Plants vs. Zombies creator George Fan launches Hardhat
Plants vs Zombies was a kind of cultural moment of wacky games when it debuted in 2009. It was a simple, addictive game that got harder and harder as zombies ate your plants and stormed your house. The game played a very big role in Electronic Art’s decision to buy PopCap Games for $650 million in 2011. The sequel, released in 2013, has been downloaded well over 25 million times.
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Rather than create a big company, Fan stepped back and focused on being an indie creator. He attended the Ludum Dare game jam in 2012. Under the rules, one person was supposed to design an entire game, from the gameplay to the art, in 48 hours. Fan came up with the idea for Octogeddon, but then spent the next four-plus years polishing it with a team of four people.
The game, where you had to stop a monstrous octopus from taking over a city, came out in 2018 and I gave it a glowing review. But the game didn’t do as well as Plants vs. Zombies, and Fan had to rack his “brain” to figure out why.
This game took him and his co-developer Andy Hull five years to make.
Fan returned to the Ludum Dare game jam and came up with another idea under high pressure. In this game, you take on the role of a wombat construction worker.[Pokémon GO]
“Like most of my games, including PvZ, Hardhat Wombat was conceived during a game jam some years ago,” said Fan, who bemoaned that he cannot produce cube-shaped excrement. “I’d been looking for an opportunity to work with my friend Andy Hull, lead programmer on the original Spelunky, and together we toiled away working 3- and 4-hour days, sometimes consecutively, until we’d polished the game to a murky brown sheen.”
Lead developer Hull added in a statement, “It’s fairly safe to say Hardhat Wombat is more full of crap than all of George’s other games combined.”
The game jams force Fan to get creative and make something he wouldn’t otherwise make.
“And oftentimes, it’s better,” he said.
The work was creative and organic. And then it took a lot of refinement. There are a lot of different gameplay elements that come into play during the course of the levels.
I had to pull this story out of Fan while I was trying to find a quiet place at a car race track. Unfortunately, the Porsches drowned us out. So I emailed him some questions and he added the “vroom” sound effects in writing along with his answers.
Asked how this one might catch the old viral fire, Fan said, “I don’t want to pretend to know how to make something go viral, but I’m hoping the novelty of playing a game where you go around building buildings with your square poops is enough to make people curious about the game. We do have a few creators we’re planning on working with, yes.”[Pokémon GO]
The fan had to approach the post-mortem with some maturity.
“It’s a mistake to try to make something that is bigger than the last thing,” he said. “It’s really not the greatest mindset. I was just trying to make the best game I could without too much thinking about it.”
While Octogeddon wasn’t as successful as Plants vs. Zombies, Fan was really proud of it.
But rather than let the lower sales of Octogeddon paralyze him, Fan came upon an important truth.
“I learned that I need to be working on a game to be truly content with life. There was a period of about a year after I got back from my stint at Wizards of the Coast where I wasn’t working on much of anything games-wise,” he said. “I always suspected it, but I definitely noticed my mood shift for the better once I started working on Hardhat Wombat. The other thing I learned is how refreshing it is to work on a smaller project like this one. There’s just a lot less pressure and it lets me focus on just enjoying the process.”
He added, “I can say that I had the most wonderful time making this game. Plus, smaller games like this let me move on to a new game more quickly, where I can tackle new challenges. My favorite part of making a game is in the beginning where you’re still figuring out the core gameplay. So I can see myself just making small games like this for a while so that I can just repeat that beginning part more frequently.”
The fan is a revolutionary in another way. A true indie game dev, he doesn’t like games that annoy you with monetization schemes. There are no in-game purchases or slowdowns that cause you to spend money on live services. Hardhat Wombat carries a list price of $10 and promises endless fun for all ages.
I also asked about his monetization plan.
“I’ve long been known to have a stance on this, but simply put I just wouldn’t know how to make a game this way! When I’m making a game, I’m looking at making it as fun as can be. I like charging a flat fee, then saying, ‘Now that you’ve purchased the game, I’m going to deliver to you the most fun experience I can,’” he said.
“With a free-to-play game, you have to go about it quite differently, thinking about the best places to withhold some of the experience in order to get money out of people. It feels like to be good at this you’d have to have that snazzy salesperson personality or understand the psychology of how to best get money out of people, and I am neither of those,” Fan said.
The game debuts with more than 90 increasingly difficult levels featuring fiendish foes and obstinate obstacles. It has a wide variety of level types, including brain-blasting Dynamite levels, action-packed
Beetle Hunt levels, ballistic Bubble Gum levels.[Pokémon GO]
It has nearly infinite replayability thanks to multiple solutions to many levels and an expanding array of additional construction materials including gum bubbles, garden greens, sudsy soda six-packs and more. There are additional game modes, including Daily Gauntlet where you can compete with your friends for the crappy construction crown.
As for getting the gameplay right, Fan said, “It boils down to two parts, getting the core gameplay to a fun state, then expanding and iterating on that over and over. For getting the core gameplay to a fun place, I actually find the results of game jams to be a good starting place. I really appreciate game jams as a birthing ground of some of the most awesome game ideas.”
He added, “I think it’s because they usually come with a theme or a constraint, and following that constraint leads to more creative ideas than if you just had a blue-sky blank canvas. As Mark Rosewater (head designer on Magic the Gathering and my mentor while I was up at Wizards) always says, ‘Restrictions breed creativity.’ The other factor of game jams is they’re in the Goldilocks zone of pressure. You’re working on the game for such a short amount of time that no one expects greatness. Yet there’s still expected to show off the game at the end and in the case of Ludum Dare there’s the competition aspect.”
Hardhat Wombat’s core gameplay came from a Ludum Dare game jam which he later revisited and improved after some time away from it.[Pokémon GO]
“When Andy and I started working on the game, it was from this rough prototype that we already knew had an element of fun to it,” Fan said.
Once you have that core gameplay down, the rest of the time is spent expanding and iterating, Fan said. There are tons of little decisions he had to make during this process, and it mostly comes down to a combination of having good instincts about it and experience.
“Something that’s a little more unique to how I personally like to make games is instead of just adding things to the game I will scrutinize it heavily and then only if it’s essential enough will I add it. It comes from my desire to keep my games easy to pick up so I try to refrain from adding non-essential baggage like extra moves and controls,” he said.
Before Plants vs. Zombies, Fan created the frantic fish tank fun of Insaniquarium. And he is a fanatical
Magic the Gathering player, so much so that he spent 2017-2018 at Wizards of the Coast helping design the Ikoria, Strixhaven, and Unifinity sets as well as a number of individual cards.
You can wishlist the game on Steam.
“Steam makes sense for small studios like us because the potential audience is there and it’s just the easiest to develop for,” Fan said. “As far as other platforms go, I think Nintendo Switch would be a good fit but we haven’t made the decision to release there yet. Mobile is troublesome because Hardhat Wombat is a puzzle platformer with platformer controls that require some amount of reflexes. I’ve yet to see a control scheme for platformers on mobile devices that I’m happy with.”[Pokémon GO]
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