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Defense Grid: The Interviewing

Following our review of the fandabulous Defense Grid: The Awakening, we tracked down a couple of the men behind the game – Michael Austin, founder and CTO of developer Hidden Path, and Jeff Pobst, founder and CEO of developer Hidden Path – and refused to let them through our network of towers until they answered our questions. What follows is a transcript of that fateful questioning. It is Defense Grid: The Interviewing.Defense Grid has been incredibly well-received by the press and the public alike – not least by us. I take it you’ve been pleased with the response?Michael Austin : Yes! The games industry can be tough, and it’s really a great confirmation that we went in a good direction. I think I probably grumbled a bit when I was spending long nights running the same levels over and over to tweak them, but it’s completely worth it now. *grins*One thing we should touch on is the price discrepancy. What’s the reasoning behind the price difference between the 360 and the PC versions, and considering the 360 game is not only cheaper but adds in the exclusive Borderlands expansion for free, are you expecting PC sales to drop off a bit because of it?Jeff Pobst: There are different sensitivities about price we have to pay attention to when we release a game through different channels. Today, one can purchase Defense Grid on Xbox LIVE Arcade, on four different PC downloadable channels (Steam, Direct2Drive, Greenhouse, and Wild Tangent), and at worldwide retail on the PC with our publishing partner Aspyr. Because of all of the agreements and relationships we have we can’t arbitrarily change price points quickly. Expect price changes over time including certain sales and promotions that we will be a part of on the PC side of things.I know you’ve said before on the official forums that, for the time being at least, Borderlands is going to be 360-exclusive. Can we expect more content coming for the PC (or, for that matter, the 360) and, if so, any hints on whether we’ll see new maps, new towers, or…?JP (right): We’re excited about opportunities to make additional content for all players on all platforms. The Borderlands pack is something that is only on Xbox right now and that will stay that way for some time, but yes, keep an eye out for future announcements of new content options to players of Defense Grid.Moving on a bit, then. Tower defence is a relatively new genre, as these things go. Why did the team decide to make what was – if I’m not mistaken – one of the very first commercial tower defence games, and how did you go about making sure it was worth the fee considering many are free?MA: Well, some Flash tower defense games had circulated around the office and several of us became hooked. A few months later, we were brainstorming on ideas of what we should make, and it came up. Why not take something that is really fun when it’s poorly balanced with bad graphics and really polish it up? We went through I think 50 or 60 tower defense games, and saw that there were common problems – the towers weren’t all useful, upgrades weren’t a real decision, it was boring if you were good, or too difficult if you were learning. Our idea was that if we could really spend a lot of time on the pacing and gameplay, take the best parts of existing games and add our own unique elements, and bring the graphics up to make the world more immersive, we’d have something special.Hah. Being that some of you became hooked, what do you think it is that makes tower defense as appealing and addictive as it is?MA: That’s a great question – here are some of my theories (in no particular order.)It’s a great mix of action and strategy – you get the action game explosions and tension, but your actual decisions are slower. You don’t have to be a twitch gamer to be able to enjoy a frenetic and tense battle.It’s protection – you aren’t just saving yourself, you are trying to protect something that can’t protect itself. I think this is nuanced, but important.It’s a puzzle sandbox – there are many ways to solve the same problems, but it’s still challenging to find the solutions. There are also lots of ways to play. In Defense Grid, for instance, you can just try to get past the level, or you can try to beat the level but keep all your cores, or you can go for the high score. Each has completely different rules and styles of play and challenges.It’s investment – when you place fortifications, they stick around. It’s kind of like a sim in that regard. Your decisions have an influence on everything else for the rest of the map.{PAGE TITLE=Defense Grid: The Interviewing Page 2}So how much did the final product of Defense Grid change from the initial design? Was there anything big added or changed along the way, or is it pretty close to what you planned from the beginning?MA (left): We originally had more tower types, and more enemy types, as well as a paper-scissors-rock system for damage types and aliens (i.e. organic aliens were weak to fire, but metallic aliens were weak to electricity). When we started to go down that route though, we realised that it was way too hard for a player to tell what was going on and what they had to do. We changed it so that the game should be more about the placement of towers, and more about the space that they took up and could attack in rather than any innate characteristics (i.e. Inferno is a cone, Concussion is area of effect, Cannon needs line of sight, but the Meteor doesn’t need it since it lobs projectiles.) I think it ended up being a much better game for it.We also had some enemy types that had the same problem – there were healing aliens that regenerated health when they weren’t being shot at, but it difficult to see that that was what was happening, so we cut them. I think Defense Grid is typical of our process at Hidden Path – we are very iterative, and don’t want to get attached to ideas that turn out hurting the game. If something doesn’t work, we pull it and brainstorm what else we could do.Quite a community has sprung up around the title, particularly with regards to leaderboards and finding “perfect” runs on the different modes. Ws this a major design decision?MA: Yes, in a way – we wanted to make sure that the game was fun for people new to tower defence, as well as those who are masters of the genre. It’s really hard to make a game that is well-paced for new players and pros alike, so we spent a lot of time on finding ways to make it work. Interest is a great mechanic for high score earners that doesn’t really affect new players. Same for the orbital laser – if you are getting a high score, or going for golds [the highest award possible on a level – Ed] you don’t use it very often because you lose resources, but it really helps people learning the game avoid getting stuck. Being able to go back to a checkpoint while playing the game is useful for all kinds of players.You never know when the community is going to embrace a game, but I think it’s important to set it up for a win. I only wish we had enough money to put in the level editor and multiplayer that we originally planned. I still hope we’ll be able to do that some day.I suspect the fans would love them, but can you give us an idea of any concrete plans you have for the future? Have you thought about a portable version on Nintendo DS, or a PlayStation 3 version, or a sequel, or more DLC, or any of the other hundred things that the fans no doubt want to see?MA: Lots of plans, but because we’re a small studio, it’s still unclear what we’ll be able to afford. Pretty much everything you just listed we’ve talked about, and we’re getting a lot of interest from publishers now that Defense Grid has done so well.Speaking of publishers, and considering you are very much an indie developer – where do you think the future of the games industry lies? How do you feel about  a lot of the big companies focusing on profit over innovation or advancement of the industry? Much as this is a business, and money is important…MA: Well, we’re more conscious of finances than many bigger companies, I think – for us, one bad investment can be the difference between closing our doors and staying in business. I think it’ll end up much like any other industry – large companies will focus on sure bets, smaller companies will take more risk and try innovative things to get a name for themselves, many of which will fail and some of which will be embraced by the larger companies.Finally, is there anything you want to let the readers know?MA: Thanks for all your support! Indies like us rely on it (we can’t afford much marketing at all for Defense Grid, which means we have to spread by word of mouth.) If you are curious about Defense Grid, download our free demo on XBLA or PC, and let your friends know if you enjoy it.  Thanks!We agree with those thoughts. Michael, Jeff – thank you very much for your time.

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