Interview: Hidden Path Entertainment

Defense Grid developers speak to us in this informative interview.

We would like to thank the developers for such an amazing game and taking the time out of their busy schedules to speak with us. We can’t wait to see what is next from Hidden Path Entertainment.

1. What is the day to day life at your studio like?

Hidden Path Entertainment has around 37 employees made up of programmers, artists, designers, producers, and testers with just a couple people managing business affairs.  Communication is one of the most important things about game development when working on a team, so to help facilitate communication we have an open floor plan that has four main pod areas with 5 to 10 people working together in a location.  The folks working together are typically a mix of programmers, artists and designers, so that folks who are working on similar things can interact easily across game disciplines.

Sometimes you’ll walk around the studio and there will be a conversation going on between multiple people about a feature or a bug that needs to be fixed, other times it will be quiet with folks wearing headphones listening to music so they can concentrate.  In addition to the pod areas, we have 3 meeting locations for groups to get together and talk more in-depth about problems, planning tasks, looking at bugs, and more.  We’ve found that not having enough meeting space can be a blocker to getting things done (even though too many meetings can prevent things from getting done – it’s always a balance).

The center area of the studio has a few tables and chairs so that folks can meet in a central area, eat lunch, or play board games together (every Wednesday night) and there are always drinks in the Defense Fridge: The Refreshing should you need something to drink.

2. What is your job title and what are the best and worst parts of your job?

I’m Jeff Pobst, CEO of Hidden Path Entertainment.  My job is one part business development, one part strategy planning, one part executive producer, one part technical support, one part public relations, and one part fix-whatever-needs-fixing-as-best-as-I-can guy.  As for best and worst part of the job, I’m not really sure the job can be spec’d out just like that.  There is a lot of joy in being a part of a great team of game developers, but unless you are a studio with a tremendous amount of cash in the bank, there is always uncertainty in the game industry.  Even if you work for a large company with a lot of money there is uncertainty, so I guess there are a lot of ways to be uncertain, but when you’re part of a group that is directing the company, your flexibility and creative freedom is often fueled by the funds needed to finance a game project.  Finding creative ways to let your team be as creative as possible while staying within those constraints is part of the challenge, but also part of the fun.  I love my job, and most of that joy comes from the great people I get to work with, and the games we get to develop.

3. Any weird or wacky people that you work with?

We work in a very creative business, and creative products need creative people to build them.  Weird and wacky come with the territory.  That said, the weird and wacky folks that can balance the creative expression with “get things done” are the special ones that really bring a lot to the team.

4. How did the idea for a Defense Grid and the You Monster DLC come about?

Defense Grid started when we started playing some of the great flash tower defense games that started becoming popular in late 2006 and early 2007.  People at the office were playing them and then finding that they weren’t quite as satisfying or as well balanced as we had hoped.  One day we said to ourselves “hey, we could really make one of these special”, and from there we started down a road where we’d make our first self-financed game and released it on our own.  It came out first on Steam for the PC in late 2008, and then shortly thereafter for the Xbox 360 in late Summer 2009.

Fast forward to January 2011 and we get a call from the folks at Valve who wanted to see if we’d be interested in participating in a project with them.  They had invited a dozen indie game developers to build an Alternate Reality Game or ARG around the launch of Portal 2.  As the team ofindies got together and determined what to do, the idea of GLaDOS invading all our games so that she could speed up the launch of Portal 2 became our unifying theme.   We built two new levels in our game, one where the “corruption” began, and a second one that unveiled GLaDOS as the source of that corruption and she started doing her trademark banter critiquing your play in Defense Grid.  As we designed and put this together, we asked the folks at Valve if we could take this storyline farther and do a full expansion with GLaDOS and they were kind enough to say “sure, go ahead.”  It was that crazy and that simple.

5. Could you describe Defense Grid for anyone who hasn’t played it yet?

Defense Grid aims to be the premiere tower defense strategy game by really focusing on a streamlined feature set, attention to polish and attention to balance with easy to pick up controls.  We focused a lot on the initial ramp up curve teaching players about the different towers and their abilities, the different enemy types and both fixed-path and open map levels so that players can explore the creativity of pathing the aliens around the map and the towers without being dropped into that right away.  Prior to Defense Grid we hadn’t seen any tower defense game mix pathing with fixed routes, usually a game chose one or the other, and we saw that open maps allowed more creativity while the fixed path provided a better learning curve.  Mixing the two appropriately was one of the ways Defense Grid differentiated itself through its levels.

