Real-Time Strategists: Hidden Path Entertainment on ‘Defense Grid 2’ and ‘Brass Tactics’

Last week, Hidden Path Entertainment launched Defense Grid 2 on Gear VR, released a new update for Rift, and kicked off our first-ever “Free to Try” promo. Now you can play the game’s first chapter (including four maps) before committing to the full experience—five chapters and 26 maps total.

Oculus sat down with Hidden Path CEO Jeff Pobst to go behind the scenes of Defense Grid 2 and get a sneak peek at their upcoming RTS title, Brass Tactics.

What about Defense Grid 2 makes it unique compared to other tower defense games?

JP: Prior to Defense Grid, tower defense games typically either featured a completely fixed-map approach, where the path of the enemy is predetermined and the player’s emphasis is on placing the exact right towers in the most optimal places, or an open-map approach, where the path of the enemy is completely determined by where the player places their towers so that tower placement isn’t only about bringing damage to the invaders, but also about re-routing their path to your base. Giving players hybrid maps in Defense Gridprovides both the ease of getting into the game of fixed maps and the creativity of open-map games without becoming too overwhelming in the number of choices available to players.

Another innovation in Defense Grid was the introduction of the power cores, the things that the invaders steal. Because invaders come in to take a set of cores away from you, you can win the game even if you only have one core left. More importantly, if something goes wrong and one of your cores is stolen, you can continue to build and focus the action on preventing the theft from completing. This gives you the ability to react to unexpected problems and still overcome the invaders.

How have Rift players responded to the newly-introduced Touch controller support?

JP: It’s been super exciting to see the responses from Rift players since the update went out. I don’t think we could have expected as many supportive and “thank you” emails as we’ve received—it’s been a big surprise.

We saw in some early beta testing that existing fans of the game were a bit skeptical. We already had a really simple interface before adding Touch where you just looked where you wanted to do something and then pressed a button to have it happen. That original interface is still available as an option in the game and can be turned back on if desired, but when we put the Touch controls in front of the existing players, they were surprised how quickly they changed over to the new input system and how much they liked it.

What motivated you to add Touch support?

JP: People naturally use their hands to control their world, and Touch really works for that. We did a lot of work to smooth out the controls so that they stick just a bit to your main choices and don’t slide off of your selection with unintentional micro hand movements. We also made the controls work with either hand. Our effort made a big difference, and the controls are really responsive.

Why the move to a free-to-try model?

JP: The free-to-try approach was something new for both us and Oculus, and we’re excited to see how people are responding. One of the things we’ve learned in the past about Defense Grid 2 is that once people play it, they often say, “Wow, this is a lot better than I expected.” That really means we haven’t been able to quickly communicate how fun the game is in an image or a name. So, we figure if we give people a good amount of content to enjoy for free, then they can decide to purchase the game and continue playing with actual information on how much they already enjoy it. That makes their purchase much more informed.

How has your approach to VR game design shifted, from the early stages of Defense Grid 2 to your current work on Brass Tactics?

JP: We knew that updating the full feature set of an established genre like real-time strategy for VR was going to take significant prototyping and a lot of exploration. The more fundamental the controls, the more refinement was needed. It took six months to get the controls feeling natural, physical, and intuitive—once they felt that way, it was unbelievable!

Defense Grid 2 taught us a lot about making interfaces, but we knew that any assumptions—whether they came over from our Defense Grid 2 work or not—were risky because it’s so easy to be wrong about how you think something will be in VR when so many elements are interrelated. Everything has to be proven, played, and prototyped first.

What differentiates Brass Tactics from Defense Grid 2?

JP:Brass Tactics is a classic feel RTS made completely for VR, where Defense Grid 2 is a beautiful and definitive tower defense game. Each game focuses on a different kind of strategic play. In Brass Tactics, you build up massive armies and play head-to-head with an opponent, compete against the AI in a co-op match with a friend, or just take on a variety of solo challenges against the different AI personalities. Both games are approachable by all players and are great games to start out with even if you’ve never played strategy before. Brass Tactics is a more active and slightly more intense experience than Defense Grid 2, especially when played against a human opponent online.

What does VR bring to the table?

JP: The sense of presence and physical engagement with virtual spaces is undeniable. Brass Tactics really breaks new ground for strategy gaming because of the sense that you’re in the middle of a fantastic and beautifully constructed war table, directing the units and seeing your strategy come to life before your eyes. Also, RTS has never been this social. Seeing the avatar of your opponent or partner in the world—watching your opponent slump when they know they’ve been beaten or rescuing a friend in co-op when they called for help—these are things that just haven’t been experienced in RTS before, ever. The way you get to interact with another person while playing this very strategic game is so refreshing and fun!

Where are you at in the dev process for Brass Tactics? Any fun updates?

JP: We’re on “final approach” now for completing Brass Tactics. All of the gameplay systems are in, and we’re down to the last bits of tweaking the AI, refining the unit balance, and adding more story and voiceover to the campaigns and even the skirmish matches. We have a wonderful set of voice actors to bring the campaign story to life, and we’ve got so much game content ahead with all the different single- and multiplayer modes.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

JP: For Brass Tactics, we really wanted to make a game like Age of Empires in the style of the opening credits of Game of Thrones. We knew that RTS was already fun, and we wanted that to be approachable for players in VR—what we had to do was make the right tradeoffs so RTS could stand on its own as a VR genre.

That meant a lot of changes to traditional RTS thinking. We focused more on “fog of attention”—that you can’t be everywhere and see everything—rather than concepts like “fog of War.” We also made the technology tree a physical thing where you grab buildings and put them on your castle to upgrade it, rather than pages of icons.

Players who are familiar with RTS will instantly get it, and we’ve even seen many people who have never played a strategy game get in and say, “Wow, this is strategy? I love it!” For them, it’s as simple as directing little toy armies around the map and figuring out how to be clever while you do it. We’ve made an RTS unlike anything else that’s come before, and we hope you’ll give it a try.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Jeff. We can’t wait to see the finished product!

Check out Defense Grid 2 for Rift and Gear VR today, and stay tuned to the blog for future Brass Tactics updates.

— The Oculus Team

For a deep dive on the making of the Defense Grid 2 trailer, check out Hidden Path’s guest post on the Oculus Developer Blog.

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