Alienware Arena Interviews Hidden Path

01/28/2013 | Source: Alienware Arena
There is an ample amount of tower defense games on the market, ones that safely stick to ordinary gameplay and others which attempt to stand above the rest. Implementing a new vision to an already classic genre doesn't occur very often, but when it does and it's done well, titles like Defense Grid: The Awakening become memorable. In this interview with Hidden Path Entertainment, the same people behind Counter Strike: Global Offensive, we ask them about the creation of Defense Grid: The Awakening, their expansions, and the development of its sequel.

1) Defense Grid isn't the conventional Tower Defense game, as it's more in-depth than most and it clearly had more effort put into its development than other games of this genre. What were your goals with Defense Grid? What did you want from the final product?

When we made Defense Grid, we asked ourselves, what would the definitive tower defense game look like? And as we talked about it more and more, we saw a vision of something that we felt should be made and that we thought we could do well.  We focused on having just the right balance of features and options that we had seen in other tower defense games (less was better in our opinion), but then we asked a lot of questions about the emotional curve that one experiences as they go through a tower defense level or as one progresses from level to level.
We pulled from our past experiences of making retail games and realized that we didn't see anyone out there (at the time we were developing Defense Grid) working on things like intentional support for the emotional arc, the balance for many different kinds of players, progression, immersion, visualizations, etc.—all of the things that are a part of making a large retail game, and we decided that we should make an effort to fill that void.  Also, the new channel for downloadable games on the consoles and the increase in popularity of PC download channels like Steam, opened up new opportunities where we felt that we could really deliver something different than what others were doing.
We felt there were a couple of opportunities, as well, for some new changes in the tower defense experience.  Prior to Defense Grid, we found tower defense games that were either all open-map experiences or all fixed-path experiences.  As we looked deeper, we found that the learning curve for fixed-path was much easier and opened up gameplay to a larger audience. We agreed, however, that open-map presented a more creative challenge and allowed one to really get deeper into the gameplay.  We decided to mix both map types in our game and actually have fixed paths connected to open areas in interesting level designs, and over time we allow the player to learn some of the nuances of playing in both types of systems.  We found that this hybrid-map approach seemed to bring something new to the table.
I think the newest thing we brought to the table, though, was the idea that the incoming enemies were there to “steal” something rather than just trying to get from point A to point B. This had several positive impacts on the game experience. For one, the emotional curve was now multi-peaked. There was an emotional increase as the aliens got closer and closer to your cores (similar to when the aliens would get close to the exit in other tower defense experiences), but then there was a second emotional experience from the time they actually got a core (and the music swelled up more), to the time where they would or wouldn’t be prevented from escaping with that core.
There now was a new mid-game experience of stress and response, where the player knew a bad thing had happened, but it wasn't the end of the world, and there were steps they could still take to prevent it from hurting them further.
In addition, the “hand-off” mechanic of the aliens being able to pick up dropped power cores (dropped when other aliens were killed) turned out to be a great gameplay experience in that it helped keep the map fresh, preventing easy “front-loaded” or “back-loaded” solutions. This was because the main hot spot on the map where you need to prevent enemies from escaping could move around to different parts of the level as the cores were stolen and then passed off to other aliens when an enemy died.
One other great thing about the power cores being part of the game, is that by providing 24 possible things to be stolen, and setting up our rule that you could progress to the next level as long as you kept one of them, the levels could be self-balancing for different players of different skill sets.
Novice players saw the cores as “lives” and worked hard to keep that last life in order to be able to continue through the game.  We could balance this to be difficult to do appropriately for novice players, but not hugely difficult or impossible as many tower defense games seemed to be at the time.  Meanwhile, we could keep the more serious players engaged by awarding achievements or medals for retaining all of the cores at the end of a level, which was much more difficult to accomplish.  In this way, the same level had different objectives for players of different skills.

2) I understand you're currently getting funding for and beginning to develop Defense Grid 2 (DG2). Can you tell us anything about the gameplay in Defense Grid 2?
Defense Grid’s success helped us earn around half of the funding needed to make a DG2 that is truly special.  We then turned to our fans on Kickstarter to see if we could get the rest we needed to make the right kind of sequel that provides a significant jump from the original game.  We were successful in raising a portion of what remained and with that, we've built Defense Grid: Containment: the upcoming expansion to Defense Grid that will bridge the story between the first game and the sequel.  We’re now in talks to close that final funding gap and move into full production on DG2, but we’re not fully complete with that process yet, though things look promising.

