It's easy to believe that video game publishers such as Electronic Arts are full of cartoon villains, which is why people were so quick to share a recent rumour about the publisher firing Plants vs. Zombies' creator for refusing to make the sequel pay-to-win. The truth, as always, is far more complicated than that.
The rumour started over the weekend on a podcast called Roundtable Live, where Binding of Isaac director Edmund McMillen told a story about one of his friends, George Fan. McMillen said:
This is a semi-unknown story and I hope I'm not stepping on toes with it... It involves a friend of mine George Fan. George made a game called Insaniquarium, he made it ages ago, and it won a lot of awards. He got headhunted by Popcap, and Popcap hired him, sent him off with two more people in a small office and said, "Hey, make a game." And he said, "OK I'm gonna make Plants vs. Zombies." And he made Plants vs. Zombies. It was hugely successful.
They got acquired by EA. EA made that game even more successful. And then they were like, "OK we're gonna focus on this and we're gonna make a sequel, spinoffs, this this and this." George was like, "Great, I've got an idea for a sequel." He developed this game independently as well, an independent mindset with a small team of people. It was personal. Knowing the guy I can see: The characters are personal, every bit and piece is something from him, so it was his baby.
And they're like, "Hey let's make the sequel, we're gonna put it on mobile, and we're gonna do this 'pay to win'." And he's like, "Ah I don't know, that's not a good idea, I don't really want to do that with my game," and they said, "You're fired." And he left... This is such a newsworthy thing, and it's frustrated me for years that there's not news stories about this.
Yesterday, this anecdote popped up on Reddit, where it skyrocketed to the front page with over 17,000 points. News outlets such as IGN picked up the story, too. After a month full of outrage over Star Wars Battlefront 2's pay-to-win microtransactions, fans were primed to rage at EA yet again.
But is the story true? When I reached out to George Fan yesterday, he said he'd provide a statement Wednesday morning, which he did, writing on Twitter: "Regarding recent rumors, it is true I was laid off by EA/PopCap, and also true that I was against making PvZ2 a freemium game. That's all I'll say on the matter for now."
Some saw this as confirmation of McMillen's story, but a closer look at Fan's tweet makes it clear that he is not drawing correlation between getting laid off and being against making Plants vs. Zombies 2 free-to-play. (Fan did not respond to requests for elaboration.)
Two former high-level Popcap employees both told me a different story entirely. Fan was let go, they said, as part of a larger set of layoffs in August 2012 that left 50 Popcap employees out of jobs. During these layoffs, Popcap decided to close its office in San Mateo, California, where Fan had worked with two other people. The decision was made by Popcap's management, the sources said, and it came after months of discussion and debate.
In short, those sources said, Fan's ethos as an indie game developer conflicted with the new corporate structure of EA, which had purchased Popcap in the winter of 2011. He didn't mesh well with the massive corporation. It was true that Fan didn't want to make "freemium" games, the sources said, but he wasn't working on Plants vs. Zombies 2 - he was working on other projects.
Fan lost interest in Plants vs. Zombies when EA began envisioning it as a massive franchise, the sources said, and he spent time on new ideas, such as a game with the brilliant title Full Contact Bingo. When it became clear that Popcap's future would revolve around making free-to-play games with microtransactions, Fan no longer fit in.
A third former Popcap employee, Allen Murray, told a similar story on Twitter:
Wow. Hey @edmundmcmillen, I was the producer of PvZ2 and that story was not even close to the truth. It's a bummer that something false like this came out second hand. I'm happy to chat offline...
Cool. Since this picked up some traction, I should state the facts that I know. I was the lead producer from Jan '12 to launch in July '13, about 18mo. George was never involved during the time I worked on the project. He was working on a different game, which was super fun!
But it never launched. George was unfortunately part of the layoffs in Aug '12, but I know none of the details surrounding his departure. In Oct '12 there was a change in franchise leadership that mandated a shift to f2p mobile.
Despite concerns about the design change, I'm proud of the work me and my team did. George created a great game that we built upon and I was sad to see him go. I'm excited for his new endeavour and wish everyone the best of luck!
In other words, there were no cartoon villains at EA cackling maniacally and firing anyone who refused to make their games pay-to-win. EA might be a multi-billion-dollar publisher whose interests lie primarily in making as much money as possible, but this was a nuanced, complicated situation involving multiple sides and perspectives. As always.