Black Hat Gamification and the Fall of Plants vs. Zombies 2

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Why Plants vs. Zombies 2 Failed to Engage Gamers

Motivation Matters: An Insightful Lesson in Game Development from the Plants vs. Zombies Franchise

Author Bio

This interview was conducted by Clark Buckner from (they provide coverage content on gamifying sales programs, customer loyalty solutions, employee engagement platforms and much more). Also, be sure to check out their Technology Conferences Calendar.

To check out the interview in full:

Yu-Kai Chou, a thought leader in gamification and publisher of the Octalysis gamification framework, gave insights into the different motivating drivers behind the wild success of mobile game Plants vs. Zombies, white hat and black hat gamification, and the essential elements for engaging users.

Yu-kai believes the reason Plants vs. Zombies 1 (PvZ1) was more successful than Plants vs. Zombies 2 (PvZ2) is that, even though the game is essentially the same but with some new “stuff” to make the sequel more interesting, the core experience of PvZ2 is broken. (Note, the analysis here is mostly based on the PvZ2 in 2013. In 2014, there was a large overhaul that improved some of the issues, but still far from ideal).

For him, no game is guaranteed success if it misses the essence of the game (especially in the wake of a wildly successful game) and the motivation of its players to play the game. Game mechanics and other elements can be copied from a previously winning formula, but that doesn’t guarantee a hit.

To verify his opinions, Yu-kai researched why casual gamers tended to play PvZ1 more than they did PvZ2. He used his own Octalysis Gamification Framework to break motivation down into a few of the eight Core Drives. Essentially, he discovered that PvZ 2 shifted from using white hat core drives to black hat core drives. 

White Hat Core Drives in Plants vs Zombies 1 Lacking in Plants vs Zombies 2 

Core Drive 1: Epic Meaning and Calling

In PvZ1, a gamer’s doing something meaningful by saving their home. This is something that even female demographics that don’t care about fighting games can resonate to. In PvZ2, the gamer’s going through pain and trouble just so Crazy Dave can re-eat a taco. When a player is in the midst of danger, sometimes it feels fairly pointless. 

Core Drive 2: Development and Accomplishment

PvZ1 is very careful with flow. After one or two minutes, a user may have three or four peashooters. They’re slowly but surely amassing a stockpile and building their economy. When a user gets to the end of the game, they have a full army. Ultimately, this gives gamers a feeling of harmony and accomplishment, matched with the magic of the beats in the music.

In PvZ2, the user quickly gains 10 or 12 plants, providing a quick boost of early success and productivity. However, when the user gets to the end of the game, the economy proportionally slows down but the user’s still trying to finish amassing their army of plants. As a result, this makes gamers feel like they’re struggling to survive. 

Here is an example of how the flow differs:

Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity and Feedback

PvZ1 offers a creative process with numerous ways and combinations to seek victory in the game.

PvZ2 limits options. A gamer must use certain plants or else they’ll die. In the first world of mummies, if the user tries the pea shooter or even double pea shooter, chances are he will lose because of the tombs. The game has to be won by using cabbage throwers and boomerangs. Certainly, when a game forces a user to play in a certain way, the elements of play, strategy, and meaningful choices are lacking, consequently making the game boring.

Yu-kai further identified the notable differences in Milestone Unlocks:

When a PvZ 1 player unlocks a milestone achievement, they’re rewarded with the perfect plant that solves all past problems and makes them want to try more in the future.

In the older version of PvZ2, a player is forced to earn the achievement through unlocking a stage many times. It’s more about scarcity and dangling rewards. Plus, the user’s rewarded with a random plant that’s seldom what they need, adding to the slow grind of gameplay in PvZ2. In the later update, this has improved, but the plant unlockable schedule is still far from perfect for motivation.

The Black Hat Core Drives of Plants vs Zombies 2

Core Drive 6: Scarcity and Impatience 

In the first version of PvZ2 player plays the same stage over and over again, earning keys for a far-off goal. It ultimately overwhelms a player’s patience. The second version of PvZ2 improved on that, especially with multi-world transferring, but the dangling technique is still apparent.

Core Drive 7: Unpredictability and Curiosity

PvZ2 is unpredictable in that it takes players into different zones, driving fascination with these “crazy” elements, and making Crazy Dave’s conversation a center piece of the game (whereas in PvZ1 Crazy Dave was not as important besides playing the role of a merchant).

Black Hat Gamification vs. White Hat Gamification

In generally, even though game firms like Zynga consider their development process as “data-driven design,” a lot of it is black hat gamification, or a focus on creating urgency, obsession, and addictiveness in users. Metrics for black hat gamification include monetization, addiction, retention rates, and sharing with friends. 

