From a fan's point of view, EA's support of Switch has had its ups and downs since Nintendo's hybrid console launched four years ago. Solid releases such as Burnout Paradise Remastered and show that the publisher isn't averse to supporting the console, although looking at the last few years of FIFA on Switch is enough to make any football fan weep.
Fortunately, it appears that no small amount of effort has gone into bringing manic third-person team shooter Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville Complete Edition to the console. For the Switch version, developer PopCap enlisted not only port specialists QLOC (who brought the excellent Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice and Dragon's Dogma to Switch), but also EA's Frostbite Engine team. That's right — this multiplayer Plants vs. Zombies shooter is the debut of EA's in-house engine on Nintendo hardware.
What are the chances we’ll see other Frostbite-powered games from EA’s back catalogue on Switch in the future, then? Well, Melvin Teo — lead producer at Popcap Vancouver and EA veteran of games such franchises as Need for Speed, Battlefield, UFC and Star Wars Battlefront — wasn't able to answer that one, unfortunately. However, he was at liberty to answer various other questions about the challenges of bringing the game and engine to Switch, working with other teams during the pandemic, and finally bringing PopCap's particular brand of garden warfare back to Nintendo consoles after a decade away...
Nintendo Life: We couldn’t quite believe it, but this is the first Plants vs. Zombies game to come to a Nintendo console since the DS version of the very original game ten years ago! How long have you been working on the Switch version of Battle for Neighborville, and how come it’s been so long since we’ve had the pleasure of PvZ on a Nintendo console?
Melvin Teo, Lead Producer: First of all, we are thrilled that Battle for Neighborville is finally arriving on the Nintendo Switch! It’s been a long time coming, and something that we’ve always intended to do. We’ve been working on this version of the game for about one and a half years, starting from early prototyping all the way to launch. And you’re right, we haven’t had a Plants vs. Zombies game on a Nintendo console since the DS version, and that’s quite surprising. They have a lot in common — they are very family friendly, full of wonderful characters and always provide tons of fun, accessible gameplay.
But as the saying goes, better late than never. For Nintendo players who haven’t tried Battle for Neighborville on the other platforms, or perhaps those looking to experience it once again in fresh new ways, Battle for Neighborville is a great way to have some fun in the PvZ universe.
The Switch version carries the subtitle ‘Complete Edition’ – can you give us a quick overview of what’s included over previous versions of the game?
The Complete Edition contains all the launch and post-launch content that was ever released in Battle for Neighborville, including all the maps, modes and characters. Also, all content previously offered on other platforms as paid DLC or microtransactions are still unlockable in the Rux’s Emporium, but now with coins earned just by playing the game. The only stuff not included are the exclusive Founder’s rewards that were given to our early community of players with the initial launch of Battle for Neighborville.
all content previously offered on other platforms as paid DLC or microtransactions are still unlockable in the Rux’s Emporium, but now with coins earned just by playing the game
We’ve also made all the prize maps available from the get-go, again with the goal of making all our content as accessible as possible for our players. With the prize map feature, players basically earn prize bulbs from gameplay and use them to unlock tons of cool prizes. Since Battle for Neighborville launched, we’ve added a new prize map every month to a total of 12 maps. For the Switch version, the new prize map selector feature lets players choose from any of those maps at any time, and get the prizes that they want.
There’s a ton of amazing and wacky outfits and customization items for players to chase and unlock, and it’s really satisfying to collect them all. It’s a straight-forward, all-in-one version of the game without any additional purchases required. And we’ve added new features specific to the Switch version such as offline support, motion controls and touch menus. It’s pretty much the most complete version of Battle for the Neighborville ever released, hence the name.
PvZ:BfN has the distinction of being the first game running on the Frostbite engine to come to Switch. The console just passed its fourth birthday and we imagine that we’d have seen Frostbite games before now were it an easy job! Can you give us some insight into the technical challenges you faced getting the engine up and running on Switch’s mobile chipset?
We are delighted to bring the Frostbite engine to this console, and it’s been a lot of hard work to get there. As you know, Frostbite powers many EA games and delivers an amazing level of fidelity, so we had a big challenge in front of us to bring that over to the Switch. As well, Battle for Neighborville is such a colorful, vibrant game with lovable characters and fun, accessible third person shooter gameplay, and it was important to retain the essence of what makes PvZ such a unique series.
Our first months were spent just making Battle for Neighborville load and run successfully on the Switch, and writing a brand new rendering layer. After that was done, we focused heavily on performance optimization across the board to quickly get to a place where we could properly do playtesting and tweak the game for both the handheld and docked modes of play. Things like motion controls, aiming, UI/UX and A.I. balancing are much harder to do when the game isn’t running at 20fps at least. Once we got there though, it was much better and we could spend more time polishing loose ends and improving the overall experience. Now, the game runs at 30fps, looks and plays great, with all the charm of Plants vs. Zombies in it.
