Hidden Path Entertainment Interview – Defense Grid: The Awakening

Released three years ago, Defense Grid: The Awakening is still one of the best tower defense games ever to grace a PC. TPG had the honor of interviewing Jeff Pobst, CEO of Hidden Path Entertainment, and developer of Defense Grid. Jeff speaks on various issues in the PC gaming industry along with what it took to develop Defense Grid.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Defense Grid: The Awakening.

I’m Jeff Pobst, CEO of Hidden Path Entertainment. I am one of the five founders of Hidden Path which includes Design Director Mark Terrano, CTO Michael Austin, Art Director Dave McCoy, and COO Jim Garbarini. Each of us was involved in the development of Defense Grid. Often we work for other publishers or game companies in making games for them, but in this case we decided to build Defense Grid on our own.

How did you get started in developing PC games?

I started in PC games working at Sierra On-Line in 1997 on King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity. From there I worked on Gabriel Knight III for a bit, and then became Sierra’s first external producer working with Valve and Gearbox on the Half-Life series, Relic on the Homeworld series, and also others on the Lord of the Rings franchise. It was an exciting time.

Where did the idea for Defense Grid: The Awakening come from?

Early on, folks in the office were playing Tower Defense flash games and mods, and some of the early ones were being forwarded around. One day, someone in the office said, I wish these were better designed, they’re fun as they are, but it seems like they could be a lot better. The next time we were asked us for a game pitch we said to the publisher, hey, how about a professionally done Tower Defense game, and they actually turned us down, they didn’t like the idea. As time went on though, we couldn’t stop thinking about the pitch and when we got the opportunity, we decided to fund it ourselves and make it for the downloadable channels directly.

What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Defense Grid: The Awakening?

One of the things I’ve always been taught in watching people play games that are under development is that you have to work to make the game not only easy for people to get into, but also something that they can enjoy early on so they’ll stick with it. One of our early focus tests watching a new player play an early level was really eye-opening. They weren’t getting a lot of the concepts about the aliens and the towers and their choices didn’t seem to make sense to us. They weren’t having very good success. We were all watching over a video feed from another room so as not to bother the player and we could see their screen and their face, and they were looking frustrated and they were not doing well.

We looked at each other and said “let’s end this test, they’re not having a good time, we can go back to the game and make changes”, and so we went to the other room to tell them, “don’t worry, it’s an early build of the game, thanks so much for your time”, and they said “please don’t stop me, I’m not done, I need to try that level again, please let me play” – and we were stunned. So we closed the door and went back to watching them. What we learned was that the frustration we were witnessing wasn’t frustration with the controls or the game mechanic, but rather the player being frustrated with themselves, and believing that if they got another shot, they knew exactly what they wanted to try next. It was a really interesting perspective on what fun was for a lot of people.

From that we learned that for this type of game, the most important thing was to remove all frustration from the UI and the controls, and make the puzzle all about the situation and the system the players were playing in. Then regardless of the puzzle’s perceived initial difficulty, people kept improving over replay in a way that made them want to try again.

In its current form, how close is Defense Grid: The Awakening to your initial vision?

I think we’re very proud of what we shipped with Defense Grid and that in many ways it was as good as or better than our original vision for the product. There are several features we had to cut from the game, some because they just didn’t work out when playtesting, some that we didn’t have time or money to complete, and so it isn’t everything that it could have been from a feature point of view, but in the end, the game lived up to its vision through the polish, balance, and production values we wanted to see when we started. We’re very happy with the game.

Some devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Defense Grid: The Awakening and if you faced a similar challenge.

This is a pretty experienced group here at Hidden Path and we knew from the start that one of the things teams often do is make the game too hard for the audience they’re trying to entertain. One of the main mechanics of Defense Grid is the cores that the aliens steal, and at the time, it wasn’t something you saw in TD games. The mechanic of having the cores to steal gave us a few different things. First it gave us a different emotional profile. In a typical TD game, there is suspense until the first enemy makes it through your base, and then the suspense dies quickly because there isn’t anything you can do to stop that enemy that made it through. In Defense Grid, there is suspense until the first core is stolen, and then there is a whole new suspense mechanic as the alien tries to take that core out of the level, and there is a lot you can do to stop it, so the player is empowered to react to the first major setback. This was a pretty big deal in separating Defense Grid out from its competitors.

Additionally, by giving players 24 cores for the aliens to steal, you could look at each core as a number of “lives” we give to the player. We let you progress to the next level if you retain just one of them, so different players could play for different success criteria on the same level depending on their desire. We give you different medals based on your remaining cores and score, so those players trying to achieve a gold medal face a higher difficulty on the same level than those interested in simply getting to the next level with a bronze medal and only one core remaining.

Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Defense Grid: The Awakening would run on the various PC system configurations?

Sure, there are a lot of different PC’s out there, and it’s always important to do compatibility testing. Like many developers, we hired a company to do compatibility testing for Defense Grid and for the most part we didn’t have too many problems. Our biggest compatibility issues came from our use of the DirectX audio engine that was released at the time of our game. It was brought over to PC from the Xbox 360 and it actually had some compatibility issues itself. Since it was deeply used in our game code, when we first ran into some issues with it, we had to wait months for Microsoft to issue fixes and that affected users of our games. It was a lesson we learned that if we’re going to have different pieces of middleware in our game (and it often is a great idea to use middleware), that we needed to make sure that it was fully supported.

Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?

I think the only difficult thing about being an independent developer for us at Hidden Path is making sure we have the financing we need to develop all the games we are ready to make. Because so many of us at the company have been in the game industry for so long, a lot of things facing folks new to the industry aren’t really an issue for us. Many of the folks here have been the key people at publishers overseeing developers, so our ability to manage our own team is pretty solid and our team knows what they need to do to be successful. A lot of the business things that surprise new independent developers are things we’ve been through before, and we’ve had different perspectives, being at large and small development studios before, being at large publishers, and even being at a console manufacturer as well, so we’ve seen the same issues from many perspectives. I think this helps us be a good partner to other companies, and also helps us focus on the hard part which is making fun entertainment.

Sometimes, there is so much going on in just running a business in the game industry that you can’t focus on making fun entertainment, and it’s hard enough to do successfully even when you can fully focus on that. I think we have a good environment here where we prioritize the people and the tasks that lead to better games, and the one missing piece from being able to realize all the dreams we have is just the capitol needed to create a portfolio of product large and varied enough that it can become self-sustaining. A true hit will always save the day, but if you can create a portfolio of solid IP, you can create a self-sustaining environment that gives you more opportunities to find the right hits and grow them from initial ideas. We actually think Defense Grid can grow further and become something even more special, but we’re very happy with what it has done so far, and feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to make a product that so many people enjoy.

How did you create funding for the development of Defense Grid: The Awakening and did you receive emotional support from your family and friends during this time?

We were really fortunate that we didn’t need to turn to family or friends for the money for Defense Grid. We had been working for publishers for the previous couple of years and while those games didn’t end up shipping because of one situation or another, the company was making money and saving it for the future. We later used that money to finance the development of Defense Grid. Of course we all turn to our family and friends for emotional support when we make any game. Making games is very hard work and can be really draining and exhilarating at the same time. Without those who support all of us at HPE, it would be much tougher going.

Tell us about the process of submitting Defense Grid: The Awakening to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.

We didn’t encounter resistance with Defense Grid as much as we encountered changing conditions during development. Originally Defense Grid was going to be an XBLA exclusive, but a management change there during our product development led to changes in their plans for us and to respond to those changes we then reached out to the folks at Steam who embraced and supported us in an exceptional way. The game came out first on Steam, and then later on the Xbox 360 and folks on both platforms have really supported the game, buying it and the expansion content we later released. Over half a million folks have purchased Defense Grid and we’re very excited about the reception with the public.

How much pull do you have when setting sale and regular pricing through digital distribution channels? Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?

We did a lot of researching and planning for pricing and came to conclusions about what our game should cost and what would be appropriate. On some digital channels that’s the end of the story. You determine the price, the channel may agree or disagree and will recommend a different course of action, and then you make the call. On other channels, they make the call and you really don’t have any say. It’s an interesting situation how it varies from platform to platform.

How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?

Digital distribution opened up a whole world of product that didn’t really exist significantly before. It’s been awesome and a huge welcome to be able to create fun games that don’t have the budget overhead and cost of goods that are part of the retail sales model. We think a whole new world of content has emerged because of the availability of digital distribution.

Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Defense Grid: The Awakening.

Well a lot of people at the company were involved in each of those steps. A really in-depth look at how the art evolved was done in a Gamasutra Post-Mortem written by Art Director Dave McCoy. For those interested in learning more about the how the art evolved, I recommend this article as it involves all the folks who were involved.

As for music, we had an objective to create a credible fiction that took itself seriously enough to feel plausibly real in the future and we wanted to increase the feel of significance that at the time didn’t exist in tower defense games at all. From that we started looking at styles other sci-fi properties have used – especially movies and television, and the approach that resonated with us for introducing this new franchise was a Jerry Goldsmith-esque approach (Star Trek films, Alien, Planet of the Apes) . We found a sound designer and composer who some of the team had worked with before and who we felt could deliver in that direction and we worked with Duane Decker on developing the sounds, theme, and approach for the music.

