Note the shirt icon: How many game splash screens do you know of that have a direct link to an online store? Devs. start taking notes…

Paid vs Zombies

From a technical polish standpoint, I’m marveled and intrigued. As gamer, I’m enjoying myself but I’m not thrilled with the freemium aspects of the game.

Plants Vs Zombies 2 is the most complex freemium game that I’ve toyed with to date, and warrants a study in obfuscation as the opportunity to pay is rarely more than a screen away. Even during gameplay, players can spend real world dollars for in game currency.


To unlock in game functionality, prepare to plunk down money

In the words of Ron Burgundy, “Well, that escalated quickly”. For $19.94, you can unlock all the tower, excuse me, plant types in Plants vs Zombies 2. If that were it, I wouldn’t have much to write about, but I’m touching the tip of the iceberg…

The Store isn’t the only place to buy things…

First thing to understand is the store is not the only place to spend real world cash for in game content, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Players can purchase from the store screen:

  • Coins
  • Plants,
  • Upgrades
  • Bundles (Which are combinations of the previous three items).


Bundles are combos of coin and in-game items


Virtual Currency is nothing new to gaming, and in this aspect Plants vs Zombies 2 doesn’t break the model.

Plants and Upgrades are fairly straight forward, if you buy a plant, you can use that plant type during gameplay and the same principal applies to upgrades.

Impulse Agency

Coins use what a strategy that I’d like to call impulse agency. Coins probably are one of the least enticing purchases from the store but easily the most nefarious as they also can be purchased during gameplay. Purchasing coins ahead of time isn’t something that most people would care to do. When they arrive at a tense moment of gaming, they suddenly have more value, hence a higher chance impulse purchase. This phenomena is impulse agency, a situation that increases the likelihood of an impulse buy.

Coins are earned by completing levels and during gameplay as randomly and infrequently Zombies drop coins. In the first Plants vs Zombies, coins allowed you to purchase in-game content but have been relegated to purchasing plant food and in game super moves that allow the player to quickly rid the screen of zombies. Each instance is a single use item that functions as a temporary “Super charge”, either for the player or for one’s plants during gameplay.  Also, like coins, Plant Food is earned during gameplay, but plant food doesn’t carry over between levels, making it completely fleeting. If a player buys  two plant foods, and proceeds to not use them, the player will not be redeemed for not using plant food, nor will the player be able to stockpile them. 

 At 1000 coins a pop, $2.99 would only allow a player to get 5 additional plant foods and roughly the same super moves, where as $9.99 lets a player purchase 20 additional plant foods. 

The impulse agency occurs when the player is in the heat of battle. The player, in order to defeat the zombie horde, needs an extra “oomph”. If the player hasn’t saved up many coins from playing the game, the player can at anytime purchase more coins. The impulse buy has been greatly increased in this situation. That said, I will give the developers some credit, most levels can be beaten without using any coins without too much difficulty, but the temptation always looms to use the coins, and coins can be earned.

To illustrate my point, the #1 and #2 purchased items in Plants vs Zombies are 5000 coins for $2.99 and 20000 coins for $9.99. These are repeatable purchases with infinite potential, where as the #3 purchased item, the Snow Pea plant, can only be purchased once.

Thinking Outside the Store

The coins aren’t the only item that exists outside the store button. From the game, there are other purchases that arise.  After completing levels, players are sometimes presented with in-game adverts for in-game content.

The adverts appear as full screen banner ads, generally asking the player to “Rate Us” on the App Store or “Like us on FaceBook”. 



Plants vs Zombies 2 isn’t the first iOS title to beg for reviews and likes, but it has more flair than most games do. Whether this level of intrusion  is more conducive to getting positive reviews and likes, only EA knows.

The banner adverts do more than just advertise FaceBook and App Store Reviews. Occasionally these banners advertise one-time “deals” that require an impulse buy, “Get the Jalapeño 33% for $1.99”.


Sale banners entice the players to act now

Plants vs Zombie 2 uses a dual system as a methodology to paceplayers progression, keys and stars. Keys are earned randomly and infrequently by killing zombies and used to unlock portions of a map. Stars are collected via completing levels and challenges, and used to unlock new maps. 

For the impatient there’s even ways to skip earning stars and keys, effectively by-passing the game’s forced grinding.


Gamers can skip ahead levels buy using BUY NOW.

