To Delay or Crunch: The Making of Defense Grid 2, Part Four

01/28/2014 by Russ Pitts | Source: Russ Pitts via Polygon
It's a Monday in December 2013 and I'm in Bellevue, Wash. to visit Hidden Path Entertainment. Since May I've been following the development of Defense Grid 2 from start to finish, interviewing every team member, reading every design document.

On my first visit to Hidden Path, Defense Grid 2 didn't exist as a game. It was just some concept art and programming code that didn't do anything yet. By my second visit, the team was working on a "first playable" level to show to investors and take to the Penny Arcade Expo to show to the public. The game functioned, but it was definitely still a work in progress. My third visit began before PAX started and ended during it.

The result of this ongoing experiment, so far, has been an unprecedented look inside the process of creating a modern video game. Hidden Path has left every door open. No meeting has been off limits. No team member "unavailable." And slowly, over the course of seven months, a clear picture has emerged of exactly how a video game is made and why that process is fraught with complexity.

It's been three months since my last visit, since the independent studio's unveiling of DG2 at PAX when it showed the game to the world for the first time.

The struggle in September was to simply get the game functioning well enough to show it off. It showed one level with one game mode — a multiplayer battle level called DG Fighter — intended as a representation of the final game. The team's hope was that players of the original Defense Grid would find DG2 on the show floor, play it and enjoy it, then get excited for the game's eventual beta and then final release. It worked, to a point.

People who played DG2 at PAX enjoyed it, almost without exception. So far so good. As for as people finding it — not so much.

"The sign [at PAX] only said DG2," says Executive Producer Jeff Pobst. "A lot of people knew [that meant Defense Grid 2] and were good, and a lot of people were like, 'What's this game? Oh, this is Defense Grid?' But they didn't get that from the sign."

That problem called for a branding change. DG2, when it launches in 2014, will be called Defense Grid 2. As for precisely when it will launch, that too may change.

The Defense Grid 2 team is now in factory mode, putting pieces together in stages, building game levels one at a time, chugging away toward a finished game sometime in 2014.

The level it showed at PAX was almost completely scrapped after the show. The temporary art and code was re-engineered, so now it is radically different than when I saw it last. It is also, due in part to planning, but also to unforeseeable setbacks, the most complete level in the game. Still and again.

Changes to the game engine have slowed the progress of building new levels. Art changes required the tedious reorganization of work already finished. And the team's plan for offering user-created levels through Valve's Steam portal has been slow to come together, due in part to the continuing evolution of Valve's own development on Steam.

In the three months since finishing one level of Defense Grid 2 to show to the world, the team has mostly completed just one additional level. That's two out of 20. The remaining 18 are still works in progress, and the only working level they can show me is the same working level I saw for the first time more than three months ago.

The original schedule called for the beta release to begin in December, just a few days from my arrival. I'm here specifically to see that begin, in fact, but it's not going to happen. The beta is being rescheduled. The launch is TBD.

A minor delay here, plus a minor delay there, plus a minor delay somewhere else equals months of planning turning on a dime.

This is game development.