A curious rumor started to surface in the summer of 2008: PopCap, the game company in Seattle best known for making cutesy casual games like Bejeweled, Peggle and Bookworm Adventures Deluxe, was making a zombie game. At first blush, it sounded like a joke. Sure, Bejeweled and Peggle have created brainless workplace zombies, but actual zombies? No way.

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How do you pair the walking undead – bane of gun-wielding hardcore game protagonists – with a casual game? The very notion seems impossible. Zombies are dangerous, mindless enemies to be destroyed at all costs. Their eradication requires tact, aggression and – most importantly – firepower. They are not what one clicks, matches or clears. Zombies are not casual.

And yet, following the rumors came a playable preview of the game itself. Yes, it featured zombies. Yes, you killed them. Yes, it looked casual, at first, but the more one played the early build of Plants vs. Zombies, the closer one came to realizing that it wasn’t a casual game at all. Plants vs. Zombies was an insidiously-crafted combination of hardcore gaming elements from some of gaming’s most established genres paired with the light, fluffy cartoon graphics one typically expects from a casual title. It was easy to learn, difficult to master, played in short, manageable chunks and – most importantly – was downloadable. Anyone with a computer could play it. And they did. In hordes.

Today, the genius of PopCap’s star-crossed union between Zombies and casual games is indisputable. Upon its release for PC and Mac in May of 2009, Plants vs. Zombies became the company’s fastest-selling game to date. In February of this year, it was released for Apple’s iPhone, immediately becoming the strongest-selling iPhone app launch ever. It remains a best-seller on every platform and has garnered accolades industry-wide, including from this publication. In short, it worked.

The unholy alliance of casual game aesthetics and hardcore gaming tropes has proven so successful, in fact, that speculation over the release date for the sequel, Plants vs. Zombies 2, receives the same treatment that game bloggers and journalists typically reserve for games like Halo and Gears of War. By marrying zombies and plants, it would seem that PopCap has achieved the previously unthinkable: merging casual with hardcore, and the secret sauce owes more than a little to well-conceived and flawlessly executed art.

The Escapist recently spoke with Rich Werner, Lead Artist for Plants vs. Zombies, about the PopCap mojo and why plants with eyes are more interesting.

“When I was brought on to the project, George [Fan, designer of Plants vs. Zombies] had a pretty good handle on how he wanted a lot of the stuff to look. Everything had goofy round eyes and they looked totally funny,” says Werner. “When I saw the original placeholder art that he did, I cracked up. I knew right then that I had to try to get on that project.”

Forget what you know about how games are made. At PopCap, it works like this: Encourage smart, talented people to develop a passion for what they do; let them bring their ideas to you; push those ideas into the river of design; see what floats; polish the result; make lots of dollars; put dollars back into machine; rinse and repeat. A lot can be said for companies that release new games every year or even sooner. Sometimes, those games are good. And yet, the developers that consistently hit it out of the park, time and again, are the ones that take their time and get it right. First time, every time.

“It may have taken us around three years to make [Plants vs. Zombies],” says Werner, “but I think the outcome was well worth the long development cycle.”

Three years for a casual game? That is almost as blasphemous as … well, a casual zombie game. According to Werner, all of PopCap’s games are made this way, by testing and refining a core mechanic until it feels right, thoughtfully considering every detail, heavily polishing and obsessively designing everything. To hear him describe the process, the design teams at PopCap seem more like ancient craftsmen than game developers.

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“We didn’t take any shortcuts on Plants vs. Zombies,” says Werner. “It was less of a question of ‘what can we get in by a deadline?’ and more of a ‘ let’s just keep polishing this thing and adding what we think is important no matter how long it takes.’ And while the upside of that is hard to measure in advance, it’s clear that, for us, taking the extra time is virtually always worth it. I think it really paid off with PVZ.

“Any extra time put in was worth it because I knew that the little things would make a big difference and, if it meant a few more hours on an animation, etc., then it would just be that much better.”

Judging from the sales figures, players would seem to agree. Yet even more unusual than the startling sales figures are the reviews. Reviewers have called it “really fantastic,” “masterful” and “brilliant.” For Werner, who’s worked as an artist in the game industry for nearly a decade, the opportunity to work on a title as creatively unique as Plants vs. Zombies seemed like a dream come true.

