Bernard Yee has worked on a lot of games over the decades, from EverQuest to Bungie’s upcoming Destiny. But you can bet that he never worked with a team as goofy as PopCap Games, the Seattle-based division of Electronic Arts, which just published Plants vs Zombies 2: It’s about time!.

Bernard Yee

Above: Bernard Yee, a senior producer at PopCap who worked on Plants vs. Zombies 2. 

Image Credit: PopCap

PopCap has a penchant for funny games, and it has created another one that seems to be resonating with the mass market. The title was released last Thursday, and it has shot to the No. 1 free game spot on the Apple iTunes App Store. We rated the game a 90 out of 100 in our review. But the game has stirred the passions of Internet denizens who don’t like the switch to free-to-play.

Yee, senior producer at PopCap on the game, defended that choice in an interview with GamesBeat. Yee also explained a lot of the design decisions — including the crazy plot about Crazy Dave going back in time to eat a great taco for a second time — behind Plants vs. Zombies 2.

We found the discussion with Yee to be both candid and amusing. Here’s a transcript of our interview with Yee.

GamesBeat: I liked the subtitle there, It’s About Time. I imagine you were poking fun at yourselves a little for being slow to come out with the sequel.

Yee: One of the things I love about Popcap, coming from a studio like Bungie—Bungie is a serious place. Those guys are fantastic, but their games are very serious. Popcap has a different vibe. It’s very much about not taking ourselves too seriously. You saw [PopCop cofounder and EA VP] John Vechey and his Peggle 2 announcement. That’s what I love about Popcap.

GamesBeat: You have a sort of “tastes great, less filling” debate  on the Internet there about the free-to-play for Plants vs. Zombies 2. One of my colleagues was pulling his hair out and said free-to-play has ruined Plants vs. Zombies. I was wondering if you could elucidate us on why this is a good thing.

Bernard Yee: Free-to-play – you know this – allows us to reach a lot more players. I’m not going to speak for any other franchises, but Plants vs. Zombies has this unique appeal, right? It appeals to moms and dads and 4-year-old kids and World of Warcraft players. When you have that kind of reach, you want to reach as many as possible, and free-to-play is the way to do it.

I think that for 99 percent of the people that are suspicious of free-to-play, they’ve had other examples of free-to-play being used as a negative feedback system for players. You pay to avoid frustration. That’s not what we do. You can experience, what is it, 96 percent of the game’s content, start to finish, without ever paying a penny. And although you have to grind for stars to unlock worlds, the grind is not a FarmVille grind. It’s new gameplay modes, new challenges.

The thing with Plants Vs. Zombies, which was one of the few hard design flaws, is that you get stuck in a rut of using your plants, and they carry you through. To get stars and unlock worlds, you have to replay levels with different constraints, which forces you to use different plants. You can take plants from Cowboy or Pirate and bring it back to Egypt. It’s a fantastic design loop. We force you to replay. We give you new constraints and new plants. You play it and you unlock the world. But if you want to pay for convenience and just unlock Egypt or Pirate or Cowboy faster, you can do that.

That’s my very pragmatic answer. I think free-to-play is the right business model for this audience and for this IP. My personal thought is that gamers started out supernerdy, doing the hardcore things that no one else appreciated. Finally, we have a chance to make everyone a gamer. I’ve always wanted to be in a world where playing games is just like watching movies. Free-to-play is one of the things that will do that. There are 200 million gamers out there that never played a console game before. Now they play Plants Vs. Zombies or Candy Crush or Bejeweled or Guitar Hero or Rock Band or the Wii. This is a good thing. Old people are gamers now.

GamesBeat: I did give you guys a 90 out of 100, which is a pretty good score for us. I didn’t quite understand what was the intention there. When I need 20 stars to go on from the second world to the third world, I realized I had to retread over old ground, but I didn’t quite realize that you wanted me to use different plants. That means there’s a purpose to what you guys did.

