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How EA and Plants vs. Zombies are battling binge culture

The strategy of a staggered release

PopCap Games/Electronic Arts

After a mere 24-hour countdown, Electronic Arts launched a massive new entry to their Garden Warfare series. Plants vs Zombies: Battle for Neighborville introduces four full PvE campaigns across three open-world hubs filled with quests, collectibles, and secrets, alongside a slate of multiplayer modes and freeform social areas.

The key surprise here is not just that EA continues to pump money into the idiosyncratic all-ages shooter franchise (which I love), but the method the publisher is using to release this game into the world.

A look at the release schedule of Plants vs. Zombies Battle for Neighborville EA via Polygon

They’re calling it “Founders Edition,” and it’s the latest in a series of moves from creators and corporations to address the binge culture trivializing their releases in the modern media landscape.

When entertainment becomes disposable

What is binge culture? Binge culture is watching the latest Marvel movie on opening night so you aren’t flooded with spoilers in the morning. Binge culture is sprinting through a 10-hour season within a couple days so you still have time to discuss it with your friends. Binge culture is an increasing backlog of 100-hour games that you may play for a dozen hours each.

It is the ever-growing watchlist. It is your social media feed. It is the transformation of your entertainment into a shroud of obligation and guilt that is constantly pulling at you, because what’s discussed today is rarely treated as relevant tomorrow. And the cycle is tiring as hell, because there is precious little space between urgency and old news. Pop culture has turned into homework, not entertainment.

The fight is for your incremental attention. Creators and corporations need you to think, talk, and care about a project after its initial release date.

They have two major options to accomplish this. The first is to constantly release new things, or release substantial updates for older things. Like rocket boosters on the Saturn V, this approach can be fast, flashy … and extremely expensive. It’s why Netflix recently took on another two billion dollars of debt to continue producing massive stores of original content, and Fortnite rejuvenates itself on the back of painful crunch cycles.

Corporations may always be producing new things, but, in this environment, the value of that content to the audience remains the same: disposable. Claiming that portion of audience attention again requires another batch of something new, which leads to further spending, further potential workplace abuses, and a continued grind to retain relevance.

The second major option is to segment your content into intentional pieces, and potentially experiment with the way it’s rolled out to the world. This approach doesn’t guarantee that all of the pieces will gain attention on their own, but in aggregate, it creates an environment that encourages active, communal engagement for the duration of the release period.

Disney is going back to the weekly release schedule for much of their streamed programming. Netflix, the driving force behind modern audience expectations for binge streaming, is floating the idea of a similar return to weekly programming with certain shows. Hitman (2016) attempted a modular and episodic approach in games, with results that are revelatory when compared with its sequel, Hitman 2.

And that opens a whole ‘nother can of worms.

What Hitman can teach us about how people play games

a bald assassin in a suit and trenchcoat stalks his target in Hitman 2 IO Interactive/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

According to the Noclip documentary series about IO Interactive, Hitman didn’t do very well commercially. It’s unfortunate, but it makes some degree of sense. It was an always-online, episodic AAA game released in 2016. Doubt around Kickstarter and early access pitches was growing, and player expectations for what form a Hitman game should take didn’t seem to match this new model. In some ways it was a game ahead of its time.

Hitman is fundamentally a game about mastery. Going through a map over and over again in different ways to discover routes, assassination opportunities, and secrets, to the point where every session allows players to, in some way, embody a preternaturally skilled and aware assassin.

In previous entries, this learning process was entirely self-motivated. Hitman (2016) systematized it, with progression systems, rewards, and weekly boosts of content that would keep players engaging with its locations in the desired way while the next map was in development.

And I loved this approach. The gargantuan levels and possibilities found in a Hitman game were made accessible to me for the first time. For me, Hitman finally “clicked.” However, I remember a lot of doubt from players and press, with many expressing desire to play it “once it’s finished.”