“I wanted [to be] on that game more than anything,” he says. “Everything about it seemed awesome. It had zombies for one. (I am a huge zombie fan.) It just seemed so far out there that I had to be part of it. I knew it would be special.”

Werner says the experience allowed him to not only stretch his legs in new areas, like animation, but to work as part of a creative team that was given the kind of freedom that most developers can only imagine.

“You really have a sense of ownership of the products you work on [at PopCap],” he says. “In past jobs, I was never given that chance, so it was all bottled up inside me. So when given the chance, I pretty much went all out.”

The design of Plants vs. Zombies, and its overall art direction are credited to George Fan, the mastermind developer behind Insaniquarium, who led the team that prototyped the game for PopCap (originally as an Insaniquarium sequel). PopCap shared some of Fan’s original concept art with us from when the game was more Plants vs. Aliens than Zombies.

“I wanted to focus on defense elements,” Fan told The Escapist in an exclusive 2009 interview, “and I thought, plants actually make really good towers because they’re stationary, they don’t move, and you can give them a lot of personality.”

Speaking to Gamezebo, Fan says the dichotomy between plants and zombies tickles just the rights spot: “The existence of zombies prevents it from being to sugary … they’re goofy, cartoony zombies so it’s all good.”

Werner claims the original concept art reminded him of classic Disney cartoons, where “everything is alive and sort of dancing all the time.”

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“If they were just motionless, I think that the game would be less appealing. I wanted all the characters to seem like more than just plants. I wanted it to feel like you should care about them. Adding blinking to them I think really sold it.”

Blinking, yes, And also crying. In one of the game’s earlier iterations, Werner’s favorite plant, the Wall-nut, the stalwart defender of his fellow plant brethren, leaked tiny tears from his big, round eyes as he was slowly eaten by zombies. The tears were removed for the final release of the game, but the Wall-nut’s cheerful stoicism remains intact.

“He is so simple, but he makes me laugh every time I see him,” says Werner. “His big goofy eyes are awesome. And you feel for the guy when he starts getting eaten. He was the first character I animated and made, too, so maybe he has a special spot in my heart.”

As for Werner’s favorite zombie?

“I think I like the Newspaper one the best. Mostly just because of the fact that he seems to have turned into a Zombie while on the toilet. I love when you rip his paper up he gets aggro. Plus, who doesn’t love a pair of sock holders and some heart-print boxers?”

Who indeed? As a player, it’s easy to isolate a single element of almost every character in Plants vs. Zombies as the one thing that “sells it.” The heart-print boxers. The Wall-nut’s eyes. The pat of butter on the Cob Cannon. The sequined socks on the Thriller zombie. The dolphin. It’s the presence of each of these minute, yet perfect, details which, in total, make Plants vs. Zombies such a compelling and unique experience. As Susan Arendt puts it in The Escapist‘s review, “Plants vs. Zombies is fun in concentrated form, an intense dose of giggle-inducing entertainment beamed directly to your brain.”

“I think if you can have an amazing mechanic with stellar art, it’s like Wonder Twin Powers,” says Werner. He credits the game’s unique art design to not only Fan’s “spot-on” original concepts and the incredible work of the team at PopCap, but also to his own unique and varied influences as an artist.

“There are a ton of things which I gain inspiration from out there,” he says, “but I think that what keeps me going is my peers. I have a lot of artist friends that are so amazing to me that I always strive to do what they do. Even at work, the artists at PopCap are so amazing and I know I feed off of that. I’ll animate something or create a character and then go check out what other people are working on and my jaw will drop and I’ll run back to my desk and try to improve on what I did.”

Werner lists Looney Tunes and Tex Avery as inspirations, as well as the work of Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes), Jeff Smith (Bone), Skottie Young, Jhonen Vasquez (Squee, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and Invader Zim), Ashley Wood, Ragnar, Guarnido, and Mike Kunkel (Hero Bear).

When asked if games are art, Werner basically gives us a “duh”:

“I mean, of course, I will say that, being an artist, but I do think it matters. Games really are an art form.”

Russ Pitts is the Editor-in-Chief of The Escapist, a survivalist and an avid gardener.

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