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Before I spoke to George Fan about his new game, I looked back on the legacy that his best-known game, Plants vs Zombies, has garnered. 14 years later, it remains an astonishing feat. In 2009, a year that saw the release of Uncharted 2, Assassin's Creed 2, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Left 4 Dead 2, and a new Super Mario Bros game, EA claims that this humble strategy game amassed dozens of Game of the Year awards, punching above its weight to take on some of the biggest studios in the world on its way.
The runaway success of his humble tower defence game wasn't lost on Fan; "I made another game, Octogeddon, in between this [new game] and Plants vs Zombies, and I wrestled with this. I tried my best to just think of just making a game without comparing it to Plants vs Zombies. I tried my best to do that, and the thoughts just kind of seeped in once in a while. You have to just have the mental fortitude to not get mired in thinking that way."
Now, after Octogeddon and an "eye opening" stint at D&D and Magic: The Gathering developer Wizards of the Coast, Fan is back. His new game is Hardhat Wombat, a puzzle game that marries Fan's love of the natural world and fondness for casual spins on established genres with an attempt to make a family-friendly game about animal poo. While it might not sound too demanding, it's a game that Fan has had in some form of development for 10 years.
"It started as a game jam," Fan tells me. Back in 2013, Fan contributed to the well-known Ludum Dare jam. That year's theme, '10 seconds', saw Fan come up with the idea of "a construction worker who has to eat lunch every ten seconds, or you perish." Dubbed, I need a lunch break, it offered the bones of what would eventually become Hardhat Wombat, but Fan noticed that while the initial build was fun, "once I put in that ten second mechanic it made the game decidedly worse."
Fan submitted the game and moved on, not entirely satisfied with their efforts due to the constraints of that ten-second pacing. He didn't pick the project back up for seven years, when he returned to the game in search of a mechanic that the '10 second' theme had blocked him from developing further. Immediately, the time limit was removed, replaced with a rule that required players to build to a specific blueprint, and eventually remove any surplus building material before they could complete the level. "That turned out to be really fun."
It was around this time that the Wombat reared its head. Until this point, Fan says that the game was still built around a construction worker. But animals and plants are a theme throughout his games, and during development, Fan stumbled upon a piece of trivia that would become the literal building block of the rest of the game: wombats, a marsupial native to Australia, produce their faeces in cubes. "I was like 'wait a minute, I'm working on a game where it features a human construction worker, and he stacks blocks. Can I make this? Can I make my main character a wombat and have the blocks be made of the wombat poop?"
If the project had been Fan's alone, perhaps that would have been an easy answer, but he now had another person to convince. Around the time Fan was returning to his game jam documents, he'd had a call from Andy Hull, best known for his help designing the original Spelunky, who was just coming off the end of development on his last game, Dunk Lords.
When I spoke to Hull after my conversation with Fan, he described the "terrible burnout" he was experiencing by the time Dunk Lords was completed. After Spelunky, Hull says that "I really wanted to prove myself and chose an overly ambitious project," attempting to "do all of the art, design, and programming myself." It eventually became clear that that was too much work, but by the time Dunk Lords released on March 18, 2020, the Covid-19 outbreak was just beginning. "The end of development was spent as it had begun: in isolation in my basement, working alone around the clock."
Hull's burnout was so bad that he "couldn't even stand to sit at my computer to shop on Amazon, let alone work on another project. After a couple of false starts, I really didn't know if I wanted to keep making games." It was around this time that he contacted Fan, who attempted to convince Hull to make a game with him, as a two-person team would get to shoulder the burden together.
"[Hull] said: 'George, I don't want to ruin our friendship'. We've both seen cases where there's these small indie teams, there's two friends that go into it. And then after the game they're no longer friends." Fan countered with a pitch for "the smallest game possible." With the work that had already been done on Hardhat Wombat, it would only take the pair three months to complete - "not enough time to destroy a friendship." Hull agreed, and the pair started work.
If a wombat wore pants…
Once the wombat was locked in, however, there were other obstacles to overcome. Fan notes that both he and Hull "prefer to make family friendly games," but with defecation as a core design pillar, that was easier said than done. As Fan describes the design process, there's more than a touch of fever-dream; "the poo sound had to be kind of tasteful," he tell me; "if the wombat wore pants, then we'd have to take an animation to have the wombat take off his pants and then poop, which feels more obscene than just pooping."
Thankfully, the likes of Donald Duck and Winnie-the-Pooh have proved trailblazers for trouser-less animals, so the wombat has gone without pants. But other considerations remained. Fan notes that while the structures that his wombat protagonist built were obviously going to be brown, "we wanted to have another color in there, a secondary block." Unfortunately, when Fan's prototyping on his own, his default color is red. As a primary color, it's a sensible choice, but when paired with fecal matter "we realized it can't be red. It looks very unhealthy. There's another story there."
With an alternative secondary color selected (blue, if you're wondering), Fan and Hull turned their attention to puzzle design. Fan notes that one of PvZ's greatest successes was in its accessibility for a wider audience, and that he's constantly aware that "people are going to come at this game with all sorts of skill levels." As a result, each level is easier to complete than you might expect, a payoff that Fan explains by nature of the game's unique theme and puzzle design.
That uniqueness runs through the heart of my entire conversation with Fan, from the emphasis he places on theme to the twists he puts on familiar genres. As we draw to a close, Fan's long-time PR partner, Garth Chouteau, chimes in with a story that cuts to the heart of why the developer has found so much success over the past 15 years: "If somebody said to you 'do you want to play a tower defense game, I think half the people who played Plants Vs Zombies would say 'I don't even know what you're talking about'. But it's that ability to coat these experiences in enough quirkiness, enough cuddliness, that you get people to discover that they're not only food at these things, but enjoy doing them. I gave PvZ to my mother, who at the time I think was 65 and had only played one video game before that in her life. A couple of days later, she was absolutely hooked, and she ended up playing Plants Vs Zombies every single day for the rest of her life. Part of George's gift is the ability to get you to play and really enjoy a game concept that you might not ever have touched."
Hardhat Wombat launches today on Steam.