February 2, 2012 1:00 AM | John Polson
[Kicking off the annual "Road to the IGF" series with IGF 2012 finalists, Gamasutra speaks with Mode 7 Games about Seumas McNally Grand Prize and Excellence in Design nominee Frozen Synapse.]
Mode 7 Games' tactical title Frozen Synapse is a four-year development dream finally come true. Its simultaneous turn-based design has earned critical acclaim, where players predict opponents' moves instead of merely reacting to them, all played out in randomly generated, top-down arenas.
With such success, Mode 7 is set for a bright 2012, with Frozen Synapse coming to iPad and extra content for Frozen Synapse itself. The team is even having some tech developed for a new game, which is currently in gameplay prototyping.
Here, Paul Taylor and Ian Hardingham talk about the design elements that didn't make the cut and those they feel earned their nominations, including the ideas behind their multiplayer modes and the simultaneous turn-based strategy that help give the game its edge.
How many people are at Frozen Synapse now? What talents and past experiences do they bring?
Paul: Mode 7 currently has four humans in the office. I'm responsible for Business Development, Marketing, Writing, Audio/Music and a whole host of other things. The first game I ever worked on was Determinance, Mode 7's first title. I've been writing and performing electronic music ever since I was 14.
Ian Hardingham is our Lead Designer and Lead Programmer, as well as the co-owner. He started the company straight out of university after doing some work experience at a big local developer. Robin Cox is our Level Designer and Tester... he plays games very extensively! James Hannett is a Programmer and Community Manager: this is his first games industry role and he seems to be enjoying it so far.
As well as the humans, we have Lead Dog Jasper whose main roles are creating gentle fragrant expulsions while sleeping and trying to bite publishers' trousers.
What development tools did you use and how long have you been working on the game?
Paul: We worked on the game for about four years. Everything we used was pretty standard: the game was based on the Torque Game Engine with a custom renderer. Ian used Visual Studio for programming and TortoiseCVS as a file repository.
I did all of the sound and music in Ableton Live.
We drink so much Pepsi that it probably now counts as a development tool.
What elements of your game do you feel earned the design nomination? What aspect of the design would you improve today?
Paul: I think Ian's simultaneous turn-based design is fairly unique: there haven't been many modern games which employ that style of gameplay. It was that, coupled with the random generation of levels and unit compositions which really caused the game to show its strengths very quickly to new players.
There aren't many things like it, and I feel like we worked very hard to do justice to the core mechanics. We tried to flesh out the design instead of just relying on its novelty.
If we could improve something, it would probably be the stressful nature of the game: it's quite hard to play "casually," and that's something we're thinking about for the future.
Could you talk about the design of the different multiplayer modes?
Ian: Game modes are the framing device for the core multiplayer mechanics. Their rules are an immensely powerful tool for me as a designer to change how people play my game.
I generally like to have fast, focused gameplay, and the game modes in Frozen Synapse reflect that. The base game mode, Extermination, has a very short time limit and randomly-positioned units, making every game completely different.
Our bidding modes - Secure and Charge - use the Contract Bridge bidding mechanic to ask players to think about territory at the very beginning, and set their own goals in the match. People really responded to this idea as it's pretty unique in video games, and creates a very nice, simple strategic layer at the start of a match. Not only do you feel you've created a custom experience by choosing a specific are to bid on, you also feel like it's your fault if you lose and your brilliance if you win rather than feeling a victim of the existing terrain.
My personal favorite mode is Disputed, which tasks you the slightly amorphous goal of "controlling as much of the map as you can," before a set of objectives appear half way through the match. With this mode I was trying to inject some more freeform gameplay - it's impossible to know at the beginning which parts of the map you must control, so you can feel more free to decide on what general areas you feel you can control."
Can you track how people play or prefer to play the game, such as opting for email notifications? What are the results so far?
Paul: People tend to play very intensively in the first two weeks, often running multiple simultaneous games and staying online to see the results. After that, they play less frequently, [turn on email notifications,] and come online to do the occasional turn (kind of how we envisaged the game would be played originally). It's an interesting usage pattern and we're currently looking for ways to sustain the number of concurrent users.
Could you explain the concept of simultaneous-turn-based gameplay and how it relates to Frozen's design?
Paul: In a traditional turn-based game like chess, players alternate their turns, responding to the outcome of the other player's decisions. However, in a simultaneous-turn-based game, the outcomes happen at the same time.
For example, if we are playing Frozen Synapse, I will be working out where I want my machine gunner to move in the next five seconds. Say, I want him to take cover behind a window, then pop up and shoot your shotgunner.
The question I'm actually trying to answer is "Where do I think your shotgunner will be in five seconds time?". I am effectively trying to predict what you will do.
After we have both committed our plans for the next five seconds, we both watch the outcome and see who came out on top!
What designs just didn't work in Frozen Synapse and why?
Ian: A billion things didn't work! A few include:
- a "Railgun" unit which fired through walls - it was too random if you hit or not and didn't fit with the rest of the game.
- very claustrophobic indoor maps didn't work well with the gun mechanics.
- single-turn matches we called "Endplays" didn't work too well, although I'd still like to revisit those.
What were the defining moments of Frozen Synapse, since its release?
I think getting a 9/10 from Eurogamer and a 9/10 from Edge in particular were both huge and happened very soon after release, but then we entered a phase where the game was picking up great reviews all over the place. That really was realizing a childhood dream for us - we both imagined that one day we might make a game that was good enough to get some kind of acceptable review somewhere but honestly to get those big scores everywhere was insane.
Being asked to write the news post for Penny Arcade, and then getting to go out to PAX was this huge unexpected boost. We knew people in the UK liked the game but that experience really showed us how far it had reached. I remember getting a hug from the whole Jamestown dev team at PAX the second they found out I had worked on FS!
Taking part in the big Steam sales and Humble Indie Bundle have also been awesome for us: we have had a commercial success as well as a critical one thanks to those promotions.
Finally, the IGF nominations were the most recent unexpected highlight. We have entered the IGF for six years with various things and never got very far, so to get recognized in that way was just such an awesome feeling. If people believe that FS is in the highest caliber of indie games that's all we could ever have hoped for.
Speaking of bundles, what are your thoughts on the current bundle trends? Do you feel they have they helped or hurt?
Paul: Absolutely they have helped our sales overall: we didn't see any negative impact on sales after the bundles concluded. Bundles basically cause your game to reach a completely new audience: I think a lot of indie devs worry about saturation when they should be worrying about reach.
[This interview originally posted on Gamasutra.]