Plants vs. Zombies 2’s free-to-play structure works with you, not against you
The term “free to play” feels more like a threat than a promise. Instead of spending $5 to buy the entire game once, we may find ourselves paying $1 for the game forever and ever, amen.
Plants vs. Zombies 2 has pulled the neat trick of going free to play while largely side-stepping many of the issues that come with that monetization strategy, however. It’s not perfect, but neither is it abusive. I’ve been happily hunched over my phone for the past few days, collecting suns and exploring the new plants, and never did I feel like I had to pay, although many times I was tempted to unlock content rather than work for it.
The game felt like it was working with me, not against me, and this is a very good thing.
When to pay, and how to avoid it
The game is broken up into three worlds: Ancient Egypt, Pirates, and the Wild West. The game progresses in a linear path at first, allowing you to unlock new plants, new powers, and new levels. Glowing zombies now drop plant food, which you can use to give your plants a temporary power-up. Sunflowers will give you a flood of suns, while pea shooters go fully-automatic, spewing a line of peas at zombies.
Hoarding the plant food, and determining when to use it, is an important part of the strategy. These temporary buffs can get you through tricky parts of each level, and you can of course use coins to buy more, and use cash to buy more coins, but you’ll never feel like you must do so in order to move forward.
The difficulty does ramp up significantly faster than the first Plants vs. Zombies, however, and you’ll need to learn how to use each plant to its fullest, and to deploy your plant food at the proper times. Casual players may be compelled to purchase new plants or upgrades after failing a mission for the first, or fifth, time, but I was happy to buckle down and force myself to get better at basic strategy.
You need a certain amount of stars to move into the next world, and you won’t get them all during your first pass through the opening levels. You can either go back and grind through levels you’ve already finished and earn stars, with the game helpfully adding new challenges to overcome to get those stars, or pay $5 to unlock the next area of the game.
The new challenges can be fun, if challenging, so the grind may not bother many players. Others may be happy to simply pay to move forward, or pay to unlock plants before earning them, or pay to stock up on plant food to give themselves more of an advantage. I’m not going to judge anyone who does so, but it rarely feels like the game is forcing you down that path, although it will helpfully remind you of the items you can buy every now and again.
This approach actually works with the free to play structure while also pleasing the more hardcore fans. The casual players may be tempted to spend more on powers and plant food to deal with the added difficulty, while those of us who want to truly master strategy will be forced to improve our game.
The different challenges that you need to conquer in order to gain stars force you to think about the game in different ways, and that mitigates the grinding aspect of going back over the board. The writing and presentation is still as funny and light-hearted as ever, and the differing zombie and plant types add variety to the game.
I have a few complaints though, including some annoying difficulty spikes, the fact that the game is iOS-only, at least for now, and the new touchscreen-based powers that allow you to throw a zombie or pinch them with your fingers can be fidgety if you play on your phone vs. a tablet, but these are relatively minor issues next to everything the game does correctly.
Also, with the ability to beat everything honestly, I'm more likely to pay a bit here and there to give myself an advantage. It's a weird psychology switch; I don't mind paying money for free to play games, but I wil only do so if I feel like I want to, and it was my decision to cheat a bit to get ahead. If the game wants to force that decision on me? I'm much less likely to get out the wallet.
It’s possible that the monetization may get more annoying, or that other content will be released for purchase that changes the balance of the game, but for now I’m content playing a game that was all the way free, and is likely to remain that way as long as I keep improving and don’t get discouraged by the sometimes-tricky challenges. I’m actually tempted to throw a few dollars into the game just to reward the team for the balancing act, but it feels like they earned the money, instead of demanding it.
That’s the best case scenario for any free to play game.