Defense Grid 2′s Kickstarter: Our Interview With Jeff Pobst of Hidden Path

07/19/2012 by Isaac Sher | Source: Threat or Menace
Readers of this site are no doubt aware that some of our favorite video games are Tower Defense games — and that our favorite TD game of all time is the critically acclaimed Defense Grid: The Awakening. In addition, we’ve also reviewed some of the game’s DLC, and were fortunate enough to interview some of the game’s senior developers from Hidden Path Entertainment last summer. When writing my review of this game, I commented, “I WANT a sequel to this game, I want it like a mouse wants his cheese.”

My wish is about to be granted, and I couldn’t be happier. Hidden Path has opened a Kickstarter for funding even more new content for DG, and also to fund the game’s first true sequel! We reached out to Hidden Path to see if they would be interested in talking about this undertaking in Collective Patronage (a term Curt coined, which we like a lot better than “crowdfunding”), and as a result had a wonderful conversation with Hidden Path’s founder and CEO, Jeff Pobst, who also provided us with the gorgeous DG2 concept art that we’ve included below.

THREAT OR MENACE: Your first Kickstarter stretch goal involves the release of new “Containment” DLC content for Defense Grid 1, which is said to lead into the story of DG2. What can you tell us about this content? Perhaps we could get a hint at the story conflicts involved?

JEFF POBST: Our previous stories remained focused on the present conflict that the player finds themselves in and how it related to a past experience in the same place – mainly through the eyes of Fletcher, a former general whose consciousness was uploaded into a computer. In the upcoming story of DG2, we begin to learn about what the aliens have done elsewhere where they weren’t as successfully beaten back, and we begin a search for others who might need the player’s help. There are a couple of elements to this. There is the story of how and why the player leaves and where they go, and then there is the story of what they find. We decided the story of how and why the player leaves home and what they initially find would make a great start and could stand alone as an expansion to get some of the story and content out early to players.

ToM: The most recent DLC for DG1, “You Monster”, was absolutely fantastic, both from a gameplay perspective of finding new things to do with the DG1 engine, and from a lore perspective, fully incorporating GLaDOS into the DG plotline. I was especially pleased with the contrast between GLaDOS, a classic example of the “evil computer” archetype, and Fletcher, the DG player’s A.I. support, who is positive, encouraging, and pleasantly sentimental. That being said, is there a place for GLaDOS in DG2?

JP: When we worked on the Alternate Reality Game for Valve, we worked with a large group of indies to tell the story of GLaDOS infiltrating our games and wanting to “get out.” As players accomplished things in our games, they could launch Portal 2 early. As we developed that content for the ARG we saw the potential for a story in our universe where GLaDOS had somehow been left behind over the centuries inside older computer simulations and was trying to “get out” as well inside the fiction of our game and the player ends up preventing this and turning her off. The Valve folks were hugely supportive and that led to us releasing the full You Monster expansion as a side story in our world.

You Monster isn’t part of the Portal story canon at all and we saw it as a fun diversion from our main Defense Grid story where because of GLaDOS’ character we could break all the rules of the game that the player had come to expect and it would seem appropriate. At this point in time, we’re ready to return to the more fundamental gameplay and see how we can bring new things to that, and create some exciting experiences. I think we’ll let You Monster be the one place in the Defense Grid universe where we run into GLaDOS.

ToM: Here at Threat Or Menace, we’ve recently recorded a podcast where we talk extensively about Kickstarter and other “crowdfunding” companies, although we prefer the term “Collective Patronage.” What are your thoughts on how the Collective Patronage funding model will affect the videogame industry?

JP: I think you nailed it with Collective Patronage, and I still think some are wrapping their heads around it. Most people haven’t been used to being patrons before, and there is surprise in their evaluation of the price/value equation (which is different than the mass purchase decision – I’m only getting that for my money?), and some of the data they’ve received so far on, for example, how much things cost to make in a full-time way rather than part time (or perhaps more accurately partially-paid), have been misleading since most Kickstarters I’m familiar with are supplemented by the group behind it as well. For example, DG2 will cost much more than $1m to make, but we at HPE have the money to cover the rest, so we are just bringing the unfunded portion to the folks on Kickstarter. As for what it will do for the video game industry, I’m not sure I can yet know.

It gives developers another avenue to explore raising money, but just like any money raising effort, it is really hard work to do. You can’t just put up a web site and hope people arrive in order to raise significant funds, you have to prepare your story, what you can do, how you’re going to tell it, and I think unless you already have a great brand that overlaps well with the Kickstarter community, you have to work to be recognized, respected, and most of all trusted – and that’s a very challenging thing to accomplish in a short time period.

Hopefully as this happens more and more, we’ll be feeding great innovation in video games, but just like the conversation with publishers, innovation is a high-risk endeavor and we’ll see how much folks on Kickstarter are willing to fund true scary innovation. I really hope so, but it will likely look more like hopeful charitable giving to those folks working to innovate more than it will look like “a sure thing” when people are placing their money down.

