Tap Repeatedly Interviews CEO Jeff Pobst

Hidden Path Entertainment kickstarted the viability of commercial-grade tower defense games with 2008′s critically acclaimed Defense Grid: the Awakening, and has now turned to Kickstarter to partially fund the development of more Defense Grid – potentially up to the Big Prize, a full sequel.

I electronically buttonholed Jeff Pobst, the CEO of Hidden Path Entertainment, for an exclusive Q&A about the company, the Kickstarter, and the future of Defense Grid.

Time changes viewpoints, and opinions often need to marinate longer than a review schedule allows. I gave the original Defense Grid a good score and a positive review, but now, four years out, I know I nonetheless did it a disservice. In a word, Defense Grid is on my Short List. No, not that list, the short list, the one that I’d admit to if they really took the clamps to me. I didn’t see such an eventuality with Defense Grid four years ago – I liked it and that was that. Who knew?

With that in mind I am hard at work on a Revisited piece for Defense Grid to expand my stated opinion. I was originally planning to release it alongside this interview, but the interview’s ready and my Revisit ain’t. It made sense to publish my interview with Jeff right away, particularly given that the company is in the final days of its Defense Grid 2 Kickstarter.

Disclosure: I’m backing the Defense Grid 2 Kickstarter and I think you should too. Defense Grid is awesome and more Defense Grid will be more awesome. It’s evident by this point that Hidden Path isn’t going to see its wildest dreams come true, but they have  structured their Kickstarter in a manner that feeds partially into development of Defense Grid 2 and still breaks the journey down into deliverable content at four tiers, of which only the first is an explicit Kickstarter goal – one that is well within the realm of achievability. You can visit the Kickstarter page for more info.

To the questions!

Tap-Repeatedly: Jeff, thank you for spending some time to do this interview. Tell us a little about yourself, and Hidden Path Entertainment – how you guys got started, your objectives, and what you’ve been up to.

Jeff Pobst: Thanks, I’m Jeff Pobst, CEO of Hidden Path Entertainment. I’ve been in the game industry for over 15 years now, first starting as a programmer on Sierra’s Kings Quest game series and then becoming a producer for Sierra producing games in the Half-Life, Homeworld, and Lord of the Rings franchises amongst others. After working on 20 or so games for Sierra I ended up over at Xbox helping the team there interact with game developers around the world. We were part of a consulting organization that helped developers make their games better for the Xbox, Xbox LIVE, and eventually we rolled out the Xbox 360 to game developers.

It was an amazing time with a great group of people and after launching the Xbox 360 a group of us looked at each other and what we had accomplished helping some top titles become even better and decided to go out on our own and form Hidden Path Entertainment. The group that founded Hidden Path Entertainment includes Mark Terrano, our Design Director, Michael Austin our CTO, Dave McCoy our Art Director, and James Garbarini our COO/CFO.

One of the things we wanted to accomplish with a new studio was create a group that was very game design focused. At the time we had seen a lot of genre studios: strong tech studios, or strong art studios, but we hadn’t seen studios that could handle many different game design problems and make many different kinds of games. That’s what we wanted to build with Hidden Path and now we’re over 6 years old, have 35 employees, and have developed several great games. Most recently we’re in the final shipping mode for the first update in the Counter-Strike series in 8 years – Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, which ships next month on PC, Mac, Xbox 360, and PS3.

Hidden Path has a lot of people with ten, 15, even 20 years in commercial “AAA”  game development, which in a way is unusual for an independent studio. Was there a cultural desire among your core team at the time to break away? What drew you together?

JP: Sure, culturally we’re entertainers first and software developers second. We want to create fun experiences for our players and that in our minds always has to be the top priority. No one ever says they don’t want to make fun product, but you can tell by a company’s actions what their priorities are, and sometimes you don’t see “are we doing everything we can to focus on the fun” at the top of the priority list. You sometimes see showcase features that will help other products be more successful, or you see certain features required because it is part of a new initiative that is being done, and those things don’t often contribute to a great entertainment experience as much as they contribute to a cohesive story about that company’s entire product line. Cohesive stories often achieve a consistency, but not necessarily fun, or even the most fun one could provide as an entertainer. They can be extremely limiting actually.

I think we were drawn together because most of us have made successful games before, and we’ve worked hard and shipped some top titles. Anyone who says they can guarantee a new game will be fun and be a hit is being false with themselves, in my opinion, but there are many things you can learn from past successes, and you can work to create an environment where future successes have an exceptional chance – and that’s what we work to do at Hidden Path.

