'Plants vs. Zombies' Menace Spreads Through Populace

PopCap's Viral Game Continues to Rack Up Downloads Across Platforms Despite a Marketing Budget of $35,000

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YORK, Pa. (AdAge.com) -- Never underestimate the power of zombies. In this case, plants and zombies.

"Plants vs. Zombies," with its unusual combination of pea-shooting plants and not-too-scary cartoon zombies, has quickly become a huge hit for casual game publisher PopCap -- and it's about to go bigger.

BRAIN POWER: PvZ is heading to Xbox 360, Xbox Live Arcade and Nintendo DS.
BRAIN POWER: PvZ is heading to Xbox 360, Xbox Live Arcade and Nintendo DS.
The quirky strategy challenge that began as a downloadable PC game will launch as an Xbox 360 retail game and Xbox Live Arcade downloadable game this month, and will be available for Nintendo DS early next year.

PopCap, which also makes "Bejeweled," said PvZ is the fastest-selling game in the company's history, with totals "in the millions of units" across all platforms. PopCap was mum on specific sales figures, but did disclose that when the PvZ iPhone app debuted in February, it sold 300,000 copies to rake in $1 million in just nine days, setting an App Store record at the time. Last week, the game was still No. 20 in the iPhone App Store. The iPad PvZ app was, and still is, featured on iPad demo units in all 300 of Apple's retail stores, said PopCap VP-Marketing Ben Rotholtz.

Unique content, positive word-of-mouth and lavish media coverage of the game has been behind its success, but so has some creative marketing -- creative in part out of necessity, because the initial marketing budget was only $35,000.

"This game was the ultimate gift a marketing department could get," Mr. Rotholtz said. "It's an ultra-high quality game that's incredibly fun and has extreme levels of depth. ... My marketing department was smitten with the game. I couldn't get them to stop playing, or coming up with all kinds of ideas."

But the feeling wasn't echoed throughout the company. In fact, PvZ was seen as a bit too different, a bit too odd; expectations were initially low, hence the small allocation for marketing.

So began the budget marketing. PvZ launched with a site takeover of PopCap.com on April 1, 2009, which generated press about whether it was a joke or not, and continued with more online content, including videos, both of the game and an original spoofy Zombie temp office-worker series; a "Zombatar" that zombie-ized users' profile pictures; and the posting of the "Zombies on Your Lawn" original song and video that is the payoff for winning the game.

"We had to convince George [Fan, the game creator] that it was a good move and not giving too much away," Mr. Rotholtz said. "There have now been over 5 million views of 'Zombies on my Lawn.' It was viral out of the gate."

The first game bowed in May 2009, followed by retail PC and Mac versions in August that year, then the iPhone app in February and iPad app in April. But Mr. Rotholz said it only took 30 days from the initial launch for PopCap to see it had a hit, and to begin planning for other platforms.

Many fans have helped the cause with spontaneous and enthusiastic promotion of the game. Actors Joel McHale and Oliver Platt appeared separately on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" within weeks of each other and both confessed addictions to PvZ on the iPad. A small cottage industry of homemade goods has sprung up on the internet from artists' paintings, sculptures and plushies of the characters to hand-painted T-shirts and ceramic lawn ornaments. Fans have knit PvZ sweaters, created their own greeting cards and baked PvZ birthday cakes.

Creative marketing, however, continues, with things like Zombie-handwritten invites to a party premiere in spring, and PvZ zombie breakdancers at the entrance to E3 this past June. (A booth was too expensive for the marketing budget.)

PopCap has also branched out into traditional advertising, with ads for the Xbox games in magazines including Wired and PCWorld, and will do in-store retail marketing with channel partners.

As for that initial $35,000? It was more than enough for launch. Mr. Rotholtz said he thinks his team only spent about $22,000, "including the wine" to toast its success.

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