Hidden Path Entertainment的创始人很少会对外讲他们的事。实际上，在花了1年多的时间去构建信任，进行非公开的访问，出席各种会议并花了很多时间徘徊在Hidden Path Entertainment位于贝尔维尤的总部后，他们仍有一点未能与我共享。
自从2013年4月以来我就一直在报告Hidden Path关于《Defense Grid 2》的开发。我阅读了所有设计文件和产业报告。我也访问过《Defense Grid 2》团队的每一位成员。我甚至到过非团队成员不允许进入的房间。然而，在几个月过后，我还是不清楚最初的《Defense Grid》发行的故事。他们只是不想谈论这一内容。
Hidden Path投入了所有钱于一个小项目中，致力于创造《Defense Grid》，这款可下载的科幻塔防游戏，并以此证实Hidden Path是一家知道怎么创造游戏的公司。
故事始于2007年，即在Jeff Pobst, Mark Terrano, Michael Austin, Jim Garbarini和Dave McCoy创建了Hidden Path不久后。这是在他们开始创造《Defense Grid》并在微软向别人宣传这款游戏之后。
这些创始人与微软具有很深厚的关系：Hidden Path想创造游戏，而微软愿意将其放到Xbox Live上。对于微软来说，这是一次简单的销售。一开始微软很喜欢这个理念。游戏理念非常大胆。这是一款花费了当时可下载游戏2倍成本的游戏。他们投入了更多钱进行游戏制作和优化，从而将其打造成Xbox Live阵容中一款付费游戏。《Defense Grid》是由致力于微软的Advanced Technology Group的人所创造的，他们确定Xbox游戏出现在Xbox平台上会更加合适，它将成为Xbox上获得最高下载量的产品之一。
微软非常期待这款游戏。它想在2007年的游戏开发者大会上宣称这些高质量游戏是其全新的Xbox Live Arcade项目的一部分。但问题在于，那时候的Hidden Path还未为游戏命名。一开始想到的“The Last Stand”这个名字已经被别人捷足先登了。本来还有好几个月的时间，所以那时候的Hidden Path并不急着为游戏想名字，但突然就只剩下几周了。Hidden Path开始感到焦虑，并花了一些钱而最终获得了“Defense Grid”这个名字。也许这并不是最完美的，但至少是适合的。最棒的是，Hidden Path突然间变成是面向最畅销的主机开发游戏。伴随着关注度的提高以及来自微软的迫切需求，这家只诞生一年的小型工作室觉得自己好像中了大乐透似得。
对于微软来说，Hidden Path只是能够帮助他们推广街机的一家公司—-它是独立工作室并拥有一些资深开发者。Pobst曾在Xbox的Advanced Technology Froup中运营着一个支持部门。Terrano创造了《帝国时代2》。Austin也是来自Xbox，而McCoy和Garbarini则是来自《机甲战士》的开发商FASA。这五个人将自己的开发技能带进了《Defense Grid》中。所以它不可能会失败。他们计划在2008年发行这款游戏。每个人都充满了期待。但之后事情发生了改变。
在2008年初期微软的一次改组后不久，这个“新团队”提议与其合作伙伴Hidden Path进行会面，以了解《Defense Grid》的开发结果，“前团队”已经为此亮起了绿灯。在这次与微软的会面中，一切都非常顺利。游戏看起来很棒，玩起来也很有趣，并且是按照日程安排有序地运行着。但却发生了一件奇怪的事：根据Hidden Path，事情进展得越顺利，微软的员工便会越受挫。他们最终表示，游戏真是“太过于”完美了。他们希望它可以具有一些缺陷。所以现在的他们不知道该怎么做了。
游戏产业是一项受热门度驱动的产业，而《Defense Grid》具有获取成功的潜力。实际上，基于资金雄厚且具有较多经验的开发团队，《Defense Grid》的成功看起来是毫无疑问的事。但这却是相对于别人来说。那些支持它的微软团队已经不再具有控制权，而新团队则想要获得自己的成功。
来自微软的新员工接受了新的订单并因此决定停止《Defense Grid》。他们表示，这款游戏与另一款游戏太相像，而对于新团队领导者来说另一款游戏更重要。《Defense Grid》只是旧计划的一部分。新人也有新计划。所以《Defense Gird》不得不离开。但这的确是一款出色的游戏。太出色了以至于很难将其舍弃。简直混乱极了。
微软提出了一个妥协：在2009年发行游戏，而不是2008年。这款游戏几乎就要完成了。游戏花费了Hidden Path之前用于创造一个独创IP的所有钱。这是他们为了推广自己作为一家会独立创造游戏的工作室的游戏。这是他们投入了5个充满经验且具有创造性和热情的创造者的游戏。Hidden Path别无选择，他们只能接受这个修改过的协议；他们没有B计划。但为了推动游戏的发行就意味着需要吸收多一年的开支，这是他们难以支付的。突然间，这张通向胜利的彩票就变成了通向灭绝的门票。
关于在XBLA上发行《Defense Grid》的最初合同禁止Hidden Path在游戏面向XBLA发行后一年在任何主机上发行游戏——这是一种标准的合同语言。微软希望保护它自己关于游戏的权益。《Defense Grid》是2008年夏天少数的几款针对于微软主机的“插槽”游戏。然而合同却并未提到PC。
根据合同语言，Hidden Path有权在PC上发行《Defense Grid》。毕竟，PC意味着Windows，而这也意味着微软。Pobst记得在微软没有人关心面向Xbox Live Arcade发行的游戏同意也是面向PC发行。但在2007年与Pobst一起写这份合同的人与2008年夏天调整合同的人并不相同。新团队成员只是希望拿开《Defense Grid》。
对于Hidden Path来说，Steam并不只是一个替代选择；这还是一搜救生船。Pobst将手伸向了Valve。Valve亲切且快速地做出了回应。Valve希望《Defense Grid》能够出现在Steam上。Valve喜欢《Defense Grid》。Valve并不只是想随便玩玩。Valve发了一份合同。Hidden Path签下了名字。《Defense Grid》获得了拯救。