By having a team that is mostly experienced, we tend not to make the same mistakes that other companies do who have a few experienced people and a large number of inexperienced people. The finances of the publishing industry push you towards that model, and we think that’s a mistake, so we’ve worked to come up with a different model where we build games with fewer people, but they’re more experienced and more capable, and we find that we can make games better, a bit more predictably, and that they turn out more fun that way.

One of your objectives with Defense Grid was to create a game that went beyond the typical Flash-in-browser tower defense we’d seen to that point. Which came first – Hidden Path or the idea of evolving tower defense?

JP: Hidden Path came first. I think we had been under way for about a year when we started seeing more and more flash tower defense games appear and the team was playing them. Over lunch we’d start talking about what we liked about this one what we liked about that one, and lamenting that we couldn’t find one without, what felt like to us, really obvious mistakes. And that was it for a time, we went back to work and were focused on the games we were making at that time.

Later we were asked by a group what type of game would we make if we could make anything in a certain budget range, and we pitched them Last Stand, a high-end tower defense game that would have professional graphics, polish, and balance, and would be the definitive tower defense game. They got scared, tower defense games were free, why would people pay for one, and passed on it.  But we didn’t forget about the pitch, and as we built up some cash from some of our past work, we decided to reinvest it in ourselves and make this game. The name was taken, and so after a company-wide brainstorming on names, Defense Grid was born. We pitched Microsoft for a slot on XBLA and they got excited with us, and we started down the path of development, eventually releasing first on Steam, and later on XBLA.

Defense Grid puts a lot of emotionalism into its story without dropping the inherent silliness of the tower defense concept. What were your story ambitions with the game?

JP: We wanted the game to feel like AAA games felt. We knew we didn’t have the budget for the same scope as a AAA game, but we wanted the feel of the game to be the same. Most of the games we worked on had additional story and character and it helps create a level of immersion that isn’t there if you don’t do those things. So we wanted to achieve a better level of immersion and part of that was having voice and story in the game. But it was hugely important to us that the story not interfere with the game play. Even with something as important as immersion – fun had to come first.

Our original design actually paused the game action for the dialogue and immediately once we implemented it, we knew it was wrong and we changed it – but that is a great example of a feature seeming right when it is on paper, and then recognizing instantly when you build it that it was a bad idea. We had all played Portal, which had come out the year before, and we wondered if we could make a friendly AI colleague also talk in a monologue the way GLaDOS taunted you. We weren’t sure if that approach would work, but we gave it a try, and it solved our interruption problem while still providing great immersion.

Was there ever a time when the game was more serious, or more comedic? Was that middle ground always the objective?

JP: We wanted a world that took itself seriously so that you could suspend disbelief that it was a “real” place if you wanted. We recognized that we hadn’t invested into this story the same amount that an amazing author puts into creating a new world, but we wanted the character and events in the story to take themselves seriously and seem real to them. From that point, once we got to there, the character could joke or muse, or be a little silly, or be serious, and that’s all allowable, because they’re never questioning whether they are real or not by their actions or words. They’re being consistent with the human condition of “what would I do if I found myself in this situation?” and that to us was the most important part of getting the feel correct.

Defense Grid is heavy on salvation themes. The two main characters both struggle with loss and the threat of loss, at a personal level and a whole-existence level. How much story discussion went into the development of the game? Is there more that players don’t yet know?

JP: Sure there is! We have a lot planned around the story and we’ve worked with some great writers to flesh out the dialogue and they brought a lot of story direction in as well – it has been a great collaborative project amongst several great people. I think the main place we started is that we wanted a story that complimented the gameplay. The gameplay is about protecting, defending, and preventing loss, and we wanted to make sure that the story mirrored that and helped immerse the player in a combination of their actions and motivations, as well as flowed along a similar emotional path as the gameplay flow.

We wanted someone there to guide you and they weren’t going to berate you for being bad, they were going to congratulate you for what you accomplished and help you accomplish even more.  We see that mistake in video games all the time – players are tired of being berated, but it is a common game developer approach nonetheless – and we wanted to avoid it.

We wanted you to build a connection – a relationship if that was possible – over the course of the story with someone who could understand you and you could understand them. And we felt that it was important to us that Fletcher – the AI character whose name we never mentioned until after the game shipped – had a growth arc over the course of the game, and part of that arc was restoring his memory and recounting what happened to him in the past when he had been doing what the player was now doing and perhaps then he had been successful, but it hadn’t gone quite as well.