ToM: As of this writing, your kickstarter for DG2 is currently at approximately $109,000.00, and that’s less than a week after this project was announced! (Editor’s update: at time of publication a couple days later, the kickstarter total currently stands at $128,000.00) What are your thoughts on how the project is progressing, and have there been any surprises in terms of the reactions you’re getting? While we’re on the subject, I should note that I have backed the Kickstarter myself, although I wish I had the spare funds on hand to give even more! That Defense Grid USB stick and the high-end mouse you have as rewards are quite eye-catching.

JP: Thanks! We have been planning this Kickstarter since early May so we’ve been giving it a lot of thought and trying to prepare for most of what we might run into and what could happen. We’re really excited that people have been so happy to see a DG2 Kickstarter as we were hoping they’d want that and show up. Of course that is always a scary thought – what if we put this all together and no one will show up? Well, people have shown up and they’ve pledged a lot of money and we’re really excited about it.

That said, just like around the launch of the original game itself, we need to improve our ability to get the word out even wider. Over 750,000 people have purchased the original game, and we just crossed 3,000 backers recently, so we firmly believe that there are tens of thousands of folks who enjoyed the first game who would want to back the second, but what we need to do now is find a way to reach those folks. One of the unique things we’re doing is updating the existing game on Steam during the campaign and running contests for people where they can win an AMD Radeon HD 6770 video card or a Razer precision gaming mouse (thanks to the support and participation of AMD & Razer).

To make sure any backer can join the folks who already own the game on Steam, we’re giving every backer a code for the game just for pledging. Now everyone can play the original game whether they’re already an owner of the game, just seeing the kickstarter or just picking up the game during the Steam Summer sale, and everyone can participate in new content updates and contests. We spent time working with suppliers to specially design the USB gun tower model and we are looking forward to giving that to folks who are backers at that pledge level. We had to be careful with our pledge levels though because we need to be able to afford to manufacture and ship all the physical goods while still making sure we have enough money to make the DG content that we’re able to fund.

ToM: Are there any details about DG2 that you can give us, any at all, that might help to entice people into donating to the kickstarter? Maybe a quick description of some of the new enemies, or new towers, or how some of the existing towers might change?

JP: The story of DG2 is going to take you to new places, and the technology at those places isn’t going to be the same as the technology you’re used to. So you’re going to see some different approaches, different versions of towers you’ve gotten to know, different level layouts, and different types of aliens that have adapted to the defensive styles of the different colonies. In this week’s update, we’re showing the results of one of our “speed concepting” art sessions with our art team. As Art Director Dave McCoy explains:

“When developing concepts for our games, one of the things the artists at Hidden Path do is speed concept sessions. The topic to be illustrated is not revealed until a specific time. Then when it’s announced all the artists have 90 minutes to create as many concepts as they can. We can draw with pencils, paint with software, 3D model, use photography – whatever. We just have to get our ideas into some visual form before the clock runs out. When time’s up we all get together and look at all the concepts and discuss what works and what doesn’t and how we might use or modify any ideas presented”

You can look at a few of these examples from a speed concepting session and gather some interesting information about what part of DG2 might possibly entail. We’re still working on it and we have a long ways to go, but at least you can see some early thinking about where our journey will take us.

ToM: If this kickstarter is successful (which it seems to be nicely on track to do), does Hidden Path have any other possible future projects that might use a kickstarter? Along those same lines, do you have any other projects going on right now that you’d like to talk about?

JP: We do have other projects at Hidden Path, though at the moment, Defense Grid is the only one that we feel makes sense for us to bring to Kickstarter right now. The bulk of our team today is head’s-down and focused right now on preparing Counter-Strike: Global Offensive for shipping on August 21st and we’re going through the intense time that takes place just before shipping anything that significant on four platforms (PC, Mac, Xbox 360, and PS3).After CS:GO ships, we’ll bring part of our team over to DG2 work based on how much the Kickstarter raises, and we’ll ramp up on two other projects that have had early R&D already done on them, but will get full teams after CS:GO and will be funded in different ways. A game like Defense Grid for example, took up about 1/3rd of our company for about a year to the first platform, and a year and a half for multiple platforms, and we would see DG2 being of similar size. Some of our projects we’re able to fund ourselves, and others are funded by publishers or other partners. I’m looking forward to sharing with you all the things we’re doing. Today it is shipping CS:GO and right after the Kickstarter closes, it will be DG2 work for as far as the funding will take us!

ToM: In a previous interview with us last summer, you talked about how you felt the future of the gaming industry was “extremely bright across the entire range of game experiences.” I would imagine you still feel that way, but do you have any additional thoughts on that subject a year later?

JP: I still think we have a wonderful future and each year there are more and more opportunities for game developers who want to make great product. It can be very challenging though, even in such an environment to lock down the opportunities you want to explore and get the games made that you want to make. Defense Grid is a perfect example of that. We shopped DG2 to over 20 publishers over the last 3 years and put together more spreadsheets and more forecasts and analytics than I ever have for a game with more positive pitch meetings than I can count, and it still never got funded even though it was much lower risk than many other possibilities.

