Or: Pay to Play Versus Pay to Win. But I feel as though that general topic has been covered over and over, so for this article I’m going to focus on two specific games in the same series that each take a different approach.
Plants Versus Zombies is a 2009 tower defence game that’s made it onto a bunch of different platforms (though I’m only familiar with the Android version). Rather than the traditional variety of tower defence in which you strategically place armed towers around a winding path, Plants Versus Zombies has you plonking plants down directly in front of a horde of zombies who approach in a perfectly straight line.
Though the basic idea is ludicrously simple–zombies are approaching from the right, your house is on the left…stick something in the middle!–there’s a good deal of strategy involved. You often have to weigh up the benefits of planting a quick defence now versus saving up for something stronger later. You’re also frequently faced with a choice between paying for a very powerful (frequently explosive) plant to use just once, or saving up for weaker plants that will continue to chip away at the zombie horde throughout the level. The game might look silly, but it demands a fair bit of thought.
It’s also funny. Really, really funny. What story it has is presented through polite notes dropped by the waves of zombies, and the ravings of your saucepan-wearing neighbour, Crazy Dave. The game attracted some well deserved praise when it was new and has maintained a following ever since. Long story short, it’s a neat little package and a hard act to follow. If you fancy playing it, it’s easily worth the (now fairly trivial) price.
Plants Versus Zombies 2 (2013) takes almost exactly the same approach in terms of gameplay, but its pricing is completely different. The game is free to download on Android and iOS (but not available on any other platform), offering optional in-app purchases in lieu of a mandatory up-front charge. Ever come across one of those games that invites you to buy power/crystals/gems to progress better/faster?
Yeah. It’s one of those, and it attracted a lot of criticism when (and especially before) it was released. Plants Versus Zombies 2 offers opportunities to spend real dosh on imaginary plants at pretty much every turn, even going so far as to take you to the shop screen as part of the tutorial. Twice. The first time funnels you towards (though doesn’t actually require) buying additional plants and accessories, while the second illustrates a FarmVille-style plant-tending mechanic, in which you earn powerups by watering and waiting in real time or (you guessed it) spending gems.
That said, once you’re past the “BUY SOMETHING!!!” portion of the tutorial, it’s easy to forget that the game ever brought it up. Though new level packs are available for purchase before they’re unlocked, I can’t really imagine ever doing this. At the time of writing, I’ve unlocked the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth worlds without even completing the first: paying for number seven at this point would feel like going out and buying a chocolate bar when I already had six melting in my hot little hand. This abundance of levels feels particularly generous compared to the original game, which offers just one well curated (but entirely linear) series of levels.
The wealth of content available for free in Plants Versus Zombies 2 is simultaneously a strength and a weakness. On one hand, I’d probably recommend it over the first game purely because there’s a lot more to do. Even without paying for any extras, there’s a wider variety of plants and a wider variety of zombies, and the gameplay feels more refined. On the other hand, the non-linear levels make for a weak plot (Your neighbour Crazy Dave has invented a time machine so he can re-eat his taco. There. That’s it.). The first game wasn’t exactly a masterpiece of storytelling, but the setting and the sequence of levels (front garden, back garden, pool, roof) did an adequate job of presenting you, the player, as an ordinary guy whose house is under siege by the undead. The sequel never quite explains why Crazy Dave even takes you along for the ride.
Though the overall bundle of levels feels a little haphazard, with the game coaxing you into completing various “quests” without ever really doing anything to recommend one over another, this free-to-play game offers a huge amount even if you’re determined to never pay a penny. The only time the game really seems to be pushing you towards “paying to win” is in the events and minigames. The vasebreaker, for example, presents you with a vast field of vases to break. Three green ones will obviously contain plants, while the rest will contain plants, powerups or (far more likely) zombies.
Vasebreaker plays more like a slot machine than a strategy game, with the level of randomness involved making it nearly impossible to win without either several restarts (to find a favourable vase layout) or several powerups purchased with in-game currency. This is a game where one unlucky break can easily see a super-tough zombie spawn right in front of your base, and 1,000 coins spent on zombie-paralyzing butter (Yeah, it still has all the charm of the 2009 original!) can just as easily stop it. You earn coins steadily for free, and it’s trivial to stockpile them for this one minigame, but when you know you have to–when you know that the only reliable way to win is to throw coins at the problem–there’s little joy to be had in doing it.
The daily events present a similar problem. Your first attempt is free. However, given that you have no idea what that event will involve–shark-wielding giants or swarms of zombie chickens–you’re at quite a disadvantage right off the bat, with little chance of setting up an effective defence. You can retry as many times as you like, but each retry costs 1,000 coins. Since there are additional rewards for beating five events in a row, it’s easy to imagine a situation where you’d be forced to choose between losing a four-day winning streak or paying real money for additional coins.
If people want to invest their money in this kind of minigame, it’s reasonable enough to offer them the option. However, personally, I find it kind of off-putting. If winning five events in a row was simply presented as an additional challenge, I’d be all for it. However, when it feels like a trick to make me invest money in the game, it makes me unwilling to even invest my time. There’s something to be said for paying for extras to support the developers (who have, after all, put out a remarkably enjoyable game for free), but I’d prefer to do that by buying additional content rather than gambling on a minigame. Fortunately, this is where they’re really onto something.
In addition to the regular quests (which make for the easiest way to earn gems without buying them for cash), the game occasionally offers the opportunity to “Try a Premium Plant for Free!” This behaves like a regular “go here, do this” quest in terms of earning gems, but at the same time trying out the premium plants is pretty neat in itself. Many will be familiar to those who played the first game, and all of them feel finely balanced: a fun extra rather than an overpowered tool to blast through levels. This pretty much hits the “freemium” sweet spot. If you want to support the game, you get something neat in return. If not, you aren’t missing out.
To wrap this up, both Plants Versus Zombies games are well polished and fun to play. If you’ve got an Android or iOS device, I’d highly recommend the second one: it’s certainly the bigger of the two, and (when you’re not being forced to depend on them entirely) the various manually-activated powerups make it faster and more lively than the original. If you enjoy the sequel and want to throw some money towards the franchise, I’d suggest buying the first game over paying for additional content in the second: the original still holds up very well, and the same things that make it feel smaller than the sequel also make it feel more complete as a package.