Sunday, June 16, 2013

Plants vs Zombies Facebook

I'm a huge fan of Plants vs Zombies, an adorably cute linear tower defense game that was released in 2009 and rapidly became one of the games of the year. I first bought and played it on my iPhone in almost one solid sitting, then realized extra levels and features were available in the PC version so bought that and played it too, then replayed it on my iPad, and then got the HD version for the iPad too. I've got almost every achievement on almost every platform and I don't even know how many times I've played through the main levels.

I like that it's cute and friendly feeling. I like that I can pick it up at any time when I have time to kill and play a few levels or some of the extra challenges. I like trying different plant combinations to see what's most effective for different levels, or trying to pick up achievements I haven't got so far.  So, when I saw the Plants vs Zombies facebook game released last month I immediately tried it out.

The overview

The biggest change is that the levels are no longer left-to-right linear like the original. The zombies now follow paths which may turn in multiple directions, even criss-crossing, like a more traditional tower defense game. This adds another dimension to laying out your plants, which now have 2-dimensional areas of effect, instead of just shooting straight ahead. There are some new plants also, an Aspearagus which shoots asparagus spears; and a Beet, which clubs zombies down. Judging from the title screen art there is probably also a Bamboo Shoot in my future, which looks unfortunately like a bad Asian caricature.  The names of the plants have always been clever puns and Aspearagus and Beet follow this tradition, but some of the other plants just seem to give up on wit completely.  "Magnet plant" isn't funny (why not "Mag-nut"?) and neither is "flaming pea".  There are new types of zombies also: a barrel zombie, who's essentially the same as the newspaper original, and a rocket jet pack zombie who charges fast until a snow pea disables his rockets. Conga-line zombies are similar to the original disco zombie but linear, and a zombie with lots of hats is essentially a graphically more interesting way of showing a heavily armored zombie (each hat gets knocked off separately).

Stockpile restrictions

The individual levels now lead you along a road trip path through different areas where you defend your camper van instead of a stationary house. You manage and build up a village which is your home base. Houses in your village earn you coins and buffs; coins purchase plants which you grow in village planter boxes. When you play a zombie level on the road trip, you only have available to you plants that you've previously grown at home and stockpiled. So, you have to keep collecting coin from your village and planting new plants for your stockpile. Adding a restriction on top of that, you can only choose a limited number of plant types from your stockpile, and can only use up to 5 of each even if you have more than that in your stockpile.  Adding a further restriction, you can only stockpile up to 15 plants at a time (and only 2 buffs).  All these artificial limits are way too restrictive and very annoying.  If I spend the time to stockpile 50 plants, let me stockpile 50 plants. And if I have 10 snow peas in my stockpile, let me use them in a level if I want to. Sure, it would make some levels much easier, but it's still balanced out by the fact I then need to take the extra time to regrow those 10 snow peas instead of 5. And it would remove the problem of people getting stuck on levels and just giving up.

The requirement to stockpile plants also changes the gameplay significantly.  Unlike the original where all you need is sun, now you also need to conserve your plant stockpile, so the incentive shifts to winning each level with the MINIMUM number of plants (and thus the least downtime in re-growing them) instead of trying to find the most efficient solution (which I enjoy). Now I find myself thinking "should I plant that extra beet, or just let the lawnmower catch the last wave of zombies?" And the answer is usually to not plant, and let the lawnmower do the work instead of your plants, which seems to me to clash with the essence of the game. The name of the game is not Lawnmowers vs Zombies, but the game mechanics have created a situation where you're heavily motivated to try to NOT plant plants and rely on lawnmowers instead.  To have a Plants vs Zombies game which discourages you from planting plants seems absurd to me.