在接下来的6个月时间里，Hidden Path将投入宝贵的时间和团队成员把《Defense Grid》移植到PC上，重新编写了Xbox原生UI元素并将匆匆制定的计划B转变成计划A。同时，与微软签订的修改后的协议也实现了。在2009年，就像所承诺的那样（第二次），《Defense Grid》面向Xbox Live Arcade发行了。做出PC版本，它并不是像之前那样基于20美元的定价，也不是基于15美元的定价——即Hidden Path计划给Steam 版本打折去匹配游戏在XBLA上的15美元价格。相反地，微软单方面决定10美元才是最适当的价格。
最后，因为将XBLA版本移植到Steam的不可预测的时间以及最终的XBLA价格点的确定，《Defense Grid》几乎没有足够的钱去支付自己的开发。Hidden Path已经成功创造了一款游戏，但是它却并未实现其作为一家具有主要的创造性力量的工作室的目标。
对于《Defense Grid》，在几年后它也聚集了一些粉丝。经历了重重困难，它成为了PC平台上一款受欢迎的游戏，并带来了越来越多粉丝。Hidden Path发起了一项Kickstarter活动区创造《Defense Grid》的扩展包。尽管为扩展包成功募集了资金，这仍然是Hidden Path的成功道路上关于失败的一次小小暗示。
因为Hidden Path及其粉丝真正想要的是一个完整的序列：《Defense Grid 2》。尽管扩展包获得了资助，但是所有的这些钱却不足以创造一款完整的续集游戏。为了让续集成为现实，Hidden Path需要直接的资金注入。正是在这时候，来自加拿大的电子游戏投资家（拥有巨大的成功）走了进来。
尽管从Containment Kickstarter成功募集到资金，对于续集的完整资金的募集失败导致许多赞助人都产生了不好的感觉。有些人觉得自己被骗了。毕竟在Kickstarter上听到的是“Defense Grid 2”，但续集本身紧紧只是一个延伸目标。说真的，扩展包为最初的《Defense Grid》提供了8级更新，即伴随着由Alan Tudyk（来自《萤火虫》）和Ming-Na Wen（来自《E.R.》）所配音的角色，但许多赞助人想看到的是《Defense Grid 2》。他们已经投入了钱，Kickstarter也获得了成功，他们的信用卡被扣了钱，但是却未看到《Defense Grid 2》。他们为此感到困惑。这都是关于信息传达。
而对于Hidden Path，他们觉得承诺什么以及传递什么已经表现得非常清楚了，但是它也知道某些用户不会表示认同。它想要兑现在Kickstarter所作出的承诺，即创造许多人所期待的续集而不只是扩展内容。再加上许多独立工作室只是简单地想要创造游戏。这将是推动该工作室诞生的游戏的续集。如果开发者只需要付出少量的努力便能做到这点，那么之前的Hidden Path便都是在走下坡路。
Pobst与产业中的朋友进行交谈。关于《Defense Grid》续集最初的计划是发行在Steam上然后可能会再移向主机，之后可能还会面向其他设备。Hidden Path需要获得资金去实现这些目标。Pobst通过Double Fine认识了一个来自加拿大的投资者，他是少见的一个在其它产业赚钱但却将钱投资于游戏产业的人。Pobst决定去认识他。
为了从自己的投资中获得回报，Dengler想要看到的是《Defense Grid 2》以及某些理论。基于这样的顺序。
Pobst在2013年4月（游戏邦注即外面首次见面去讨论《Defense Grid 2》的创造时）告诉我：“在我们的产业中没有投资者类别。”我刚刚听说Dengler的投资。如果没有像Dengler这样的人，也就没有《Defense Grid 2》的存在。“虽然存在风险投资家，但是他们想做的是立即能够赚到钱的事。他们的工作是寻找具有一定价值的业务，并投资于3或4种他们所了解的产品，推动着它们去获取成功，当其中一件产品成功时，3年的期限便结束了，他们会将其整合在一起并以更高的价值卖给一个更大的组织。有时候我会希望从现在开始的10年里，会有人在这个他们决定投资的产业中赚到钱，并且那时候我们将拥有一个天使投资群体，愿意花足够的钱去创造产品。”
505的目录包含了你可能知道的游戏：混合了独立的热门游戏，备受人们宠爱的游戏，取得突破性成功的故事，但同时也有一些平凡的游戏，行动游戏，硬盒立基射击游戏，包括《兄弟：双子传说》，《泰拉瑞亚》，《狙击精英》，《Payday 2》以及《Cooking Mama》，即一些看起来古怪的小游戏但却变成了备受世界各地玩家喜欢的游戏。而《Defense Grid 2》很快也会出现在这一目录上。
当这个故事出现在网上时，505与Hidden Path之间的合作也得到了证实。准备过程就有好几个月，505主要是提供足够的额外资金去帮助Hidden Path将《Defense Grid 2》带向Xbox One和layStation 4，尽管505将拥有所有《Defense Grid 2》中的一份额。该公司并不是半路获取了成功，但如果不像Howe所说的那样“给游戏换层皮”，它也不可能获得成功。发行商致力于通过《Defense Grid 2》获取利益，但它同样也能够接受损失。每个人都具有动机。每个人也“都有自己的外皮”。
在秋天的销售证券的各方会议上，Nicholls致力于寻找《Defense Grid 2》开发所存在的问题。她在寻找着那些曾经作为“修理工”的自己需要修改的问题，以及那些她需要分配给505的一名制作人去修改的问题。但是她却一个问题都没有找到。
Nicholls询问了《Defense Grid 2》的服制作人Dacey Willoughby一些关于追踪任务与管理过程的基本问题。Willoughby在Hidden ath的会议室的一个巨大的电视屏幕上呈现了一个电子表单。这与她之前每天，在每次会议上都会添加，更新并参考的电子表单一样。事实证明，这不只是一个电子表单，这还是一份后勤列表。
在Hidden Path待了4个小时后，Howe和Nicholls坐上了前往机场的车将回到LA。他们在飞机上谈论了这次的协议，交换了各自关于Hidden Path的看法，并最终决定这么做。
《Defense Grid 2》具有存在的原因。实际上它具有许多存在的原因。但最重要的一点便是其创造者相信它。