Another thing that was very important to us as well was the emotional curve of the experience during a level. Because of this, one of our key features for the game was dynamic music that changed based upon where cores were in the level. Overall I believe there are 5 states of the soundtrack that increase in intensity as you are closer and closer to losing cores and return to lower intensity when the cores get back to the housing. This really matches up well with what is happening on screen and the music was authored specifically for this system we developed.

Level design is another interview perhaps unto itself. It was really important for us to take lessons from single path tower defense games and also from open plan tower defense games. Before Defense Grid, no one we knew of had combined those two together. Single path levels make a lot of sense for learning as it is very clear where towers go and where the enemies will go past them. Open plan levels can allow much more creative play for those who already know how to play these types of games as pathing the enemies so they pass by the towers you build more often than once can be very valuable, but it can be hard to learn the game on those levels. We were the first game to do a hybrid level approach, some levels in the game are single path – especially those to learn on – and then as the game goes on, the paths lead between open areas and create different situations for players to explore their creativity.

There are so many different types of levels in the game and so many design choices – do enemies enter and exit from the same location and try to take cores from a single housing? Are there more than one entrances, exits, or housings? Does a level also have flying enemies that one needs to worry about, etc. The designers had a lot of fun building levels for the game with the goal of making each one a new and interesting puzzle that built off of what you have already learned before in the game.

For the most part, big budget studios no longer release PC demos while almost every indie developer does. Why do you think this trend is occurring? Tell us why released a demo for Defense Grid: The Awakening and the difficulties in doing so.

Demos are an interesting business move in our industry. Analysis companies like EEDAR have shown that for a majority of games, releasing a demo can actually hurt sales rather than help sales. There are exceptions, and the biggest exception is when you have a game you think people are really going to enjoy and is very high quality, but perhaps aren’t aware of the game. Additionally there is a large push from some in the industry to keep demos short so that people don’t become satisfied with just the demo – again, high overall quality and a strong promise of what more the player can do in the game past the demo, would be an exception to that.

We believed we had one of those exceptions where we felt that the game was high quality, people who played the demo were going to enjoy it and want more we felt / hoped, and we also felt that if we cut off the demo too soon, it actually wouldn’t show the promise of what more is to come in the game, so we have a fairly long demo in that it lasts about an hour for many people.

If we were right about those things then releasing a demo was a smart move, and if we weren’t right, we were told to see a decrease in sales when the demo released. Fortunately for us, sales went up quite a bit when we released the demo, and our conversion ratio of how many people buy the game after playing the demo is anywhere from 3 to 6 times larger what we’ve heard is typical for other games on the PC.

Interestingly when our slot came up on XBLA later and we were able to release on the console, we had to push with Microsoft to keep the demo we had designed as they wanted to cut it down to at least half the length. The fact we could show these strong statistics from the PC about conversion helped us keep the same demo on the Xbox as the folks had on the PC.

As for why big companies don’t do demos and small ones do, I think it has more to do with existing audiences that will try to purchase your game. For a large company that is known, enough people will buy and play the game and word will get out about it good or bad regardless of whether there is a demo or not. For small companies without an existing audience, you need to get your game in people’s hands and a free demo experience is one way to get into more hands.

How important is it to get instant feedback about Defense Grid: The Awakening from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?

It’s a big part of our process. Here, I’ll give you a secret about some new content that we have coming in the future. We’ll have a new game mode coming, and its description references the community member who proposed it on the forums. We’re pretty excited about that and very appreciative of our community.

We read everything people write on the forums, and some things people want us to do, we do, and some things people want us to do, we either can’t do, or we know from trying it out ourselves that it isn’t a fun thing in the end. We often try, though. Game design is often about iteration and execution, and when someone has an idea, whether it be inside the company or from the fans of the game, we talk about it and look at it from different angles. We did a big update this last July and I think we added every major request from the community other than a couple of biggies we simply can’t address in this version of Defense Grid.

How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Defense Grid: The Awakening professionally?

