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[Interview] Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville dev talks Switch port, Frostbite, offline play, more

Posted on March 14, 2021 by (@NE_Brian) in Interviews, Switch

Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville

Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville originally released towards the end of 2019, but the game is just now about to make its debut on Switch. EA will be releasing the title next week and it will arrive as the first Frostbite engine-enabled title on the platform. It’s more than just a simple port, as the team implemented features like motion controls and ensured that most of the experience can be played offline.

As we were eager to learn more about Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville on Switch, we recently spoke with Melvin Teo. You can read our full discussion below, which touches on topics like Frostbite, how it was adjusted for the console, and more. 

Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville is just now coming to Switch, about a year and a half after its original launch. How did the Switch version come together?

The truth is that we’ve always wanted to do the Switch version – I think even right from the very beginning of the project when we first started working on Battle for Neighborville. At the time, we didn’t have the right opportunity or necessarily the right team set up to do so, so it was only until late 2019 when we first started, we formed a team specifically dedicated towards the Switch version of Battle for Neighborville. It’s taken us about a year and a half to finally bring it over, but we’re very excited that it’s finally arriving on the Switch.

That’s pretty impressive considering the lockdown.

The global pandemic really took us by surprise. I think we had initially started some initial preparations for remote game development in the event that we had to do so, but even when the studios had to be closed and we couldn’t go back to work together as a team, it was still a big change and a shock to the system. It’s obviously not particular to our team, but game studios across the world had to figure out the best ways to work remotely, and it’s been a learning experience for us, but I feel like the team has really done well all things considered to find the right way to work together and to release a game that we are very proud of.

This is being touted as one of the first games to run the Frostbite engine on Switch. What sort of technical work went into making the game possible on Nintendo’s console?

A huge part of our development efforts was towards making the game run well and look good on the Nintendo Switch, and obviously a big part of that effort was to making the Frostbite engine compatible and optimized for the platform. Being the first Frostbite title, there were a lot of growing pains, and there was a huge learning curve in terms of how to make the engine best run on the console. We had a lot of help and support from the Frostbite central teams and their tools teams to quickly understand what we could achieve with the platform in terms of, again – graphics, storage, and memory, and stuff like that. Ultimately, we partnered together with them to achieve the best possible result that we could.

We also had help from QLOC – they are a developer based in Warsaw, Poland. They’re very experienced working on Switch optimization and ports, so co-developing with them was great because they could offer us a lot of prior experience and expertise, and that certainly helped us a lot and they were wonderful partners to work with as well.

So overall, obviously there were lots of technical challenges that we needed to solve along the way, but it was a very fruitful journey. We learned a lot about the platform and about the Frostbite engine.

Now that the engine is supported on Switch, do you feel as though this could open the door to other Frostbite-made games on the platform?

I can’t speak for the rest of the company, but as a player, I certainly hope so. There are some amazing Frostbite titles out there, some of which I think would be perfect for the Switch platform. As a player I would love for that to happen, but I can’t say for the rest of the company.

You mentioned that the partnership with QLOC was pretty extraordinary. Can you give any details on that and how that entire process was?

We knew that we wanted some extra help in terms of getting the team stood up to work specifically on the Switch version. We knew that we wanted to leverage any help that had prior Switch experience, and QLOC was one of the companies we looked at, and they certainly fit the bill. Once we got to know them better, it was even better because they are extremely collaborative. I think we worked together really well.

Obviously there’s a time difference – I think it was nine hours – but we made it work. They would stay late and had Zoom calls, and we would do the same – come in early to do so and to work with them. And throughout the day we would communicate asynchronously via Slack or email or stuff like that. But yeah, they ramped up on Frostbite very quickly. They are the first external group that actually touched Frostbite code – working with an EA studio – so we’re very excited for that as well. It was fun. I really enjoyed working with them on Battle for Neighborville.

Are there any specific ways in which the game was adjusted for Switch to make the game run?

I think there are a couple of key changes that we made specifically to the Switch version. Right from the beginning we knew that we wanted to make the Switch version of Battle for Neighborville feel like it was always meant for the console, it was a perfect fit for the console. We believe PvZ is a perfect fit. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s quirky, it’s very family-friendly, and great fun with your friends. We also knew that we wanted to optimize and take advantage of everything that the Switch has in terms of motion controls and touch screen interactions and even its portability which is a huge onus for players who play on Switch because they could play it anywhere, anytime they want.