8年前，Hidden Path的创始人撇开了那些得到证实的内容而开始进行新的挑战。他们想要基于自己的方式去创造自己的游戏。他们最想创造的游戏便是《Defense Grid》。一开始他们遭遇了糟糕的结果。那么现在呢？很难说明。
尽管具有好的目的，以及多年累计的经验，但可能是因为运气不是很好，8年过去了，Hidden Path却还未逃离最糟糕的游戏产业方面的影响。与《Defense Grid》一样，该工作室坚持过了，但却未打破常规。这是一个伴随着未实现的潜能但却受人喜欢的实体。
当Hidden Path的贝尔维尤总部的一个小团队继续致力于《Defense Grid 2》的制作时，Pobst及其合作者关闭了与Dengler和505的协议。这一次，Hidden Path将能够独自决定何时且面向哪个平台发行游戏。它具有来自志趣相投的投资者群体的支持：既有充满热情的企业家，也有一群充满激情的资深开发者，有些甚至比Hidden Path的创造者还年长。
如果《Defense Grid 2》并未获得成功，那绝不是因为它缺少信念，努力和支持。而现在他们能做的便只有好好地完成游戏。（本文为游戏邦/gamerboom.com编译，拒绝任何不保留版权的转载，如需转载请联系：游戏邦）
WHEN A SUCCESSFUL GAME IS A FAILURE
By Russ Pitts
The founders of Hidden Path Entertainment tell the story now only rarely. It’s hard to get it out of them. In fact, in almost a year of building trust, conducting closed-door interviews, attending all-access meetings and spending hours on site at Hidden Path Entertainment’s Bellevue, Wash. headquarters, it’s the one thing that they haven’t offered to share with me — until now.
I’ve been reporting on the development of Hidden Path’s Defense Grid 2 since April of 2013. I’ve read all of the design documents and industry reports. I’ve interviewed every member of the Defense Grid 2 team. I’ve been in rooms where even certain members of that team aren’t allowed. And yet, month after month, the story of what exactly happened with the launch of the original Defense Grid has eluded me. They’ve simply not wanted to talk about it — on or off record.
Part of why the founders don’t tell this story relates to the business of making video games itself. A game that doesn’t ship isn’t always a failed game. Technology can be retooled, assets redirected, entire ideas shelved and then resurrected years later. The work put in on one game may lead to new work on something else, bigger or better. What’s worse, a game that does get shipped doesn’t always make money. Sometimes they cost so much to make they never make that money back. Sometimes game development is just spinning your wheels, waiting for the big hit that almost never comes. Some studios lumber on for years, making games, releasing them, losing money, until inevitability eventually catches up to them and they die. That’s the business of making games.
Many of the best stories in this industry don’t ever get told — the true stories of why studios fail, how people lose jobs or gain them. How certain games get made — or don’t. Those stories are too harmful to tell because this is business, and there are reputations to protect. Even when a game or a studio fails, the people involved might still find another job. And the people who screwed them before might be the ones now paying the bills.
