Plants Vs Zombies 2 Interview With Senior Producer Bernie Yee

I had the recent pleasure of interviewing Bernie Yee, PopCap’s Senior Producer for Plants vs. Zombies 2, the long awaited sequel to popular PvZ 1. As a big fan of the original, Yee’s insight and obvious passion for this game made this a highly enjoyable interview.
The title “producer” is a little misleading, especially for those who are more familiar with the role of the producer for a movie – someone who mainly finances, isn’t really hands on, unlike those who produce video games. As the senior producer, what was your favorite part of the of the process?
My favorite part was helping – well, really facilitating and helping the team make hard decisions. Everyone wants to do stuff, and they want to do a lot of it, and we only have 24 hours in a day. And making the decisions of what to do and what not to do can be really hard to make, especially when what you want to do is what someone doesn’t want to do. And all of these decisions have to be made with this ultimate goal of the vision of the game, right? The game has to live up to all the expectations Plants vs. Zombies has. So really helping my team make those decisions, pushing them, nagging them, pleading with them really was rewarding. Because no game, no movie, none of these things are single person efforts. If you can make the team work well together, your chances of success are so much higher.
How much of a hand did you have in the original version?
I didn’t have anything to do with the original, other than buying it 4 different times for the different platforms, I didn’t work on the original game. But I tell you, when I came to PopCap, this was the game I wanted to work on. No question.
That had to be a huge challenge to figure out what you could do make that game better because that was a great game. That’s one of my favorite games!
[Laughs] It’s one of my favorite games, too. I think that WAS our biggest challenge. When you’re given keys to something that’s so loved, not just by casual gamers but by hardcore gamers, too, across the spectrum – kids and parents, and teens! The thing you want the least is to screw up – everyone’s watching, everyone’s waiting – people at PopCap, people at EA. Your audience is asking for it – it’s a huge amount of pressure. But it’s a real privilege to be able to work on it.
So what made you and your team decide to take the zombies off the lawn and send them around the world through time and space?
It gives us a chance to really play with different game mechanics. The gravestones come in the Egypt world, you have planks and parrots and water in the pirate world, and you have mine carts on tracks in the Western world. So in addition to being able to mix up the visual design – because I don’t think people want to see the same thing over and over again. You give the players a sense of location and the zombies are different, the plants are different and some elements of the core game are different. Taking the player off the lawn and around time lets us expand on the kind of things we can do.
With technology changing constantly and giving you so many different possibilities with programming and design, how do you decide when to say, “That’s it! We’re done! Let’s let this baby go!”?
You know..hmm..that is a good question. I think we all had to balance the desire to get as much stuff in with a date. It’s always been my theory that people work best under constraints – artists and moviemakers. We had a period of time that we wanted to ship this in – that was our goal. And we wanted to make sure we lived up to that, so we wanted to make sure that our internal barometer of “Yes, we’ve given the player a lot to do” is reached and the great thing about PVZ 2 is the ideas that didn’t get into the game, are coming out soon. We’re looking at this game as an ongoing service. So we’re gonna have new worlds, new plants, new zombies, new game play modes, and a lot of things that we didn’t finish or didn’t quite make the first list – not out of quality, because I think everything we release will be at the same level of polish – is gonna come out. We have a whole plan, a roadmap of new things we wanna give the player.
So players can look forward to more downloadable content, new packs to come out? Because you know none of us wanted the first game to end. We wanted more.
[Laughs] So many people still play the original PVZ so we felt like, “Hey, if this particular thing doesn’t make it in the game, we’re gonna release it later and people are gonna love it and it’s gonna be great. I have to tell you that my favorite part of our roadmap is not yet out. So I actually think the best is yet to come. I hate to say it but the best is yet to come. That’s my personal preference – it’s not the company line but the thing I’m looking forward to you haven’t even seen yet. So I can’t wait.
That’s awesome. So how many hours of gameplay are we going to get with this release?
You know..I don’t know. A lot? I think I’ve heard a player has made it through a game in over 50 hours without buying anything. They were able to complete all the challenges – and they’re a hardcore iOS touch game player. That’s what I’ve heard. I don’t know – I mean played know in the game you play it so many different times, in different stages, that I’ve never counted – but there’s a lot of gameplay. If I were to guess I would say it’s almost as much gameplay as anything short of a hardcore Bethesda RPG – you’ll get lots of hours of gameplay.
You’ve already said your favorite part isn’t going to be in the game yet. So, what can we look forward to with this release?
