Interview with Hidden Path Entertainment

08/24/2011 by Isaac Sher | Source: Threat or Menace
Founded in 2006, Hidden Path Entertainment is a game development studio based out of Seattle, Washington, and they made a big splash very recently with their announcement of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, which you’ll be able to try out at this weekend’s PAX. Originally, the company’s fame came from the release of Counter-Strike: Source, and in 2008, they gained even more followers with the amazing release of Defense Grid: The Awakening, a Tower Defense game that has been very well received indeed. Here’s what some critics have said about it:

“Defense Grid’s excellent personality and gameplay make it both a great game for experienced tower defense fans and an excellent starting point for new players.” – PC Gamer

“…a worth while and addictive game.” - GameFocus

“…a masterpiece for your PC.” - GamePro

“One of the Best Tower Defense Games is now one of the Best XBLA Games.” – IGN

We reviewed Defense Grid ourselves here, where I ranked it the #1 tower defense game out of a very crowded field. In my opinion, DG:TA has become the defining game of its genre, without question. Thus, I could not have been happier when three of the founders of Hidden Path agreed to speak with us to talk about the past and future of Defense Grid, and to give us a peek behind the curtain at the offices of Hidden Path Entertainment.

Without any further ado, let me introduce the members of the development team joining us today: Hidden Path’s Chief Technical Officer, Michael Austin, their Design Director, Mark Terrano, and the Chief Executive Officer, Jeff Pobst.

Threat Or Menace: Thank you again for taking the time to talk with us. I have to tell you, Defense Grid is one of those games where if I had a gamer friend who hadn’t heard about it yet, I would make a point of showing them the game so they could enjoy it for themselves. Nearly every time, their reaction was one of awe and interest. Now, we clearly aren’t the only ones giving you positive reviews – the critical and popular response has been so kind, so you’re definitely doing a lot of things right. What do you feel have been the key ingredients to Defense Grid’s success?

Michael Austin: It’s our pleasure, and thanks for sharing with your friends. As an indie, it’s hard sometimes to get the word out there- we had almost no marketing budget for Defense Grid.

Looking back on its development, I think several key philosophies really helped make Defense Grid work:

1. We were very passionate about it- we had a lot of fans of tower defense around the office, and had been working for several years on projects that didn’t end up seeing the light of day. Being able to work on a title that we would have full creative control on was amazing (it was our first self-funded project).

2. We didn’t release it until it was polished. Often, fixed schedules mean that you release a game just as you are getting to the part where each day makes the game significantly better. We went a little over our planned schedule and spent a few months on the end polishing all the rough corners and working on balance- I think it paid off in spades.

3. We worked very hard to keep the interface intuitive and transparent. “Only one button necessary” was a mantra throughout the project, and we ended up reevaluating many features that didn’t fit into that. I think it’s actually harder to make a simple interface than a complex one.

4. Easy to learn, hard to master- for a development team, it’s very easy to make a game too hard because you end up playing it so much you get rather good at it. Our Design Director, Mark Terrano, once pointed out that when he looked at the shelve of games that he didn’t play anymore, not one of them was there because the game was to easy. We decided deliberately to make it so progression was possible for all ranges of skills, while giving a lot of room at the high end (interest, medals) for those who had reached mastery.

TOM: Do you get different feedback from those who play your game on the Xbox 360 as opposed to those who play on PC or Mac?

Michael Austin: Generally it’s harder to get feedback from the Xbox crowd because they aren’t on their PC posting on forums, they are on their couch, but the feedback we have received has been very positive. I’m really happy that we’re still in the top 20 user-rated Xbox Live Arcade games of all time.

TOM: We can’t say enough great things about Jim Ward, who did voice for the AI “entity.” How did you come to choose him for the voice, and did the personality of the character change once he started working on the project with you?

Jeff Pobst: Jim is one of those amazing talents that you get the opportunity to work with when the right part finds the right actor. Early on we were working closely with some great dialogue and story writers we were introduced to: Sam Ernst & Jim Dunn (now the creators of the SyFy show Haven), and they had the original idea to give our AI mentor character an approach inspired by John Cleese (the AI character’s name is Fletcher, though we don’t ever say that in the original game).