The art style suggests an already-ruined society, and at one point Fletcher mentions that the last alien attack was a thousand years earlier. Sometimes I feel I’m defending something that was lost a long time ago.

JP: I don’t think we intended for you to feel that everything was lost a while ago, but what we were intending was that it happened so long ago, that no one really knows how to use the defense and power core facilities any more – they just get the power from them now – and it is up to you to activate the defenses.

That said, there are definitely some levels where we imply that no one has returned to them since the war from long ago, so that may be what you are referring to. Because of the limitations and scope of the game, the levels and environments aren’t quite as dynamic and active as we might like. Ideally to really create an emotional response to what you are protecting, you’d see the people who would be impacted by the defense more. By having the aliens come after the power cores rather than the populace, we were able to make it a bit less threatening, but also it seemed a bit more deserted.

Hidden Path wanted to create a story-driven game whose story stayed almost entirely out of the game’s way. How did you approach that? Was a story written and organized to fit into the game, or did it tell itself as development went on?

JP: We started with the general story arc we wanted from the beginning and refined it with the writers who joined the team, and it changed and improved over time. But fundamentally, the story arc and events that took place were pretty much planned from the beginning and were tied to the activities of the planned levels. What changed drastically over time was how that story was presented. Originally, there were two characters – the player and Fletcher (the AI), and “the player” would type in their questions (you would see typing happen on screen on your behalf, you wouldn’t type anything), and Fletcher would answer them via voice and text. This was the original design and actually was implemented into the early game.

Once we started playing the first level with this model, we all immediately agreed it didn’t work.  I distinctly remember the phone call to the writers that day where we said “Hey guys, you know that awesome two-character story that you wrote that we all love,” (“yeah” – we hear on the other line), “Well, what would you think about converting it to a one-character monologue where they just imply that they’ve been asked questions or are observing what is going on?” (we were greeted with silence – for a very long time…).

I was hoping they wouldn’t quit that day. But they didn’t, they worked on a new script, we then iterated on it back and forth a bit, and when we gave it a try with stand-in dialogue, it worked.  In fact, it not only worked and solved the problem we had, it was an improvement, and it felt much better than we had even expected. The writers even agreed when they heard it and we all breathed a sigh of relief.

It seems as though balancing a game like this would be an enormous challenge. Can you tell us a little about the processes you used to balance levels, towers, aliens, and so forth?

JP: You are absolutely correct. This is actually the most challenging part of the entire game development and I think it is not unexpected that if you’re a game developer to get all the components working, get all the levels built, get all the aliens made and the towers made and then you may think you are done, when you really now just have the tools to begin the entertainment process. This is why we wanted to make a different tower defense game than others we had seen, we thought everyone stopped too soon in their development and didn’t take all the balance and polish all the way to the needed steps.

We developed a balanced system of resources, aliens in number and frequency of arrival, health growth, location of tower placement, and many other variables that created a first-cut evaluation system that allowed us to build a start point for balancing a level. This system took a long time for our lead designer Michael Austin to develop, and even after creating that starting point, each level needed to then be hand-tweaked and adjusted to make sure that we could have a large variety of play styles succeed on the level. It’s very easy to make a game way too easy and boring or way too hard and frustrating, but it is quite a challenge to find that right point in the middle where a player feels that they can overcome the challenges in front of them, and have a fun time doing it.

Looking back now, with four years of hindsight, is there anything you feel you did wrong with Defense Grid? Anything that players tend to malign (or love) that you guys adore (or regret)?

JP: These are really the things that energize us about what we want to do in the sequel. Overall, we are really proud of how Defense Grid came out and very pleased with what we shipped. What we most hear is what people wanted that we didn’t ship – multiplayer, a level editor, more customized control of the tower management experience, co-op play, ways to better experience the game with my friends, a more detailed simulation system that can be replayed forward and backwards and be more identical each time. These are all things that required a new architecture and a larger budget to achieve and that’s what we’re setting out to do with Defense Grid 2.

Tell us a bit about the Defense Grid 2 Kickstarter.

JP: We have launched a Kickstarter campaign to help us fund the portion of Defense Grid 2 development we don’t currently have. We have some money we’ve made from the original Defense Grid, although after 3 years and multiple expansions later, it just broke even early this year. So, there is an amount of money needed we believe to make a true sequel that is above and beyond what we have at our disposal, and the goal of the DG2 Kickstarter is to get us there. We looked at a lot of Kickstarters and realized that if we asked for the total amount we needed – $1 million – that the odds of people feeling like that could be reached was pretty low and while we definitely hoped that all the people who loved the first game would hear about the Kickstarter and come and pledge, we didn’t want to count on that.