3) One of the large differences between Defense Grid and some other tower defense games is the story behind it. Although a subtle storyline, it's definitely there and plays a significant part in each campaign. What can we expect from the story of Defense Grid 2?
We’re going to work our way to the story of DG2 through Defense Grid: Containment, coming out this month.  In Defense Grid: Containment, we’re introducing two new characters that will be a new part of the Defense Grid storyline and will be significantly impacting the story of DG2 as well.  The player and Fletcher are leaving what they know behind in order to ensure the survival of the folks they've been protecting, and their adventures will bring them in contact with new people who have similar and different agendas and approaches.  We’re very excited about how the new expansion will set the stage for a growing story around the invasion of the aliens, and how different groups of people cope with it and handle it in different ways.
We’re also excited to announce that these two characters will be played by great voice and screen actors, Ming-Na Wen (Mulan, Final Fantasy The Spirits Within, E.R., SGU Stargate Universe, and Joss Whedon’s upcoming S.H.I.E.L.D) and Alan Tudyk (Firefly, Serenity, Ice Age, Wreck-it Ralph, Suburgatory, and 3:10 to Yuma) 
4) Fletcher, as a character, effectively single-handedly sets the mood and pace for the entire game. Will he be sticking around for Defense Grid 2?
Absolutely!  As you say, the character is so central to everything going on in Defense Grid and the actor Jim Ward, who plays him, is an amazing actor.  We get to grow Fletcher a bit as we have him interact with other characters.  In Defense Grid: You Monster, he got to spar a bit with Portal’s GLaDOS and while she tried to just ignore him, the interplay between the two of them made the experience more fun.  We’re now building upon Fletcher’s character, introducing other characters and relationships to him, and seeing where it will all take the player.

5) There's a bunch of concept art available for viewing from Defense Grid 2. Can you tell us anything about any new tower types or Aliens we might encounter in future Defense Grid expansions and games?
The concept art done by the art team here at Hidden Path explores all sorts of possibilities where we can take the sequel—both in expanding the look and feel of the game, taking us to new places with new technologies, and facing new alien enemies.  With our new engine technology, several possibilities are opened up on what the towers and aliens can do, and what environments might look like.  Exactly which concepts will fit together to make a cohesive whole is yet to be determined, though, so it’s still a bit of a mystery exactly what the player will come across in DG2.  We’re hoping to finalize the financing of DG2 and begin full production of the sequel sometime soon after Defense Grid: Containment ships.

6) Something I found interesting about Defense Grid 2 is the plans to include items. What kind of items can we look forward to and how do they work in a tower defense environment?
One of the things we found as Defense Grid’s player base continued to grow over the years is how differently people played the game, and how much one player group really wanted a focus on a certain feature set while a different player group wanted the complete opposite. As we explored how we could better make a sequel that served all of the groups who enjoy Defense Grid, we developed a design for an item system that would help allow players to focus the experience of the game toward the play style they enjoy.  It also allows us to introduce new abilities for the towers and the player, and provides the player the ability to make their own trade-offs on which approach they’d prefer.  We still have a lot of work to do to refine the approach, but we’re very excited about its possibilities.

7) What can we expect from the next expansion pack you plan to release, Defense Grid: Containment?
Defense Grid: Containment has been our focus since the Kickstarter campaign ended in August.  We have eight new levels that bring some new gameplay experiences to the table with a new story written by the original team, featuring the new characters we mentioned earlier that will expand the Defense Grid universe.
We were thrilled to be able to continue our writing partnership with Sam Ernst & Jim Dunn again for Defense Grid: Containment as they have been extremely busy writing for their SyFy show Haven that was green-lit shortly after Defense Grid first launched.  We really enjoy collaborating with them, and they bring a great sense of character to Fletcher as well as their contribution to the overall storyline.  We've spent a lot of time talking together about the original Defense Grid story, the story of Defense Grid: Containment and our plans for DG2. 
In addition to the new story and levels, players will experience several challenge modes per level and receive some great new visual features where our tech and art team have really pushed the old engine as far as it can go.  It has taught us a lot about the features we want in the new DG2 engine too, and we’re really excited about the full play experience that players will have when they get DG: Containment.

