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Plants vs. Zombies 2 Creator Hits Big Money with These 5 “Secrets”


Plants vs. Zombies is literally a game changer, introducing the world to the popularity of mobile gaming and creating an army of people glued to their smartphones for hours.

Before the birds got angry and just about when people started to tire out of farming online, there were the plants and their nemesis, zombies.

As with most overnight success, PopCap, makers of Plants vs. Zombies, took more than a night to succeed. It stuck to five key disciplines for years, tips that you can use, too, to improve your career, business, if any, and finance.


Launched in 2009, the game has been played in 150 million devices. It sold for one million dollars in just nine days from its launching, a record for Apple Store’s app debuts.

It has also spawned more editions, culminating to this summer’s anticipated release of Plants vs. Zombies 2 in iOS and another one in the pipeline for 2014 spring.

The icing, of course, is the Electronics Arts’ (EA) $650 million buyout of PopCap two years ago. Not bad for John Vechey, the PopCap founder, who couldn’t afford a computer growing up in the nineties.

With the benefit of hindsight, we figured seven key areas where PopCap made good that made business good, extremely good, for the company.

1. Hard work pays off

plants-vs-zombies-2John admitted growing up in poverty and having to work while studying. “I bond with anyone who has ever eaten government cheese,” he said in an Inc. Magazine interview. But he said he got a golden nugget advice from his dad back then: do things that you love.

For John, it’s gaming.  He knew he needed to pursue computer engineering to realize his dream. He attended Purdue University, where he met Brian Fiete, and started developing online games.  He admitted falling short on after-school social activities because he was always working to cover his budget.

The duo started developing basic online games and came up with ARC. The game was a hit and, soon, they were offered jobs at Sierra, a big shot game publisher.  But despite a nice career, they knew what they wanted was their own company. They sold ARC to Sierra for $100,000 and headed out for unchartered waters.

They never thought of selling directly to users, but to businesses. They created the game, Foxy Poker, but nobody wanted to sell it. Then came Bejeweled—a simple game of matching gems—but Yahoo! didn’t want it; neither did Pogo, an online gaming site. Instead, they got a flat-rate deal with MSN: they’re earning $1,500 a month.

Things changed when people started asking for downloads to play the game without interruption because the dial-up Internet then tied up their phones.

Bejeweled would soon become one of the earliest hit games that people pay to download in Yahoo! and MSN, a new business model before the iPhone era.

John founded PopCap with two more partners and they started churning out free online games that you can upgrade to a paid download, somewhat paving the way to an industry marketing model today.

They would soon hire George Fan, the designer of Plants vs. Zombies, and the rest is history.

Many people may not realize that Plants vs. Zombies took three years to perfect. John said that a successful game is a seamless A+; anything short is a B+ game that worth nothing.

2. Innovate to compete with giants

Selling downloads for games might be accidental to John, but the lesson stuck—in the cutthroat gaming industry PopCap knows it has to think out of the box every after success.

PopCap saw in George Fan’s concept of plants attacking zombies a weird take on the tower defense genre dominated by deathly serious major games, Starcraft and Warcraft.

Instead, PopCap thought gamers wanted something new. Cute plants armed to the tilt maybe, George suggested.

Similarly, the idea of releasing an iPhone app when people were trooping to Facebook to farm (Farmville) cornered by the number one game publisher at that time, Zynga,  seemed counter-intuitive, but it paid off.  Zynga is struggling today as more people migrate to mobile games.

Innovation can happen not only on what and where you sell, but how you sell.

PopCap used to make new money by creating new games, which took a long time and was quite risky. Instead, it shifted to launching its Plants vs. Zombies in different versions and using timed exclusivity. The original version was launched separately in iOS, Android, Windows, MAC and Facebook, which created various revenue channels for the company.

Although Plants vs. Zombies 2 is scheduled for an iOS release this summer, expect further releases in the other platforms soon. Curiously, people can play the new game for free, raising interest what PopCap’s got under its sleeves that may change yet again how games are sold.

PopCap has also announced that it is developing a new version for the consoles: Xbox and Playstation by next spring. The console game is sure to revive the debate which platform is better.

3. Listening to feedback is important

plants-vs-zombies-1PopCap installed an internal feedback process where employees give their two-cents about games in development.

Plants vs. Zombies had already its bells and whistles in place when PopCap got wind that inexperienced players failed to collect enough sun coins—you need them to buy plants and ward off the zombies from attacking your house—because the sunflower that produces the coins was expensive. With not enough coins to buy plants, gamers often lost to zombies.

The suggestion was to price the sunflower lower than the standard armament, the peashooter, so players would tend to buy more sunflowers before starting to buy the other plants.

There was only one caveat: the entire game had to be recalibrated. “It was worth it,” George Fan recalled, and perhaps a key to endearing the game to millions of users who enjoyed winning over zombies.

4. Keep it simple

PopCap wanted a game that everybody could play even with bare tutorial. Just plant and fire away and Plants vs. Zombies got players across ages and I.Q. hooked.

Plants vs. Zombies are for people who are into games—when they’re idle. PopCap understood this and they made something that anyone could easily load and play, and pause and play again until the next break time.

The game’s simplicity actually masks a complex game of multi-tasking and strategy, the challenge that teases players to go back and finish all levels.

5. Timing is important

Plants vs. Zombies 2 is set for release this summer, for iPhone and iPad users only. Android people just have to wait their turn. Even less, people who play on a PC must queue for a longer line.

PopCap knows how to play the tease game, a time-tested marketing ploy to make people want a product more.

Instead of launching all versions in one big party, the company is introducing the game one platform at a time. Timing is important.

iOS players will love the exclusivity idea of being the first batch to play the version 2.0. Android will crave to get a hold of it soon, to keep with  the Crazy Daves or Joneses, so to speak. PC users are definitely a secondary market that can deliver some revenues to cover for the bills.


plants-vs-zombies-3The Plants vs. Zombies creator is yet another case how a small player can succeed given the right strategy. Like the game, you have to meet the obstacles in all levels with resolve. There are no shortcuts, only making sure your priorities are firmly planted.




Louie Andre

By Louie Andre

B2B & SaaS market analyst and senior writer for FinancesOnline. He is most interested in project management solutions, believing all businesses are a work in progress. From pitch deck to exit strategy, he is no stranger to project business hiccups and essentials. He has been involved in a few internet startups including a digital route planner for a triple A affiliate. His advice to vendors and users alike? "Think of benefits, not features."

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