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

For the past year, they had been working on a brand new Plants vs. Zombies adventure that would take the series in a very different direction. Though they had EA’s blessing for their work to that point, it wasn’t a guarantee the project would ultimately see the light of day, especially given how ambitious it was.

It was called Project Hot Tub, a humorous but vague reference to 2010 film Hot Tub Time Machine. It was to be an action-adventure game with the ‘open corridor’ progression of an Uncharted, the combat of something like Batman: Arkham Knight, but the family-friendly vibes of a Ratchet and Clank. Project Hot Tub featured a pair of teenage sibling leads who were thrown back in time by a zombie-corrupted experiment, teaming up with familiar plants from the Plants vs. Zombies series to fight off zombie foes across multiple historical eras. The project represented a major leap for a franchise previously confined to tower defense and third-person shooters, and would potentially stretch some new muscles for publisher EA, whose category of family-friendly, single-player adventures was sorely lacking.

Project Hot Tub was internally planned for a late 2017 release. As we know now, it never materialized. But it’s not necessarily because the project was in trouble. In fact, everything we know about Project Hot Tub indicates that its ideas, development, and progression were going strong right up until its cancellation. It hadn’t run into any major budget issues, deadline misses, scope problems, or other obvious roadblocks that indicated it was in trouble.

But sometimes even promising projects are dropped for unexpected reasons. In the case of Project Hot Tub, IGN understands it was shut down to extend more resources to Visceral’s Star Wars project…which was itself canceled not long after.

IGN has viewed and verified a number of internal visual and written materials related to Project Hot Tub, as well as spoken to multiple sources familiar with its development. From what we understand based on that, Project Hot Tub was a passion project, made by a group of people who loved the Plants vs. Zombies franchise and wanted to use its world to tell an emotional, resonant story about family and friendship. Their work on Project Hot Tub and the team’s subsequent dissolution is a fascinating example of how any number of interesting game projects get canceled before the public ever hears about them, and often not for the reasons we expect.

A Boy and His Plant

Development on Project Hot Tub started around 2015, our sources say, with EA offering a small group of developers the chance to try and incubate something new for the Plants vs. Zombies franchise. The group was made up of around 30 or so individuals, largely very experienced in EA’s Frostbite engine. Many of them loved the Plants vs. Zombies franchise and wanted to take it to the next level after the success of Garden Warfare.

What they came up with was Project Hot Tub, a story-driven action-adventure game that focused on a teenage boy named Eddie and his bond with one of the iconic Plants vs. Zombies plants: Peashooter. According to the project materials IGN has seen, Project Hot Tub’s story would have followed Eddie and his sister Tessa on a summer trip to the familiar PvZ locale of Neighborville, where a zombie invasion quickly ruins their vacation plans. After Eddie befriends a friendly Peashooter, the two set off across town to defeat the invasion leader, Zomboss, only to be caught up in a nefarious time-traveling plot that flings Tessa and a number of Neighborville’s landmarks through time. The bulk of the adventure would have followed Eddie and Peashooter as they chased the zombies through different eras, fighting off zombies in each period, and restored Neighborville to its former glory. The two bond over the course of their adventures, with Eddie and Peashooter’s growing friendship serving as an important core of Project Hot Tub’s story.

IGN has viewed and verified a nearly 20-minute vertical slice of gameplay showing off Eddie and Peashooter exploring a lush, tropical, pirate-themed zone. It begins by demonstrating the ways in which Peashooter and Eddie worked together to move and fight in ways neither could on their own. When Eddie jumps off a high ledge, for instance, he can hang onto Peashooter’s leaves and use them as a glider. In combat, Peashooter’s short range firing abilities combine with Eddie’s movement to let him pull off damaging combos against attacking zombies.

And Peashooter isn’t Eddie’s only partner. In the section of gameplay we saw, Eddie can swap freely between Peashooter, a Sunflower companion that can light up dark spaces, and a Chomper he encounters that functions as a slower, heavier melee attacker in combat as well as something like a grappling hook to cross over large gaps.

Incidentally, Project Hot Tub has been leaked once before, though it didn’t make massive waves at the time. IGN has verified that screenshots shared around the internet last year are in fact early development images from Project Hot Tub showing off the same tropical area we looked at in the vertical slice, albeit at a much earlier stage in development. Oddly, the Twitter account that initially spread the images was deleted while IGN was in the process of investigating this game; however, the tweets referencing the game as well as the original source of the screenshots can still be viewed via the Internet Archive.