Additionally we spent a lot of time focusing on the emotional curve the player goes through as they play the game.  In a typical tower defense game, the player tries to prevent aliens from leaving the map and once they do there is a let-down and the player feels that they have lost, with the question being “how much” have you lost from there.  We wanted to give the player an opportunity to make changes once they saw things going against them, and also be able to feel that they could have success up to the last moment.

Our method for achieving this was through the use of things for the aliens to steal and take away from the map, our power cores.  We would start each level with 24 power cores, and there was an emotional push intrinsic to players where they would work to keep the aliens from ever getting to the power cores.  Once the aliens did get to the cores though, there was a second emotional curve where the player would focus on trying to stop the aliens from escaping with that power core, and this provided a lot of new fun.  We enhanced this situation with a dynamic music score that gets more intense as the aliens get closer to the cores and then as they remove the cores and get closer to the exit.  Players really responded well to this new approach and it became a defining part of Defense Grid.

Having the cores be dropped by killed aliens carrying them and then slowly float back to their housing also created a new stress-relax situation where aliens would move more quickly in most cases than the cores and they could “pick-up” any dropped cores and then turn and head for the exit.  This had the great benefit of reducing the effectiveness of an all-front build or an all-back build strategy that had become a rather common solution to many tower defense game puzzles.

6. How large was the team that created Defense Grid and how long did it take to develop? 

Defense Grid started with a small part of our team perhaps 4 or 5 people at first, and grew to about 12 by the end of the project.  We started thinking about the game as an XBLA title and pitched it to Microsoft for a spot on the platform.  After getting a slot, we moved forward with an extensive pre-production period that did a full taxonomy of what tower defense had become.  We looked at 84 different flash games and mods to determine what we thought should be in “the definitive tower defense game” and whittled down the feature set to something we thought would provide a great solid experience that could be played by a large group of people.

Over the course of 6 months, we got to a first playable level and immediately we felt we were on to something.  The tentative nature of dependencies on partnerships affected the project though, as the XBLA team at Microsoft went through a major management change, and the new team there decided that they liked our game and felt it was progressing well, but that they didn’t want our game to come out as soon as we were planning for other portfolio reasons and due to other projects they had planned.  They moved our release slot back a year.

For a small developer this was a critical business issue as we couldn’t afford to sit on the game for a year.  We approached the folks at Steam who to that point had only had a handful of indie titles on their channel, and they were supportive and excited about our game, and allowed us to switch platforms to the PC and release with them that same year.

The switch to multiplatform was costly in time and money, but it was worth it for us and we released Defense Grid on Steam to excellent reviews and a fan base that really accepted and loved the game.  We had planned both a single player and multiplayer mode and because of the change, had to cut the multiplayer features as they were becoming too costly and more than we could afford.

Over the next year we also released Defense Grid on the Xbox 360 as well, and the game did well on Xbox 360. When we released the game on the Xbox 360 it came with four extra levels called Defense Grid: Borderlands, and then later were able to release those levels on the PC as well.  A year later, we released four Defense Grid: Resurgence Map packs on both platforms which created new additional puzzles for the game, and then this last December we released Defense Grid: You Monster, the first full story expansion for Defense Grid featuring GLaDOS from Portal in addition to our AI companion: Fletcher.

7.When you first set out to make the Defense Grid  did you envision it to turn out the way it did?

Any creative project changes during its creation from what you set out to do to what it becomes as it forms through multiple people and many great creative folks being involved.  That said, I think the gameplay in Defense Grid came closer to what we initially envisioned as a product than many other products I’ve been a part of before or since.  We had a very clear vision for much of the product, and vigorously iterated and tested with players in areas we had ideas for but weren’t sure about.