Three currencies

In addition to coin there are "zombucks" which are earned from adventure levels and dropped by zombies and used to buy village houses and decorations; and gems which are the real money currency used to buy other currencies and shortcut gameplay (e.g. you can buy a plant with gems if you don't have one stockpiled). The three currencies are a little confusing and they're not clearly explained early on, though you eventually figure it out.  Two currencies seem like they would be plenty from a user perspective (gems and coin). I understand it would be much easier for the developers to manage the economy by dividing purchases into coin and zombucks but it feels a bit like a lazy move at the sacrifice of player clarity. My main complaint about the currencies though is that it's WAY too easy to spend gems without meaning to: if you run out of plants during a level and try to plant another, it'll just deduct gems without a confirmation prompt. And early on since you have no idea what gems even are, you can easily use up your initial starting stash of gems without even noticing. (Oddly, it gives me prices for gems in UK pounds, despite the fact I live in the US.)

The village, and visiting friends

As you travel in your mobile home and complete map areas, you slowly unlock new areas of your home village. The village seems to exist only to harvest coin/buffs and grow new plants. Buildings in the village occasionally get attacked by zombies, so you need to plant some defenses and plan your layout carefully.  There's a limited ability to decorate your village, but any decoration that you add is actually an annoyance that gets in the way when zombies attack, so the incentive is actually to NOT decorate.

Like most facebook games, you're able to visit your friends' villages. However, unlike most facebook games, when you get there you're expected to attack your friends' buildings with your own army of zombies.  If you succeed (which is unlikely since the zombies offered to you are very limited and can barely be controlled), then you destroy a friend's building and they have to repair it. What exactly is the point of this, I have no idea. It doesn't seem to benefit your friend at all, in fact it harms their village, so I have avoided doing it entirely. It's a disincentive to visit.  It would be far more encouraging if you could do something positive in their village, like leave a free plant, or speed up their planter growth.  What if visiting friends' villages allowed you to give them a gem?  

Slow progression

The requirement to stockpile plants you grow in your village is a deliberate slow-down mechanism, presumably to make the game last longer before you finish the content, but it's irritating.  You can't just keep playing through the spare time you have free, you have to play a few levels then wait hours for your houses to generate coin and your plants to grow. It ensures you do NOT get immersed in the game and are constantly counting coin and plants, which isn't a particularly fun pastime. Worse, the further along in the game you get, the more this becomes a problem.  Every new plant takes longer and longer to grow, and of course the higher levels require the new plants, so the time you have to wait between levels just gets longer and longer meaning you can play less and less.  It's essentially punishing you for progressing.  

Here are the plants I have so far, and the time it takes to grow them:

In the current levels I'm on, I will likely plant sunflowers (of course), snow peas, beets, wall-nuts, and a few magnets, and flaming peas.  Assuming I had space to grow replacements all at the same time, I'm slowed down by the slowest-growing plant, the flaming pea.  With a 6 hour replacement time for the flaming pea and a maximum of 15 possible to stockpile, I can play maybe five to six levels at the most before I have to sit for a MINIMUM of 6 hours. And in fact it's actually longer, because I don't have planter space to replant everything at once.  Given that I work during most days and only play before and after work, this means I can now play 6-8 levels absolute maximum per day.  It actually turns out to be less, since I'm not logging in at work (or waking up at night) to micromanage my plants so a lot of my free play time is spent growing also.

On top of the ever-slower plant growth, each subsequent map seems to have more and more levels to get through before you can progress further.  The ramp-up in numbers is very rapid. While the first map has only 5 levels to get through, it's up to 21 by the fourth map, and stays up in the 20s consistently as far as I can see to the end of the game.  

Looking at my friends' progress, a full 45% of my friends have stalled in level four "Park n Perish" where it makes the huge jump from 10 levels/map to 21. This seems to be where most people are quitting. Another 45% didn't make it even to map four, and the remainder are stuck in map five, aptly named Killjoy Park. Since each map has a "goal" at the end unlocking another region of your village there's a fairly big incentive to reach the end, so the fact the maps have so many levels in them is discouraging. Even though the gameplay would essentially be the same, it would be a lot more fun if each map contained only 5-10 levels and had some other reward at the end - such as replenishing your plant stockpile, for example!