While John Cleese is one of the funniest actors out there, we realized that the type of character he is most known for wasn’t quite as empathetic as we wanted and we needed to add more to the character definition than was starting to appear in the early dialogue. There are too many characters in games that put the player down or tell them they aren’t doing well, and we didn’t want to accidentally slip into that as we think that’s a mistake. A lot of John Cleese’s humor comes from recognizing the absurdity in a situation, so we needed more to focus on. Fletcher then became a combination of the humor of a John Cleese, combined with the characteristics of other mentor characters. Once we landed on combining him with the empathy and leadership of Gandalf from LOTR, we focused on his hope for you, and his recollection of past pains and losses, and that combination led us in a direction that worked.

Once we had some depth to the character and had gone through our rewrites to get it to where we were all really happy with it, then we went looking for the right actor. We auditioned a dozen or so actors from a group that I’ve been fortunate to work with before. Funny enough, we wanted to be more authentic with the British accent and not have an American play the part, so most of the people in the audition were British, but we included a couple folks we knew were good like Jim. As we heard the different interpretations though, Jim’s really rang true to us for what we were going for in the character, and we just decided to get over the fact he was an American.

To Jim’s credit he brought a ton to the character through his performance, but I wouldn’t say the character changed from where we were trying to go, I think Jim just nailed what we wanted and then added more depth to the performance than we had even hoped to hear.

TOM: The recent C.H.A.S. content was quite fun, and hearing Jim Ward’s AI trying to keep you on an even keel while GLaDOS does her best to rattle you was a real treat… and that was Ellen McLain reprising GLaDOS, correct? What was the reaction around the Hidden Path office when you found out that you’d be able to tie into the Portal 2 launch like that? For that matter, how much fun were the recording sessions for the new voiceover content?

Jeff Pobst: Valve is such an amazing company, and when they approached us and other indie developers with the idea of creating an ARG for Portal 2’s launch and putting the content of the ARG into our games, we got really excited. Then, when they opened up all the Portal IP to all of us, and talked about different ways we could use it, we got even more excited. We felt, and I hope you did too, that GLaDOS could work really well in the Defense Grid universe. We developed a backstory where Aperture Science developed training simulations for the original group manning the Defense Grids and ran with it from there.

Just like Jim Ward, Ellen McClain is a pro, and she’s awesome to work with. We also were thrilled to be able to work closely with the writers at Valve: Erik Wolpaw, Jay Pinkerton, and Chet Faliszek, and they were involved throughout the process to help us achieve what we were going for in the ARG and made sure that we were also staying true to the Portal universe. It’s so funny, though, about the recording sessions. They are a lot of fun, but they are over so quickly. We may spend months on a script writing and rewriting, editing each other’s work, and passing it around to try to get it to the right place. Then we book the studio time and the voice actor to come in and record the character, and after a discussion about the script and the actor performing the lines, a couple hours later, it’s all over and you now have a lot of audio file work to do to take that 1-2 hour session, and break it into the right pieces that can be used by the game. Of course neither actor sounds like they do in the game, there are post-processing effects for both Fletcher and GLaDOS, so that has to be done as well, and only then, after it’s all together, can you listen to the lines and be sure that what you have is going to work in the game as you were hoping.

TOM: From reading the community forums, it would seem that a direct sequel to Defense Grid isn’t currently in the works, but that perhaps additional DLC is. Either way, there’s clearly a hunger for more content of some kind – what can you tell us about what’s coming up in the future of this property?

Michael Austin: We have some more DLC we’re working on that will be announced shortly; because it’s self-funded, our work on Defense Grid kind of fits between other projects. I will say I’m extremely excited about it- we’re really going to mix things up. We’ll share more when we’re closer to finishing it.

TOM: With any creative project, there’s always going to be things that end up on the “cutting room floor”, so to speak. What were some ideas or features that were considered, but ended up not getting used? Might some of these ideas be revisted later?

