Insider Q&A: Plants vs. Zombies 2 designers David Paul and Jeremy Vanhoozer

By Jon Robinson Comment

Image via PopCap

Image via PopCap

Plants beware, there’s a new zombie limping your direction and this time he’s armed with chickens.

That’s right, when it comes to PopCap’s Plants vs. Zombies 2: It’s About Time, the sequel to one of the most iconic and addictive mobile games ever released, the game’s design team took the zombies places the plants just didn’t see coming.

“With the Chicken Farmer, you basically have a bunch of chickens strapped to a zombie with barbed wire,” explains art director David Paul. “Then once you do enough damage to him, the chickens bum rush you. We’ve nicknamed that, ‘The Chickening.’”

Not to be outdone, the plants have some pretty poisonous plans of their own.

“Lookout for Bonk Choy,” laughs Paul. “Design wanted something that could do a lot of damage really fast but was paper-thin as far as damage was concerned. We went through a lot of iterations, but finally settled on something that literally punches the crap out of things. I think a lot of people are in love with that character.”

Adds creative director Jeremy Vanhoozer: “Not only do I love Bonk Choy because of his melee, but his facial expressions are some of the best in the game. As you play, you’ll see him shift his gaze, and when you see it, you’re just like, ‘I like this guy.’ He gives off some of the highest levels of personality in the game, and because he’s so determined, he comes across as the plant who will do anything for you. Everyone I talk to just loves Bonk Choy, and it’s because of his personality.”

Plants with personality? Zombies with chickens? Inside Mobile Apps sat down with PopCap’s Paul and Vanhoozer to find out more about their sensationally insane sequel, the art behind the “brains”, and the benefits of seeing the game go free to play.

Inside Mobile Apps: How much pressure is it trying to live up to the first game’s iconic art style, while at the same time trying to add your own flair to the sequel?

David Paul: If you think of PvZ as an animated comic book, which I think is fair to say, then PvZ2 is more of a Saturday morning cartoon or an animated feature.

Jeremy Vanhoozer: It’s about keeping the charm of PvZ1 in terms of the look and feel of the game and character construction, but at the same time evolving it. I think the team has done a really good job of not changing things for changing it’s sake, but letting things evolve while adding frames and polish and making sure everything is very clean with the cell shaded approach.

DP: This go-around, we had a much more robust animation system to use, so we were able to really squeeze a lot out of our animations and we’re really proud of that. We put a lot of effort into it, and because of that, we can get away with so much more than we could in the first.

Image via PopCap

Image via PopCap

IMA: Is it crazy for you guys to walk around and see plush zombies and toys and even people getting tattoos with the PvZ characters?

DP: Oh yeah, it’s pretty nuts, and at the same time, it’s pretty flattering.

JV: I think for any artist, anytime you see something you’ve created or worked on on a much grander or even a pop-culture scale, it blows you away. We were just at Comic-Con a few weeks ago and just to see that experience with us tucked in alongside all of these mega brands and characters that we all know and love, and to have kids come up to our booth and tell us how much they love the game, it was a pretty epic experience. I think it makes everybody really proud, not only of the work we’ve done, but of the characters we’ve put together, and the fact that a kid can describe every detail back to you is a very real-world thing. To hear about his favorite character, his favorite bad guy, that’s a real moment right there.

DP: Yeah, we ran into this one kid and he was probably the world’s biggest PvZ fan. He had tons of ideas, and he was an aspiring artist who told me that he practiced his drawing every night just so he could get them right. That’s really touching to hear. You just don’t see that a lot with core games, so when something like that happens, it’s really cool.

IMA: Where do you guys draw your inspiration when creating the new zombie and plant characters in the game?

DP: Honestly, in our design process with art and the design department, any idea can come from anywhere and probably every discipline touches every little bit of a plant or zombie. Even on the art side, I’d be hard-pressed to say that all of our art team didn’t touch all of our assets in some way to make it better. We have some artists who might take the assets 90-percent of the way, and then we’ll go back and take another look at it and look for ways to really make it stand out, and then we’ll have another couple of artists take a crack at it. So everybody has their hands in it, and again, an idea can come from anywhere.

A good example of this is in our pirate level with the two pirate ships. That idea came from one of our artists, Mark Barrett. We knew we wanted to have two pirate ships fight, so he just drew up a sketch of these two ships with planks between them, and then as a design team, we were like, ‘Hey, this is pretty cool.’ They then went back and figured out how to actually make that work for the board mechanic for the entire level. So the idea came from art, but then design really honed it and made it something special. Other times, design will have a very explicit idea of what they want to do. Like in the Cowboy level, they wanted plants to be able to move around, and at first, we were like, ‘How are we going to do that?’ And this was before the theme of the world was even set, so we didn’t know if we wanted floating platforms or rivers or what. But once we figured out what kind of movement we wanted, the idea of the Wild West came into the picture, then one of us just suggested we do the movement on rails, on a literal rail cart. When everybody contributes, it can help make everything pretty awesome in the game.

Image via PopCap

Image via PopCap

IMA: How much time is actually spent from thinking up a cool new zombie to drawing it out to actually seeing it moving around in the game?

