PopCap Games’ Jeremy Vanhoozer is the Creative Director for the Plants Vs. Zombies franchise. He’s responsible for the creative oversight of games, licensing, animation and anything that has to do with Plants Vs. Zombies. At San Diego Comic-Con, Mr. Vanhoozer discussed the status of the upcoming games Plants Vs. Zombies 2: It’s About Time and Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, the changes EA brings with its acquisition of PopCap Games and the animated PvZ adventures with Jay and Silent Bob.
Would you tell me a little about your background?
– “I actually started at Disney as an illustrator. I worked my way up through animation and illustration, things like that. When I became an Art Director, I worked for a lot of smaller studios. I went to Cartoon Network and was Art Director over their digital studios, there, for a while. I kind of made my way around, haphazardly, through various studios doing different things. I got into games because I’m a huge gamer. I was able to bring some of that creativity to games and it was really exciting. I ended up at PopCap and now I’m heading up PvZ.”
How long have you worked for PopCap?
– “I’ve been at PopCap, now, little over a year.”
What’s been your primary focus since joining the company?
– “When I came onboard, there were three games that had either started or were in production: PvZ2 was well under way or getting ready to get it done and out the door. There was a lot still left to do. PvZ2 was all hands on deck. PvZ: Garden Warfare had just sort of kicked off its infancy, as a prototype, floating around. We were starting the development process. Plants Vs. Zombies: Adventures, on Facebook, was also being done by our San Francisco studio. So, it was games in various states of completion (or starting).”
Was there any fan feedback that was built into Plants Vs. Zombies 2?
– “Part one is such a classic game. Everyone has things they love about it. The fans have favorite characters, here’s how I played and here’s where I planted my Sunflowers. There’s a very vocal fanbase that you want to make happy. If you look at PvZ2, it’s very classic PvZ: It’s lane-based tower defense strategy is still there… even more strategy, now. The core of the game is the same. We’ve added more mechanics. We’ve added a mechanic called Plant Food. Every plant has a different animation, every plant has a different reaction. There’s a lot of cool depth that we added. Our goal was to do a worthy sequel, with lots of new stuff, but to make it very classic PvZ. It’s sometimes a hard balance, but it’s something we feel like we’ve done.”
How was the decision made to release the game for free?
– “I don’t know that I can pick one moment, where it’s like, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do.’ Part of the discussion was we want the easiest way to put it into the most hands. If there was no barrier to download, then that’s great. With a brand like PvZ that has so many fans, the fact that you can put out a game that you don’t have to pay for, right now, you can download it immediately. Another big thing that was important for us was not just to do a free-to-play default. Play this much, then you have to pay. That was not something we were interested in.”
“We’re a studio that really cares about its fans. I can stand before you now and tell you that we’re giving you the entire game. You can play PvZ normally and grind through the whole thing. There are things you can purchase. If you want to get to the next world quicker, you can pay to do that. You certainly don’t have to do that. There are a few characters that we’ve gated off. If you want them, you can pay to get those. They’re just cool characters. If you want them, you’re welcome to them. We have so many new characters that we’re literally just handing to you. We have so many new Zombies. Obviously, the theme of PvZ2 is time travel. You start off in ancient Egypt. There’s all-new customized Zombies. You move to pirates’ seas. Who doesn’t love pirate Zombies? Our third and final world, at launch, is the Wild West. So, you’ve got cowboy Zombies. You have some pretty awesome characters. Every world is loaded with characters.”
“There is nothing that we’ve gated off from you. There’s other ways you can play if you get a little impatient or you want to do things in a different way… totally fine. One of my goals was to be able to stand in front of the players and say, ‘This is a super-polished game. There’s a ton of content. If you want to play a certain way, you can absolutely give us a few bucks. If not, there is so much to do, I don’t think anyone is going to fee restricted. It’s a little bit risky, because we’re basically giving a game that’s taken a long time with a really talented team… but the way we’re looking at it is we just want to make the game great. We want to make the game fun. We want to put our best effort out there. When we do that and go free to play, that’s a hard balance, but I think PopCap has done it. When players get it in their hands, they’ll see that we have.”
How did Garden Warfare originate, as a game?
– “When EA and PopCap started talking, they recognized PvZ as a brand. I think the discussion started with, ‘What other kind of games do we want to make?’ Obviously, we wanted to make PvZ2. We’re all very big action-game fans and we were poking around with the idea. EA had the resources that we could go, pick their brain. They’ve got multiple studios around the world. We talked a lot with Dice. Obviously, they’re the makers of Battlefield, with the Frostbite engine. We were able to sit down with those guys. They were super supportive. That’s the tech we’re building the game on and that’s why it looks so great.”