This is one of those stories. It involves two big companies and one little one. It involves a deal gone bad and a partner that couldn’t be relied upon. It’s the story of how Defense Grid almost went into the coffin before it ever saw the light of day and the machinations at the highest levels of the industry that conspired to close the lid. It’s about a last minute save and a triumph that ultimately came at too great a cost.
And the most extraordinary thing about this story is that it’s not extraordinary at all. This story could be about almost any game you’ve ever played and several hundred you never will. It is a glimpse into the fickle world of business and politics that simmers underneath the buzz and excitement of making video games. It is the dark, very human and ultimately political underbelly of the business of making fun.
This is game development.
PROLOGUE: THE STORY OF DEFENSE GRID
Defense Grid was dead. That was the message, delivered by Microsoft in the summer of 2008, just a few months before the game’s planned release.
Hidden Path had poured all the money it could spare into a small project to make an original game: Defense Grid, a downloadable sci-fi tower defense title that it could call its own and that would prove Hidden Path was a company that knew how to make games.
It’s what every developer wants to do. It’s why people make anybody’s games at all: to eventually make their own. And Hidden Path had struck out to do it right out of the gate. And it had almost worked.
The story begins in 2007, shortly after Jeff Pobst, Mark Terrano, Michael Austin, Jim Garbarini and Dave McCoy founded Hidden Path. It begins after they’d begun making Defense Grid and pitched the game to their contacts at Microsoft.
The founders had deep connections to Microsoft, so they pitched them a distribution deal: Hidden Path would make the game, Microsoft would distribute it on Xbox Live. For Microsoft, it was an easy sell. Microsoft, initially, loved the idea. The concept for the game was bold and brash. It was a downloadable title being developed for twice what downloadable titles normally cost to make at the time. The extra money was to be put into producing and polishing the game, potentially making it a premium offering for its Xbox Live lineup. Defense Grid, built by the men who worked at Microsoft’s Advanced Technology Group and who made sure Xbox games played and looked better on Xbox than anywhere else, would be one of the most highly produced downloadables on Xbox.
Microsoft was hot for the game. It wanted quality games to announce at the 2007 Game Developers Conference as part of its then-new Xbox Live Arcade program. The problem: Hidden Path hadn’t named the game yet. The working title “The Last Stand” had been taken by someone else. Hidden Path hadn’t expected to need a name for months, but suddenly it had only weeks. Hidden Path scrambled, spent money and came up with Defense Grid. Maybe it wasn’t perfect, but it worked. And it was theirs. And best of all, Hidden Path suddenly had a game in development for a flagship service on the best-selling console. With the increased attention and aggressive demand from Microsoft, the little studio, still in its first year of existence, felt like it had won the lottery.
For Microsoft, Hidden Path was just the sort of company to help promote Arcade — it was indie but comprised of veterans. Pobst had run a support department at the Advanced Technology Group at Xbox. Terrano had created Age of Empires 2. Austin also came from Xbox, and McCoy and Garbarini from the MechWarrior developer FASA. These five men threw their combined development expertise into one game: Defense Grid. It couldn’t lose. It was planned for release in 2008. Everyone was excited. And then things changed.
As big companies often do, Microsoft frequently moves its people around. It’s called reorganization, and it’s a way of both compensating for departed talent and ensuring that no one division ever becomes too dependent on any one person. It’s a survival mechanism, and it can be effective. It can also be catastrophically destructive. New guys come, old guys go. It’s the way of things — the circle of bureaucracy. But when old guys go, they leave behind projects still in the works. New guys like new projects, so they often clear the decks.
Shortly after a Microsoft reorg in early 2008, the “new team” called for a meeting with its partner, Hidden Path, to see the results of development on Defense Grid, which already had the green light from the “old team.” Everything went right in this meeting with Microsoft. The game looked great, played great and was running on schedule. But a strange thing happened: According to Hidden Path, the more right things went, the more frustrated the Microsoft people became. The game, they eventually said, was too good. They’d wanted it to be bad. They’d planned for it to be bad. Now they didn’t know what to do.
The games industry is a hit-driven business, and Defense Grid had indisputable potential for success, however modest. In fact, with its well-funded, highly-experienced development team, Defense Grid looked like a sure thing. But it was someone else’s sure thing. The team at Microsoft that had backed it was no longer in power, and the new team wanted its own successes.
The new crew from Microsoft had come with orders to shut down Defense Grid. It was too similar, they said, to another game, one more dear to the new team leader’s heart. Defense Grid was part of the old plan. The new guy had a new plan. Defense Grid had to go. But … It was a great game. It was too good to cancel. Chaos.
Microsoft suggested a compromise: Release the game in 2009 instead of 2008. The game that was almost finished. The game that had taken all of the money Hidden Path had set aside to create an original IP. The game it was counting on to sell in order to promote itself as a studio that could make its own games. The game in which it had invested the creativity and passion of its five, highly experienced veteran founders. Hidden Path had no choice but to accept the revised deal; it had no Plan B. But to push the game release back meant absorbing an additional year of overhead, which it couldn’t afford. Suddenly the winning lottery ticket looked like an invitation to a funeral.
Hidden Path needed a way out. So it found one. And it didn’t have to look far.
