Like a game of Plants vs. Zombies died so a Star Wars game could live (and then die, too)

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In the latter half of 2016, a small team of developers at PopCap Vancouver were preparing for a presentation that would determine the future of their team, their project, and potentially an already much-loved franchise: Plants vs. Zombies.

For the past year, they had been working on a new Plants vs. zombies that would take the saga in a very different direction. Although they had the approval of EA for their work until that moment, it was not a guarantee that the project would end up seeing the light, especially because of how ambitious it was.

it was called Project Hot Tub, a humorous but vague reference to the 2010 film Hot Tub Time Machine. It was going to be an action-adventure game with the “open corridor” progression of an Uncharted, the Batman: Arkham Knight-style combat, but the familiar vibes of a Ratchet & Clank. Project Hot Tub featured a pair of teenage brothers thrown back in time by a zombie corruption experiment, teaming up with familiar plants from the Plants vs. Zombies to fight zombie enemies in multiple historical eras. The project represented a huge leap for a franchise that until then had been limited to tower defense games and third-person shooters, and could help EA gain muscle, as its single-player family adventure category was very popular. limited.

Project Hot Tub was internally planned for a late 2017 release. As we now know, never materialized. But it is not necessarily because the project had problems. In fact, everything we know about Project Hot Tub indicates that its ideas, its development and its progression went from strength to strength until its cancellation. He hadn’t had budget problems, no deadlines, no scope, or other obvious obstacles to indicate he was in trouble.

But sometimes even the most promising projects are abandoned for unexpected reasons. In the case of Project Hot Tub, IGN understands that it was closed to allocate more resources to Visceral’s Star Wars project…which itself was canceled shortly after.

IGN has viewed and verified a number of internal visual and written materials related to Project Hot Tub., and has spoken to multiple sources familiar with its development. As far as we know, Project Hot Tub was a passion project, made by a group of people who loved the Plants vs. Zombies and that they wanted to use their world to tell an emotional and resonant story about family and friendship. His work on Project Hot Tub and the team’s subsequent disbandment is a fascinating example of how many interesting game projects are canceled before the public finds out about them, and often not for the reasons we expect.

A boy and his plant

The development of Project Hot Tub started around 2015According to our sources, with EA offering a small group of developers the chance to try and incubate something new for the Plants vs. zombie. The group consisted of about thirty individuals, most of them very experienced with EA’s Frostbite engine. Many of them loved the Plants vs. Zombies and wanted to take it to the next level after the success of Garden Warfare.

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What they came up with was Project Hot Tub, an action-adventure game with a story centered around a teenager named Eddie and his bond with one of the iconic plants from Plants vs. Zombies: Peashooter. According to project materials seen by IGN, the story of Project Hot Tub would follow Eddie and his sister Tessa on a summer trip to the popular PvZ town of Neighborville, where a zombie invasion quickly ruins their vacation plans. After Eddie befriends a friendly Peashooter, the two set off across town to take down the invasion’s leader, Zomboss, only to find themselves caught up in a nefarious time-travel plot that sends Tessa and a series of of iconic Neighborville locations through time. The majority of the adventure would follow Eddie and Peashooter as they chase zombies through different eras, fighting zombies in each era, and restoring Neighborville to its former glory. The two bond over the course of their adventures, and Eddie and Peashooter’s growing friendship serves as an important core to Project Hot Tub’s story.

IGN has seen and verified a snippet of nearly 20 minutes of gameplay in which Eddie and Peashooter are seen exploring a lush tropical pirate-themed area. It begins by demonstrating the way that Peashooter and Eddie work together to move and fight in a way neither of them could on their own. For example, when Eddie jumps off a high ledge, he can hang onto Peashooter’s leaves and use them as a glider. In combat, Peashooter’s close-range shooting abilities combine with Eddie’s movement to allow him to perform damaging combos against attacking zombies.

And Peashooter isn’t Eddie’s only sidekick. In the gameplay section we looked at, Eddie can freely switch between Peashooter, a Sunflower companion that can light up dark spaces, and a Chomper he finds that works as a slower, heavier melee attacker in combat, as well as something similar to a hook to cross large gaps.

Indeed, Project Hot Tub has already been leaked once.Although it did not cause much of a stir at the time. IGN has verified that the screenshots shared on the Internet last year are, in fact, images from the early stages of development of Project Hot Tub showing the same tropical zone that we saw in the cut, albeit in a development phase. much earlier. Interestingly, the Twitter account that initially posted the footage was removed while IGN was investigating this game; nevertheless, tweets referring to the gameas well as the original source of the screenshots, can still be viewed via the Internet Archive.

