A couple of weeks ago, we chatted with PopCap's Ty Roberts about the upcoming XBLA version of Plants vs. Zombies, which features all-new modes and console-specific controls. In case you missed it, check out our Plants vs. Zombies XBLA preview!
WP: Who has the honor to speak with us? State your name, rank and occupation!
I'm Ty Roberts, and I'm associate producer for Plants vs. Zombies.
WP: What went into the decision to bring Plants vs. Zombies to the console? It's been a hit on the PC, iPod, iPhone and iPad. Why bring it to the console?
TR: Well, we felt that [consoles] had a really good audience, especially the Xbox Live Arcade system. We felt that the additional delivery system was fantastic, and we felt that we could make a really good game on the Xbox.
WP: Part of the reason for the game's popularity is the seamless controls. On the iPod, iPhone and iPad, you've got a touch-screen. On the PC, you've got a mouse. What kind of work went into adapting the controls, and what kind of problems cropped up in trying to get it to work just right with the Xbox controller?
TR: The controls were definitely a big struggle in this version. There's no doubt about it whatsoever. Some of the problems that cropped up was just management, collecting stuff, collecting points, planting your plants, and all the while, still trying to figure out your strategy. We felt that using the controller buttons to cycle between seed packets was really intuitive and gave the user a way to get their seed selected without having to use another button but still let them plant on the selected area.
The other thing we did was with sun collection: We introduced a right trigger mechanism. You pull the right trigger, and the sun automatically has a magnetic effect that comes toward you, and you automatically collect the sun. So instead of needing to cursor all around the board to collect the sun, you have a one-shot way of collecting a bunch of sun on the board. We think that just lends itself better to the strategy aspect of the game and makes it more fun.
WP: Visually, what did you have to do with the art assets? Did you use the same assets as you did for the PC or the iPad? Did you have to create all-new art assets?
TR: A lot of the new assets are actually seen from the main menu and the sort of triptych effect we have with the main menu. The actual assets, we did have to do a lot of work to make them animate correctly, so it would still feel like zombies' arms were falling off. It was an awful lot of work that a lot of talented people put the time into making. It was a big challenge.
As you know, everything is HD. We went over all the original art with a fine-toothed comb. It's kind of hard to explain. We just went over it and over it and over it and made every last-minute tweak you could possibly imagine to the art.
WP: What about the new co-op and versus modes? Where did those ideas originate? Are they going to remain exclusive to XBLA, or will they be backported to the PC or iPhone?
TR: The versus mode is easy to explain because everyone wants to play as zombies. That's the number-one thing: When can I play as a zombie? Well, now you can. In the XBLA version, we have versus mode. You can play as the plants or as the zombies via our same-console multiplayer.
It's fantastic. You set up as the plants. It's always the plants that are trying to defeat the zombies. The way you defeat the zombies is you knock down three of the targets that are on the other side of the hedge. If you do that, you win. As the zombies, as always, you want to reach past the porch and into the house in order to eat some brains. It's a lot of fun. A lot of people are having a lot of fun playing that.
Co-op was one of those things that we felt was a natural fit for the Xbox 360 and the same-console multiplayer aspect. We wanted to be able to sit down with our sons, daughters, girlfriends, wives, whoever, and be able to have a lot of fun and be able to teach someone the game of Plants vs. Zombies.
You could literally have a three-year-old who can move the cursor around and collect all the sun while you do all the planting. So you can have a pretty good experience even if you don't know how to play the game. We felt that was just a natural fit. Frankly, in a lot of the forums and stuff that I read, I see a lot of, "Can I play this with my girl/boyfriend? Can I play this with my son/daughter?" For a lot of the games, the answer is "No." With Plants vs. Zombies, the answer is absolutely yes. It's a lot of fun.
Are we going to backport it to PC? Probably not. It doesn't make much sense on a PC. I don't foresee any plans to do it on any other platform right now. Of course, that's always subject to change because we're PopCap (laughs), but if it's fun and people want it, then you never know. Right now, it's XBLA-only, and we'll see what happens in the future.