Black hat games ultimately leave players with a not-so-good experience. So, they end up playing just an hour or two, then leave the game and never come back.

Yu-kai contrasted that to white hat gamification, where developers use motivating factors in gaming to make people feel good without a sense of urgency.

Chou’s eight Core Drives help developers see games as more than just mechanics. Instead, game developers need to look at the users’ motivation to play their games:

  • Does the game make people feel accomplished?
  • Does the game let people make meaningful choices?
  • Is there epic meaning and calling?
  • Is there unpredictability in the experience?

How to Better Employ Engagement

Yu-kai outlined the different factors that are essential to employing engagement: 

  • Meaning: He explained that many campaigns are about scarcity and fixed-action rewards that drive motivated actions. However, this is not long-term motivation because people don’t feel good after playing such a game—as opposed to white hat gamification which stresses meaning.
  • Development and Accomplishment: Developers ought to very carefully control flow so that it begins slowly but increases in difficulty as a gamer’s experience increases. Gamers don’t want to feel insulted or frustrated by a hard game. 
  • Meaningful Choices: Give people meaningful choices where they can customize their play and environment to make the game more interesting and more fun. The multi-world hopping is a great improvement in this, which is what made the game Megaman so innovative in the early days.

Ultimately, meaning is very important as to why people engage with certain games. Unfortunately, there are many products and resources that describe what you need to do in game development and seldom explain the “why” behind it.

For more information on Chou’s Octalysis Gamification Framework and its 8 Core Drives, visit, or send Yu-Kai Chou an email to get certified. Connect with him on Twitter @yukaichou.

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16 thoughts on “Black Hat Gamification and the Fall of Plants vs. Zombies 2”

  1. Every business aspires to achieve sustainable growth, success and remain competitive. It is thus crucial for business leaders to understand the importance of developing and nurturing the potential of their employees. Ever-changing IT landscape has ensued talent development is indispensible part of employee on-boarding process. Employee training is paramount for most of the organizations today.

  2. I have missed virtually all of the “app” games. Probably would have helped if I had had a smart phone sooner. 🙂

  3. minionzombie You should try Tapslayer: Alice in Zombieland if you’re for some awesome and intense zombie killing! 😀

  4. I love both the games. But for me, nothing beats the classic. I got hooked to Plants vs Zombies 1 and would lose sleep because of it haha well, that’s only for me. 🙂

    btw guys, can i ask for other zombie games I could play? thanks!!

  5. Yu-kai Chou Grue Exactly, it was an afterthought the game was designed and almost ready to go when the mandate came down to change the monetization. There are many great freemium game, the trick is they were designed that way from the getgo.

  6. @Zwerver Ah, I now know why you disagree with many things. Again, I didn’t write the article, haha. Just did the voice interview. Now I am reading the article, and I too feel like I didn’t say many of the things that were explained there. I modified much of the article now to fit to what I originally wanted to say and clear up some stuff. Also, Zynga did not make PvZ2….that was a misunderstanding from the interview too. I was wondering why you got confused, haha…
    Good thoughts and analysis!

  7. @Zwerver Thanks for the analysis.
    I don’t think Zynga made a PvZ clone…though they employ many black hat techniques.
    For CD1, actually, the meaning of the game changed significantly from PvZ1 to PvZ2. PvZ1, you are defending your HOME, which means that even female demographics that don’t like fighting games can resonate with. It was not about defeating Dr. Zomboss since the character isn’t prominently introduced until later anyway. The second one is also not about defeating Zomboss but more about Crazy Dave messing with a time machine to re-eat a taco. It only eventually became a quest to fight Zomboss, but the meaning and purpose is not obtained when playing. Not many people have defeating Zomboss in mind when they play other stages IMO.

    For development and accomplishment, and “boosts” I am talking about the flow of each game. I didn’t write this summary article, so perhaps it could be rephrased as “A user quickly obtains many plants. Check this video to understand what I’m talking about:
    Keep in mind, PvZ2 went through a MASSIVE overhaul in the past year, and it made some improvements to the problem. Before, you couldn’t world hop and you need to fight the same stages over and over to get the keys to unlock routes to certain plants. They have improved since then. But even the design right now, in the ONBOARDING phase, you are given pea shooters and cabbage throwers. With all the grave stones, Pea Shooters, even double pea shooters, are pretty useless. You have to use Cabbage Throwers and Boomerangs to not lose. Later on, and in the big overhaul, strategy does become more interesting in later Scaffolding, but the merit is still on PvZ1 designing, instead of good PvZ2 innovation.
    PvZ2 deliberately uses a lot more black hat so people would pay money to ease it. PvZ1 was pay to play, and so once you buy it, it is white hat and lots of fun. PvZ2 was pay to win, so they needed to make things frustrating. The flow is tougher, they make you grind more to unlock plants and power-ups with the Dangling technique (this is more apparent in the early worse version)…CD6, crazy and unpredictable dialogues and exploring new worlds (CD7), and there is WAY more tension of losing in this game than PvZ1. 
    Since the nature of the game has not changed much regarding CD4 Ownership in my opinion, I do not bring that up much. Google+ sharing is CD5, but I don’t think it’s very strong or well designed…

