Tower Defenders: Hidden Path On Defense Grid

By Alec Meer on July 9th, 2009 at 11:06 am.

Jim and I both had brief, torrid love affairs with last year’s indie-but-shiny, berry-obsessed tower defence title Defense Grid: The Awakening. We weren’t alone – it hit #3 in the Steam charts back in October. Now this defence game is on the offence again, having made the jump to a boxed version for the online’n'DRM-fearing crowd. Seems as good a time as any to sit down with its developers Hidden Path Entertainment and chat about the whys and wherefores of this lovely wee thing, and what they’re working on next…

Two Hidden Pathers showed up for this, incidentally – CTO and Defense Grid lead designer Michael Austin, and CEO & Defense Grid executive producer Jeff Pobst.

So, why make a game in the fairly crowded tower defense genre? Were you confident from the start you could bring something new to the table?

[Jeff] At the time we started, there were many flash games and mods, but there weren’t any TD games that had the level of balance, progression, or production values that we were planning to do. After playing many of the flash experiences, we felt like there was definitely something still missing out there, and we set out to try to be the ones to satisfy that perceived gap.

How do you feel about the genre, actually? Given its essential formula seems so fixed, is it still ripe with possibility, or is it already in danger of stagnation?

[Michael] We really like the tower defense genre. I think the appeal is that you are a protector – you aren’t in any real danger, and you aren’t placing towers to help yourself, you are playing the game to protect something more important. It’s a role that is easy to understand and be immersed in. We definitely think there is potential in the genre – when you look at the wide variety of games from Defense Grid to Plants vs. Zombies to old classics like Dungeon Keeper, or even in some ways, the engineer in Team Fortress 2, there’s a lot of space still there.

Did it meet your expectancies in terms of success?

[Jeff] We are very pleased with how Defense Grid has turned out and how well it has been received. We were initially surprised when the game started getting “Editor’s Choice” ratings and high review scores, not because we didn’t think the game deserved it, but rather we didn’t expect to see those awarded to a downloadable title that sells for 1/3rd of a full price game. The game was designed for PC & XBLA from the beginning. With the PC version out in downloadable form on portals like Steam, Direct2Drive, and Greenhouse, and now coming out at retail, we’re looking forward to seeing how well it reaches customers. XBLA is just around the corner too.

Did you manage to get much traction with the mainstream games press, or do blogs and Steam adverts seem the only real way to create a buzz around an indie title?

[Jeff] We’ve been pleasantly surprised how great the mainstream press has been for Defense Grid. They’ve been very supportive and we’ve seen even more coverage than we expected. There is even more to be said, though, for the blog reviews and the word of mouth that the title has received, I’m sure that many people would not have tried the game out had they not seen one of the many many blog articles covering the game out there. I think the world of the independent game reviewer has been critical in building the buzz for the game. The blogosphere has been very very supportive of the game and we’ve been thrilled about that.

With hindsight, what are the major things you’d change about the game or its release?

[Jeff] I think the main thing is that we wish we had even more resources to invest into the development of the game. There are features we’d love to add to the game, including several that users have been wanting, such as multiplayer and a user level editor that were part of the original plan, but couldn’t make the final release due to our budget constraints as a small company self-funding the game. Thinking about it that way, there have been a few other professional quality TD games that have come out and they were financed by very big publishing companies. We are excited that given our limitations, our game still appears to be the one that sets the standard out there. Hopefully everyone out there will buy lots and lots of copies of Defense Grid and we can afford to go back to the game and add additional content.

How and why did the narrator come about? It’s pretty unusual for, well, most strategy games. Did including him play out as well as you’d hoped?

[Michael] Part of the challenge with tower defense games is to keep the world immersive- when a lot of things are happening at once, it’s easy to want to spend your time at the furthest possible distance, playing the puzzle game with icons and the HUD. It’s easy to understand that motivation, and we wanted something to tie the world to the game and add immersion for all players. The idea that you were playing something that looked like a game but was reflecting what was really going on with the real world (like WarGames or Ender’s Game) meant even if we have to show HUD or an iconic view of things, the world was still there. The idea of an AI companion came from that same goal- if you were using an old computer system, wouldn’t someone have left some help?

Initially, there was a full dialog between the player and the AI, but we decided that players shouldn’t have to press ‘A’ to get past the story and get to the game, so the concept of the narrator arose. The idea is that if someone is just there commenting on your actions and idly musing to you, you can build a relationship without actually being forced to stop the game and watch a cutscene. I don’t think our writers were thrilled with the redirection at first, but I think they did an excellent job of it.

You’ve got a boxed release planned – will there be any changes or updates from the download version?