On top of all these other artificial slow-downs, you cannot progress beyond the end of each map without getting friends to help you (and it requires more friends per map). To bypass this requirement you actually have to spend real $ on gems. So, each time I reach the end of a map I have to spam my friends with requests to help me on my road trip, and then wait until they answer and fill up the required slots before I can move to the next map.  Since most of my friends work full time also, this can take up to a day during which I basically can't do anything except redecorate my village.  I could in theory replay old levels, but that would just mean I have to regrow more plants, which discourages me. I can't even replay old levels while waiting in order to complete quests, since apparently that's not allowed - for example I currently have a quest to use the gardening glove in combat three times. The gardening glove is a buff I've found almost entirely useless and I don't think it would have been possible to finish most of the levels in the U of Z zone I just finished if I took that buff instead of a more useful one. But, I can't go back to an easier level to complete the quest since the glove doesn't even show up as an available option on those levels now. So there really is absolutely nothing I can do while sitting around waiting for friends to help me (friends who are increasingly quitting the game, so slower and slower to respond).  Sure, I understand this is a mechanism to get me to invite my other friends to play. But it actually prevents me from playing, and that's not good.  And since it requires more friends each time, it prevents me from playing for longer and longer. I don't like this gate at all, and would much prefer another way to encourage inviting friends, but at least if this is used it should remain a low number of friends (and preferably be bypassable with zombucks, not gems).


There are lots of opportunity to spend gems to speed things up faster, but it feels as if this was an alternate option just added to everything. It doesn't feel as if the game has a very clearly thought out understanding of why people will spend money.  The pricing is odd.  Some prices:
  • to get a new buff (lawnmower, zombie zapper, etc) without waiting: about $1
  • to instantly buy a single plant: about $0.50 - $1
  • village decorations that increase speed of coin gain: about $0.50-$3
  • to bypass the need for friends to progress to the next map: about $0.50-$1
  • to bypass a quest (although it's unclear what, if any, benefit there is from doing this): about $0.50
These prices seem to have little correlation to their actual value to the player. For example, I spend so much time waiting for my plants to regrow that I almost never run out of buffs, so I'd never spend money to get one faster. I also haven't run out of coin since I got past the first few levels of the game, so I see absolutely no value in buying coin boost buffs. On the other hand buying plants is clearly a huge time saver, but considering that you may use 10-15 plants in a single level, even $0.50 per plant is way too pricy. To replenish my stockpile of 15 flaming peas (6hrs each to grow) would be a total of 750 gems which will cost over UK£12, or almost US$20 which is completely ridiculous to spend for plants which will last you only 3-4 levels.

I'm not a big spender on microtransactions, but if I'm enjoying a game and there's a clear value to me, I'll usually drop a few dollars to support the developers. In this game though there's really nothing I will buy. It's either valueless to me (buffs), or so overpriced (plants) that I don't feel it's worth it. The game needs more clear value items to spend gems on.

What if, instead of requiring you to beg friends to help you on your road trips, you could just give a gem a day to a certain number of friends? (Dragonvale does this very well.)  Then the more friends you have, the more gems you get, and there's a strong incentive to invite your friends and keep them playing, without annoying long waits.  This also keeps players interested in spending gems, while currently they run out and have little incentive to look at them again.  Now add some clear value items: how about a Plant Nursery building for your village which takes zombucks to build at level 1, but gems to upgrade to higher levels. The Nursery would refill your plant stockpile completely when you click it, but has a long reuse timer. Upgraded versions shorten the reuse time.  Paying with gems could also reset the reuse time. This would be a strong encouragement to gain gems, both through recruiting friends and purchasing.  Or how about a Jewelry Store which allows you to give daily gems to a higher number of friends? Perhaps giving you a gem bonus also? PvZ monetization feels as if it's really missing the boat in providing tempting ways to leave money behind.

In conclusion...

