Plants vs. Zombies: What if the zombies had plants for heads?

Posted: February 10, 2013 by bisquickbismarck in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

On the topic of rules, Plants vs. Zombies offers no shortage of material to talk about. Despite being (as discussed a bit in my previous entry) a pretty accessible game with a low barrier of entry, I could fill up many a blog post were I to cover all the rules involved in playing the game. Plants vs. Zombies is essentially all about rules and forcing you to continually learn new rules and how to best work within them. The game is divided into levels and sublevels with each new level introducing some major change, like a change in the environment. The sublevels increase in difficulty within a level and frequently the player is rewarded a new sublevel/level completion plant they must learn to use to complete the coming levels. This screenshot is recycled from my last post, but early levels of the game look something like this:


Basic strategy: Sun-producing plants in the back where they’ll be protected, line of defense near the front but if you place them a couple rows back it’ll take longer for zombies to reach them which exposes them to more shots before they reach the nuts, middle ground covered with solid shooters (I have a frozen pea shooter in every row because they further slow down zombies.)

So you start out with some basic operational and constituative rules here. Operational stuff would be like: Before starting the game, select which plants you want to use, filling up as many slots as you have available. (You can purchase additional slots later on.) Use suns dropped from the sky in daytime or given by sun-producing plants to purchase plants (which each have different prices and regeneration rates) during the game. Plant different types of defensive, offensive, sun-producing, and specialty plants on your lawn to guard your house against zombies. I guess constituative rules would be things like: The structure of the game is divided into Adventure mode levels and sublevels, standalone minigames, survival mode, and series of puzzles divided into levels. The game is played on an area 6 by 9 squares. Pretty straightforward. The game walks you through the initial stuff tutorial-style.  Once you acquire a plant/encounter a zombie you can view its entry in your almanac.



“The dolphin is also a zombie.”

Thing about Plants vs. Zombies though is the game doesn’t want you getting too complacent. It’s constantly introducing you to new stuff each level. These new challenges/changes of interest come in different forms: adding new plants with special abilities to your arsenal, throwing a new kind of zombie your way, or changing something about the playing field/environment. Here’s a shot of a much later level that takes place on your roof. This introduces some interesting obstacles. First of all, in order to plant on your roof, you first have to buy pots to place on the tiles so essentially you have to create your own usable field. Because of the angle of the roof, you’ll also need to use new catapult shooters instead of your typical peashooters.  Finally, you have to watch out for new zombie types like bungee zombies that strike from above and steal an object from your field or ladder zombies that use a ladder to climb over your wall of defensive nuts and leave the ladder behind for other zombies to climb up. Essentially, Plants vs. Zombies just keeps introducing you to variations on that initial basic game you play in the first levels by switching up the original rules.


My nut wall is off and my catapult ranks are incomplete because at this point I’m still trying to catch up with extending my field by placing pots.

All this analysis of gameplay rules makes me wonder about the planning process of games. Like ok, a lot of how the Plants vs. Zombies experience evolves for the player is pretty logical. We’ve got a game that has zombies you defend against/attack and plants you use to do so. So as the game progresses let’s introduce more plants and more zombie types. Let’s also change up the environment between levels so players have to adapt their strategy and they’ll have to use new plant types. Plants vs. Zombies also has a lot of minigames and puzzles which I enjoy and the neat thing about them is they’re all a fun subversion of the rules you’re accustomed to in normal Adventure mode. Each minigame seems clearly the product of one of the game creators thinking, “Well what if instead of this, ____?” Zombotany answers the question, “What if the zombies had plant heads that gave them the same attack/defense capabilities the player has?” I, Zombie answers, “What if the player played from the perspective of zombies instead?” Slot Machine answers, “What if we restricted the player’s agency by eliminating the ability to select plants or to buy them at will and instead left that all up to the chance of a slot machine?” Anyway I think that’s cool how they incorporated these kind of what-if rule subversion scenarios into the game.


Slot machine ends when you collect 2000 suns rather than having a set time limit. I thought I could farm some gold by collecting almost 2000 suns while building up a strong field, then purposely avoiding reaching 2000 while I collected coins from zombies or diamonds from the slot machine.


The game got mad at me. Looks like they built in a way to curb players farming gold in this minigame by making the waves of zombies exponentially impossible to deal with the longer you play. This shot is only a couple seconds after the previous. My plants were brutally decimated…

 I was also wondering about what kind of game testing goes into the user experience side of the design process. Those basic outlines like, “the game will be increasingly challenging” or “we’ll introduce this new type of plant/zombie here” – those must actually require a lot of further consideration and testing to implement. Obviously you want to make sure that the basic operational rules are clear and everything, but what about details like exactly what rate of zombie attacks is a good balance of challenging the player without making the game too difficult? How do you handle the increasing complexity/difficulty throughout the game in a way that’s natural for the player to handle? How do I get a job testing games because I’d…be pretty down for that? As far as I can tell Plants vs. Zombies doesn’t have player difficulty modes to choose from either.  I wonder if they had to do a lot of testing and minute adjusting and stuff to figure out balance of challenge/interest and playability, especially since they have a pretty broad target player range. I don’t know, is that relevant to rules? User experience/user interface stuff’s pretty interesting to me.


Fade to black. This is an in-Adventure mode minigame where you play with the field in almost pitch-blackness except for the occasional flash of lightning. Also you can’t select your plants, they provide them randomly via conveyer belt. I admittedly freaked out a bit at first but I survived. You just have to have a good grasp of strategy and by this point you’ve probably memorized the field grid well enough to place some plants in the dark.


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