The original contract for distributing Defense Grid on XBLA prohibited Hidden Path from releasing the game on any other consoles for one year after the XBLA release — standard contract language. Microsoft wanted to protect its interest in the game. Defense Grid was guaranteed one of only a few “slots” during the summer of 2008 (then 2009) with the understanding that the game would be exclusive to Microsoft’s console. What the contract didn’t mention, however, was the PC.
According to the contract language, Hidden Path had every right to release Defense Grid on PC. After all, PC meant Windows, which meant Microsoft. Pobst remembers no one at Microsoft being concerned about a game released for Xbox Live Arcade also being released for the PC. But the people who wrote the contract with Pobst in 2007 were not the same people renegotiating it in the summer of 2008. And those people, the new team, just seemed to want Defense Grid out of the way.
Since 2003, Valve’s Steam digital distribution service had been gaining ground on traditional retail sales. Bolstered by Valve’s own games, the service began offering titles from additional publishers in 2005. By 2008, it was ready for prime time. Developers were flocking to the service, hoping digital distribution would be a more profitable alternative to the brick-and-mortar model dominated by retailers, major publishers and companies like Microsoft.
For Hidden Path, Steam wasn’t just an alternative; it was a lifeboat. Pobst reached out to Valve. Valve responded favorably — and quickly. Valve wanted Defense Grid for Steam. Valve loved Defense Grid. And Valve wasn’t screwing around. Valve sent over a contract. Hidden Path signed. Defense Grid was saved.
For the next six months, Hidden Path would divert precious time and team members to porting Defense Grid to PC, re-writing the Xbox-native UI elements and turning the hastily created Plan B into Plan A. Meanwhile, the revised deal with Microsoft was coming to fruition. In 2009, as promised (the second time), Defense Grid was released on Xbox Live Arcade. It was not priced at $20 as the PC version had originally sold for, nor at $15 — the price Hidden Path had planned to discount the Steam version to match its $15 launch on XBLA. Instead, Microsoft unilaterally decided that a mere $10 was the appropriate price.
In the end, due to the unexpected development time to port the XBLA version to Steam and the final XBLA price point, Defense Grid made barely enough money to pay for its own development. Hidden Path had succeeded at making a game, but it had not achieved its goal of creating a franchise that would establish the studio as a major creative force.
The game that was a success was also a failure.
Hidden Path would struggle with further heartbreak, canceled projects and still more dubious partner relations until its incremental work with Valve on Counter-Strike: Source, Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead 2 led to a development deal on what would become Counter Strike: Global Offensive in 2010.
Employees responsible for the Counter-Strike franchise at Valve played Defense Grid and told Pobst, “‘You’d be good at Counter-Strike!’”
“That may be counterintuitive,” Pobst says, “but if you look at what it takes to make Defense Grid, it’s pretty similar in the balancing of the system to what it takes to make Counter-Strike work.”
As for Defense Grid, it steadily accumulated fans, year after year. Against all odds, it became a cult hit on PC, with fans clamoring for more. Hidden Path launched a Kickstarter campaign to create a Defense Grid expansion pack. And that, in spite of successfully funding the expansion pack, is where a little hint of failure crept again into Hidden Path’s success.
Because what Hidden Path really wanted, and what its fans really wanted, was a full sequel: Defense Grid 2. And although the expansion was funded, the total haul was close to a million dollars short of enough money to make a full sequel. To make the sequel happen, Hidden Path would need a straight-up injection of cash. And that’s where a wild-eyed dot-com millionaire success story video game financier from Canada comes in.
RESOURCES: BLAME CANADA
In spite of the successful funding of the Containment Kickstarter, the failure to hit full funding for a sequel left many backers with a bad feeling. Some felt cheated. After all, the Kickstarter was called “Defense Grid 2,” but the sequel itself was merely a stretch goal. True, the expansion did provide an eight-level update to the original Defense Grid, with new characters voiced by Alan Tudyk from “Firefly” and Ming-Na Wen from “E.R.,” but many backers wanted Defense Grid 2. They’d paid their money, the Kickstarter had succeeded, their credit cards were charged, but they were not going to get Defense Grid 2. They were confused. It’s all about the messaging.
For Hidden Path’s part, it felt it was clear enough about what was promised and what would be delivered, but it also knew some of its audience didn’t agree. It wanted to make good on the spirit of the Kickstarter promise, which had somehow transmogrified in many people’s minds into being about the sequel and not just the expansion. Plus, personally, many at the independent studio just plain wanted to make the game. It would be a sequel to the game that launched the studio. And if the developers had to struggle a little bit to get it made, well, Hidden Path had been down that road before.
Pobst talked to industry friends. The initial plan for a Defense Grid sequel would be to launch on Steam and then maybe on consoles, then perhaps on other devices. Hidden Path needed an infusion of cash to get that ball rolling. Pobst heard good things from Double Fine about an investor from Canada, a rare individual who’d made money elsewhere and was investing it in the games industry. Pobst decided to reach out. What did he have to lose?
“I wrote him a letter and I said, ‘Hey. There aren’t many people who are willing to invest in games. It looks like this is something you’re doing. We’ve got a good team here. We’re making, I think, a good product. Is this something you would be interested in?’” says Pobst. “He wrote me back within a few hours and he said, ‘Look, I get about 200 of these a week. I ignore most of them, except the games that I know. I’m one of your backers.’”