Yee: Absolutely. One of the challenges is “Don’t plant on Dave’s mold colonies,” which takes the left two lanes out. Which means you can’t rely on the peashooters much. You have to do melee and blockers and potato mines. It forces a player out of their go-to strategy and makes them try different stuff. That was our goal.

Plants vs. Zombies 2. Wild West map.

Above: Plants vs. Zombies 2’s Wild West map.

Image Credit: PopCap

GamesBeat: I was guessing, but I wondered, did it take so long to make because you had to playtest all of this stuff and get it just right?

Yee: I joined the company about a year ago. Popcap had been thinking about a sequel for a long time and working on prototypes. It’s a lot of pressure, because Plants Vs. Zombies—I came to Popcap to work on this game. It’s one of the few games I would choose to go work on right away. It has a lot of expectations behind it. No one wanted to screw it up. You have so many different kinds of players and you don’t want to let any of them down.

They spent a lot of time prototyping ideas until they found the right one. The mechanic that they loved was plant food. It’s our version of Mario’s mushroom, the power-up that changes your character for a moment. It’s a brief moment of joy for all your dudes. That’s what took so long. You have to find that right thing. Once you find it, you can start building.

GamesBeat: It seems like the kind of game where if you change one of those little conditions, the little parameters, the level changes from easy to really hard, or vice versa.

Yee: That’s right. Game balance is important. Plants Vs. Zombies has never been about being a super-brutal game. We want the player to feel happiness and joy and success. But you don’t want to make it too easy, because the player’s not going to think you take them seriously. I think we’ve done a good job at it. If you didn’t quite realize we wanted you to replay the levels with different plants, though, that’s something we may want to think about and point out more explicitly.

GamesBeat: It raised this suspicion in my mind. Do they want me to spend money on something? The reasoning wasn’t obvious to me.

Yee: I can understand why you’d think that. We want to address both players. If a player wants to spend some money and unlock the worlds, great. From a business perspective, we like that. From a game-maker’s perspective, I never want you to feel bored. I want you to feel like you’re doing something fun. Ultimately those are not in contradiction. If you’re always doing something fun, it doesn’t matter if I’m trying to get you to spend money or not. You’re doing something fun.

Crazy Dave from Plants vs. Zombies 2

Above: Crazy Dave from Plants vs. Zombies 2

Image Credit: PopCap

I think that’s the difference between us and a lot of other games, where you’re like, “I’m doing something boring. Let me avoid this.” We don’t want to do that.

GamesBeat: I thought it was more fun if I moved on to another world, or if I moved on to another level in that world that I hadn’t seen before. I didn’t necessarily think of it as much fun if I was replaying a level with slightly different parameters. But I think that what you’re describing could be a kind of hidden fun in the game.

Yee: You want to build that level of discovery. “Oh, I brought back the cannon to Egypt!” I’m actually not sure if you can do that. It might be blacklisted. But the plant that you can unlock later in the same world is the double sunflower. It’s a side path in Egypt. You bring that back to some of the earlier challenge levels and it changes the way you play the game. “Wait a second. Maybe I want to delay a zombie and do the double sunflower.” For anybody who understands amortization, that’s a good investment. It changes the way you can approach a level. That’s where we want to appeal to more core gamers, the people who want to explore the strategy.

GamesBeat: I dinged you guys for your story. It looked like you came up with the script in about five minutes there.

Yee: [Laughs] It’s no Last of Us, if that’s what you mean.

GamesBeat: Where did that script come from? Is it like, “We want to make the silliest story possible?”

Yee: Crazy Dave is, in fact, crazy. Plants Vs. Zombies is a very punny game. We wanted it to be silly. We wanted it to whimsical. That being said, it inspires the question – if Dave has a time machine, how did zombies get across time? There are things we’d like to explain more in the future, but I will leave that out there. How did zombies get across time? It is silly, and deliberately so, but it’s not completely random.

GamesBeat: How did you guys focus on three worlds and decide that was good to ship, instead of including more worlds?