With Hitman 2, IO Interactive obliged, releasing all six locations of the game on launch day. Hitman 2 did well enough to keep one of my favorite studios in business, but an interesting trend emerges when you compare its global Steam achievement statistics to its predecessor:

More people have completed the first three maps in Hitman, proportionally, than have beaten the very first level in Hitman 2 — a level that is free to play. People seem to stick with the content in the first Hitman a little easier, and they’re completing more of a game. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

Achievements for Hitman (2016) pictured left, achievements for Hitman 2 pictured right. More players finished more missions in the first game than the second. The staggered release schedule seems to have helped with engagement.
Steam via Polygon

For all of the complaints about its episodic model, Hitman demonstrates more engagement per map, across its player base, than its sequel. Segmentation encourages engagement, which encourages the behavior of lingering on a map, which creates the exact emphasis on mastery that the developers wanted to build in the first place. It speaks to the changing media environment that, according to the same Noclip documentary, IO Interactive is again considering an episodic approach for its third Hitman game. Maybe the players and pundits have caught up to the ideal of that initial, episodic release.

Speaking of approaches ahead of their time: Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare released in 2014 as a multiplayer-only title (as did EA-published cousin Titanfall). This was met with a significant amount of resistance, so when the game gained many more players than expected, Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 was given a massive scope complete with single-player content and more ways to spend time in the world.

Two PvE campaigns that can be played solo, a hub world, and a drastic increase in character variants make Garden Warfare 2 a bombastic grab-bag of stuff. I saw this change received with relative silence. Like an increasing number of creative projects across all mediums, Garden Warfare 2 enjoyed a very brief period of launch discussion before sinking beneath the waves of the news cycle, until the next giant update was ready.

This increasing trend is a big part of why I was intrigued by the approach of the Founder’s Edition of Plants vs Zombies: Battle for Neighborville. Buying the game at a 25% discount ($29.99 rather than $39.99 at launch), Founders get a staged rollout of the content that will be available at launch.

The first week has the first segment of content -- a PvE campaign and a multiplayer mode -- the second week expands the game further with another PvE region and multiplayer mode, and so on until the game’s official launch on Oct. 18. The sheer amount of content mentioned in the introduction of this piece (among them three open-world hubs), combined with a boggling series of interconnected currencies and systems, could be genuinely overwhelming.

Here, it’s made accessible through a simple, semi-episodic time gate. Players in these early days aren’t spread across a bunch of modes, so I haven’t had trouble finding a match within seconds at any time of the day. No progress is reset for Founders upon launch. All content is final, and finished. This isn’t a beta, and it isn’t some absurd avenue to privileged early play (unlike the byzantine access schedules seen for Battlefield V or Anthem). You’re just playing the launch-ready game in stages, together, at a discount, with other folks who want to shoot plants as a zombified 80s action hero wielding a laser bow right now.

If you buy Battle for Neighborville at the “official” launch on October 18th, the most you’ve missed out on is some server growing pains and some exclusive cosmetics. If you buy it earlier, you get an onboarding ramp, and staged access to one of the most surprising releases of the year.

With the Founder’s Edition, I believe EA is taking steps to make experiencing components of Battle for Neighborville an event rather than an afterthought. Instead of a mad dash to work on new content while also supporting a just-launched title with major online dependencies, Popcap has a six-week buffer to not destroy themselves against the beaches of the modern live-service game model.

The power of keeping people’s attention

I make games for a living.

Lately, I feel like I’m being forced to accept that my work is disposable. How can I think otherwise? I see years of incredible effort and talent go into projects that are spoken about for 48 hours, if they’re spoken about at all. I am watching my friends pick up and discard ideas based on how often they’ll be able to talk about them during development - how many chances they’ll get to try and convince people to care.

I don’t know whether the Founder’s Edition of Battle for Neighborville will do well commercially, but it’s a fascinating commitment to see from an entity of this scale. It’s the kind of experimentation that’s needed, because it contributes to a more broad definition of what a game’s release can mean.

Keeping up with binge culture is destroying us as creators and dragging us down as an audience. We can only hope that the next cycle of content makes us a little more free. A live-service game that isn’t trying to take over my life?

That seems like a good start.

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