Steven Dengler is the co-founder of an online currency trading company called Xe. He and his partner founded the company in Toronto in the mid-’90s, before trading currencies online was even a thing. Now, just after its 20-year anniversary, Xe is one of the largest currency trading websites in the world and Dengler is a millionaire nerd.
“I used to be what you would have considered in the ’90s a hard-core gamer — I’m a collector of games now,” Dengler says.
Finding himself with more money than he needed, Dengler turned, as many sudden millionaires do, to how he might dispose of it. His answer: Help people make things he might enjoy himself — and that meant, among other things, video games.
“For me to invest in video games is, I guess, a vote of my confidence in the — this is going to be an elitist term — the supremacy of that form of narrative over traditional narrative,” Dengler says. “I love reading books. I love watching movies. But I love playing video games more, because they engage me emotionally more than a book or a movie.
“So I think that it’s only reasonable that people like me show up and start putting money into things that are very real for them. They’re not new or scary or theoretical. They’re things that I’ve played my entire life.”
Before speaking with Pobst, Dengler had not only heard about Defense Grid, but he had played it. His kids had played it. Pobst didn’t know at the time, but Dengler was already invested, financially and emotionally. Getting him to kick in as a full investor was one of the easiest sell jobs of both their careers.
The two men exchanged emails, then phone calls, then met in person, played Hidden Path’s newest game at the time, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and generally nerded out. Then they talked business.
“We both got together, figured out what we wanted to do here, what my goals were, what their goals were, figured out a way to make that work, and then just went and did it,” Dengler says. “I don’t say this with any disrespect to [Pobst], but I really got the sense that if I didn’t step up, this just was not going to happen. He’d been around the industry looking for money. He’d done the Kickstarter. It had raised some money, but not enough. OK. I liked the game. I liked the franchise. I wanted to see it continue.”
Dengler and Pobst did what might seem like lunacy to business people, but for each of them, it just came naturally: They were honest with each other. Pobst outlined the deal he wanted to see and what he needed to make it happen. Dengler did the same. They agreed on almost everything. To say this never happens would be to dramatically understate the corrosive environment of traditional video game funding.
“Having done some angel investment for companies and watching those companies go through into actual negotiations with venture capital firms and private equity firms, you start to realize, sometimes venture capital firms will come in for 20 or 30 percent, and they’ll want control of the company,” says Dengler. “De facto control at the board level or something like that. And you’re like, ‘Oh my God, really?’
“You understand why they’re doing it and you understand they have the ability to do it, but you’re just like, ‘Aw! Euuugh!’ It just feels so wrong to me to be doing that. … So you come and say, ‘Look, your company’s going under unless I put this money in, so I’m gonna make it as oppressive as I want.’ I hate that, personally. I have an intense loathing for that sort of approach. But from a business standpoint, I understand why sometimes you make deals with the devil. [But] because I hate that, the last thing I would want to do would be to do that to somebody else.”
In return for his investment (and humanity), Dengler will get one thing he wanted anyway and another potential thing: Defense Grid 2, and possibly some profit. In that order.
And then there’s a bonus third thing, which he doesn’t talk about, but which Pobst mentions quite a lot: helping evolve the game industry into something a little more sane.
“There is just no investor class in our industry,” Pobst told me in April of 2013, the first time we met to discuss the making of Defense Grid 2. I had just learned of the Dengler funding. Without someone like Dengler, there would be no Defense Grid 2. And there is no one else like Dengler. “There are venture capitalists, but what venture capital wants to do is flip businesses. Their job is to find businesses of a certain valuation, typically invest in three or four of the kind they know about, push them all to try and be successful, and when one is successful and the three-year clock is coming to an end, they merge them all together and sell them to a larger group for a higher valuation. They only get money out then. … Someday I hope, 10 years from now, there are enough people who have made money in this industry that they decide they want to invest in this industry, and that we actually have an investor class of angels who can afford enough to make products.”
That would mean more people like Dengler. At the first meeting between Dengler and Pobst at Hidden Path’s office, Dengler saw, in the small company lobby, the wall of game boxes representing games its founders and employees had made. He spotted Homeworld, which Pobst had been part of. Dengler nearly lost his mind with excitement.
“It’s like one of my top five games of all time,” Dengler says, his voice rising. He’s like a kid again, the nerd from the ’90s with hardly any money but plenty of time. It’s clear he dropped some of that money and a great deal of time on Homeworld. “I was getting into it with them and telling them my favorite moments with the game. [Pobst] was getting a little embarrassed, like, ‘I don’t remember that part’ … [Dengler laughs] ‘I do! I do!’ I remember when the mining ship came back as a battleship and it came into the middle of this firefight and said, ‘This is the battleship, not the mining ship.’ Battleship! And all the people are like, ‘Holy shit, it’s a battleship!’ And you remember it. … I’m very cognizant of the fact that when I was raised, I was the nerd. I was the outcast. I’ve been playing video games a solid ten years more than any of these other people. So give it five or 10 years and you’ll start to see people coming off the business conveyor belt, being CEOs and things like that, for whom gaming really is just another thing … they’ll look back and say, ‘Geez, this was a good opportunity for people to get in on this, and I’ll be like, yes, it was!’”