Yee: One of the things about Plants Vs. Zombies — and Popcap in general, but our game especially – is the level of care that we apply to the game. Each of our worlds is really content-heavy. We look at the quality of the animation, the background paintings, the character designs, the unique effects and unique mechanics in each world. It takes time. I wish I had Crazy Dave’s time machine, because I would have done more.

But there’s only so much you can do in a given period of time. We wanted to deliver the players a good chunk of content, which includes a unique first playable through, and the challenges, and the danger room, which is what we call the challenge zones like Pyramid of Doom and Dead Man’s Booty. Those are the things that we felt like we could deliver. It’s a good chunk of content given how much time it takes to make the stuff and hit a release date.

The short answer is quality before quantity. What we deliver, we want it to be good.

Plants vs Zombies 2. Ancient Egypt Day 3

Above: Plants vs Zombies 2: Ancient Egypt Day 3

Image Credit: PopCap

GamesBeat: What’s been some of the reaction and the thinking behind the gesture attacks you could do with your fingers?

Yee: I think people really love it. I was working on a game that never got greenlit over at Bungie, a mobile game, and that was one of the things we enjoyed exploring, this physical feeling. I pinch the zombie and it pops up. You put your finger to the glass and bolt of electricity emits from it and zaps the nearest zombie. That’s important, to take advantage of the platform and the touch screen. From the player’s standpoint, it’s a great bailout. You can earn coins in games at a pretty good clip and use it a couple of times.

All the designers tell me that I should use the pinch, but I still like to use the zap, because I find it really satisfying.

GamesBeat: When you take this into the near future, are you guys going to do more tweaking of those parameters or come up with new game modes? Is that a way you’re going to change the experience going forward?

Yee: There’s adding new content, like new worlds. We’re definitely doing that. I have to say, my favorite world is yet to come. And I think we want to change game modes, give different ways to play the content and experience things again in new ways. Both of those things are going to happen. But the core philosophy behind the game is not going to change.

GamesBeat: What about multiplayer?

Yee: [laughs] I wish I could talk about it. I wish I could comment on that stuff. Plants Vs. Zombies is loved by lots of players. You would think it’s a thing we would think about, how to get people to share that experience more directly.

GamesBeat: Do you have a favorite lineup of plants, or anything players should think about as a tip for how to survive?

Yee: Absolutely. People are going to think I’m shilling, but I believe the best upgrade to purchase is to start with 25 extra sun. It’s like investing in your 401k. You start early and it pays benefits throughout the cycle.

I’m a big fan of a delay plant and the bonk choy, because the bonk choy does two things. A lot of players used to use the strategy, back in Plants Vs. Zombies one, where they’d use a wall-nut to block a whole crowd of zombies, and then they’d put a potato mine behind it. When the wall-nut goes, it takes out all the zombies. I do the same thing with the bonk choy and the wall-nut. The bonk choy is also a dual purpose thing, because it’s also a bailout plant. You can plant it behind the zombies and it’ll buy you some time, and maybe even bail you out of a tough situation.

GamesBeat: The number of squares in the game is interesting to me. It seems like coming up with the perfect number might not be so easy. You have to put some thought about how many squares to have on each side.

Yee: Mohan Belani is our lead designer. He has an advanced math degree, so he’s about as smart as five Bernies put together. [Laughs] He thinks about this stuff all the time. He’s clearly thought about the combinatorics of board size. We’re also restricted at some level because it can never be too many squares. You want it to be visible and playable on an iPhone.

GamesBeat: What about some of these very expensive plants, as opposed to the inexpensive ones? You can think short-term or long-term in your strategy.

Yee: I was just in a meeting about this with the designers a few days ago. The relative pricing reflects what we think they’re worth. If it’s a better plant for you, we’ve priced it higher. That’s what we were thinking. That’s why sun and seed slots are slightly higher, because the benefit of those upgrades is really significant.

Plants vs. Zombies 2. Pirate Seas map.

Above: Plants vs. Zombies 2: Pirate Seas map.