We have three distinct worlds, we have some of our old favorite PvZ 1 plants and new plants. I don’t even know how many different variants of zombies there are. There are power ups, there are distinct plant food effect for each plant. There are challenges where you can play the same level again, with different win constraints. Like some of them will say, “don’t let the zombies pass this line” or “don’t plant on these squares” or “don’t spend sun for 45 seconds”. So it’s not just a grind – you actually have to adopt different strategies. One of the great things is when you unlock plants in the Wild West, you can bring some of them back to Egypt, which could make your star objectives challenges even easier. There’s now a very specific kind of touch power up. You have a “pinch” power up where you literally pinch the screen to watch a bunch of zombies heads pop off. What we used to call “wizard finger” in development is the “power finger” where you tap the screen a bolt of lightning would emanate from your finger and zap a near zombie. And “flick” which is when you swipe the zombie and he goes spinning off the board. So there are lots of new things for the player to experience and play over again in a way that is really fresh and non-repetitive.
Will we be getting this on all platforms?
Well, we released on iOS and we have other platforms that will be supported but nothing that we’ve announced to date.
What’s your favorite level in this release?
I found some of the most challenging levels actually were the “Locked & Loaded” challenges in Egypt, where you could not lose more than two plants and never trigger a lawn mower. I think to play that without bringing a pirate or cowboy plants in and without using a power up is really hard. It was really hard to do. I think I replayed that level like 5 times before I did it. And so for hardcore players I think “Locked & Loaded” is really good. I really like the conveyer belt levels for more casual players. Kids really love it because there’s a conveyer belt that just brings plants up and you can just bring it out and my son loves playing that. I think the nickname for that in the designing level was PFE Plant Food Extravaganza which means it’s like fireworks. It’s super satisfying. For hardcore players, the “Locked & Loaded” challenge in Egypt is really great if you can do it without using power ups and plants from other worlds. And the conveyor belt levels for kids are great.
Were there other games that influenced you when you were creating this one? I remember in the first one I really enjoyed – because my husband and I are big fans of Portal – so that one level where there were portals – we thought that was great! So are there things in this new version that people will recognize as influenced by another game?
Our big inspiration frankly has to be PvZ 1, because of the expectations the game carries, and I know the team constantly referred to that. But I think we also thought about giving the player a little more freedom on the board – so one of the reasons why I love the “Bonk Choy” is one, I love bok choy anyway because I’m Chinese American, so I can’t not love it, and from the player standpoint, it’s a plant that actually attacks backwards, so it feels like much more of a strategy game. Because once the zombie gets by most plants, there’s nothing you can do, and now you have a plant that allows you more flexibility to recover from mistakes. Because I think one of the things that’s hard about games is when you start losing, you want to make the player feel like they still have a chance, right? You don’t want them to feel like, “Oh my god, the zombie got through and I can’t do this thing anymore.” And what the Bonk Choy really let’s you do is attacks backwards so if you save – you know I try to keep 100 to 150 suns in my bank account at any given time because I want to be able to bail myself out. I want to be able to plant the Bonk Choy behind something and buy myself that time to maybe take out the zombie. And that’s a very strategy game kind of thing – you want to give the player options. I think that’s how the team looked at it but really PvZ 1 is the inspiration for PvZ 2.
Are you bringing back a lot of the PvZ1 characters? I know Dave is still there – what’s with the food truck?
So Dave, of course, because he’s crazy, he does a bunch of stuff. He always has some stuff cooking and he happens to have a time machine. The time machine is a food truck, Penny. So Penny is a new character – self aware, artificially intelligent time machine that is sort of the rational foil to Dave’s chaotic insanity. So those are your two little narrative voices on your shoulders as you travel through time. And those are the two main narrative framers for the game. But you know the real stars are the plants and the zombies. That’s what we care most about.
After thanking Bernie for his time he added that one of the new features he wanted to tell me about was how owners of iPads and iPhones, if they’re icon-enabled, can have the the game state synced up to the other device. So if you play a little bit at home and then you leave, and you have your iPhone, you can pick up exactly where you left off. Yee thought people would be able to put the game down a little easier because they know they can pick it up on the bus or the subway or at lunch or something. While that’s certainly a great enhancement, I don’t know that that’s necesssarily a good thing. The only reason I was able to do anything other than play PvZ 1 was because I had to leave my computer at some point and take a shower, go to work – that kind of responsible stuff. To know I can play between two mobile devices means I could lose even more hours and days to this highly addictive game.
While I wasn’t thrilled about having to wait for an Android version, I think the delay has helped keep me a productive member of society. I was able to get some hands on playing time at PAX Prime in Seattle this past Labor Day weekend and I felt that same addictive pull the first PvZ had with the first level I played. It’s those happy dancing sunflowers and and the persistent peashooters. You just can’t help but want to keep them safe from zombies. I loved that each level got incrementally harder and even as cartoonish as the zombies were, the laughable costumes do not take away from that anxiety and the dire pressure to protect your property. I have heard criticism from some players of the in-app purchases but even they admitted it’s the expected nature of today’s free to play games – they’re only free to play if you’re not in a hurry to finish. I spent hours playing PvZ 1 enjoying every level and I expect I’ll enjoy even more hours playing PvZ 2. I’ve waited this long for the sequel to one of my all-time favorite games, so I’m going to savor every minute of gameplay.