Michael Austin: Absolutely- there were actually a lot of ideas that we explored that we didn’t end up using. Originally we had typed damage (electrical, fire, physical), and different enemies were susceptible to different types of damage. What we found in testing is that it was too hard to tell who was vulnerable to what; if it didn’t make sense, players would just feel like they were playing randomly. We moved towards the idea that “If it affects something selectively, you have to be able to tell by looking at it”. Shields are great; you can see when they go away, you can see that the laser doesn’t really do anything to them. Fire is great, you can see that the enemies continue to burn after they move past. Having electrical damage do more against mechanical enemies was a lot harder to show, so we ultimately bagged it.

We also really wanted to do multiplayer, and that’s an idea I definitely hope to explore in the future.

TOM: What’s life like in the Hidden Path trenches? How do you toss around ideas amongst each other, and what does the dev team do to blow off steam?

Michael Austin: We have open seating, so there’s a lot of crosstalk. For Defense Grid, most of us were all sitting in the same area, and we’d throw ideas around constantly- the energy was really good. When you actually have to start watching yourself because you are spending more time playing the game than working on it, you know there’s some magic going on. We try to be very open to ideas from everyone, with a central person or few people who hold the vision for the game and try to keep everything consistent.

As for blowing off steam, we have game nights, flag football, ping pong, and tend to go to lunch in big groups- one of the great things about a small company is that everyone really knows each other.

TOM: What are your thoughts on the future of the gaming industry? For example, with the growth of the casual gamer market through smartphones and tablets, how do you think that has changed and will change the game development process?

Mark Terrano: Times are tough for innovation – through the latest economic difficulties game publishing has gotten even more conservative and gated by marketing projections. Because of the cost and risk to a publisher for a blockbuster there is only interest in AAA games with licensed intellectual property (StarWars, Lord of the Rings, or existing game franchises) – these contracts go almost exclusively to internal studios or studios who have done exactly that kind of game many times already. Publishers are most comfortable with the minimum innovation required in order to reduce risk and will push back on novelty. We will continue to see incredible blockbuster games with slowly evolving gameplay. Existing franchises will remediate gameplay from other genres in order to broaden their audience (Assassin’s creed ‘town building’ strategies and hidden object mini-games, Black-Ops’ incorporation of popular FPS mods and alternate play styles in the base product, etc).

I think some of the most exciting game development for the near future has been happening in Flash (by extension HTML5), and iOS. The ubiquity of game engines and a generation of gamers who are completely comfortable with and immersed in technology will inject a lot of innovation and excitement which will filter up into all games. Two years ago you couldn’t have a conversation with a publisher about individual creativity, building, and exploration as the basis for a game – now they’ve all played Minecraft and can imagine how these activities fit.

There has always been a huge casual gamer market – it was just waiting for the games and distribution to evolve to capture it – record sales of ‘Deer Hunter’ at a discount price to the mass market in the late 1990s was our first group ‘awareness’ of the mass market. Zynga’s hundreds of millions of active players are an incredible audience that is looking for entertainment that fits in with an active lifestyle. These changes point toward healthy innovation and an audience that will be actively seeking new experiences, stories, and puzzles in our medium. Core game designers should deliver shorter experience versions of their full content as the casual game developers move toward more story content, deeper and more involved mechanics.

The Future? Extremely bright across the entire range of game experiences.

TOM: Finally, are there any projects not related to Defense Grid that you’d like to talk about? Jeff Pobst mentioned in the forums recently that you had a big announcement coming in a few weeks – perhaps we can get a small hint?

Jeff Pobst: I couldn’t really give a hint until after the announcement – you’ll understand – but yes, as you know by now, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive or CS:GO is the big “years in the making” announcement of Hidden Path Entertainment’s and Valve’s next game. Last week, Valve flew in pro Counter-Strike players and we worked closely with them as they played the PC build of the game. Next, at PAX, the general public will get to come and play the Xbox 360 version of the game in Valve’s booth. We couldn’t be more excited to be involved in the Counter-Strike franchise and we’re very focused on creating a great game experience for people regardless of whether or not their primary platform is Xbox 360, PS3, PC, or Mac.