Image Credit: PopCap

GamesBeat: I thought the cannon was a lot of fun, but it was kind of a luxury. I quite often went for the triple peashooter instead of the cannon.

Yee: I feel that same way too. I often get the cannon because I see, in the preview map, that the imp cannon is on the other side. It’s a luxury. It’s expensive. But if you’re getting overrun by stuff, it’s very valuable. I don’t know if it’s rational, but for some reason, like I say, I tend to use it when I see the imp cannon on the other side. I don’t know if that makes sense or not.

GamesBeat: Can you explain how you came up with some of the new types of zombies? Were there any that didn’t make it into the game.

Yee: A few didn’t make it in, but we can’t talk about it, because they may in fact be re-animated for another world. The zombie I love is one of the first ones you face – Ra, the sun-stealing zombie. A lot of Plants Vs. Zombies one players will say, “What the heck? That dude just stole my sun!” It’s a fantastic moment. I wanted it to be harder, actually, but then the designers yelled at me. “Let’s make it harder! Let’s make him not give up the sun after he gets it! Let’s make him steal the sun faster!” The designers said we couldn’t make the game so hard. It’s a great example thematically, though, since Ra is the sun god in ancient Egypt. I love how that came together.

I really hate the parrot. I’m loss-averse. That’s my cognitive bias, to be loss-averse. I hate it when I plant something like the threepeater and the parrot comes and takes it. I spent this sun. Why are you stealing this from me? The parrot’s small. You can’t see it right away. It drives me crazy.

GamesBeat: Yeah, the parrot got me a lot of times. I figured out you had to hit that captain guy to take him out.

Yee: Yep. You have to take him out quickly, before the parrot jumps. That’s tough. I think stealing sun faster is better than the parrot, but the parrot does change gameplay a lot. It forces you to track a new thing.

GamesBeat: I appreciated the familiar plants as well, like the butter-lobbing corn plant.

Yee: It’s funny, because one of my favorite bugs I ever posted was, “Butter state on zombie not effective,” or something like that. We were going through bug triage and one of the bugs was, “No butter state for piano playing plant.” I posted it to my Facebook wall as the best bug I’d ever seen.

GamesBeat: What are some other things people are pointing to as the funniest additions?

Yee: Everyone loves the farting bean. When the zombie eats a bean it farts and dies. Everyone loves that. I love the yeti, because I like to optimize my coins. Whenever the yeti notification appears, I jump and I play the yeti level. I love the fact that the yeti is actually—Well, I shouldn’t spoil what the yeti is.

I love the bonk choy myself for tactical reasons, but people all seem to love the bonk choy. I don’t know what it is – the character design, the artist who did the work, the fact that it’s a little melee guy and he punches people. He does that uppercut knockout blow. People love that animation. That’s an example of what I think makes a Popcap game. They did that one series of animations just for the death. That’s the kind of stuff that Popcap does, and a lot of studios wouldn’t.

Plants vs Zombies 2

Above: Plants vs Zombies 2

Image Credit: PopCap

GamesBeat: I like the butter landing on the zombie’s face. That’s always cute.

Yee: I’ve never understood that. I’ve actually talked to the designers about it. Why does the butter stun the zombies? Because its face is covered with butter and it doesn’t know what to do?

GamesBeat: When you design these things, do you design them as a plant and a zombie together in a sort of rock-paper-scissors arrangement, where one counters the other?

Yee: Sometimes the world team will give a designer an idea. Sometimes it is that rock-paper-scissors type of thing. We were just talking about how, when we hire a new designer, we should bring them on board with how we create the zombies. The designers said, no, there’s really no one approach. They’ve come up with zombie and plant combinations. Sometimes they just have one idea, though – an area effect or a melee fighter or something with an Egypt theme that eats sun. They do it in all kinds of ways. There’s no one simple way.

I can say, though, that any one zombie or plant has to work with so many others. The balance considerations are gigantic. That’s one of the reasons why it’s fantastic having an advanced math guy to think about a lot of this from the beginning. A designer with more of a story background may not immediately appreciate the mathematical intricacies.