“Really, the reason that we built Garden Warfare was because we wanted a game that was fun and we wanted to build a game that we liked. We put together a prototype and right away, we’re like, ‘Whoa. This is already fun. This is super cool.’ The game has come a long way, just based on polish, animation and all that. We’re setting that quality bar very high. Our goal, with that game, is almost Pixar-does-PvZ, and that’s not easy to do. We just wanted to make a game that we all loved and it kind of came out of left field and started working. And we ended up having this well-balanced, fun-to-play game, but very PvZ. I think that comes from a team that’s super invested, and getting the right support and seeing it through. Now that we’re able to show it to people, it’s paid off.”
Does Garden Warfare take place in the same universe as PvZ and PvZ2?
– “It is in the same world. The way I’m looking at it, as the Creative Director of the franchise, we kind of make our pillars that are PvZ: humor, accessibility and depth of gameplay. Within those, we can play a lot. As long as we keep those intact, this is definitely in the PvZ universe. If we go forward and build other games, we don’t want to stay in a box. We want to make sure that we can play in that box, but still make it PvZ. It’s a delicate balancing act, but I think with Garden Warfare, we’ve done that.”
Does Garden Warfare feature the same characters from past PvZ games?
– “Right now, it’s the same as PvZ1 and PvZ2: Sunflower, Chomper, Cactus… it’s the characters you know, with the names they have. Some of the charm of PvZ is the simplicity of the characters. When you get to a AAA game on a next-gen console, you can do whatever you want. The trick is to do it tactfully and keep the charm of the original characters. Our characters are as simple as it gets. Doing that, bringing it to 3D, you could blow it out of the water in a bad way, but we’ve been very careful to keep that charm intact.”
Will Garden Warfare be available for the XBOX 360?
What is the general release date for Garden Warfare?
– “It’s Q-1 of 2014, that’s the window we’re announcing right now.”
With EA’s acquisition of PopCap, has the game development process changed at all?
– “For me, I have a unique perspective, because when I joined PopCap, EA owned PopCap. But, I can say, that PopCap is still very much PopCap. I can tell you, honestly, that EA wants PopCap to be PopCap. They need PopCap to make great games. They’ve been very supportive, if anything. We’re here at Comic-Con and EA has helped us. Let’s make PvZ as big as we can. From my experience, there’s always changing going on. I know that sounds stupid or clichéd, but every game studio and creative studio that I’ve worked at, things are changing or evolving. I’m very happy that EA is helping us do this. This is big for us, to do multiple Plants Vs. Zombies games across multiple platforms, simultaneously, to really push the quality.”
“Also, if you look at Garden Warfare, we’re building that in Frostbite 3. The technology we that we have access to, the teams that we can consult with. How do we make this better? It’s been pretty great for us. Obviously, when you’re joining a bigger company, there’s going to be changes. For us, we’re trying to take advantage of that and harness that power, as opposed to EA putting their thumbs on us. It really hasn’t happened, to this point. Especially for PvZ. It’s such a great brand and so many people like it, they really want us to make great games that people love. It’s funny to see the perception, then go to work every day and get the support structure from EA. It’s been great for us and our brands.”
What’s next for the Plants Vs. Zombies crew?
– “Comic-Con was big. We were in the EA booth at E3 and they really supported us there. Garden Warfare at E3 got an amazing reception and EA really helped us get there. We’re getting ready for Gamescom in Germany. We’re there with EA. From our perspective, we want to make great games and we want to give those games to as many people as we can.”
Are there any plans for a PvZ animated TV show?
– “There’s definitely a chance. Something that’s important for me, in managing this brand, is that we don’t just do it, to do it. You build good games, you sort of become the cute baby in the room and do that and this. PopCap feels very strongly that we want to do those things, for sure, but we’re not going to do it, just to do it. If we decide to do animation, or things like that, we want to do it right.”
“At Comic-Con, we partnered with Kevin Smith and SmodCo to do three little shorts, just for PvZ2. That was a nice dip the toe in the water, do some narrative around our characters. It’s obviously something that we could do at any time. I feel very strongly that we need to do it at the right time and we need to have the right story with the right script.”
What was Kevin Smith’s role with the animated shorts?
– “He obviously had and eye on all the stuff that was going on. I worked with Ken Plume and SmodCo, sort of his team there, to really get the look and feel… I wanted their brand to stay intact. They have a cool, quirky thing, too — so do we. I didn’t want to hand them a style guide and say, ‘Do exactly this.’ I wanted to let these guys play together.”
“We have the animated version of Jay and Silent Bob running around with our characters. It could go completely wrong, but I felt like we worked well together. We balanced it out. I feel what came out of it, best-case scenario: it’s very funny. Those types of partnerships are going to be important. Not just a partnership to have it, but a partnership where I get on the phone with someone and I immediately get that they get what we’re doing. It’s not something that is forced in, because we want to make a few dollars. It worked out really well. I’m really excited.”