Turning Plants vs. Zombies into Plants vs. Zombies Garden Warfare required PopCap’s graphic designers to reimagine the entire game universe in the context of a shooter. And to do that, characters had to be rethought, reconfigured and redesigned.
This week’s EA Tuesday Exclusive takes you behind-the-scenes with PopCap. We chatted with Art Director Clint Jorgenson to find out more about the process.
How does a character like the wacky ones in Plants vs. Zombies Garden Warfare come to life throughout the development process?
There are several steps along the way where we revise the character. We spend a lot of time in the concept phase, looking at each character through many filters: aesthetics, gameplay, animation, humor, etc. After the initial model is created there is a lot of nitpicking over proportions, details, and materials. Usually a few more things feel off once we see it in game, and we need to make adjustments to live up to the spirit of the concept.
Next up, the animation team brings the character to life, and we usually have to make some modifications so everything animates without intersecting in a bad way.
Finally, there is sometimes a gut check and we may need to make more drastic changes. Over time, we might realize the sensibility is off and the character doesn’t feel PvZ. We care deeply about respecting the Plants vs. Zombies brand, and botching it is not an option.
What inspired some of the newer plant models in PvZ Garden Warfare?
In the Zomboss Down expansion, we added eight new character variants. We were adding a desert level, Cactus Canyon, so it felt natural to draw inspiration from a wide variety of desert themes -the Wild West-inspired Bandit Cactus, to the ancient Egypt-inspired Sun Pharaoh were new takes on favorite characters.
This is the first time we approached a set of characters with an overarching theme. We learned that the absolute best results come when a concept has a strong fit with the weapon mechanic. An example of this is the Law Pea, a sheriff with a powerful rapid fire six shooter. His weapon design is in perfect sync with his theme, and as a result he is a blast to play.
We also draw inspiration from each character’s persona. For Zombies, it is a bit easier as they each have a profession, and we look for more specific jobs within that. For example, the Engineer becomes a Plumber, an Electrician, and so on.
For plants however, this is trickier because the characters are more about attitude and personality. For example, the sunflower is a cute, slightly mischievous, bubbly and positive personality. During development we had one costume that was kind of a dark, scary flower that shot evil energy bolts…the more we looked at it, the more we realized it wasn’t right for her. So we had another go, and it became the shadow flower…who still uses dark energy but in a fun, mischievous, ninja/superhero kind of way.
How many different builds did you go through for each character during development?
Most characters followed this process and landed in a good place, but as I mentioned, there were a few resets along the way.
The biggest by far was the scientist, who initially was a kind of grave digging guy with a trench coat. He had fun mechanics, but he was doubling down on the zombie/grave theme, rather than using it as juxtaposition with suburbia. That is key to the humor of PvZ. It was a tough call, but once we saw the resulting Scientist in all his glory, we were thrilled. I can’t imagine the game without him!
One of the best characters actually came from a last minute panic. We had a Chomper variant that had major technical issues with what we were trying to do, and we had to go back to the drawing board with almost no time. So a bunch of us who were working late huddled together and started throwing out ideas like mad. And just like that, the Hot Rod Chomper was born. When we saw what the chrome and metallic paint looked like with the whole package we were ecstatic! It was actually way better than the original idea we were struggling to achieve, and we blasted it out faster than any character.
What’s the most fun aspect of re-thinking characters for a franchise?
It sounds cliché, but this was my dream project, so really the whole run was a blast for me. PopCap has always been a studio I looked up to in my career. They do 2D presentation to such an amazing level. They really set the bar. So to get to join them, and not only try to live up to that standard, but to help bring their sensibility to a 3rd person shooter game was an amazing, crazy, once in a career challenge.
I think the breakthrough moment was when we were working towards E3 and had the Gargantuar boss battle up and running for the first time…the way the whole thing came together, I had goosebumps. I realized “this is something special”.
What are some examples of character details that really excited the team?
As I mentioned, seeing the Gargantuar and his pet Imp come to life was a really exciting moment. Future Cactus is definitely a team favorite. The Chomper early on was really exciting, especially when his first animations started to come online and you could burrow and swallow zombies whole. It was so nuts gameplay wise…but people just love the Chomper, and he compliments the team nicely.
Probably the single most exciting character detail for the team was the Dolphin Blaster. It made us realize how absolutely crazy we could go with this stuff and still feel right. It just set off a chain reaction of just going for it, and doing the things that get the biggest laugh.