One area I remember that started one way and completely ended up differently was the way the story was going to be told in the game. Our initial design was to create an interaction between the AI and the player.  The actual player wouldn’t really converse, but what we’d do is simulate as if you were “typing” on the screen asking questions to which the AI would respond.  In this way we kept you anonymous allowing it to really be “you” in the story, but we effectively put words in your mouth and had the AI character respond to those typewritten words.

The original script was great.  The design team at Hidden Path put together the general story arc and progression and brought a lot of ideas to the table, and then worked closely with a couple of exceptional writers, Sam Ernst and Jim Dunn, who brought new ideas as well; they helped bring the story to life and got the dialogue just right.

At the time, they had written a “West Wing” episode that was well known, had worked on some other games, and had done some very good writing, so we were excited to collaborate with them.  As we were working together they told us about a TV series they were pitching based on Stephen King’s “Colorado Kid” story, and of course we now know a couple years later that they were successful in getting it made, as it is now on Syfy and called “Haven.”

So we had a great script, everyone loved it, the writers were very happy, we were happy, and we started implementing the dialogue and story in the game.  It became quickly clear, though, that waiting for the player to type something out and then have the AI respond created a lot of undesirable waiting time.  In addition, if we sped it up, or played around with different presentations, your eyes kept moving from the playing field to the text and back and the player quickly felt uncomfortable and unfocused. We’d be really messing with the timing of the game if we didn’t fix that.

I’ll never forget the call we made to Sam and Jim when we said: “Hey guys, you know that two-character interaction that you nailed so well? Well, what would you think about converting it to a one-character monologue where we just ‘imply’ what the player may be asking or wanting to know?”  If you ever want to break a writer’s heart, you would walk down such a path and boy did we feel awful about it.  It was clear, though, that our original idea of the player and the AI going back and forth was getting in the way of the pace and the play of the game.  We could give a voice to the player, but we didn’t like that idea of it then not being or feeling like it is “you.”

To their credit, Sam and Jim simply said, “We don’t know if this is going to work, but we’re up for giving it a try,” and after a few iterations, we all stood back and were amazed.  It was actually a better script with just one character.  I think everyone was stunned by that.  It of course went into the game in a very straightforward manner, and as we played, it all fit together perfectly, and this was with the stand-in voice acting.  Later when we got the actual actor to perform the lines, we all got very excited with the realization of the entire story process and how it was performed.

8.Looking back on Defense Grid and the DLC now that it is released, what are the things that you are most proud of?

I think the thing I’m most pleased about with the product is its balance and polish.  Our background in working on many past AAA games allowed us to take the lessons from those games in balancing systems and apply them to this game.  The balancing was one of the toughest things to get right and something we spent a tremendous amount of time doing. For us that was probably the key differentiating factor of what we thought would make a top tower defense game: so many of them aren’t balanced, have only one way to solve them, or aren’t true puzzles where you can solve them many different ways.  For us, Defense Grid levels had to be solvable by lots of different people in many different ways and the only way to really accomplish that was to balance the towers, balance the levels, balance the alien waves, and make it all work tightly.

People would often test the game, finish a level and turn to us afterwards and say “I solved the level just the way you wanted me to, right?” and we’d say “actually, we didn’t know you could solve it that way, that’s the first time we’ve seen someone beat it that way”, and that was so cool because it was “their” way of beating the level.  The game had to be finely tuned to allow that sort of individual problem solving.

9.  Did you all come from game developer/designer backgrounds at Hidden Path Ent?

Yes, in fact most of us have been in the game industry a long time and worked on a lot of titles.  The founders average 15 years in the game industry and over 15 titles per person shipped, while the average Hidden Path team member averages 10 years in the game industry and 10 games shipped.

Hidden Path Entertainment was formed six years ago in February of 2006 with five founders: Mark Terrano, Design Director and former lead designer of Age of Empires 2: Age of Kings; Dave McCoy, Art Director and former creative director of Microsoft Game Studios and FASA interactive; Jeff Pobst CEO and former publishing producer of the Half-Life, Homeworld, and Lord of the Rings series for Sierra On-Line; Michael Austin, CTO and former Xbox 360 technology consultant and programmer from Microsoft and Access Software, and James Garbarini, COO/CFO and former President of Virtual World Entertainment, the parent of FASA Interactive and Virtual World location-based entertainment.

10.Can you give us some tips or strategies for Defense Grid?

