It was never meant to be Plants vs. Zombies. That was just a placeholder for the game that went on to launch a popular, lucrative franchise, game designer George Fan tells Glixel.
As Fan and his small team worked on the game, the marketing people and others at publisher Pop Cap Games, came out with a long list of much better names.
There was Residential Evil, Zombotany and Bloom and Doom. But when Fan heard someone say Lawn of the Dead, he fell in love with the name.
He was so convinced that would be the game’s name, Fan went to work redesigning elements of the game to fit its new name. “The theme hadn’t all come together yet,” he says. “It makes a lot more sense to plant on dirt, you don’t plan on the lawn, so I came up with green plants on a brown dirt background. There was a lot of contrast to make it pop. But when I thought it was going to be called Lawn of the Dead I changed the background to a lawn. So it was solid green background with lighter green plants. It wasn’t ideal, but I thought I’ll take it if we can use this cool name.”
He and his team spent two years working on Lawn of the Dead before someone in legal mentioned that it might be a good idea to check with George Romero’s company to see if they were OK with Pop Cap using a name so close to Dawn of the Dead.
This week, Fan releases what is likely to become his next major hit, Octogeddon, a game that has you controlling a cartoon cephalopod who sets out on a city-destroying rampage in a world drawn by Plants Vs. Zombies artist Rich Werner. As with all of Fan’s previous creations, the game seems disarmingly easy but quickly ramps up in difficulty, complexity and humor.
Fan’s game design career seems focused on the concept of taking the overly complicated and boiling it down to its purest form of fun.
His first game deconstructed the complex micro-management of real-time strategy games like StarCraft and turned it into puzzle, fish game Insaniquarium. That game starts off simply enough, you have fish and you need to feed them to make them grow. As the game progresses, though, players have to contend with the economics of the fishbowl and building a defensive platform to ward off an alien invasion of the fish bowl. “I was taking the economic build-up of Starcraft and giving it to a wider audience,” Fan says in a recent visit to the Glixel offices in New York City.
The game was such a resounding success as a free web-based game that Pop Cap came to him and asked Fan to turn it into a full-fledged game for the company to publish. That game ended up doing well and Pop Cap was open to another game from Fan. “I started thinking about a sequel to Insaniquarium. In the sequel i was going to bring in a second fish tank with a massive amount of aliens.”
But as Fan messed around with the concept it started morphing into something entirely new. He had been playing a lot of tower defense games recently, Warcraft III had just come out and it was rampant with fan mods, and all of these ideas were running through his head. He became fixated on the idea of nurturing. Gardening seemed like a better fit, so he came up with the idea of growing plants that would eventually sprout defensive appendages, like a catapult that could launch cabbage. The early prototypes weren’t very fun, though. Fan says it took too many clicks to do things. So he worked on tweaking what was called Weedlings at the time. He reworked the game to be closer to a tower defense title and to ensure that all of the action took place on a single screen, so there would be no scrolling around.
The need to slow down the action was why he switched from aliens to zombies. “You can see them early on and you don’t expect them to be fast,” he says. “So you could straegize the whole time they’re coming at you.” And the plants, which were a hold over from the original idea, also allowed Fan to provide more character to the often dull look of defensive weapons in tower defense games. “It wasn’t that I picked two random things to fight, plants and zombies, they were both to solve problems.”
Fan says he knew he had a hit after sending the game to his parents, who don’t play games, and they beat it. And then sending the game to friends who work at Blizzard and they loved playing it and beat it too. Because Pop Cap decided to hold the game for a full years after it was ready to launch, before publishing it, Fan says he was able to “polish the crap out of it.” That also meant that when the offer came around, he wasn’t that interested in creating a sequel.
Instead, Fan set to work on something brand new. (He did come up with the time travel theme for PVZ 2, though.) Yeti Train was meant to be his own deconstructed take on the RPG genre. “My big goal was to do the same with RPGs that Plants vs. Zombies did. I wanted to pare it down, cut the fat, keep all of the cool parts of a RPG, but make it accessible.”
While Fan felt the game had some really cool moments, he wasn’t convinced the game would every completely come together. Around the same time Pop Cap hosted its annual in-house game jam, asking everyone to come up with quick prototypes of whatever popps into their head. “I love game jams,” Fan says. “No one is expecting someone to make a good game in a week. You have that safety net, but you still want to make something cool to show the other people in the company.”
Fan prototyped a game called Full-Contact Bingo. “I felt like we stumbled upon this idea that when this game came out people would be asking, ‘Why has this not been done before? It’s so obvious.” The potential of the prototype combined with the uncertainty of Yeti Train led to Fan switching gears and dropping the six years of work he put into Yeti to work on Bingo.