We’re hoping that Kickstarter will be a new way to give this game the life we feel it deserves, and we’re hoping that everyone else wants more Defense Grid and is willing to become a Collective Patron of the franchise and help us make the game. We won’t forget those folks at all, and we’re committed to making sure they know how much we appreciate them. We will eventually make DG2 someday and when we cross the minimum, anyone who ends up being a backer of this project will eventually get a copy of DG2. If the Kickstarter funds it, we have a much better idea of when that will be, but if it only partially funds it, we’re still going to give backers DG2 when it gets created.

ToM: What advice would you give to someone who wants to get started with an independent game studio similar to Hidden Path? Would you suggest that they look to Kickstarter for initial funding, or do you feel it’s better to wait until they have an established community and product first, and then use Kickstarter for future projects? Hidden Path didn’t have a choice, as Kickstarter didn’t exist when DG1 was in development, but would you have gone the kickstarter route for DG1 if it was available then?

JP: I think we’re all still trying to figure out what the potential of Kickstarter is. We’ve seen 7 out of 70,000 (0.01%) Kickstarters cross $1m in funding. For game development – even mobile and web gaming these days – $1m isn’t that huge a budget if you’re trying to create something new and competitive for the marketplace. Right now the people who have been most successful on Kickstarter either have great fame in this community already or have a property or franchise that elicits great nostalgia or memories that resonate with the Kickstarter community.

We’re on track to have a Kickstarter that is in the top 0.1% of all Kickstarters, but it still might not fund all that we are hoping it will (but we’re going to keep trying!). Because of this still challenging mountain to climb, today I think taking your first video game to Kickstarter still gives you a very high bar to overcome to get the kind of money that will make a big difference in how you make games. I am hoping that Defense Grid 2 can be one of those products to cross over such a bar, but I’m not sure right now that there are many brand new ideas that will clearly be able to energize the community enough to excite them and get them to fund it.

We saw Ouya be such an idea – an open console for your living room for $99 – that’s a powerful new idea, and it worked. But it is important to recognize it as an outlier today. Perhaps someday that kind of thing will be more “normal,” and won’t that be exciting!

ToM: Will backers of the DG2 kickstater have a chance to vote on or suggest what goes into the game? We’ve seen this sort of community involvement used to good effect in other recent games, like the sci-fi 4x game Endless Space, or even MMORPGs like City of Heroes. If DG2 might also go down this route, what are the sort of things we might be able to chime in on?

JP: Yes yes and yes. Obviously getting funding is a big part of going to Kickstarter, but honestly, one of the big things that led us down this path is the idea of leaving behind what we know from working with big publishers and heightened secrecy during game development and embracing the idea of including the fans of your game in the development process. We have super sharp game designers and they aren’t just going to relinquish their approach to making great games, but often times we will look at an issue we need to solve in the game and we’ll come up with 3 or 4 legitimate ways we can approach it, and by including the community in those discussions, we can find out what are the pros and cons to them as we’re making the decision rather than after the game ships.

That’s actually huge. Sometimes you see how elegant a design solution is, but it has some repercussions and you don’t know if people will care or not. Maybe you worry that it will bother them too much and be too different so you drop the idea even though it could have been cool, or maybe you get so focused you don’t see how it will affect something that’s very important to people as well.

By including the fans in the design and development process, we can prioritize features, focus on tradeoffs that have more benefit than negative, and have a group we continually involve as we’re making the game. In addition we’ve used internally a great tool called Uservoice that we plan on rolling out to Kickstarter backers. Uservoice is great because it lets the community suggest ideas and put them out in front of everyone. Then you have a limited number of votes you can use – say in this example you have 10 votes. If you see an idea or have an idea that you really love, you can put all 10 of your votes on it, or say you see other ideas you really like and you like one more than another, you can put 5 votes on your favorite one, 3 votes on another, and one vote each on two other ideas. Then you watch as the community tells you overall what is most important to them.

The topics that reach the top are then evaluated by the development team, and are either “accepted for development” or perhaps rejected with explanation. Once that happens, the votes associated with that item are returned to the community to use on other topics. We see this tool as being a great way to let individual voices get a crowd excited and then let the crowd tell us what is most important to them during development.

ToM: Before we finish, I’d like to come back to DG1 for a moment. What are some of your favorite play strategies? Personally, I’m a big fan of the Meteor tower, and include at least a couple of yellow-upgrade meteors in just about every map I play. However, with some of the recent patches, I’m becoming a big fan of the improved Tesla tower as well. I think people would love to hear how the game’s designers approach their own product!

JP: I’m with you, I personally love long range towers like the Meteor and Cannon, but yes, the Tesla tower is now pretty impressive after updates during the last couple expansions and I use it too. Because I like long range towers so much and that approach can be really impacted by stealth aliens, I use command towers quite a bit, which is likely not as common for folks. I think you always need a combination of area of affect towers (meteor, concussion, inferno), high damage towers (tesla, cannon, gun), specialty towers (command, temporal, missile), and the laser tower if used properly can be really potent too, but sometimes it is overlooked because it really needs to be spaced out from other laser towers if it is going to attack the same alien. Also it continuing to do damage long after it is done firing is a useful effect. Oh, I guess I tend to use them all then.

ToM: Jeff, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us, and good luck with the Kickstarter!