Sure thing.  I tend to prefer longer-range towers when I can use them, but they do have a downside: decoys.  Just like most aliens in Defense Grid, decoys are designed to prevent the “one strategy solves everything solution” and their special power is that they can’t be seen by towers that are more than a grid or two away from them.  Meteor towers pretty much never see them, and cannons often aren’t very effective against them since both those tower types have an inner radius of fire as well as an outer radius (so they can’t shoot at an alien when it is too close to them – and in this case they can’t see it unless it is close to them).

There are in my opinion a couple good anti-decoy strategies.  The obvious one is to have more gun, inferno, Tesla, concussion and laser towers around, which will see them and shoot at them when they are near.  Also, combining those or other short-range towers with a temporal tower to slow down the decoys is good so that they can get a lot of damage done to them while they are near a set of short-range towers.  Second, command towers not only help provide more resources in an area, but they also illuminate decoys so that other towers can see the decoys – even from far away – when they’re near the command tower.  So, a small killing zone with some short range towers, a temporal tower, and a command tower not only do a lot of damage to a decoy, but they also allow cannons and meteors in the other parts of the map to see the decoys and attack when they’re near the command tower as well.  This typically can do the trick.

11.With Defense Grid being out for some time, are you in any early stages of planning another Xbox Live Arcade game?

Today Hidden Path is very focused on working with Valve on the next Counter-Strike game – Global Offensive.  CS:GO will ship on four platforms PC, Mac, Xbox 360, and PS3, and we’re very excited about how far Counter-strike is coming, while at the same time retaining that feel and comfort that makes Counter-Strike, well… Counter-Strike.

We have some other independent games in the works, and would love to find the right financial partner to help us grow those and the Defense Grid franchise even farther.  The game is well loved by those who have played it, but we need to be on more platforms and devices and really engage users even more.  We have a lot of ideas and will keep looking for the opportunities that will allow more Defense Grid to come in the future.

12. Can you tell us anything that the future might hold for Defense Grid?

Since its original release, we’ve worked on other projects and technologies and we’ve developed a technology base that will be the core for any sequel we get to create.  The new technology will make it easier for us to ship on multiple platforms, bring new key features to the game, better explore multiplayer and user created content, and explore several other things that our players are asking for when they want more Defense Grid.  When that will happen though, I can’t quite say.

13. What was it like working with Valve on the You Monster DLC?

Being able to work with Valve on the ARG and then later the You Monster expansion to create a new conflict with a challenging GLaDOS was an extreme pleasure. The Valve folks were so generous and supportive and couldn’t have been any easier to work with.  It was an amazing experience.

14. Was there anything you had hoped to put in the You Monster DLC that didn’t make it in? Any chance we may see it somewhere down the road via an update?

Actually yes, there is, as a matter of fact.  When we went back to the studio to record the story for You Monster, we also added additional lines for events that take place in the game.  While there are several variations of lines you could hear from Fletcher for a mission success or a stolen core comment, after you’ve played the game for a while, you’ve heard them all and you’ve heard them a lot.  We went ahead and recorded another 100 comment lines that couldn’t make it into the game in time for You Monster, but we will be releasing them soon as a free update on Steam.  The Xbox 360 update requirements don’t allow us to update the original game with new content like 100 new audio files, but this is something we can do on Steam and so we’re going to go ahead and do that.  Soon if you play the game on Steam, you’ll have double the variety of lines that you can hear in 21 different categories of events that take place during the main game.  This audio isn’t actually applicable for most of the You Monster expansion levels, but it will be heard in all the other Defense Grid levels. 

15. 2011 was a big year for gaming what games do you play when not working on your own?

There was no shortage of great games to play in 2011 and I think I played a whole lot of hours of exceptionally great games this year.  From the big names of Portal 2, L.A. Noire, Dragon Age 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Batman: Arkham City, Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, Uncharted 3, Assassin’s Creed Revelations, Civilization V, and The Witcher 2,  to great downloadable games such as Orcs Must Die! Dungeon Defenders, From Dust, TheBall, Bit.Trip. Beat, Cogs, and many more – there was a wealth of great game experiences to be enjoyed in 2011.

About Malcheor