Few developers could get away with subtitling their next game “It’s About Time.” PopCap is the exception. Its tower-defense title Plants vs. Zombies, in which players raise a plant army to keep hordes of undead off their lawn, has sold over 120 million copies worldwide. The long-awaited sequel is a testament to that popularity.
The game’s announcement video, which features YouTube personality Francis and Microsoft’s Larry “Major Nelson” Hryb, achieved half a million views. “That whole idea [of the tagline “It’s About Time”] was a bit of a play to poke fun at ourselves, realizing it’s taken us a while to get the game out,” franchise director Tony Leamer tells Co.Create.
While huge now, the property came from humble origins. “When Plants vs. Zombies was initially launched [on PC] in 2009, the expectations were pretty modest around what people thought the game would do,” he says.
A whole culture has formed around the title, which has been released on virtually every platform, including Facebook. It started with a music video by Laura Shigihara, which appeared in the game and later on YouTube. “It was kind of quiet, and then it just picked up speed on its own. It kind of grew virally that way,” says Allen Murray, the lead producer on Plants vs. Zombies 2.
“People have done some remixes of it,” he says. “Some of it is little kids singing it. Those are always the best.”
He says, “We get a ton of fan letters here--kids sending in drawings. We spend a lot of time writing them back, sending them swag.” One of the most recent emails came from a mother whose son has been diagnosed with leukemia. “[Producer Bernie Yee] put together a care package for him and found a way to get him an advance copy of the game so he could play before anybody else,” says Murray. Leamer adds, “She was so grateful and so happy, and the kid was dancing around.”
PopCap likes to make the series fun for its younger fans. It just announced a Plants vs. Zombies: Lawnmageddon series with Dark Horse Comics, and last year, it introduced “Stop Zombie Mouth,” a promotion in which it provided free game download codes for adults to print and hand to children instead of candy on Halloween.
“We reached out to the American Dental Association, and they said, ‘You know, your timing is really great because we typically just talk to dentists,’” says Garth Chouteau, PopCap’s senior director of worldwide PR. Many of these campaigns involve adults as well. The developer is working with East Carolina University on the third phase of a study that examines the positive effects of playing Plants vs. Zombies on clinical depression. “We do a lot of things in a lot of veins that we don’t necessary publicize that much,” says Chouteau.
At San Diego Comic-Con this July, PopCap bought blank vinyl toys called Munnys and sent them to a couple dozen or so artists. The company displayed their designs in the show booth and auctioned them off to benefit the Child’s Play charity. “They were inspired by Plants vs. Zombies, but [the artists] definitely took some interesting liberties with that, all in really cool ways,” says Leamer (the auction raised over $10,000).
The company even received the blessing of director Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes to create a Plants vs. Zombies vs. Jay and Silent Bob three-part series for SDCC (the San Diego Comic Convention, which runs Comic-Con). “[Smith] had become aware of the game through his daughter,” says Leamer. “He tells a really sweet story about he and his daughter--I think she was about 8 or 9 at the time--kind of bonding over the game and were playing it together.
“That was the first time that we’ve really seen professional-level animation applied to an out-of-game Plants vs. Zombies experience,” he says. “That’s another thing that we think about: What are other ways, what are other media that we can use to tell this Plants vs. Zombies story and give people ways to interact with the brand?”
With the sequel coming later this summer, the developer is taking Plants vs. Zombies in a new direction by launching it on iOS. The addition of plant food, touch power-ups, time travel, and even a farting chili bean lets the team build on existing strategy.
PopCap admits that it’s probably riding the wave of zombie fandom, but Leamer says that “humor, accessibility, and depth” are what give the franchise its magic.
“Plants are cute and charming, and they’re friendly, and then zombies are silly and goofy, and that’s where the core humor comes from the game--the slapstick,” says Murray. “It’s macabre, but it’s not gory. It’s an accessible horror.
“We don’t even really talk about where zombies come from,” he says. “No matter where you go in time, zombies just are.”