While Eddie was Project Hot Tub’s main protagonist, he wasn’t the only playable character. Critical to Project Hot Tub’s story was a plot centered around his familial bond with Tessa, which would strengthen as the two moved outside of their comfort zones and grew up over the course of the story. Tessa was also playable, albeit for a smaller section of the game than Eddie. Partnered with the time-rewinding plant Thyme, she was the star of a few smaller sections of Project Hot Tub, though her role wasn’t quite as fleshed out as Eddie’s by the time work on the game stopped. Eddie and his crew (which was also planned to include a Bonk Choy plant) would fight off the zombies of Neighborville and time travel to the wild west, the aforementioned pirate island, and the distant future, while Tessa would take the lead in a segment of the game set in the dark ages as well as a handful of other sections.

Franchise Horticulture

Project Hot Tub’s development came at a significant crossroads for the Plants vs. Zombies series. After its initial success as a tower defense game in 2009 and subsequent 2013 sequel, 2014’s Garden Warfare had taken the series in a new direction with the addition of third-person shooter gameplay. The genre shift was received well, but it didn’t change the overall public perception that Plants vs. Zombies was fundamentally a series for kids. It was fun, sure, and quite popular – but it wasn’t exactly making waves for narrative depth and emotion, and didn’t really fit in with the rest of EA’s portfolio, which at that time included Titanfall 2, Battlefield 1, The Sims 4, and the usual annual sports line-up.

While some games remain kid-focused to great success, our sources say Project Hot Tub’s team envisioned its existing audience not as a limitation, but an opportunity for further growth. What if they could create something that embraced the childish silliness Plants vs. Zombies already possessed, while simultaneously giving its world emotion, narrative, and depth? What if they could make a Plants vs. Zombies game that wasn’t for kids, but for the whole family?

What if they could make a Plants vs. Zombies game that wasn’t for kids, but for the whole family?


As an additional proof of this concept, the Project Hot Tub team had one more ace up their sleeve: an animated short. They contracted an outside studio to produce a Pixar-inspired animation to go along with their presentation, with the intent of establishing a target look for the final product. It showed off how a relationship between a teenage boy and a sentient plant might come about amidst a comical but threatening zombie attack on a suburban neighborhood.

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

The Room Where It Happens

A few representatives of the Project Hot Tub team were sent with all the aforementioned materials to the company’s Redwood headquarters, bringing their work before CEO Andrew Wilson, Assassin’s Creed co-creator Jade Raymond (who headed up Project Hot Tub’s segment of EA at the time), and a few others. They had prepared the presentation for some time in advance with their colleagues, knowing they had to prove they could actually make the unusual narrative adventure they were pitching. Despite their lofty goals, the Project Hot Tub team felt confident that what they had made was good, convincing, and interesting enough for their ambitious project to proceed.

The presentation took place, and our sources tell us that the rest of the team heard from their representatives in Redwood that it had been received very well. Nevertheless, they were informed within the following days that Project Hot Tub was being shut down, and the team was being moved onto a much bigger project that EA executives had determined needed their skills more: Visceral’s Star Wars. But Visceral’s project was itself canceled a year later, and the former members of Project Hot Tub were scattered across the publisher’s numerous internal studios.

The Plants vs. Zombies franchise has since continued without Project Hot Tub, seeing two more Garden Warfare shooters, a collectible card game, and a tower defense sequel in 2019’s Plants vs. 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 ahead of this story, asking among other questions 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 to comment on Project Hot Tub in time for publication.

While game projects can be canceled for any number of reasons – budget, scope, technology, financial risk, and so forth – Project Hot Tub was seemingly shut down not because any specific element of its pitch or work up to that point was unsatisfactory, at least according to feedback the team received. In this case, it was simply a matter of decision-makers opting to allocate resources elsewhere. In fact, it’s likely a situation that happens fairly frequently across many AAA studios: projects get set aside in favor of ones that more urgently require resources, teams get scattered, and hundreds of game ideas – good, bad, and in between – never get to the point of being publicly announced, let alone released.

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

Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.



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