[Jeff] The one big feature change for the boxed release is that it is DRM free. I think we weren’t quite as aware of how much DRM or online connectivity can affect people negatively out there, and while we didn’t do anything out of the ordinary, in order to sell the game on Steam, Direct2Drive or Greenhouse, we use their built-in systems to sell the game.

With the box product we don’t have any DRM, and it is a completely offline version of the game. High scores and achievements are kept locally instead of online. The one thing about this, is that several features like comparing scores to my friends, or to the world out there aren’t part of the offline game. So, we’ve also included a Steam download key in every box as well. This means the player who buys the game at retail has a choice – use the offline DRM-free version of the game included in the box, or download a Steam version with DRM and online features that come along with that. We think its the best way to give customers a choice.

And how do you feel about that boxed version? Does it feel like an archaic anachronism in this day and age, or is it still the best to way to earn a money hat? Also, presumably there’s a fair amount of pride to be had from holding a physical copy of your creation in your hand…

[Jeff] It’s funny. We don’t know yet about the money hat part – we’ll wait and find out. What we do know is that some people are very comfortable buying and downloading a game online, but many people still aren’t as comfortable buying a game that way. When we partnered with Aspyr, they got very excited about bringing Defense Grid to the stores. They told us all they had to say to the retailers was “show me anything else that looks this good for $20 on your shelves” and the retailers were quickly hooked. The fact that the gameplay and balance was great and the game had won several awards helped as well, I’m sure, but we’re excited to reach a new customer group that isn’t looking to buy games online and hopefully they’ll fall in love with Defense Grid that way the downloadable world has.

What’s next for you guys? More Defence Grid, or is there something new and different in the wings?

[Jeff] We eagerly are looking forward to the opportunity to do more Defense Grid. The Xbox 360 version is getting its final approvals and it will be exciting when that is available for people. In the meantime our teams have begun work on other projects with our partners that we can’t really talk about at this time. We love developing all types of games, and it’s great to work with partners that are as committed to quality as our team is. We look forward to being able to return to the Defense Grid universe, we want to get back there soon.

What’s with the raspberries, anyway?

[Michael] Raspberries are rich in vitamin C, a strong anti-oxidant, and high in fiber. High nutrition content combined with a perfect blend of tart and sweet… Who doesn’t love them?

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30 Comments »

  1. Howard says:

    Awesome. Utterly adored this game and got VERY OCD about beating the high scores (though I am now among the highest scores on all the maps I am smugly amused to say!)
    Best money I spent last year and I cannot wait for more from them

  2. Dzamir says:

    I loved this game, but I lost my savegames near the end of the game, and now I don’t have much time to replay it :’(
    I hope they will do an iPhone version of the game

  3. pkt-zer0 says:

    I still see the 20$ price tag a bit off in a genre populated by free flash games for the most part, but it’s a good game for what it is. Bought it at 50% off, was entertained all the while. The “realistic” approach to the graphics did bother me a bit near the end levels, too many samey-looking metalgrey buildings that are hard to tell apart. Some way to display some sort of identifying icons for each of the towers would’ve been nice.

    The solution for offline/online features in the boxed version is handled in the way I think everyone should do it. Large companies, take notice.

  4. The Unshaven says:

    I still haven’t beaten the last level yet, because I:

    a) Suck
    b) Get all snarly and OCD and restart should they escape with anything.

    - The Unshaven

  5. techpops says:

    Oh how I love this game. I played it to death and got my arse handed to me on the later levels time and time again but I still had to keep going back. The crazy thing was I was enjoying myself the whole time. I never felt I’d been cheated, great planning always paid off.

    One of my all time favourite games and I think it would be a huge mistake to go off down another path. I want more levels and a sequel that’s just more of the same with a little more prettiness. The formula is perfect.

  6. Hypocee says:

    This is great, but for the record the Greenhouse version (which I bought at the start of my little Steam saga) only activates once.

    Unshaven: I have to make sure you’re aware they put in this nifty little checkpoint-rewind feature. I somehow wasn’t for the longest time.

  7. Benny says:

    Indeed, who doesn’t love rasberries?

  8. bansama says:

    It’s nice to see Defense Grid still going strong. Especially given the concerns over piracy that Micheal had when I interviewed him about the Steam release of the game.

    An actual retail release can only help to introduce this great game to others. It’s also thanks to this game that I found a liking for Tower Defense games and seeing a version on the iPhone would be great (it’d complement some of the other more exceptional TDs available on the iPhone).

  9. Tei says:

    My learning from this:
    Making something good for a niche, pay.
    And thats probabbly why Indie games still make versiones for Apple and Linux.

  10. Tei says:

    Sad comment is sad:

    Modding invented Turret Defense games. But most Turret Defense games don’t support modding.

  11. M_the_C says:

    Yay raspberries.