Although Eddie was the main character in Project Hot Tub, wasn’t the only playable character. Project Hot Tub’s plot centered around the family bond with Tessa, which grew stronger as they both stepped out of their comfort zones and grew throughout the story. Tessa was also playable, albeit in a smaller part of the game than Eddie. Along with the Thyme plant, which she spins time, she was the protagonist of some minor sections of Project Hot Tub, although her role was not as developed as Eddie’s when she left work on the game. Eddie and his crew (which was also planned to include a Bonk Choy plant) would battle Neighborville’s zombies and travel back in time to the Wild West, the aforementioned pirate island, and the far future, while Tessa would star in a segment of the game set in the Middle Ages, as well as a handful of other sections.

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franchise horticulture

The development of Project Hot Tub came in an important crossroads for the Plants vs. zombie. Following its initial success as a tower defense game in 2009 and its subsequent 2013 sequel, 2014’s Garden Warfare, it had taken the series in a new direction with the addition of a third-person shooter. The gender change was well received, but it did not change the general public perception that Plants vs. Zombies was fundamentally a children’s franchise. It was fun, to be sure, and quite popular, but it didn’t exactly make a splash with its narrative depth and emotion, and it didn’t really fit in with the rest of EA’s portfolio, which at the time included Titanfall 2, Battlefield 1, The Sims 4. and the usual annual sports lineup.

While some games continue to target children with great success, our sources say that the Project Hot Tub team didn’t see their current audience as a limitation, but rather as an opportunity for further growth. What if they could create something that encompassed the childish silliness that Plants vs. Zombies and, at the same time, give its world emotion, narrative and depth? What if they could create a Plants vs. Zombies that was not for children, but for the whole family?

What if they could make a Plants vs. Zombies that was not for children, but for the whole family?

As further proof of this concept, the Project Hot Tub team had one more ace up their sleeve: a short animation. They hired an outside studio to produce Pixar-inspired animation to accompany their presentation, with the intention of establishing an objective look for the final product. It showed how a relationship between a teenager and a sentient plant could emerge in the midst of a comical but threatening zombie attack on a suburban neighborhood.

With a vertical cut, an animated short, a development plan, and a lot of hope, by the end of 2016, Project Hot Tub was ready to be shown to EA executives. But what the team didn’t know going into that presentation was that the fate of their project would ultimately be determined not by what they told EA, but for the needs of a completely different team and project in another part of the company.

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The room where it happened

A few representatives of the Project Hot Tub team were dispatched with all of the aforementioned material to the company’s headquarters in Redwood, taking their work to CEO Andrew Wilson, Assassin’s Creed co-creator Jade Raymond (who ran the Project segment EA’s Hot Tub at the time) and a few others. They had prepared the presentation in advance with their colleagues, knowing that they had to prove that they could do the unusual narrative adventure they were presenting. Despite his lofty goals, the Project Hot Tub team felt confident that what they had done was good enoughconvincing and interesting to keep his ambitious project going.

The presentation took place, and our sources tell us that the rest of the team learned from their representatives in Redwood that it had been very well received. However, in the following days they were informed that Project Hot Tub was closing and the team was moving to a much larger project that EA executives had determined needed his skills the most: Visceral’s Star Wars. But the Visceral project was canceled a year later, and the former members of Project Hot Tub scattered throughout the publisher’s many internal studios.

The Plants vs. franchise Zombies has since continued without Project Hot Tub, seeing two more Garden Warfare shooters, a collectible card game, and a tower defense sequel in Plants vs. 2019’s Zombies 3 (which has been in beta limbo ever since). Notably, there has been no return to an adventure title. We reached out to EA for comment prior to this story, asking among other things if they had any plans to revive Project Hot Tub or take the series in a similar direction in the future. EA did not respond to our request for comment on Project Hot Tub in time for publication.

Although game projects can be canceled for various reasons (budget, scope, technology, financial risk, etc.), it appears that Project Hot Tub’s closure was not because any specific element of its proposal or work to date was unsatisfactory. , at least based on the feedback the team received. In this case, it was simply the decision makers choosing to allocate the resources to something else. In fact, this is probably a situation that occurs quite frequently in many AAA studies– Projects are shelved in favor of more urgently needed resources, teams are scattered, and hundreds of game ideas (good, bad, and in-between) never make it to public announcement, let alone release.

Today, we can only imagine what could have been, and wonder if the franchise Plants vs. Zombies will ever be ready to take such an ambitious direction again in the future.