Can free-to-play games get the balance right? A Plants vs Zombies 2 investigation

With only Katherine having to deal with stars, she questioned, "Why don't you get them first?". But at "only £2.99" for what she saw as a lot of "new content", she gladly moved on, caring little for the uncollected stars.

Robert's still playing, oblivious to what came before, but has never felt at a huge disadvantage against someone who would be willing to pay out for all the available upgrades. He felt "the game supplied enough for me not to pay", and would gladly continue as a casual "toilet or travel game".

Overall Katherine saw some of the IAP elements a "moneygrabby" yet "necessary evil". In single-player games like PvZ2 she sees it as "acceptable as I'm not gaining advantage [over others]". These "extras" she saw as "probably the best way to make money" in a free game, emphasising that these purchases are entirely optional and that she didn't at all mind paying forward.

Katherine has since downloaded of her own volition, the removal of the star system a "very, very welcome" update, and almost literally hasn't put it down since.


Greed isn't good

Kirk Mckeand, mobile expert and columnist for, told us that he believes PvZ is among the minority of free-to-play games getting it right at the moment.

"Finding the balance in F2P is difficult and, in my experience, not many games do it right," he said. "The way PvZ2 approaches F2P, however, is much more acceptable than most. Although the spikes in difficulty are there to tempt the player into paying, it's at least optional, with grinding there as an alternative.

"Energy systems exist in other games, completely barring any progress unless you either wait or pay and, once you experience it first-hand, the optional extras of PvZ don't seem so bad. If people are enjoying a free game, the option to give the developer some money is welcome for most people.

"It's in the targeting of whales when F2P ethics become murky. It's easy to think the people spending silly money on uncapped transactions are silly, but many of these games are targeted at children."

PopCap's removal of the star system with the Christmas update is a grandly welcome gesture that's filleted out the muckier gubbins. That delicious gooey zombie centre is still there and as impulsive as ever, but it feels as though someone has realised something important: freemium games shouldn't make the non-paying player feel disadvantaged.

Tony Leamer, product marketing manager for PvZ 2 told us: "We were hearing from a lot of players that it was simply too difficult to get from one world to the next, so we wanted to make that experience available to more players."

He added: "Our approach has always been to create fun, accessible experiences, then to listen to our players and fans to make these even better."

The need for F2P to monetise will invariably rub up against the flow of gameplay, but as far as this practice goes it seems especially with this new update, PopCap is learning and has demonstrated a real caution in keeping Plants vs. Zombies unblemished. It's just a shame that the same can't be said for a lot of other free-to-play games out there at the moment.

  • Want to know the best iOS games out at the moment? Then head over here.