8) You've mentioned multiplayer modes for Defense Grid: Containment. What can you tell us about this feature? 
No, sadly, the original engine doesn't support multiplayer, so multiplayer is a main feature for DG2 and the new engine, but isn't something we can include with Defense Grid: Containment. Multiplayer is going to be a major feature for the sequel though, and we want to make sure we do multiplayer in just the right way: supporting co-op play, competitive play, and making it easy to play games with your friends.

9) There are also plans to introduce a level editor with the new expansion pack. How far does the level editor go? Will we be able to do things like create custom turrets or is it more geared toward terrain and level design?
Another constraint of the existing engine is that we can’t do a proper level editor with it, so no, unfortunately we can’t introduce a level editor with the expansion.
What we did instead, with our Kickstarter backers is give them a “level previewer” where they could make initial level layouts and then we let the community vote on which ones we’d take and then finish it ourselves.  We’re excited to announce that at the same time Defense Grid: Containment ships, we’ll be releasing a free DLC (with email registration) comprised of four new community designed levels as chosen by our backers.  We’re very excited to show the promise of our community having a level editor with this small step, and then with DG2; user created levels will become a major feature and a big focus of the sequel as well.

10) When can we expect the release of Defense Grid: Containment?
Defense Grid: Containment will have a specific release date very soon, but at the time of this interview, we know that it will ship at the end of January!  Check for updated information on the release date.
[NOTE: Defense Grid: Containment released on January 23 and is available on Steam right now!]

11) Can we still pledge money for the development of Defense Grid 2? And are the rewards from Kickstarter still available to new pledgers?
Yes, we've worked with the Humble Bundle folks to create offers on our website where folks can still participate for a short while longer in the Kickstarter benefits.  We offer two current tiers: a $30 all-digital tier that gets new backers everything Defense Grid has to date, and also Defense Grid 2, when it ships likely a year from now, if all goes to plan as well as private backer forum access.  We also have a $100 offer that gets users all the digital content, including physical goods, such as a limited edition poster, a unique T-shirt, an audio fortune telling button with Fletcher’s voice, and an 8GB USB gun tower model when they ship (+$20 for international shipping).  The manufactured goods are almost ready and are scheduled to ship out later this month as well.  Folks who would like to view the different offers can visit this >>website<<.

12) Is there anything you'd like to say to the fans of Defense Grid?
We started out with the goal to make the definitive tower defense game and initially sold 100,000 copies or so in the first year.  Now, just over four years later, almost 900,000 people have purchased Defense Grid and the numbers keep growing through word of mouth and because of how much fun people have playing the game.  We are honored to be able to entertain so many people with our work and we are committed to taking the next step and creating games that are even more fun to play as we progress.  We’re very excited about Defense Grid: Containment shipping this month and we look forward to finalizing our plans for Defense Grid 2 next year. Thanks so much for everyone’s support!

13) Is there anyone you'd like to give a special mention to?
Well, it goes without saying that we work closely with a lot of partners in the game industry in order to make the best games possible, and there have been a core group of folks that have really expressed their interest and their support in our quest to completely blow the lid off of what people expect from a tower defense strategy game.
The folks at Alienware have been very supportive and encouraging and have helped us add AlienFX support to the existing Defense Grid and add AlienFX integration into the new engine for DG2. We’ve tied our emotional music intensity system to the Alienware lighting and it is so cool! We will be releasing that functionality along with the update for Defense Grid: Containment to all Defense Grid players.
Intel powers many Alienware laptops and they’ve also supported us by helping us add support for new chipsets and multi-touch input support for Defense Grid.  Because of Intel, Steam users of Defense Grid can play the game with touch support today if they have a Windows Tablet or touch screen laptop or a touch screen desktop.
AMD has been a big supporter of Defense Grid as well. We’ve worked to optimize our rendering for AMD chipsets and will be incorporating AMD technology in the new engine, too. We’re pleased to now support Eyefinity multi-monitor desktops with Defense Grid now thanks to AMD’s involvement. 
Razer peripherals have also been huge supporters of Defense Grid and we’ve added support for Razer Naga Hex mice button layouts, including Razer Switchblade support to the game. Through all of these partners, we have been able to support more of the technologies that our players have at home, and we’ve been able to reach out to more players than ever. We’re hugely appreciative to our gaming technology partners.