have played this type of game before, and you jump into something like Gardens & Graveyards, and you are supporting a team of 12 players, it's much more frantic and you'll be managing people's health and dropping down stations for them. You're gonna be spotting enemies that are coming in, bringing in airstrikes and reviving the team.

So it's in the same way that the hallmark of of Plants vs Zombies: it's simple to pick up and play and a lot of fun for people haven't experienced this kind of game before, but at the same time there's an incredible amount of depth and strategy to it that becomes apparent after you play it for a while.

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There seems to be heavier emphasis on stationary defenses, which is a callback to Plants vs Zombies. What kind of features will make fans remember that this isn't just a shooter, but a Plants vs Zombies game."

Gary Clay: The potted plant reinforcements for the plant team are key to it, they can completely turn the tide of battle, especially in co-op. So if you played a Plants vs Zombies game you're going to be able to put down a strategy must faster. Everyone's going to learn the strategy eventually, but if you've already played one before, you're going to know straight away.

For instance, if you put down a Scaredy Shroom, that's one of the plant pots that you can use in co-op and multiplayer, the best strategy you can do with a character like that is put him in a pot that has a really good line of sight, because he has the longest range of any of the potted plants. But if you're an experienced player, you already know that as a zombie gets close to that it will hide. So you need to have another pot to back it up.

And then there's things like Snap Dragon, which you would have seen in Plants vs Zombies 2, and they have a flamethrower and a damage-over-time effect, so you'd want to have him protecting the garden. And then you have things like Fume-shrooms that will shoot through screen doors. So you're going to see screen door zombies, and they're gonna take much more damage, in fact all zombies with armor will take more damage from a Fume-shroom than they would from a Gatling-pea or a Repeater.

So you start to see that strategy and combining those pots together, and making sure you manage those pots so that they don't go down... If you're playing with Sunflower, or if you're in boss mode, you can heal the pots too. Keeping them alive is like an additional player on the team.

"We're still locking down exactly what [DLC] we're looking at and when, but that will all be free"

With multiplayer shooters, the lifeblood is the players. Garden Warfare is going into an increasingly competitive scene as far as shooters go. What are you going to do to make sure that people stick around?

Gary Clay: That's a really good question, and there's a couple things I want to point out on it. One is that you can actually play on your own, so if you go in and play Garden Ops co-op, you can play with one player. It's not a traditional single-player experience like a campaign but you can play on your own, you don't have to be online to play. You'll still be able to rank your character up, do your challenges, and you'll still be able to collect coins. Everything you do in Garden Warfare gives you coins, so you'll be able to do all that on your own.

And obviously you can play split-screen as well, so you don't always have to play online. But if what you're really interested in is online multiplayer, there's things we'll do. Like holding tournaments on a regular basis, they can be anything from just you want to get X number of kills over a weekend, through to challenges that are set up by the dev team.

The other thing we'll be doing is we'll be bringing in, obviously, new add-on content. And our add-on content, when we lock down our exact time, is going to be free. So we'll be bringing new maps and new game modes. The kind of thing we're looking at right now is maps, game modes, new characters, new spawnable plants, new spawnable zombies. We're still locking down exactly what we're looking at and when, but that will all be free.

So we really want to bring in some new content to players to keep it fresh, and we're really focused on fun. So yeah, we're very aware that some amazing games are coming out, like Titanfall. People are gonna want to play in a very hardcore fashion, and you can play in a hardcore style in Garden Warfare, but we're very much focused on fun.

You'll want to come jump in this game and play it for a few hours, and you'll realize you've played it for six. It's one of those kinds of games that you get sucked into, like the original Plants vs Zombies, and Peggle as well, it's a very similar style that you would get from a PopCap game.

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Is Garden Warfare on Frostbite?

Gary Clay: Yeah, it's Frostbite 3. We're on the exact same engine that's building Battlefield 4. And it's absolutely amazing for us and allows us to push the envelope a little bit more. With split-screen we got to work on some engineering work to get split-screen up and running, because there's no games currently out on Frostbite 3 that have split-screen in, and DICE have been amazingly supportive for us on that and it's looking great and playing very well.

You can get these customizations to make your character visually distinct. Are there any customizations to pull up the engineer's pants?

Gary Clay: There is, actually! The painter customization will cover it up, so yeah, [laughs]. But don't let Brian hear you say that, because Brian Lindley, the producer, it's his mark on the game. He definitely wanted the butt crack in there and spent a lot of time getting the optimum depth and modelling of that. So he'd be upset if you covered it up.

Can we expect any more PopCap spinoffs? A Zuma roguelike? A Peggle MMO?

Gary Clay: [Laughs] You never know, you never know. I tell you what, [PopCap founder] John Vechey would love a Peggle MMO... There is actually a customization in Garden Warfare, for the scientist, you can do the Peggle Jump as a gesture when you take people out, which is pretty funny. But yeah, he'd love a Peggle MMO.

Honestly, PopCap are always looking at our games and what we can do, so you never know. In the future it could happen, right now no plans to, but we'll see. If someone had asked me two years ago if I thought there would be a Plants vs Zombies third-person shooter, I would have said no, so... You never know.

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