WP: What are some of the other exclusive modes? You've got at least one new minigame, Heavy Weapon. Can you tell us a little bit about that, as well as any other additions for the console?
TR: Heavy Weapon was kind of PopCap's first really killer XBLA game that took off. It got a strong cult following. It wasn't a big success on the PC ports, but people really dug it. Frankly, the producer Matthew Lee Johnston and I are big fans of Heavy Weapon on XBLA.
There kind of evolved a minigame based on Heavy Weapon, where you have a lawn mower just rolling left or right, back and forth on the bottom of the screen, and it shoots peas at incoming waves of zombies. The controls are left and right on the thumbstick, and you shoot and aim with the right thumbstick. It actually ends up being a lot of fun. You can buy power-ups. You collect sun, you buy power-ups, you can freeze zombies, you can burn them, you can have Doom-shrooms, all that other kind of stuff.
Some of the new features … of course there are co-op, versus and the new minigame Heavy Weapon. The leaderboards were kind of a challenge because there isn't really a point system in Plants vs. Zombies. We came up with this really cool way to kind of display your progress in the form of a house. You have your house, and you can kind of modify it in different ways. There are different types of houses: haunted house, fun house, trailer house, and then your regular house. You can kind of bling them out, if you will.
The cool thing is that you can also access your friends' leaderboard. You could scroll up and down a block in a neighborhood and see all of your buddies' houses. In front of the houses are lawn ornaments. The lawn ornaments are the Achievements in the game, so the more Achievements you earn, the more full your lawn is and the more awesome it looks. Plus we have a way of tracking how many zombies you killed, roughly, and tracking how many plants you've lost, roughly. Zombies pile up in the recycle bin, and plants pile up in the compost bin. Hopefully, you have a really high stack of zombies and a pretty small stack of plants.
WP: When putting it together for XBLA, when was the moment that you knew, "Hey, it's actually working"?
TR: Well, we knew that the game itself would work on a console. We knew that. It's the new modes, co-op and versus, that were very challenging. Versus, we balanced — I don't know how many months that was in our QA, trying to just get it right. There finally came a day when the two best Plants vs. Zombies players in the office were facing off, and after 10 minutes, they were at a stalemate. They tried all these different strategies; none of them were working, and everybody was countering. We thought, "This is it." They even started swearing at each other! If we can get our guys yelling and swearing at each other, we've got a huge hit right here. That was actually the day where it was like, "That's it."
For co-op, I'll never forget. It was myself and Michael Santora. We're sitting in our office and playing co-op survival. He's not the biggest Plants vs. Zombies fan, and we were playing co-op survival, and he couldn't put down the controller. He was having a good, good time. I just needed to get some screenshots, but he was having so much fun that we kept playing the whole time, and we probably took 45 minutes before we finally gave up the ghost and had to get back to work. At that point, I knew that this is going to be a smash. It's so much fun.
WP: This is a little off-topic, but can you tell us a little bit about the controversy regarding the dancing zombie in the game?
TR: Well, we had to replace the infamous dancing zombie. We have an all-new zombie. He has a little bit of a disco theme, and we like him. His dancers actually have mustaches now, and it's awesome.
There was a controversy with the Michael Jackson estate, so unfortunately, we made a business decision to not try to defend it and replace it. I think we did a really good job. Rich [Werner] drew up this disco song beat in literally a day. We animated him, we put him in, made a few adjustments, and it was awesome. Even now, when he dies, the goldfish in his shoes actually die as well. It's just super cool.
WP: Will disco zombie appear in all the platforms?
TR: He will eventually appear in all the platforms. We're happy to have him onboard, we welcome him with open undead arms, and we wish him the best in sending him back to his grave.
WP: Is there anything that we haven't talked about that you wanted to add?
TR: The team on this has been amazing. These guys are unbelievable. To have the mind to come up with something like this is unbelievable in every sense of the word, and George Fan and Tod Semple are just unreal. These guys have such an imagination, but the real joy for me was working with the XBLA crew. It's crazy to see how a game can come together and how everybody really wants to see this succeed. I can't say enough about how much fun it is. It's challenging, for sure, but it just makes me love PopCap!
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