For Battle for Neighborville, we had to change a lot of the underlying systems because on other platforms, you have to have an internet connection to play Battle for Neighborville – that’s how it was initially set up – so we had to do a lot of changes to make sure that our progression, our game modes, our characters, all our challenges – not challenges specifically, but a lot of the activities you can do in free roam – all of that is supported when playing in offline mode. Whether you’re on the go or you don’t have any internet connection, you can play some PvE quests, you can play private play which is a training mode against AI opponents, or you can just explore and have fun in social regions which we call Giddy Park. So certainly offline support was a big part of the changes that we wanted to make.

The other big shift among other things was the fact that we wanted to release this version of the game as a complete edition. And in doing so, that meant first we would include every piece of post-launch content that we ever released on the other consoles on-disc on a single, all-in-one purchase so players don’t have to worry about other DLCs to buy, other items to buy. Everything is on cartridge. All players need to do is to play the game – they earn XP, and coins, which is currency in game. Then they can use coins to unlock all the cosmetic items and cool upgrades that we ever released for the game, and that’s kind of why we wanted to call it a complete edition – because again, it’s everything that was ever created and released in Battle for Neighborville.

What’s the frame rate and resolution for docked and handheld play?

So the game would run in 900p in docked mode, and 720p in handheld mode. And the game runs at 30 frames per second.

It’s a bit of a cliché to ask at this point, but we imagine that a lot of work on the Switch version was done during the pandemic we’re still going through. How much did that impact development?

I think at the end of the day, when we looked at what we finally achieved, we believe we have a game that looks great and plays really well. I think we wanted to make a game that was good enough to say that we did the game justice in terms of bringing it over to the Switch platform, and I think overall we achieved that. At the end of the day, I think we’re really happy with what we’ve done despite the challenges of working in a remote setting which is unfamiliar to a lot of us.

Can you elaborate on how the game uses motion controls such as the different settings?

I don’t remember all the settings since there are a lot, but we did want to make sure again that we gave as many options to the players as possible. I think specifically for motion controls, it is a very personal thing in the way you use motion controls in terms of how sensitive you want it to be, whether turning requires you to roll the controllers, whether you want motion controls to kick in when you’re just looking around in free look, or whether it only kicks in when you’re looking down sites like when you’re zooming in. And again, there’s obviously no one answer that fits every single player, so all we did was to give every setting we could possibly think of to the player to decide. We did have the initial defaults that we felt might be the best baseline for players who are new to motion controls to give it a try, but ultimately, it’s up to the players to decide how they want to use it, and I think that’s for the best.

How much of the game can be played offline?

A huge part of the game can be played offline. I think all our PvE free-roam regions – so that’s Town Center, and Mount Steep, and Dreadwood – all of that can be played offline so you can go on your adventures, you can collect gnomes, complete quests, collect treasure chests, and take on the giant boss encounters. All of that is supported. All of the progression is supported as well, so any XP, coins that you earn and medals – all that carries over, regardless of whether you’re playing in offline mode or online mode. Giddy Park is supported, so again you can interact with the Reward-O-Tron, you can interact with Rux, you can play Simon Says on the giant piano, you can level up and customize your characters. All of that is completely supported in the offline mode.

Private play is also supported, so that’s our mode where you can try all the different multiplayer modes like Turf Takeover and Team Vanquish and Garden /  Graveyard Ops, but all that against AI opponents or bots, and you can customize how difficult it’ll be and the map you want to play on and there are crazy settings. All of that is available for offline play, and again, it felt like something that we wanted to do because it just made perfect sense for the Switch platform and it’s kind of part of what makes the console so interesting and unique.

Does the game use any other Switch features such as HD Rumble?

Rumble is supported, but HD Rumble specifically isn’t. Beyond that, I don’t think there’s any other specific Switch feature I can think of that we haven’t already looked at. Again, motion controls, touch screen, portability, and offline play are probably the big ones.

We’ve seen three of these Plants vs. Zombies third-person shooters at this point. Do you feel like there’s still room for this sub-series to grow with additional games?

At this point in time, we don’t have any plans for additional games of that genre in the works right now. So that’s pretty much all I can say about it.

Some fans have expressed interest in seeing the previous games on Switch. Could something like that potentially happen in the future?

There are no plans to bring either Garden Warfare 1 or Garden Warfare 2 to the Switch. I am big fans of both games. I think they were wonderful, wonderful additions to the EA portfolio of games, and games that people really enjoyed, but at this point in time there are no plans to bring them to the Switch.

Do you know if there are there any plans for the main Plants vs. Zombies – the original game with strategy and tower defense gameplay – on Switch?

I don’t, and I can’t really speak to them because they’re being developed by a completely different studio. I’m responsible for the third-person series of PvZ games, so Garden Warfare 1, 2, and Battle for Neighborville.

Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville launches for Switch on March 19.

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