DP: We have a pretty quick iteration process, but it takes a couple of weeks, at least. We try to get some very early temporary art for the designers to use, so early that in an hour, we can take a black and white sketch and we can export that from Flash and see how it will feel in the game. We’ve done that with pretty much everything. Then once design is happy with the way it’s going to perform, we go to a white board and figure out what types of moves they are going to have, then we do a polish pass on the concept art, and then go right into Flash. Once you get to the Flash animation part, you’re looking at about a week total to create the asset.

JV: I’ve worked on several game teams, but with this team, there is very little time from when something is talked about to getting the art in the game. It’s amazing to see how quickly everyone moves on ideas, even if they’re not that great. You’ll see something new in the game and then everybody stands around and critiques what works and what doesn’t work about the new characters. So things happen quickly, and then that feeds right into the polish process, so it’s a good split.

DP: The bull rider on Wild West took a lot of effort to get up and going, and then the design team took him out because he wasn’t working like we wanted, but we had some pretty polished art. So we took him out for more than a month because we couldn’t figure out what to do with him, and then we revisited the character and decided he was just too cool to leave out, so design really buckled down and figured out a way with art to work well and we pulled it off.

IMA: You mentioned earlier about the kid practicing his art every night. What advice do you have for aspiring artists who want to break into the video game industry?

DP: First and foremost, focus on the fundamentals. Your education can come from anywhere as you can go to art school, you can go to any college with an art program, or you can even learn on your own. I’m an old guy, and when I first started, there weren’t a lot of online resources, but now, there are just so many tutorials. You can even get your art critiqued by professionals online. There are so many avenues, so I can’t really say which one is best, you need to decide what works for you. If you’re a really driven person, maybe school is not the best idea, but if you want the camaraderie of having a student body to be with and to learn from, then that’s a very valid option.

JV: You have to want it and you have to be driven. When you start talking about wanting to be a professional artist, whether that’s in games or comics or film or whatever, you’ll have people tell you that you can’t really do that or you can’t make money doing that. As a little kid, find out what makes you happy, find out what you like to draw and draw it. Then when you get a little older, there’s no reason this day or time that on the Internet, you won’t be able to find someone to teach you.

I call it the artistic gut punch, where you get online and you find someone who is amazing at something. You’ll always find great artists, and you’ll always find opportunities to learn, so for me you need to stay committed, you need to stay focused, do the work, and the cooler the job, you need to realize, the more people are going to want it. So if you want to work on a top game or a top film or draw Spider-Man, you’re going to have to work really, really hard and you’re going to need to want it more than the next guy.

DP: And remember to never, ever, never listen to anybody who tells you that you can’t make a living doing art. That is absurd. I remember my guidance counselor in high school, my last meeting with her she told me that I might need to pick a new major in college because I’ll never make a living doing art. Well, see how that worked out. People with no imagination will back themselves into a corner.

IMA: So when Plants vs. Zombies 2 finally comes out, what are some fun things fans of the series can expect that they didn’t see in the first game?

DP: The big thing is the map. Our world map is, to put it mildly, really rad. [laughs] It was developed by one of our artists, Augie Pagan. He is just amazing. We wanted to give it a throwback to a Super Mario World map, we wanted that feel, only not as quite simply drawn. It’s pretty elaborately drawn, and it’s really cool to have that as your home base to go back to after every level. There are lots of cool little animations and you can explore every place. Each world has its own world map as well.

JV: The animation in this game is astounding. Everything from the Peashooter actually fitting the pea to what is on the world map and the animation that happens when you go from one level to the next. As I play over and over again, I still get surprised by little bits of animation, little bits of secondary animation, and it’s a testament to the team because they didn’t go overboard at all. It’s just the right amount of animation to tell the story and make the characters look fantastic. So whether you’re a little kid playing or a guy in their 50s, you’re going to see the polish we put in the game, and you’re going to get to know these characters better than ever before.

DP: Outside the world map, the other thing that will completely melt brains is the plant food. That’s basically what the entire game is based around this time. Random zombies will drop what we’re calling plant food, and you grab that, then you have a stash that you can drop on any plant in the game and each plant will have their own reaction. Each reaction is completely over the top and crazy and you really look forward to using the food because it causes the plants to do something wildly different than they normally do. It’s like turbo boost for plants.

Image via PopCap

Image via PopCap

IMA: To me, the biggest surprise is that the game is free to play. Do you see all mobile games becoming free in the near future?

DP: You can play about 95-percent of the game for free. You don’t need to pay for anything to complete the game, which is pretty awesome. We are not stingy.

JV: This is one of the largest, most polished games that will be in the iTunes store at launch, and to get that for free is amazing. Obviously, there are opportunities to buy things, but we’re really trying a free-to-play method where we’re going to put this amazing game in your hands, we all believe in this game, and we’re going to give you the opportunity to buy things, but you don’t have to, and that’s rare in this day and age. There are all kinds of opportunities to do it differently, but we’re really proud of the game, and that’s important to us. As far as free-to-play being the new state of mobile? PopCap is interested in getting this game in as many hands as possible, and I think when you take that barrier away, people can download the game, and if they don’t like it, they can stop playing without having invested anything. But our goal is to get everybody the game, and I think when you see this game, from moment one, you’re going to be invested. It’s not necessarily the way things are going, but it’s the way we decided to build the game. We’re proud of it, the game stands up for itself, and we’re able to do this based on the quality of what we think the game is.