Probably the first company to massage the Freemium model effectively was NimbleBits, makers of Pocket Frogs, Tiny Tower and Nimble Quest, each game using a time delay for in-game content that could be sped up by in-game currency, which the user could generate in the game or pay real world money for.

Like previous iOS Plants vs Zombies 2 follows variant of this model, most of the content isn’t blocked by a paywall or time delay, instead simply requires the player to perform in-game feats to progress. This grinding means hours of gameplay. Plants vs Zombies 2 isn’t the first either to use this model, but it’s refined it to an art. As of writing this, Plants vs Zombies is the top free app and #17 top grossing app. It’ll be interesting to see if it can compete with SuperCell, the current reigning champs of Freemium, with titles like Clash of the Clans and Hay Day. EA already has had practice with The Simpsons: Tapped Out which as of writing this, managed to rank #9 in top grossing apps, and The Sims: Freeplay which dates back to 2011, and still ranks in the top 100 top grossing apps.

Plants vs Zombies 2 also reminds you that you can always skip ahead, and even requires you to (sneakily) to click the icon to warp to a new map once even though you will not be able to purchase it without paying money at that time. Its done so smoothly, that most players won’t even pick up on it, as the in-game characters ask you to visit the new “gate” that’s opened.


 EA “reminds” customers that content can be purchased, as when this particular advert is triggered, the player will not have enough star points to unlock the next level. 

Outside The Store: The Real World

Lastly there’s the Plants vs Zombies 2 has one last way it can monetize  players, a merchandise store. The merchandise store  is exactly what it sounds like: a place where real world physical goods can be bought.


Offering plush toys has become a new norm with games like Portal, Angry Birds, and Whale Trail.

Monetizing real world items means building a property that players feel connected enough to want to extend to their their actual lives. Angry Birds has successfully transformed itself from a game to brand. Plants vs Zombies already feels like the player is being nickel and dimed at every turn, I’m interested if EA is missing an opportunity to hide behind PopCap and transfer the game to a brand.

The Freemium balancing act

There’s a fine line to be walked in the new Freemium world, where In-App Purchases (IAP) are the new world order.

Its a tricky balance: too much for free and you’ll never see a cent, too much for pay and you’ll drive away most of the market. Much can be learned in the study of Plants vs Zombies 2, “rate us” banners are far from news in the iOS world,

In the race to the bottom, $.99 the entrance fee is too much and the consumer now expects access for free. As developers we’re partially to blame, setting the bar too low.

Plants vs Zombies is the most heavily monetized gaming experience I can name to date, on any platform. Most cash generators like Clash of the Clans only have one or two purchasable unit, like Gems or with Hay Day, Diamonds and Coins. Plants vs Zombies is the multi-headed hydra.

My personal preference if I must go freemium is a pay-once model, like FiftyThree studios and their absolutely gorgeous app, Paper. $6.99 unlocks all the brushes and $1.99 for the mixer. The entire app is unlocked for a very reasonable $9.98.  My satisfaction with the purchase remains high, a year later whereas I regret breaking down and spending money on Knights of Pen & Paper for in-game currency.

The more I’m exposed to Freemium’s insidious tactics, the more I resentment I feel for my brethren. John Moltz offers a differing opinion…

I am currently making my way slowly and carefully through my first freemium game: Plants vs. Zombies 2. I’m not opposed to spending maybe $10 on it. In a world where desktop games cost up to $60 and console games maybe $40, it seems like a good mobile game should be at least worth that much. So far I’ve spent nothing.

If you’re not the addictive type, freemium games can be played without getting screwed. Just like with gambling, though, decide how much you want to lose and leave the rest of your money at home.

- John Moltz, A very mild defense of in-app purchases


Plants vs Zombies 2 lets players purchase in-game content in a variety of ways, using an effective mix of unlockables, skips, in-game currency, as well as real-world items from its online store.

Plants vs Zombies 2 also uses banner advertisements to advertise its own content with flash sales, and allows players to purchase items not sold directly in the store, such as by-passing requirements to progress in the game. 

While none of these strategies are original to only Plants vs Zombies 2, its mix of strategies surely one of the most complex and multi-layered.  Plants vs Zombies 2 can easily be played without spending a cent but attempts to entice players to go the extra mile. 

App Developers looking at freemium should study this game closely.