Plants vs Zombies – lessons from casual games

Casual gaming wunderkinds Popcap have just released their latest game, Plants Vs Zombies.

It takes the classic Tower Defense game mechanism of placing a variety of offensive and defensive objects in a space to prevent enemies from making it all the way through your space to your house. In this instance, it pits cutesy (but not sickeningly so) plants – including energy generating sunflowers, potato landmines, pea-shooting vines and obstacle providing walnuts against a horde of increasingly difficult (yet lovable) zombies.  This video gives a sense of the aesthetics of the game.

Popcap are also the producers of smash-hit casual games including Bejeweled and Peggle, so they know a thing or two about casual games.

The success of casual games, particularly among non-gamers, is something that educators interested in using games in learning should give close attention. From my experiences – including a moment of “where did the last two hours go?” last night playing Plants vs Zombies – the core elements of good casual gaming are a simple interface, comfortable learning curve, regular rewards and pleasant aesthetics.

All of the Popcap games that I have played involve the player using one button – left mouse click. When you look at “hardcore” cames – particularly in the Real Time Strategy (RTS) and Role Playing Game (RPG) genres, it is possible to have different actions mapped to the majority of keys on the keyboard. Clearly a fairly daunting entry point to someone not familiar with gaming controls and conventions. Even the consoles (Xbox 360 and Playstation 3) have around 12 -15 usable buttons on their controllers. (The Wii on the other hand has 2 or 3 in most games – and leads the console market on sales by a wide margin).

In Plants Vs Zombies, you have a front yard which is 9×5 squares. You click one of a range of plants in a top menu and click again to place it on the lawn.  From here, it’s largely a matter of managing resources and adapting your plant placement to the oncoming zombie hordes.

The learning curve is gentle – each level introduces another fundamental element of the game and gives you an opportunity to succeed with it before adding another element – be that a new type of plant weapon or a new, tougher zombie. This reinforces prior learning experiences and adds a need to continually learn new skills.  The increasing challenge keeps you engaged and motivated and new weapons/obstacles provide new forms of entertaining feedback. These are the first two levels and a later one, which show you how the gameplay evolves.

Regular rewards are another key element of casual games – these don’t have to be big things, just pleasing aesthetic elements such as score boosts, cute noises and perhaps most satisfying so far in this particular game is the “spudow” of an exploding potato landmine and the mound of mashed potatoes (and zombie) it leaves behind. (In a cute way, of course). Games such as Peggle are much more demonstrative in this regard, flashing and dinging almost like a pinball machine with virtually any successful action and offering praise and reinforcement for positive player actions. (Perhaps a little behaviourist but it’s hard to argue with the success of the game). An interesting story that came out of the initial playtesting of Peggle is that players who were initially “meh” about the game found it much more engaging when the points values of their rewards had a few zeros added to the end, making them seem more valuable.

The aesthetics of the PopCap games are generally pleasing to the eye, bright (but not to bright) colours and cheery (but not annoying) music and sound effects. These clearly mark the experience as one of play rather than work and I feel that they tap directly into the need for escapism that brings people to these games.

Not all of these thing will work in educationally oriented games but in terms of creating a space that is welcoming to new gamers and which provides motivation, it is hard to see a better approach.

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