So, we developed tiers of funding where we had a different clear deliverable for each tier we hit.  At the same time, a portion of each tier would go towards the full DG2 so we’d be making progress too towards Defense Grid 2.  We decided that backers would not only get the tier we’d reach, but when we finally had all the money we would need to make DG2, we’d give backers a copy of DG2 as well.

We launched on the same day as the Ouya Android console, and all of sudden we found our ability to get the word out severely hampered at that point.  We’ve been having a great engagement with the folks who have come to our Kickstarter with discussions, updates, Q&A sessions, updates in our existing game, weekly contests in those updates and even a 24-hour Defense Grid play & chat-with-us marathon conducted by our team, but we keep hearing from new people surprised that they didn’t know about the Kickstarter even happening, and if they had, they would have come and been a part of it earlier.

One of the funding levels for the Kickstarter promises a new game engine, powering both a remastered version of Defense Grid and the possible sequel. Coding an engine from the ground up is a risky, costly proposition. What were your reasons for making this call?

JP: We completely agree. There are a couple reasons that it makes sense for this project though. First off, most of the things that our players want aren’t something that work well with the original engine the game was on. It was on Gamebryo who donated that engine to us at the time and while it could possibly be on some platforms, many platforms that have become popular since the time we received the engine – Mac, iOS, Android, PS3 aren’t supported in the way we were looking for.

Also, the ability to do a level editor in the engine was really limited by the proprietary asset format it uses. So that’s the why we wanted to make a change. The unique opportunity we have to leverage is (around the same time Defense Grid was getting started) that we received an initial investment from an overseas publisher to make another, different strategy game and for that project we had gone out looking at and evaluating many of the engines out there, and all of them had significant reasons why they weren’t ideal for a top-down strategy game (even though they were great for say a shooter or side-scroller).

So at the time we and the investor decided for that game we would go ahead and build a brand-new engine. Sadly the investment stopped short, it only lasted for one year in on a three year development, but out of that effort we ended up with a great base technology in-house that likely has over $3 million dollars of investment into it for that original game. We have already spent a few hundred thousand dollars to make that engine more applicable for Defense Grid, but we still have some distance still to go to get Defense Grid onto the new engine. In the grand scheme, the new Defense Grid engine will have already had millions put into it, but the way we look at it, we’re leveraging off another project that had similar needs and are able to get something very special for Defense Grid without having to spend way too much on this game.

Even with that savings, Defense Grid 2 is still likely a $2m game in total development cost including content, multiplayer, level editor, a wide variety of platforms supported, replay features, etc. and that is not counting the original money that went into the engine which at the time was for a different much larger game.  Between the needs of the new product, based on what our players wanted, and the small distance for us to bridge between the technology at our disposal and the needs of DG2, we see this unique situation making sense for a brand new engine.

The Defense Grid 2 Kickstarter video notes that players aren’t interested in sales forecasts, they’re interested in playing what they want to play. Lower budgets naturally means concessions compared to what we’d consider “AAA” games with $50M budgets, but so far no one seems to be complaining. Do you think that this is a sign games have maybe gone too crazy in production values and expenditure? At what point does a game’s budget make it impossible to see a return? How much do gamers really care about some of the things that AAA titles spend millions on?

JP: So, this is a hard question to really get specific on, but I think one can in some ways look at building a game the way one builds a house. A treehouse can be kind of fun and charming and it is pretty inexpensive to make a small one, even a really nice treehouse can be relatively inexpensive compared to a house, but still people like it when they come over if they are expecting to look at a treehouse.  So part of the value proposition isn’t just what you build, but what people’s expectations are when they are evaluating it. If I say I’m going to build a house, but I for example don’t talk about the size of it or number of bedrooms and bathrooms, there are still fixed costs that go into it.  I need to acquire the land, pour the foundation, frame it, get the walls up, do electrical, plumbing, put a roof on, add windows, get drywall up, etc. That all has a fixed minimum cost once I decide I’m going to build a house. If I say I’m building a huge house for all my extended family, that’s going to cost a lot more than just a house for a couple. If I tell you I’m building the coolest mansion ever, well that’s going to cost a lot more, and after you’ve toured several mansions, your expectations on what the coolest mansion might be is going to change and increase over time.