We understand that you worked with QLOC on the port, too. Given the unusual events of the past year, how did that interaction between the PvZ and Frostbite teams (and QLOC) work in practice? Lots of Zoom calls and emails, or was there a chance for more direct collaboration?
[QLOC] are super collaborative and professional, and just a great group of people. We had a couple of visits between Warsaw and Vancouver before the pandemic hit, and the teams just clicked
It’s the first time we’ve ever worked with QLOC, and it was a blast. They are super collaborative and professional, and just a great group of people. We had a couple of visits between Warsaw and Vancouver before the pandemic hit, and the teams just clicked together. We learnt a lot from them as well; they are very experienced with the Switch platform, and were able to bring a lot of those learnings with them to Battle for Neighborville.
This was pretty much a co-development effort by both teams, so we worked closely on a day-to-day basis through Zoom, Slack, emails etc. Certainly the past year has been tough on everyone and made many things trickier to manage, but it also forced us to quickly adapt our development processes to make remote working as optimal as possible for everyone. Adjusting our work hours to accommodate the time zone differences and personal work/life situations for each team member, finding ways to communicate asynchronously and getting things done, reviewing the game quality and playtesting together — it’s been a very rewarding project to work on from a production perspective.
Naturally, players will compare the Switch version with the versions running on more powerful hardware. How does the Switch port measure up framerate/resolution/player count-wise?
The Switch version of Battle for Neighborville runs at 900p in docked mode and 720p in handheld mode, at 30fps. In terms of number of players, our biggest multiplayer game modes like Turf Takeover will support up to 8v8 players, compared to 12v12 on other consoles. We felt that this provided the right balance between performance and gameplay without any major compromises.
We’ve heard that progression has been tweaked for the Switch version, too. Does that prevent cross-progression with other platforms? Is cross-play a feature?
That’s correct, cross-progression and cross-play are not supported for Battle for Neighborville, primarily due to a number of changes we’ve made to the Switch version. Like you mentioned, one of the key reasons is that the progression and economy of the game has changed. We’ve removed Rainbow Stars which is our premium currency — since there are no more microtransactions — and adjusted our coin economy so players earn coins faster and items from the Reward-O-Tron-9000 now cost less to get. There are also more ways to spend coins, since all the items in Rux’s Emporium now require coins to unlock.
Beyond that, the differences between the Switch version and other versions in frame rates, control schemes and maximum number of players in a multiplayer match, as well as the changes we’ve made to support offline play, make it tricky as well.
As you've mentioned, motion controls for aiming and touch menu inputs are present and correct, and it also supports offline play – something new to the Switch version. How easy was that to implement?
Offline support was a big change since the game was initially released as an online-only title that required a constant internet connection. And in all honesty, there was quite a bit of risk involved
Offline support was a big change since the game was initially released as an online-only title that required a constant internet connection. And in all honesty, there was quite a bit of risk involved when we made that decision. But we knew that it was needed if we wanted Battle for Neighborville to be a true portable experience since that’s obviously a big part of what makes the Switch console unique — being able to play whenever you want, wherever you want, however you want.
This meant a lot of design and engineering efforts to shift our progression and save data offline so players could level up and earn coins regardless of whether they’re playing online or offline. We also had to change many of our underlying systems to support this. Overall, I think the effort has been well worth it. Now our players can jump straight to Giddy Park, any of the PvE free-roam regions or private play, even if you’re offline, and then switch to online mode anytime via the pause menu and have some fun in our multiplayer game modes.
Comparatively, motion controls and touch menu support were a lot more straightforward to implement. The tricky part about motion controls is that it’s super subjective for each individual player, so what we did was to expose as many tweakable options as possible and let our players customize it to their liking. Motion controls are disabled by default, since it does take some getting used to and we didn’t want new players to potentially struggle with it while familiarizing themselves with the basic gameplay and controls, but you can enable it anytime via the settings menu.
What aspect of the Switch version are you most proud of?
It’s hard to pick one! Ultimately I think I’m most proud of the overall quality of the game. From the onset, we maintained that this was not just going to be a simple port, but a version of Battle for Neighborville that felt like it was always meant for the Switch, and that every aspect of the game was thoughtfully curated to deliver on that goal as much as possible. Everyone on the team worked incredibly hard to make this happen, and we are very happy with what we achieved.
Now that Switch has its first Plants vs. Zombies game, is it possible we could see the original 2009 game (or any others) come to the platform? We remember spending many, many hours repelling zombies on an iPad and Switch seems like it would be a great fit.
Right now we’re focused on bringing Battle for Neighborville to the Nintendo Switch and we couldn’t be more excited to see players playing Plants vs Zombies on this new platform.
Thanks to Melvin for his time. Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville Complete Edition is out on Switch today — look out for our review in the very near future.