Plants vs. Zombies 2 nestled comfortably into our 2013 best-of-gaming garden. The mega-popular “garden defense” series balanced old and new ideas as it grew into a sequel, and its launch edition found a solid “free-to-play” balance. A large portion of the game was perfectly playable for free, and while players could pay for stronger powers, it wasn’t a requirement.
Since then, however, PopCap has been going Monsanto on its baby, and in light of other free-to-play fumbles by parent company EA, fans are crying foul. Last week, a post on hardcore gaming forum NeoGAF pointed to a slew of new in-app purchases added in a Plants vs. Zombies 2 update, later confirmed by posters on reddit. The changes were not officially announced by EA, but one change to the “lawnmower” mechanic in particular seemed to require some explanation.
For those who haven’t played Plants vs. Zombies, the game dumps waves of slow-moving zombies onto your lawn, and ideally, players set up enough plant-based defenses that the vicious zombies never reach your side of the screen. As a last-ditch defense, a series of lawnmowers sits at the left side and mows down impending zombies when touched. These lawnmowers usually don’t reappear after they’re used in a level.
That series convention went out the window after the PvZ2 patch last week. After that, players were forced to buy back lawnmowers for 2,000 coins’ worth of in-game currency, which equates to roughly $1 each in the game’s store, or else they wouldn’t return. While some of the game’s previous in-app purchases were a little more than superficial—helping players overcome badly laid strategies or other short-term frustrations—this one broke a critical strategic element of the game, basically forcing players to buy their way back to the game’s default state.
Shortly after the story topped reddit’s gaming channel, PvZ2 received an update that removed the lawnmower purchases (though the update’s other unfortunate addition remains: players must still pay to replay the twice-a-week “pinata” challenges if they fail a first try). When reached for comment, a PopCap representative offered this statement: “We are always testing new features in Plants vs. Zombies 2. The lawnmower feature noted by some players was part of a small-scale test and is now over.”
This latest “test” comes on the heels of a December update that largely remixed PvZ2‘s content, with some changes for the better and others for the worse. In particular, the game once had a giant map (à la Super Mario Bros. 3) whose branching paths required finding random keys in the game. After the December update, that was changed to a linear path, which saved some frustration but also removed a particularly interesting series of “star” challenges for hardcore players. That update also bolstered a lot of enemy difficulty in various stages, enough so that players have become more vocal in claiming the game is edging toward “pay-to-win” status.
Those changes are nothing compared to the blow-up over EA’s remake of Dungeon Keeper, the long-beloved series that returned last week as an iOS app that barely resembles its namesake. The new game, which now resembles Clash of Clans, was beleaguered with so many in-app purchases (and slowed to a halt so ridiculously without those purchases) that it drew criticism from the series’ original creator, Peter Molyneux.
PopCap made an admirable move to pull PvZ2‘s new, giant weeds so quickly. In-app purchases are at their best when they keep a player coming back to a game they love, as opposed to a Pavlovian slot-machine pull because a game proves too demanding. With an update as huge as attaching cash to lawnmowers, PopCap is obviously still trying to find a way to add some more income to its series. We’ll keep an eye out for any more changes that may be coming down the pike.