With PopCap’s Plants Vs Zombies now finally shambling free after three years in development, we caught up with its designer, George Fan, to talk about how he created it. Though easy to assume that Plants Vs Zombies is just another take on tower defence, playing it proves otherwise. With a core team consisting of programmer Tod Semple, artist Rich Werner and soundtrack composer Laura Shigihara (also his girlfriend), Fan has created a game layered with influences. The richest sources are its many minigames, which seem like a jotting pad for the many ideas that make up its Adventure mode, but, as Fan, previously designer of PopCap’s Insaniquarium and an AI programmer and enemy designer for Blizzard’s upcoming Diablo 3, explains, they were as much a playground for him and his team as they are for players. And the result is very special, as you can read in our review.
It’s interesting that your previous game for PopCap was Insaniquarium, given the Zombiquarium minigame.
Yeah, I threw in some references to that, and the game I did before that, which was my first game. I don’t think anyone knows about it – Wrath Of The Gopher. It was a puzzle game in which you play as a gopher and must eat all the cabbages before the farmer comes out and catches you.
What other games inspired you?
The sources were Insaniquarium and tower defence games and – though it didn’t end up in much of the game – Magic: The Gathering. I was playing tower defence in WarCraft III and thought that plants could make pretty good towers – you expect them to stay in place and you can give them a bunch more personality. Plants Vs Zombies was originally a lot like Insaniquarium in that you’d nurture the plants by watering and growing grass, but it turned out to be too tedious. There was too much to do and not in a fun way, so I took all the nurturing out.
But where did the zombies come from?
I thought that it’d be cool to have the aliens from Insaniquarium make a reappearance, but the central theme was still plants. In fact, the game was called Weedlings, but many gardening games were coming out at that time and that just didn’t sit well with me. I tend to try to make games that are a little bit original. That’s when I came up with zombies, which are perfect because they move slowly so you have a lot of time to react to them.
Much has been made of Plants Vs Zombies being PopCap’s first take on tower defence.
It’s ironic – during the making of this game tower defence kind of exploded in popularity. Originally the game was laid out the same way, but I realised there was something unintuitive about it. I always wondered why these guys never think to attack these towers that are shooting at them, so I was looking for a way to have the towers be directly threatened by the antagonist. So I reworked and simplified it to five lanes, as if you’re playing five simultaneous tower defence games, and of course the zombies eat the plants as they’re marching.
So where did Magic: The Gathering come into the process?
I was teaching my girlfriend, Laura, how to play Magic at the time. There’s a coolness to customising your own deck in Magic, so that’s where the seed packets came from – they’re analogous to cards. The prototype was that you’d build a deck of seeds and they would slide down a conveyor belt randomly, but that ended up being too complicated.
Hence the way they recharge, instead. It’s very evocative of the way abilities in WOW have cooldowns.
Exactly, hopefully that will feel familiar to people who played those games.
To the extent that it’s actually quite surprising that you didn’t put them at the bottom of the screen just so it would drive it home that that’s the way that you interact with them.
Yeah… [pauses] I don’t know why. That’s a good point. I don’t know why they’re not at the bottom of the screen [laughs]. I think we just put them up top and no one complained. I never thought to rework that. We actually had a little bit of a problem with getting the sun to fall from the top behind or in front of the… Okay, well if there’s a sequel we’ll change it. Thanks for that suggestion!