The interesting thing about Plants vs. Zombies 2 isn’t the gameplay: that’s largely the same as in its predecessor, and remains solid. Instead, it’s the business model: the game is free to play, and makes its money off of in-app purchases. Which is something that the corner of the games community that I’m part of is strongly against; I don’t agree with that antipathy at all as a general statement, but of course the implementation matters.
So: how does Plants vs. Zombies 2 do in that regard? I felt a little uneasy at the start: there are a lot of gates, and there isn’t a “pay a fixed amount of money to unlock everything” option. But you could unlock almost all of those gates by playing, so I figured I’d play and see how it went.
And then I finished the first era, and hit a gate to proceed to the next era; also, there were some side paths to unlock new plants and new levels, and I hadn’t unlocked most of those. The cost to proceed to the next level was actually pretty reasonable (five bucks, I’d probably already gotten five bucks of enjoyment out of the game at that point), but the game also gave you an alternate way to unlock that gate: the levels you’d already finished got repopulated with three new challenges for each of them (e.g. accomplish a task with limited plants or limited sun or without planting in certain areas), and if you finished enough of those challenges, you’d unlock the next era.
So I figured I’d give that a shot; and it turned out to be super-fun! The challenges were well designed, I really enjoyed playing through them, and I played through more than were necessary to unlock the gate in question. And, as a bonus, while I was playing through those challenges, I collected enough keys to be able to unlock all of the side paths without paying any money. (Though here I have to give a caveat: item drop percentages are the sort of things that companies change over time, so other people’s experiences might be different.)
The result was an experience that I really enjoyed, and that I didn’t pay any money for; the challenges actually made the game better than the original. (Here’s a post on Kotaku that reports a similar experience.) And it’s not like you have to go through every challenge, either: if there are a few challenges that are too tough or too annoying for you, you can skip them.
After that, I was pretty optimistic. And I had a similar experience with the challenges on the second era: I enjoyed going through them to unlock the gate at the end. (There isn’t a gate on the third era.) What was different, though, was the side paths: the number of keys that the game dropped went way down. I only unlocked a couple of side paths on my own on the second era, and I haven’t unlocked any yet on the third era, though I’m sure if I went through more of the challenges then I’d unlock at least one of them.
So, the result is that, without paying money, I’ve gotten all of the narrative out of the game, I’ve gone through something like 50 challenge levels, and I’ve got many more challenge levels awaiting me if I feel like it. And I’ve unlocked about half of the extra plants and powerups that you can unlock in game; I haven’t unlocked any of the plants and powerups that you have to pay money for. (The pay-only plants are all from the first game; the powerups are not necessary to succeed.) I didn’t count the time I spent playing it, but my guess is something like 10 hours, and they were good hours.
If I think of it as a free game: that’s a very good deal. If I wanted to pay to unlock the remaining side paths, it would cost me $12 (and my guess is that, if I’d gone through more challenges on the third era, I’d save $2 off of that); I’ve already gotten more than $10 out of gameplay out of the game, so that also feels fair to me. I haven’t actually paid that money yet, mostly because I felt like I’d played the game enough for now, but I can actually imagine returning to the game at some point in the future and deciding that I’ll spend money on that. (And the game is set up to allow them to release extra eras; if they do that and charge for them, I’ll be happy to pay.)
If I wanted to unlock the purchase-only plants, it would cost me $20; if I wanted to unlock the purchase-only upgrades, it would cost me $14; and if I wanted both, I could save a buck or two off of the combined price by buying bundles. That is a higher price than I personally would be willing to pay; the price of all of that, however, still puts it at less than the price of a new console video game, and the value of the total experience is absolutely there. That feels to me like an explicit price segmentation strategy, and one that I support: people who really love the series and will put in dozens and dozens of hours will spend the extra money, and it will be worth it for them; other people won’t, and those people who won’t will still get a fine experience.
In general, that adds up to an experience that I basically support: there’s a bit more asking for money than I’d like, but I can ignore that. I wish the item drop percentage hadn’t dropped off quite as precipitously, but whatever.
Having said that, there is a big caveat: if you look at the top in-app purchase list, the most popular items aren’t any of the ones I’ve mentioned above: they are instead coin packs. To explain that, let me go back a bit: I said above that the gameplay is largely the same as its predecessor; that’s true, but there are a few additions, and one of them is a temporary special power that lets you destroy zombies en masse.
I almost never used that special power: it felt wrong to me, actively going against the core Plants vs. Zombies experience. But it’s there; and, if you want to use it, you’ll need coins. You’ll earn some coins through gameplay, so if you only need to use the special power sporadically (e.g. to get through a challenge that you’ve played a few times and can’t quite survive the final wave on), you’ll be swimming in coins. But if you want to use that special power regularly, you’ll need to spend money; judging from the in-app purchase list, a decent amount of people are doing that.
And that’s not good: I do not support pay-to-win. Now, Plants vs. Zombies 2 is handling this much better than many games do: some games give you difficulty spikes where you’re forced to pay to proceed, giving something that looks like a skill gate that is actually a pay gate. (I’ve heard that Candy Crush Saga is a prominent example of this, though I can’t say from experience.) And that’s much worse than a pay gate, because it attacks the notion of expertise at the game. That doesn’t happen in Plants vs. Zombies 2. (Or at least didn’t when I played: these are all numbers in a spreadsheet that can be updated silently behind the scenes at any time!)
But still: the game is designed in a way to ask players who are less good at the game to pay more money. And I don’t like that.
Having said that: people can make their choices, and it is not my position to tell other people whether they should prefer to bang their head against a tough level, to pay money, or to give up. (And designing a game where people never bang their heads against tough levels is also problematic in its own way.) Note also that this is problem isn’t unique to in-app purchases: many many games ask you to grind to win (with more grinding required the worse you are), and from my point of view, that is no better morally than asking to pay to win. (Time is in many ways much more tightly constrained, much more precious than money!) Also, EA is avoiding some pitfalls that I find more morally objectionable: there’s no multiplayer, limiting the damage of pay-to-win (there’s a reason why I don’t play Magic: The Gathering!), and the game is relatively straightforward about the tradeoffs that it’s asking users to make. (The aspect of Sorority Life that I felt actively ashamed of was its “crates”: those are designed to make money by taking advantage of human brains’s bad instincts when it comes to probability.)
All in all: a good game, and an interesting case study. Ends up in a place that I’m pretty happy with as a player; but I imagine that future PopCap games will be worse in this regard.
This post has not been revised since publication.