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?