GETTING HIM TO KICK IN AS A FULL INVESTOR WAS ONE OF THE EASIEST SELL JOBS OF BOTH THEIR CAREERS
THE NEXT WAVE
I’m sitting in a conference room in a squat, very California-looking building nestled in an expanse of low desert hills just north of LA. It’s the U.S. headquarters of game publisher 505 Games, and it’s just down the road from — and figuratively in the long shadow of — the now-abandoned former headquarters of game publishing giant THQ.
Sitting across from me is 505 President Ian Howe. He’s explaining to me how 505 has been slowly making a name for itself with small video games that aren’t worth bigger publishers’ time. Games that will probably make millions of dollars, but not hundreds of millions. These boutique games that 505 is helping produce are, in turn, helping the publisher become the biggest little game publisher in the post-indie games industry.
“I worked in the fringes of the music industry and saw Noel Gallagher before he was in Oasis,” Howe is telling me, by way of getting to an explanation of why he’s interested in taking chances on smaller games. Howe is a story teller. He talks like other men breathe, and he’s a pleasure to listen to. He could still be in the music industry, heading a boutique label instead of a boutique game publisher. But his many years of publishing and producing games as well have given him the perspective that it’s all pretty much the same. “He was a roadie for another band,” Howe says. “They couldn’t be bothered to do the interviews, so they put Noel up as the guitarist and nobody even knew. How ridiculous is that?
“[H]e’s being interviewed by 25 press from across Europe, and he’s a roadie. Because the guitarist was hung over or whatever it was. I think that’s great. It plays to the ridiculousness of the scenario.” Howe now bends his story back to talking about games and 505. “I don’t have an agenda. I just want [505's catalog] to be quite interesting. If it is, great. If it isn’t …” He makes a noise. It’s not a good noise, and even though what he’s just said makes barely any sense, it perfectly explains everything.
Howe is a charmer and a poker player. He’s a savvy negotiator and a smooth talker. But he’s also sincere. Whatever he’s selling, he’s also swigging it himself.
505′s catalog contains games you may know: a mix of indie hits, critical darlings, break-out success stories, solid, but unremarkable, action games and hard-core niche shooters, including Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Terraria, Sniper Elite, Payday 2 and Cooking Mama, the weird little game that has become a worldwide phenomenon. Coming soon to that list will be Defense Grid 2.
The deal between 505 and Hidden Path will have just been announced at the time this story goes online. It’s been in the works for months, signed for weeks and serves mainly to provide enough extra funding for Hidden Path to bring Defense Grid 2 to Xbox One and PlayStation 4, although 505 will have a piece of all of Defense Grid 2. The company doesn’t go in halfway, but it also doesn’t go in without “skin in the game” as Howe likes to say. The publisher stands to profit off Defense Grid 2, but it also stands to lose. Everyone is motivated. Everyone “has skin.”
Hidden Path’s deal making with 505 started much the same way as it did with Dengler. Pobst reached out and started a conversation — and got lucky again.
After a series of phone calls, short meetings and handshake agreements, Howe and 505′s VP of product development, Kathleen Nicholls, flew up to Bellevue in the fall of 2013. The agenda was due diligence. Howe and Nicholls played the game, such as it was, talked to the team and examined the production materials. Then Pobst, Howe and Nichols adjourned to Pobst’s office to talk numbers.
Pobst wanted to know how much money he could actually make working with 505. How much the publisher would take for itself, and how much would get lost in translation along the way. Pobst has done this dance on both sides. But what Howe answered with threw him for a loop. Howe didn’t just answer the question, he answered directly, with precision. No ambiguity. He gave exact figures. And then he plugged in his laptop and opened up 505′s P&L [profit & loss statement] to illustrate exactly where the money would come from and where it would go. No secrets, no bullshit.
It was “something that I have never, ever experienced in my entire career, both on the publishing side and on the developer side,” says Pobst. “We both made guesses about forecasts, because that’s what anyone does … [but] it was so transparent. It was shocking.”
Shocking because it’s just never done. Pobst would know that, as the guy who was, once upon a time, frequently on the other side of that meeting, working at Sierra and then Microsoft. But Howe has been there too. He’s from Activision, and although he’s grateful for the experience, he’s also not shy about throwing some of “big publishing’s” business practices under the bus.
“[W]e had some very early success on the back of a core team of ex-Activision people,” Howe tells me in the conference room at 505 headquarters. “We set out to be, at the very outset, a little bit different in terms of publishing. I’d come from that big publishing model where the relationship between publisher and developer was completely unequal, in terms of size of business. The relationship was according to that size. The leverage that the publisher brought to bear on the developer was significant.”
The typical publisher-developer deal works like this: The publisher gives over some large sum of money and in return expects a large percentage of profits, occasionally some portion of ownership of the IP, possibly some portion of ownership of the entire development company and, on rare but notable occasions, basically anything else they might want. Some game publishing deals contain clauses reverting control of IP, or additional profit margin to the publisher if milestones aren’t met or quality isn’t where the publisher decides it wants it to be. And on even rarer — yet catastrophic — occasions, a publisher may seize control of an entire studio. Simply put: game development deals can be a minefield.