Fan left Pop Cap in 2012, right before Bingo shipped and the first thing he did was attend a game jam where he came up with the core concept for Octogeddon. The theme of the Ludum Dare game jam was evolution. “I immediately started thinking of things that would have a really good upgrade track and what would be a good metaphor for that. He went with an octopus that would start with two tentacles and then evolve, adding limbs as the game progressed. And those tentacles would sometimes be snakes or porcupines or the trunk of an elephant.
“I sketched this guy out,” Fan says. “He started out as a good guy. A hero octopus with a headband and those black marks under his eyes that football players wear. But once I started thinking about what you would be fighting I decided he was going to be like Godzilla, destrying everything. So more of an anti-hero.”
Where Insaniquarium boiled down the core concepts of real-time strategy and Plants vs. Zombie focused on the basics of a tower defense game, Octogeddon was a deconstruction of the twin-stick action shooter. Instead of having to two controllers to guide the Octopus and fire shots, players would simply use two buttons, one to rotate the creature clockwise and the other to rotate counter-clockwise. As the octopus floats through the ocean in the center of the screen, enemies come from all directions to attack him. The player simply rotates the creature to line up his tentacles with incoming enemies to take them out.
Initially, this right, left rotating scheme is so easy it borders on boring. A sub drifts toward you and you rotate to line up a tentacle which delivers damage until the sub explodes, hopefully before it touches your body. But soon your two tentacles become three, four, six, eight, and instead of tentacles, they’re venom-spitting snakes, ice-puffing penguins, sub-grabbing elephant trunks, crab claws for crushing. With the increase in variety comes a swarm of different sorts of enemies and the need to strategize your attacks. Maybe you should freeze the armored subs to give your crab claw more time to do its crushing. The venom snakes are always a must to take down the fast movers. And the levels deliver you from ocean to land. On land your rotations also move you across the screen, right or left. Soon those simple controls of right or left grant access to a complex array of tactics and movement.
Your choices to upgrade with new tentacles or switich out tentacles with different DNA-unlocked appendages all take place in a shop between levels. And the whole thing rides on the cute animations and humorous writing that fueled much of Plants vs. Zombies’ success. One run through the game’s five cities, each featuring land and sea levels, can take about two hours, if you survive, but the game is designed to be replayed, like Fan’s previous titles. It’s also the sort of game that takes lots of attempts before you build up the unlockables and skill to finish.
Despite it’s simple controls and Fan’s long history of success on smartphones, Octogeddon isn’t actually coming to the mobile devices, at least not yet. “I’ve thought about it,” he says. “I think form-factor wise, Octogeddon is at its best on mobile. But I don’t know if it will make it to mobile yet.”
I’m sure the game will make it to smartphones eventually, if for no other reason than Fan himself. He isn’t the sort to give up easily on an idea. Take Plants vs. Zombies and that George Romero inspired name: Lawn of the Dead. Fan knew there was next to no chance that Pop Cap would get the rights for such an unknown little game. But he tried anyway.
“This was our plan: I think I saw a behind the scenes for the movie School of Rock,” he says. “They wanted to use Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, but there was no way that was going to happen. So Jack Black made this video begging them to let the movie use the song and miraculously they give them the go ahead to use it.”
So Fan decided to make his own video pleading his case directly to George Romero. “I did zombie make-up on me. I thought it would be hilarious if i was a zombie programmer and i would groan and then the translation in text would be these complicated programming technical terms. It was like me as a zombie begging George Romero to use the name with some gameplay shots.”
The response to the video? A form letter rejection. “It sounded like they maybe didn’t even watch it.” Fan had hoped to be the Jack Black of his story, the hero who lands the impossible, instead he got a hard rejection and the result was dispiriting to not just him but the entire team.
“The artists really despised the name (Plants vs. Zombies.),” Fan says. “I ended up talking to Sukhbir [ Sidhu], the Peggle dude. He was so stuck on calling it Pego, but the game was launched as Peggle. He told me to get over it.”
Four years later, with Plants vs. Zombies firmly ensconced in the lexicon of good games, Pop Cap marketing received a letter of its own: It was from George Romero’s company. They wanted to team up with the game to help publicize a new zombie movie.
Garth Chouteau, vice president of public relations at Pop Cap at the time, tells Glixel he knew the whole story about Lawn of the Dead and the form-letter rejection and that he responded to Romero’s company essentially with “you can go fuck yourself.”