I'm currently level 18 and miles ahead of everybody else on my friends list (5197 zombie kills, while my next closest friend is 2 maps behind at 2867 kills). I watched all my friends jump in (everybody loves Plants vs Zombies) but they're dropping like flies, and to be honest the only reason I'm still playing is that I've been using it as a distraction while exercising.  The sad fact is, it's just NOT FUN.  The reason people play the original Plants vs Zombies is not that it's challenging, and it's not that it's ever-new content, it's that there's a joy in the gameplay that's just irresistable. PvZ facebook doesn't have this.  All the fun parts have been removed or severely handicapped (being able to try out different combinations of plants; raining down superior firepower in overwhelming numbers; being able to play without interruption).  Although there's lots of new content still ahead of me, I know it's going to be exactly like the old content only more annoying and requiring slower growing plants to get to, so where's the incentive to continue? More content is only a good thing if it's FUN content that you look forward to.  Painfully tedious content in large quantities is no reward at all, it's a disincentive.  Looking to my future I see only longer and longer wait times, and levels with the same old layouts but more and more blocked squares.  There's really little to no choice of plants in each level, there's generally one best combination that you pretty much can't vary.  And the choice of plants is very limited compared to the original.

The original PvZ didn't have any artificial blocks to try and extend gameplay, but people still played it again and again for the fun of it. Having good replayable content definitely beats artificially forcing people to play your limited and un-fun content slower. Because most won't; they'll just stop playing.

If I were working on this game, off the top of my head I'd start with the following changes:
  • break up the levels so that no map has more than 10 levels. As end-map rewards where there isn't a village area to unlock, add a treasure chest that refills your plant stockpile. Maybe some gems now and then.
  • remove the restrictions on only 5 plants of a type per level. If players grew them, let them plant them.
  • introduce more new plants earlier. New plants are fun, new plants add new gameplay, and trying to find the best combos is part of the fun. There should be many different combinations of plant possible to succeed.
  • remove the restriction that you can only stockpile 15 of each plant at a time. This should be unlimited. (It's particularly annoying when you open a treasure chest or a friend sends you a plant, but your stockpile is full so you lose out.)
  • no plant should take more than 1 hour to grow.  Or unlock some kind of bonus so that the higher level you get, the faster you can grow plants.  It should never be a punishment to continue playing; you should be feeling better and more powerful as you level up, not the reverse.
  • give a positive reward for visiting friends, instead of allowing them to attack with zombies - such as any friend who visits can make your plants grow faster, or give you free plants. 
  • give a clear warning prompt when about to spend gems so players don't do it accidentally
  • realize that levels that are challenging are not fun on their own. Levels are fun when they make players feel clever finding a good solution. So just making an annoyingly difficult level with only one solution is not a good level. On this basis, quite a few levels definitely need redoing.
  • Make the gardening glove more useful. 
  • Make the mega-perk more useful (and a much quicker re-use timer - it's far too long now).
  • Allow a choice of two or even all perks in a level, not just one.
  • Give players a way to replant their plants on mobile devices. Since it's a Facebook flash game, it doesn't work on iOS. If I could quickly check my plants and replant them while waiting for a meeting or sitting at lunch, that would be a huge help.
  • Remove the "attack your friends" visiting option and instead allow players to give daily gems/plants.
  • Monetization changes as suggested above, and sell plant packs or stockpile packs instead of individual plant purchases which are overpriced.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Banana Bread

Banana Bread 

4 oz. butter
8 oz. sugar
2 eggs (or: substitute 1/4 to 1/3 cup organic apple sauce for each egg)
8 oz. flour
1 tbs baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tbs lime juice
2 peeled, mashed ripe bananas
1 cup walnuts (or other nuts)

Mix room temperature butter with sugar until smooth.  Mix in eggs (or apple sauce).  Sift dry ingredients and mix in.  Stir in lime juice, banana pulp and nuts, mixing as little as needed to blend smoothly.  Transfer to a prepared (greased or lined with parchment paper) loaf or square cake pan and bake at 350 F (180 C) for about an hour, until a toothpick stuck into the middle comes out clean. (Note: takes longer to cook with apple sauce than with eggs.)  Can also be made as cupcakes; bake slightly less long.

I've actually started to prefer the no-egg version made with apple sauce; it's even more deliciously moist and tender, and seems to form a bit more of a crispy crust at the top.