GAME DEVELOPMENT DEALS CAN BE A MINEFIELD
“Probably the last three years at THQ, I saw a real shift in that mentality,” Nicholls says. “Now, the correct way of doing it, if you’re a publisher working with an external developer, is … you treat them as if they’re an internal studio. You treat them as if you’re the same team. It’s a complete partnership … If you don’t do that, if you play games, if you hide P&Ls, if you redact portions of budgets and all that kind of stuff, it just makes for … you just don’t get your best work out of people.”
Howe describes what 505 does as a publisher as “the unsexy stuff that creative people don’t want to do.” This includes the marketing, the scheduling, the wheedling of console makers to get specs on minute items on various checklists and more — all of the business-y things that add up to real time and money if you don’t know how to do them. Nicholls knows how to do all of them. She is the queen of the unsexy stuff.
“Most publishers just [say] ‘I’ll work with you, I’ll screw you, I’ll go to the next one and screw them too,’” she says. And, like Pobst and Howe, she would know. She’s worked in the video game industry since 1993, starting in customer service at Broderbund. Since then she’s been at LucasArts, LEGO and most recently the now-defunct THQ, where she was the “fixer,” assigned to produce video games nobody else wanted to manage. Her last project at THQ, before the company went under, was South Park: The Stick of Truth.
“It’s really hard to make the games,” Nicholls says. “It’s hard to get them out on the day that you need to get them out and not screw all of your advertisers because your date slipped by two weeks. You don’t need to add lying and hiding on top of it. … It’s just too tiring.”
At the due diligence meeting in the fall, Nicholls was looking for problems with the development of Defense Grid 2. She looked for the things she’d have to fix, if she was still the fixer, and the things she’d have to assign one of her producers at 505 to fix now that she wasn’t. She didn’t find any. Not a one.
Nicholls asked Defense Grid 2′s Associate Producer Dacey Willoughby some basic questions about how tasks are tracked and processes managed. Out came the spreadsheet — the one Willoughby mouses over on the big TV screen back at the conference room at Hidden Path. It’s the same spreadsheet she’s adding to, updating and referencing throughout every meeting, all day, every day. As it turns out, it’s not just any spreadsheet, but a work of logistical art.
“She got all geeky and pulled out the Excel spreadsheet,” says Nicholls, “and I was like, ‘Yay!’ I love to see that stuff. If I can ask something like, ‘How do you manage this?’ Or, ‘Beyond your high level milestones, where is all your task tracking and how do you do that?’ If someone can pull it up quickly and speak to it, I don’t even necessarily have to understand and believe in all the little details in it. It’s the fact that they’re confident enough that they can access it, pull it up and explain it to me immediately. That tells me all I need to know … and she has just this monstrous spreadsheet.”
Four hours at Hidden Path, in and out, and then Howe and Nicholls were back in the Uber car headed to Sea-Tac Airport to fly back to LA. They talked about the deal on the plane, compared notes about Hidden Path and decided right then and there: Let’s do it.
Howe, still in the air, sent an email back to Pobst to clarify a few details. The next morning Howe was on the phone with his bosses in Italy. The deal came together not long after. To call it a love fest would not be too far off. And for Howe, that’s exactly how he wants it.
“We were at DICE … and met with a lot of developers,” Howe says. We’ve been in the 505 conference room for over an hour, just chatting. He’s so smooth it’s felt like half that. “They said, ‘What are you looking for?’ Our answer is always the same: Good games. ‘But what platform?’ We’re platform agnostic. ‘What genre?’ We’re genre agnostic.
“We’re looking for games that are fun, that really say something. They don’t have to say anything particularly deep or meaningful, but they have to have a reason to exist.”
Defense Grid 2 has a reason to exist. In fact, it has many. But most important among them is that its creators believe in it.
Eight years ago the founders of Hidden Path left a sure thing behind to strike out on their own. They wanted to make their own games their own way. And the game they most wanted to make was Defense Grid. That ended badly — at first. Now? It’s hard to say.
In spite of good intentions, the wisdom of years and perhaps due to no small amount of bad luck, Hidden Path, eight years on, has not yet managed to escape the gravity of the worst aspects of the games industry. Like Defense Grid, the studio has hung on, but not quite broken orbit. It is a beloved entity with, as yet, much unrealized potential.
As the small team in the back corner at Hidden Path’s Bellevue HQ continues to hammer away at Defense Grid 2, level by level, tower by tower, Pobst and his partners are closing the deals with Dengler and 505 that will hopefully give it more of a chance at success than its predecessor. This time around, though, Hidden Path will decide when the game ships and on what platforms. And it has the backing and support of a team of like-minded investors: One is an unlikely, but enthusiastic, entrepreneur, and the others are a team of passionate veterans, some even longer in the tooth than the founders of Hidden Path themselves.
Stars are aligning. Money is in play. Luck seems to be changing. If Defense Grid 2 doesn’t make it, it will not be for lack of faith, hard work and support. Now all that’s left to do, still, is finish the game.(source:polygon)