Interview With Michael Austin, CTO and lead designer for Defense Grid: The Awakening

dgRecently I got the chance to speak with Michael Austin, CTO and lead designer for Defense Grid: The Awakening. I want to thank Michael and Lori Mezoff for helping make this interview happen.

GVK: What is the background and setting for the game?

MA: Your home planet is suddenly attacked by an enemy with weak tactics, but seemingly endless numbers of troops. You make your way to an old military base where you awaken the A.I. – a military general from the last war who was placed there to assist in case the aliens came back. With his help you try to stay one step ahead of them… protecting the power cores that are necessary to keep your world functioning and driving the aliens away.

GVK: what are some of the enemies in games and their abilities?

MA: There are 15 types of aliens in Defense Grid. For example, the Bulwark has a powerful shield which protects it from lasers and other heat attacks. The Lurker has a cloaking and jamming field rendering it invisible to all but the nearest towers. The Juggernaut moves slowly, but has extremely tough armor. Some aliens sacrifice armor for speed, others fly above the battlefield to swoop down and steal cores. The aliens will also often come in mixed groups, with some drawing fire or providing cover to their allies. Fortunately, you have good counters for each alien type, and it’s up to you to create a versatile base layout to protect your power cores.

GVK: How do players game new skills and abilities in the game?

MA: New towers and global abilities open up as the game progresses; as your arsenal increases, you’ll have new combinations of towers to try out and new strategies to master. As you finish each mission, challenge modes (60 in total) open up to provide new, interesting play.

GVK: What can you tell us about the A.I. in the game?

MA: Aliens in Defense Grid are single-minded, but tough. If there is any clear path to your power cores, they will find it. Your towers are too tough to destroy, so their entire goal is to get in, steal your power cores, and get out.

GVK: What are some of the locales gamers will see in the game?

MA: In Defense Grid, you’ll travel around your home planet securing bases from the alien invaders. Each mission takes you to a different area- from a ruined fortress high atop a cliff to a glacial chasm in the frozen north, from the smoking ruins of a burnt-out city to your own home, clean and functional. You’ll fight in an active volcano and on grassy plains that stretch endlessly into the distance. Each environment is beautiful and unique.

GVK: What are some of the weapons we will see and will they change between locales?

MA: There are 10 towers that become available over the course of the game. Each one is useful in different ways and optimal in different circumstances- the laser tower heats up aliens to red hot temperatures, and they continue to burn long after they’ve gone out of range. The temporal tower sends out a pulse which instantly slows the aliens to a glacial pace; it doesn’t do any damage, but is deadly in concert with other towers. The tesla tower charges up over time for a devastating bolt of lightning which wreaks havoc, chaining through the alien ranks.

GVK: What forms of multiplayer does the game include?

MA: We provide leaderboards across all of the game mission and challenge modes, with how you compare to your friends featured prominently on the mission select screen.

GVK: What gaming engine is being used?

MA: We’re using the Gamebryo engine (the same one as was used for Oblivion). Leveraging the hard work that the Emergent team has put in allows us to show that you don’t need a $50 price tag for great graphics and gameplay.

GVK: What are some of the biggest obstacles you faced in creating the game and the biggest successes?

MA: As an independent developer it can be difficult to gather the resources needed to make the games you want to make for players. We feel extremely fortunate that we were able to go from concept to completion with Defense Grid: The Awakening over the course of one year and put together a product that we’re very proud of, that gives the player a lot for their money, and also is at a quality bar where we already see fans arguing whether or not it feels like an “indie game” or feels like something that came from the traditional publishers. We love the tower defense gameplay that has been out there, but we wanted to take it to another level of polish, presentation, and interface, and we feel that we’ve been successful at accomplishing that. We’re so thrilled with how much people really love and enjoy the game. It’s great to earn their respect.

GVK: How much harder is it for a more indy game to find a place in the market place than it was say 5 years ago?

MA: Hidden Path Entertainment is about to turn 3 years old so we can’t really say from direct experience what it was like for indie gaming 5 years ago. On the one hand there are many more avenues now for Indie games to be distributed. Steam and Direct2Drive are significant players in the download market, Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network & WiiWare are all console download channels that didn’t exist before, and the worldwide gaming community is more accessible than it ever has been before. At the same time, it is difficult to find the resources needed to fund development of games at the quality level that can be competitive, and then if you can pull that off, the sales numbers needed are still pretty large to achieve. I think as we get more involved with a game like Defense Grid: The Awakening, we find that we have to get more involved in PR, marketing, and distribution issues like you would expect from a publisher. That’s pretty difficult for a small developer to do and still be focused on making great games.

GVK: As a follow up, would you say STEAM is a great tool that will help smaller developers get their games to a larger market?

MA: Valve has created a great download service and has some great technology that they share with developers. We’ve been very pleased to work with the folks who run Steam. I think they have done a great job of giving the smaller developer a channel to get their games out to consumers.