    Every time I go to eat raspberries I think of that line on the last level.

    The game itself was good too, some of the levels were a bit beyond me, but they all had an interesting design.

  12. Carra says:

    Very entertaining game indeed. Had a lot of fun finishing this game. And will without doubt play through it again in time.

  13. Trite says:

    I played through it, and it was OK, but I still felt it was lacking compared to the best TD maps I’ve played on Warcraft 3. Gem TD, Element TD, and many, many others whose names I’ve forgotten.

    If you like TDs, and have only played Defense Grid or the crappy Flash versions… go buy Warcraft 3. With TFT. Now.

  14. Rich_P says:

    Heh, if only everyone cared about player choice like these guys. DRM-free version + Steam download code. You choose!

    Defense Grid is probably the best $5 I spent on a videogame, edging out World of Goo (there, I said it!).

  15. Dave says:

    I’m tired of raspberries, they’re in every effing thing now.

    My wife just plain hates them. She even thought she was allergic to them, but it was probably aspartame.

    Defense Grid is quite good, definitely the sharpest looking TD game out there. I just wish it’d run smoothly on my netbook.

  16. Jeremy says:

    I’ve played quite a few of the WC3 TDs and I have to say that I really liked Defense Grid much more than those. Maybe I’m not hardcore enough, I don’t know. What I liked is the ability to come from behind in Defense Grid, whereas in most of the Warcraft TDs its more of… you build one wrong tower, and suddenly 300 creeps are storming through, even though you’ve just spent an hour or two getting to the 40th wave. Not great game design in my opinion, but maybe great hardcore design. Not that Defense Grid isn’t a difficult game by any means, it just never felt like it was a countdown to doom.

  17. The Sombrero Kid says:

    excellent aproach to the TD game.

  18. juv3nal says:

    At $5 this was a sweet deal, but the sound never ended up working for me.

  19. Adam T says:

    “for the online’n’DRM-fearing crowd”

    May they ever be (belatedly) served!

  20. Howard says:

    As to the issue of people being stuck on later levels: I’ve actually made a FRAPS vid of my method for the last level that will easily get you into the top 100 scores but, even though I have been an internet nerd forever, I have never uploaded a vid to Youtube. Could some kind guru type point me in the direction of a program I can use to shrink the video down to uploadable sieze?

  21. Nighthood says:

    @Howard: Windows movie maker? Works for me.

  22. invisiblejesus says:

    This game rocks, I picked it up when it was on sale for 25% off and haven’t regretted it even after it went on the weekend deal for even cheaper. Sure, there are mods and flash games out there that do something similar, but I’m willing to pay for a kickass game that does this style of play right from the ground up. Here’s hoping the boxed release makes Hidden Path a few bucks and enables them to do a great sequel or a content update or two. Even if they don’t, I’ve gotten more than my money’s worth in terms of time and enjoyment relative to the cost.

  23. Xercies says:

    @Rich_P

    Actually thats a rubbish choice, why can’t I have an online version WITHOUT STEAM.

  24. Howard says:

    @Nighthood
    Yeah, others have advised that but I must have been having a blonde day. I popped the two (bloody huge) videos into Movie Maker but I could not find a way of shrinking the buggers down or changing the format.

  25. bitkari says:

    I love the PC version, and the XBLA iteration is just as good as the PC one, so ‘ll be buying it on Xbox (gasp!) as well when it comes out.

    I’d buy an iPhone version too, if Hidden Path deign to develop one.

    Basically: LET ME GIVE YOU MORE OF MY MONEY!

  26. S says:

    I wish they had had just a bit more time to work on the balance; it’s unfortunate that the trick to nearly every level is “build a long, doubled path with gun towers, and upgrade a few sections to full”, maybe with some temporals thrown in. Guns are just too cheap for the firepower they pack, and even the armored bosses can’t take it.

    Regardless, it’s a great game, and the narration was superb. No regrets for my $5, that’s for sure.

  27. Thermal Ions says:

    Great buy this one. So much so, that I wasn’t too annoyed when I missed the Steam 50% off special due to buying 2 copies of it literally the day before.

    Top approach with the offline / steam key arrangements. Congratulations. Just goes to show what developers / publishers can do to meet their customers expectations, when they listen.

    Looking forward to more from Hidden Path in the future.

  28. Paul Moloney says:

    I bought this on the Steam sale, but most admit, never got into it, since the levels are quite long and it’s frustrating to be doing fine up until the last few minutes, lose, and not know exactly why you lost. My Tower Defence appetite was subsequently satiated by PVZ.

    P.

  29. Matzerath says:

    I became obsessed-to-finish with Defense Grid, and loved it, but still haven’t finished Plants vs Zombies. Go figure.

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