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Why Plants vs. Zombies 2 Can't Make It To the Top

In this post I’ll present the 4 main reasons why Plants vs. Zombies 2 is unlikely to ever reach top 10 grossing on iOS.

Michail Katkoff, Blogger

October 11, 2013

9 Min Read

Personally I think that Plants vs. Zombies 2 (PvZ2) is a great game. The game has kept all the good from the first episode and spiced it up with new content as well as features like map and gesture operated powerups. The biggest change of the sequel though is that it went from paid to free. And as you know, this blog is all about game mechanic.

In hindsight it seems that dropping the price tag was a smart choose as PvZ2 broke briefly into top20 crossing on iPhone and iPad. This is a good result from a essentially paid game, but top20 isn't probably something PopCap and EA was expecting. Given the promotion power EA possesses, not braking top10 grossing is an evidence that PvZ2 monetizes poorly.

In this post I’ll present the 4 main reasons why PvZ2 is unlikely to ever reach top10 grossing on iOS.

1. Unsuitable for Different Play Environments

People play mobile games in the comfort of their home, where they have plenty of time and limited amount of sudden and unexpected distractions. But apart from home, games are also played while commuting, at work and in the solitary of the bathroom (source: Tech Crunch). Because of different play environment session length and the amount of concentration game demands can be seen as a crucial factor. 

As a developer you have two choices. Either design your game so that it suits different environments thus enabling players to enjoy it throughout their days and fill up their free moments with a few minutes of fun. Or you can ignore this fact of different play environments and just hope that players will launch you game when they get back home or into the bathroom – assuming of course that they won’t continue playing that other game they have been playing throughout the day.


Each level takes a lot of time and demands 100% concentration making PvZ2unsuitable for quick game sessions in places with a lot of distractions.


PvZ2 is a good example of ignoring different play environments. First of all the session are always long. It takes around 4 minutes to give one level a go. That’s long comparing to a minute it takes to loose a life in Candy Crush Saga. Secondly playing PvZ2 demands absolute concentration, finger speed and both of your thumbs. Look away and you lost a Sun. Keep looking away and you’ve failed a level. It’s just not the kind of a game you want to play while commuting or when there’s a risk of distraction. 


Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that in order to succeed, mobile game has to be similarly playable in all environments. Many titles avoid this problem simply by creating different kind of play sessions. For example in Clash of Clans attacking requires a lot of concentration as a missed tap results easily in a defeat. But collecting resource building, training troops as well as chatting with the clan can be done easily on the go.


2. Lack of Social Gameplay

Playing a game with real people, preferably someone players know, is essential for retention and monetization. Imagine Hay Day without the ability to trade goods with other players? How about Candy Crush Saga without the progression map showing how far your friends have progressed and how they have faired on each level.


Despite Facebook Connect and beautiful progression map there are nosocial elements in PvZ2.


PvZ2 encourages players to login with their Facebook account to the game. PvZ2 also shows players’ progress on in a map format. Yet despite these two element that create social gameplay in level based game economies, PvZ2 doesn’t show players’ playing Facebook friends on the map nor offer any level based leaderboards.  And that’s just sad.


Monetization is driven by competition. Competition in level based freemium games is driven by map based progress mode and level based leaderboards. Having neither one of these two is a takes the legs off PvZ2’s monetization.


3. Fear of Disappointing Players

According to the freemium mantra games have to be easy to get into, constantly rewarding and leave players with a feeling of achievement after each session. Games like FarmVille, Sims Social and Hay Day followed this mantra successfully. They made sure that people new to games enjoyed playing them. They made sure that it is essentially impossible for players to ‘lose’. In short, these games aren’t about skills. Players’ success and progress simply correlate with time spent playing the game (or money spent to speed up the time). 

To some extent the freemium mantra is very true, but it has to fit the genre. Simulation games such fit the description but freemium puzzle and arcade games should be treated differently. As we all know, failing a level in Candy Crush Saga, Jelly Splash or Angry Birds just makes us try harder. And passing these levels gives that amazing feeling of accomplishment.

Sadly PvZ2 is ridiculously easy. It takes absolutely no effort to pass levels, making the game unchallenging and boring. Most of the people I know quit playing PvZ2 because of the lack of challenge. None of them have quit playing Candy Crush Saga even after being stuck on a level for over a week at a time.

Lack of difficulty can be seen not only in falling retention but also in diminishing IAP revenue. PvZ2 offers boosters for real currency, which enable players to clear levels with some consumable super powers. But to create the demand for these boosters players need to have those moments where they’re just about to clear a level and realize that they’ll lose without the help of a booster. Lack of challenge results in low demand for boosters, which causes stagnant revenue.


4. No Core Loop

In my mind what truly makes a freemium game is the core loop. Core loop models single full session from the mechanics point of view. And as we’re talking about freemium games, restriction mechanics are essential part of any successful core loop.

Core loop doesn’t have to be complicated. For example Candy Crush Saga’s has only one restriction mechanic in form of Lives. Lives are consumed during every session creating a natural end to the session when player runs out of them. At this point player can wait, request Lives from Facebook friends or use real money to refill Lives. 


Candy Crush Saga's core loop is very simple and very effective


Hay Day on the other hand has much more complicated core loop. In Hay Day you start off by planting Crops, which initiates the first timer of the loop. After crops are ready player harvests them and uses them to produce other resources initiating additional timers depending how developed products player wants to create. Also to be noted that after each production phase players have an option to sell the produced good via P2P marketplace or to an NPC character.


Hay Day's core loop is typical for simulation titles.


From core loop perspective the goal in Hay Day is to convert time into in-game currency, though the price of time unit gets lower as player spends more time refining the products. A super efficient player in fact would make more money by being constantly in the game and selling basic items instead of over-refined items that take long time to manufacture. Though from player’s perspective they feel great when they spend hours producing a Pumpkin Pie and selling it for 100 Coins when they could have saved time and just sold 10 badges of Wheat in the same time for 15 Coins each.


PvZ2 has no restriction mechanics and thus no core loop. An ideal core loop for the game would have been similar to the one in Candy Crush Saga, where sessions are restricted with energy mechanics. I’d argue that energy based core loop would have increased monetization of the game by creating consistent demand for energy and increasing demand for power ups – when level restart have a cost, not failing a level becomes valuable. 


Plants vs. Zombies 2 is Essentially a Free Paid Game

In the end of the day, PvZ2 is pretty much a paid game without the price tag. Sure, it offers IAPs, but free-to-play is so much more than that. Without restriction mechanics there are no core loops and without core loops creating demand for IAPs is very hard. The demand for IAPs is so much lower also because lack of social integration, which are essential in creating collaboration and competition between players. 


Free-to-Play is not just adding IAPs. Far from it.


Transforming a paid franchise into free-to-play is very hard especially from the organization point of view. There are a lot of internal battles resulting from people being afraid to upset players. But in my opinion this is fundamentally wrong way of thinking because it is based on an opinion, that free-to-play is something players don't like. If players wouldn't like free-to-play games, top charts would look very different. 

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