Last summer, PopCap shocked the gaming community with the announcement of a console game for its wildly popular Plants vs. Zombies franchise. The surprise was that the beloved tower defense strategy game would be reimagined as a shooter. The game, Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare, has been available on both the Xbox One and Xbox 360 for about a month and the reactions among most gamers have been confused at best.
Some of the gaming press questioned why PopCap would take such a drastic turn from its successful mobile roots. Some serious gamers asked why the game, with its goofy attitude, needed to be made in the first place. Despite the skepticism, reviews have been mostly positive, and rightly so; it’s a well-executed game that’s loads of fun to play. So why all the questions?
What makes Garden Warfare such a unique game is how it combines a familiar casual title with one of the most hardcore genres, making a pitch to convert mobile gamers into console gamers. Pursuing this crossover might be a gamble for PopCap, but Garden Warfare’s existence shows just how much the audience for video games is changing and it points to where the gaming industry needs to go.
The Untapped Mobile Market
Back in 2011, PopCap conducted a survey that found one out of four respondents played mobile games weekly. Those figures are only going up as more and more studios test the boundaries of what mobile can do. Plants vs Zombies was just one of the successful franchises that turned average Joes and Janes into addicts. For the past few years, mobile devices put video games of all types into the hands of people who never would have labeled themselves as “gamers.” The trend’s continued success is just hinting at how popular video games can be as a form of entertainment.
One of the hurdles for developers in the mobile gaming world is finding a business model that works for both players and the company. Plants vs Zombies 2 is a free-to-play game, and it was downloaded more than 16 million times during its first five days on the market. With that type of huge, undeniable interest in the specific franchise, why not translate the casual-friendly world ofPlants vs Zombies into a new platform where games retail for at least $40 a pop? If those players could be convinced that the world of mobile gaming is just a small sliver of the entire video game experience, it would be a win for everybody. The studios make more money and create better games, and the players get hours upon hours of fun and entertainment.
An Intro to Shooters
Studios making shooters have mostly come to an artistic consensus about what the games will look and feel like. The settings are usually contemporary or futuristic war zones and the player characters are usually gruff, muscle-bound men of few words. The games might have a short single-player campaign, but the bulk of the appeal in both first-person and third-person shooters is multiplayer matches. These bouts are great tests of skill, requiring players to demonstrate precise hand-eye coordination as well as good strategy.
Rather than the intense military trappings of most shooters, Garden Warfare is colorful, high-energy and funny. But don’t be fooled by the cuteness. Success with the game requires learning the same strategic elements as any match in Call of Duty. You need to manage your ammo. You need to be smart about when and how to use your class’s special skills. You need to shoot from cover. It plays like Team Fortress or any other traditional multiplayer shooter: good handling, creative map layouts, and an impressive balance across the classes.
In addition to the less intimidating visual style, everything about this title is designed to be accommodating to new players. The weapons don’t require the same finesse of, say, theBattlefield franchise, where players need to counter realistic recoil and adjust for bullet trajectory. There’s an introductory arena where players cannot use the more advanced unlocks and customized weapons, and you get a health boost if you die several times in a row. The mode is a great equalizer that lets new people try out the different classes and build their skills without being constantly slaughtered by more advanced players.
The experience of leveling up is also designed to teach gamers how to better play their characters. Rather than simply scoring experience points by killing enemies, players level up by completing challenges using the class’ special skills. As the player gets to higher levels, the challenges get more specific and ensure that you will get to know everything you are capable of with a given character. This gradual learning curve makes the game feel more like Mario Kart, where the last place player gets the best boosts, than like a match of Call of Duty, where you repeatedly get gunned down before you can line up your first shot.
All these details make playing Garden Warfare less intimidating for a new console gamer, while providing a good example of this well-known style of multiplayer genre. Removing the high barriers to entry is the first step in bringing casual players into the fold.
Xbox for Families
It’s also telling that PopCap has made its console move with Microsoft. The Xbox One has positioned itself as the console for families, devoting large amounts of its hardware power to set-top box services. Many of Microsoft’s choices with the console development quickly alienated the hardcore set, but despite the media firestorm and a higher price, the company announced that the Xbox One’s global sales surpassed 3 million units before the end of 2013. That’s not too shabby for less than two months on the market.
The multiplayer experience of Garden Warfare bears out that the people buying the console (and playing the game) are families. Chat frequently includes children’s voices rather than the cursing teenagers and twentysomethings of most multiplayer shooters. That all-ages audience is another big positive for Garden Warfare. The notoriously crude and competitive community of shooter fans, where “noob” is a major insult, is not one that welcomes beginners. By presenting the game as one that’s friendly to kids and parents on the console best suited to families, PopCap has largely protected its players from that negativity.
Garden Warfare also isn’t an isolated experiment. PopCap’s other smash hit, Peggle, has a sequel exclusively on the Xbox. The company seems to have figured out that the niche audience Microsoft is targeting is the same audience that will most likely see the appeal of a crossover between mobile gaming and console gaming. And that’s why so many people who spend their free time in the gaming space seem unsure about how to respond to the console version of the franchise: Garden Warfare isn’t meant for them.
The Garden Warfare Audience
Garden Warfare is the natural next step for casual gamers. For anyone who has been intrigued by triple A console games but is put off by the steep learning curve and unwelcoming scene, this is your gateway drug. It has a high level of polish, it’s easy to play and it’s welcoming of all ages and skill levels. There’s no restriction that only casual gamers can enjoy it, but they are the intended players. In fact, the unique tone and look could be very appealing to long-time gamers who are bored with seeing the top franchises imitate each other. It’s a breath of fresh air in a genre that could use some surprises.
Since this crossover world is uncharted territory, it’s possible that Garden Warfare will be a sales flop. However, it seems likely that this niche — an approachable take on a classic game style — will not remain a niche forever. The population of gamers is on the rise, and it’s only a matter of time before the ranks of mobile players get curious about their options on other platforms and begin to make the transition to consoles and PCs.
The rise of this new type of shooter doesn’t mean that the military simulations or power fantasies will go away. There is a long history of excellence in those genres and many developers are pushing the tried and true formulas in exciting ways. But it is a sign that shooters, and video games as a whole, are opening up to a bigger audience. The success of mobile gaming shows that this audience has a wide range of interests and is willing to devote huge amounts of time and money to the industry. The studios that figure out how to encourage crossover with games that offer technical and artistic excellence will most likely be the big success stories of this and future console generations.