  8. AlfiOloo Thanks for the kind words Alfi. Hope to collaborate with South Africa organizations more. I spent 6 years of my life living there (from 2 to 8 years old) and missed it!

  9. Grue Thanks for the thoughts. Yes, one of the issue is that it changed to Freemium, but many freemium games are fun too. The way they designed the Freemium was less than ideal, and could be improved upon a lot.

  10. The key problem to PVZ2 was the fact that it was originally designed as a Premium game and EA came in and forced the developers to take a complete Idea, shatter it and cram Freemium things into the game. Many of the developers and artists left Popcap because of the EA management trying to ruin a good thing. There were amazing people who worked on this game, and it had great potential, but EA really caused it to fail, if they would have let Popcap do what it was good at it would have been a success.

  11. Although i am not really a fan of these types of games, (i.e. plants vs zombies, badlands, angry birds and flappy bird. basically most addictive games) I have gained a new found respect for them after seeing how much thought goes into the making of these games. using the “octalysis looking-glass”  understand the concepts and intentions a lot better of the game creators.

    I agrees with It would be great to have Yu-Kai Chou in South Africa some time.

  12. I find it extremely interesting how Yu-Kai Chou was able to classify the types of motivation, i.e. Black Hat and White Hat. It also intrigued me how he showed the relevance of the Black Hat design vs the White Hat design with Plants vs Zombies 1 and 2. Whilst he exploited the White Hat principles that PvZ2 lacked from PvZ1, he also showed which core drives replaced them and how they negatively affected the game. I only recently started following Yu-Kai’s blog and started learning about gamification, and yet it feels like it has become such an integral part of my life of how you can make a system motivate people to work and achieve things. Positive reinforcement is what it is more commonly known as.

    I would love for Yu-Kai to come present a Gamification workshop here in South Africa and for his way of thinking to be implemented here. It would definitely provide a solid foundation for companies to motivate and expand.

  13. @Zwerver Two excellently argued points that really got me thinking. I cannot add much to the conversation as I did not play PvZ2 – although that in itself might be a testament to the fact that the first game just had something about it that caught consumers’ attention.

  14. Although I like your posts now I must disagree with this one. I play both Plants versus Zombies games from Popcap Games (not Zynga) and I do not recognise some points made. Is there another game (from Zynga) that is different from the Popcap version perhaps? I played the first game on a Windows pc and the second game on an Android tablet.
    Core Drive 1: Epic Meaning and Calling
    The story changed from home defending to defeating Dr. Zomboss, the boss from the first game, in different worlds / timezones. This seems a continuation of the storyline / quest from the first game. Defending your brain from not being eaten is still the main goal during gameplay though.
    Core Drive 2: Development and Accomplishment
    I cannot find the “boost” of multiple plants anywhere in the game. Are we talking different games here? Building up your defence is still the core of the game, with the difference that during midgame / endgame your choices of plants to use in a level has expanded because you won new plants during gameplay.
    Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity and Feedback
    I do not recognize anything mentioned with this core drive, and do not agree with the “limited options” conclusion.
    Different milestones can be achieved in different world which expands the strategic possibilities without depending on the “perfect plant” when stuck in a level in one world. The Zen Garden feature has expanded with more options to boost your plants for one level. Also one can pay (in-game money) for using limited-time actions in situations of need, like swiping zombies away on your tablet for ten seconds.
    There seems to be in-game purchases for other things but I never did in-game purchases.
    Core Drive 6: Scarcity and Impatience
    Stages differ in opponents and goals. What stages are mentioned here?
    Core Drive 7: Unpredictability and Curiosity
    I agree, although I wouldn’t call it Black Hat. The game is predictable but the result of the “special events” are often not.
    You forgot to mention Core Drive 8: ownership.
    You can share show off your game achievements on Google+ to other people. Maybe this is actually Black Hat 🙂
    I admit that I’m a newbie with gammification analyses so I’m open to any suggestions of my misinterpretation of the given facts. Nevertheless I cannot find the facts myself I cannot agree with the conclusions based on only part of the game, another game or perhaps a demo game…

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