I’ll stop with the analogy, but basically I think it isn’t that games have gone overboard as much as people have different things they want for their entertainment. There are different entertainment needs and different budgets to meet those needs. As long as people play 2d indie games (the treehouses of my example), people will inexpensively make those, and on average they’ll make something that is close to what they cost, maybe a bit more, but the upside (in general) will be limited except for the outliers that do something unique and unexpected in that format. If you want a game experience that is larger and has a different level of immersion, one spends more on the minimum and then evaluates the best use of funds to get the features you need – that’s the situation we’re in with Defense Grid.

If on the other hand we go to where your question points, at the AAA $50m budgets, say of an Assassin’s Creed or a Batman: Arkham City style game (which may even cost more than that budget), the goal of those games is often to provide a game experience you can’t get anywhere else, and that means a more impressive mansion than you’ve seen before. And as you see more mansions, well, you come to expect more and more and more as a customer. Simultaneously to this, the number of people buying major console video games is really growing – people don’t report this data as much for some reason – but a major title say seven years ago would hit maybe two million units at $50. Today, a major multiplatform release can hit eight million units at $60 and can justify such development spends.  That said, if you spend that kind of money and people don’t show up to see the crazy enormous house you built, in can bankrupt you, so it’s a crazier business than ever to be in.

As for your “no one seems to be complaining” statement, I’m not sure that’s really true, players expect more and more and more and want to pay less and less and less (hoping that the crowd also wants what they want, and numbers of buyers can keep their individual cost low), but what I think is happening is that customers come to each game with wildly different expectations on what they’re going to get from that entertainment experience.  And part of being successful is managing the triangle of “there is enough here to interest you,” “I can set your expectations low enough that we can actually exceed them and please you with the game,” and “the game – if good – can have wide adoption by many people who will all find out about it,” and those things apply no matter what budget you operate at.

You’ve broken deliverables into four levels, of which only the first chunk would be fully funded by your $250,000 Kickstarter request. At that level there’ll be a new expansion for the original Defense Grid. The actual sequel needs a million dollars. I gotta ask, what happens if the Kickstarter doesn’t get you there? To quote The Matrix, are there levels of Defense Grid 2 existence you’re prepared to accept?

JP: We want to make this game. Today we have about half of the $2m budget that the game design requires for PC. We’ve talked with so many publishers and gotten so close that finally we have just come to the conclusion that for now, we’re not going to get publisher help.  Had they all hated it or said no right away, we may have come to that conclusion a long time ago, but they were all so supportive for so long before eventually declining in the process that it took us a while to come to this conclusion.

So, sitting here with half the money to do it ourselves, we decided to swing for the fences and see if we could get the audience to help with the other half, and that’s why we launched the Kickstarter. Today we’re working to get the word out and get enough people in.  We appear to be on track to cross the minimum, but we aren’t going to be able to get everything in this one step like we might have wanted. That’s okay though, because we can use the money raised and some of our money to build some additional Defense Grid content. Maybe that’s an expansion, maybe that’s a multiplayer version of the game, we’ll see what we can raise and what makes the best use of the funds and  also takes into account the promises we’re making to backers – we have to keep our trust with them, otherwise everything will fall apart in our opinion. We then build that and sell it (giving it to the backers of course), and we work to make as much money from those intermediate product or products as we can. We may simplify the DG2 design and introduce it in steps. Either way, we’ll then reinvest that money back into what we have remaining between where we are and DG2 and eventually we’ll have enough to take the last step and develop DG2. We’ll give that content to our backers as well at that time.

You have worked closely with Valve, and you’re wrapping Counterstrike: Global Offensive. Assuming Defense Grid 2 is your next project, any speculation on the company’s ambitions past that? Other genres you might like to explore?

JP: The short answer is yes, we have several ambitions in several genres. Valve asked us to work on Counter-Strike in part because they saw us balance a system well in Defense Grid. People at Hidden Path have worked on strategy games, shooters, RPGs, racing games, pretty much every genre except for team sports. We founded a company specifically on the ideals of having great design regardless of the genre, and our approach puts us in a great position to look at new game types and genres and take those farther (something we believe we did with Defense Grid), and also develop new genres (something we have done on several early products that haven’t yet had the support to ship – it takes a lot of faith and monetary backing for someone to launch a new genre). I expect you’ll see some brand new products from us in the year and years ahead, and we’re very excited about them.

Typically we have up to 3 or 4 products going at one time at Hidden Path, and we are working to make each of those something special for game players. hidden path interview

Jeff, thanks for you your time and best of luck with the Kickstarter!

JP: Thanks so much for this discussion, it has been really fun!

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