Hmm, sounds like a rather loaded question. Who is asking? But, seriously, the professional reviewers have been huge fans of the game and have been really helpful in getting folks to know about this product and have pointed out that it’s a game worth playing. We like that of course and without them telling everyone about it, we’d have a hard time. Every once in a while we might get a negative review, and we look at that closely to see why that is the case and wonder if we should have made different decisions or done things in a different way to avoid that. Of course we care. Game development is always about making trades and decisions between opposing options, opposing gameplay approaches, or even two different uses of your time. I think the thing we heard most about this game was that people wanted more from it, they wanted more modes, more online options, more tools, and we would have loved to been able to make those as well as what we made, but we had to stop at a certain point since our budgets are very finite. We’re a small developer.

How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?

Sure, we think the Humble Indie Bundle and other projects like that are great, both as promotional opportunities and as charity events where some great charities benefit. As a company we invest a lot of resources into developing a game and then it is always a guess on which approach is the best one to receive revenue and hopefully cover the cost of your development and marketing, and perhaps even give you some money to be able to invest into new game ideas.

What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?

It’s all tied to the monetization issue. In Asia, they came to the conclusion after facing rampant piracy that every game they’d make would be an online game and would be monetized with constant connectivity to their servers. We have a lot of game types in the US & Europe where constant connectivity doesn’t make as much sense, so if you want to make a game that isn’t a fit for constant connectivity, you’re going to be more open to piracy. Often DRM is a way to try to have constant connectivity when it doesn’t fit the experience and that tends to make people unhappy. On the other hand, based on the stats we collect from our leaderboards, we have about as many pirates of Defense Grid as we have existing sales of the game. So you could say only 50% of our audience has paid for the game and that’s kind of sad, only because if everyone who played the game had bought it instead of half of them pirating it, we likely would have already had the money to build a sequel, but that hasn’t quite happened yet.

Bill S.978 was introduced to the Untied States Senate earlier this year which could make it illegal to post unauthorized copyrighted content on YouTube and other video sharing sites. How do you feel about individuals outside of Hidden Path Entertainment posting videos of Defense Grid: The Awakening?

I think we want to encourage people to be able to post videos featuring Defense Grid – especially if they add value like so many of our users who show others their video walkthroughs on different ways to solve a level or get a gold medal. It is a different situation for game makers, though. Unlike passive media like movies and TV where you are getting the full experience from the videos on YouTube that you’d get when pay for their product, you don’t get the same experience seeing a video of an interactive experience that someone else recorded. In our world, it just further promotes our product. Full game piracy is more of an analogy for us, and while I understand all the arguments and potential negatives and benefits made for and against piracy, I’d rather find a way to help people enjoy our game with a financial model that they can afford and that allows us to continue in business so that the money we make from the game can help us make more games.

How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?

I think I feel the same way as a player and as a game maker. If I really enjoy a game, I want more. If I see a great movie, I want more, if I read a great book, I want more. I love content. Especially when I find content that I think is great and is something I really enjoy. DLC is great because it allows the creators of something I enjoy to give me more, perhaps more of the same, perhaps more that takes the game in a slightly new direction, or an interesting exploration. From a business point of view, I don’t think DLC works unless people love your game. Creating content costs money, often more than people think when they just focus on the technology or engine. So, making DLC for a game is a bet that people will like it enough to want more, and that it will make sense for you as a game creator to invest more resources in DLC before you’ve even seen a return on your initial investment in the game. It’s scary, and exciting.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about modding of PC games and the relationship developers have with modders. How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically mods created for Defense Grid: The Awakening?

So, when we started Defense Grid, we were approached by the folks at Emergent and they gave us a special opportunity to ship the game on the Gamebryo engine. We took advantage of that opportunity and also worked with some other partners in building the game, which unfortunately in retrospect made creating a version of Defense Grid that was moddable very difficult for us to accomplish. So, user-created levels are something that we see as important for Defense Grid’s future, but aren’t as much a part of its present as we would have liked.

What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?

Wow, there are so many things. I think first and foremost realize that you have two full jobs to do that have to be done simultaneously – you have to create a great product and you have to create a business that can be sustainable with reasonable sales expectations. Another thing that can derail you as you try to make a top game, is that the audience in general has no idea how many hours were put in to make it, how much effort it took to make something “just work”, and how long it takes to make something “simple”.

A trap that developers often fall into (because we’re people too) is that we appreciate all our hard work and often aren’t as critical of our own games as our audience is going to be. To be successful I think you have to be as critical if not more critical sometimes than your audience and not allow knowledge of how hard you worked to accomplish something color your opinion of it. You need to be able to evaluate your own work as close as possible as you would if you were evaluating someone else’s game, and that is hard to do. – End

TPG would like to thank Jeff and everyone associated with Hidden Path Entertainment for the detailed and informative answers they provided. You can pick up Defense Grid via Steam for the absurdly cheap amount of $9.99.

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