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‘Frozen Synapse’ interview: Mode 7 talks iPad, DLC and its next game

Frozen Synapse, a simultaneous turn-based strategy title, saw a huge critical and sales reception following its release last year. But 2012 is on course to be developer Mode 7’s biggest yet, with two nominations at this year’s IGF, an iPad port on the way and new DLC.

We caught up with co-designer Paul Taylor at GameCityNights in Nottingham, where he gave a talk to aspiring developers, to discuss the game’s future as well as the studio’s next project.

Firstly, congratulations on the IGF nominations! Do you expect Frozen Synapse to do so well?
“Thank you! No, not in the IGF. We’ve entered the IGF for six years and never had anything accepted, and that’s one of the reasons why some of the recent complaining about it is really over the top. I don’t feel like there’s anything to be said. If your game doesn’t get accepted, suck it up. Because that’s happened to us a lot, and now we’ve got to the point where we have made something that has got noticed in that way. So I think everyone can do it, basically. It’s really, really exciting to be in there.”

You say you’ve entered for six years – I assume that was with Frozen Synapse?
“We entered with Frozen Synapse previously but the other times were different types of Determinance. But yeah, between all of that we’ve managed to enter six times and this is the only time we’ve been anyway, and it’s nice to have that contrast really. I feel like it reflects the effort that we’ve put into this game particularly.”

There are a lot of more festivals and events for indies these days, such as GameCityNights – how important are these for indie developers like yourself?
“They can be hugely important because they’re a way of just getting your game out there at various stages of development. Like I said in my talk, if you can expose your game to the public at a good point, you can get some really key feedback at those points. But equally, it’s really hard, especially for new games to just break through in terms of PR.

“If you’re at a festival then journalists will talk to you irrespective of who you are because you’ve got a game there and it might be interesting. It’s just good to get out of your house! Game development can be so introverted and you need to have a mix of working hard on your own and then bringing in the random elements of the public as well.”

There seems to be a message with you guys [from here and your talk] about getting your game out there and trying to get people to play it, and that’s really important.
“Definitely. It’s just a balancing act. I think some people take too much feedback too early, and equally, you have to listen to the important things.”

And even now on your website, your blog is very regularly updated and you do a lot of updates on Twitter
“We had a period where we were really bad for that, and it caused the community to basically say, hey we’re not happy with this silence, we don’t know what’s happening, we want more stuff and there’s some things that we want fixed. And that was a really big turning point for us just going, OK, well we’re obviously not doing enough for them at that point, so we’ll try to communicate more and more, and try centralising stuff around the blog a bit more.

“I think we’ve got a way to go with that, but that’s just part of a learning process. I’m really grateful with the community for sticking with us through that period, and now we’re trying to do some things they want. Again, it’s so hard to fit everything in together, but that’s an important thing, I want to keep communication open.”

I imagine that’s really important not only because it’s a game that people have paid for, but it’s a multiplayer game in particular and people want to be part of this community.
“Absolutely, yeah, and we want to try to do everything we can to facilitate that. I think people do forget that we’re not Blizzard, we can’t do these interim patches all the time, we just don’t have the team to do a regular release schedule. Equally there’s a lot of things that we can’t do with community support that we’d like to do.

“So it’s just a question of, it has to be a kind of compromise between us and them, when some people are really happy and some people really aren’t, and we’re all trying to work it out together, basically.”

Talking about the game and its future, you’re developing DLC. Can you discuss what it’ll entail?
“So we’ve released some information about it. One of the things that we’re going to do is play co-op, where you can play against the AI, and we’ve been testing that and it’s really good. So we’re pretty excited about that, it’s going to be the headline feature of the DLC.

“There’s going to be a new unit as well, we haven’t revealed that yet. So those things are going to be the big stuff. There’s going to be six new music tracks, which obviously has been good for me to work on that. I haven’t finished those yet but when I get time I will.

“So really our approach to it was to sit down and go, what are things that we want to do that would be good that we can package together rather than… I mean, we go through every possible version of these things and you think what can we do quickly, cheaply that sort of thing.

“You might start down that path and go, this doesn’t feel right, we have to do it in a way that’s the Mode 7 way, you know? It does matter that if you ever find yourself doing something that doesn’t feel right than you absolutely have to stop and question it. And this DLC, I’m really proud of it and we’re going to be doing crunch on it next week and I’m really excited to go through that process and get a new thing really to put out there.”

I assume this is premium DLC?
“It’ll be paid DLC, don’t know the price yet. It will paid, yeah.”

Is there a worry about – because it’s a multiplayer centric game and you’re adding a new unit – balance or splitting the community?
“We’re going to do some balance testing, obviously, before it rolls out. Splitting the community won’t be a problem because we’re planning to allow anyone to play in matches with the new unit, so if you’re paired with someone that has the DLC and you don’t, you’ll be able to use the unit.

“And that’s something that Magicka has done with their DLC, because they have a lot of different DLC. We’re really really keen not to split the community, that’s something we care about a lot and we talk about a lot. We’ll be sensitive to those concerns.”

That’s smart, because there are a number of shooters on consoles with new maps that split the community – placing a handful of people here and a handful of people there.
” Ian [Hardingham, co-designer]’s main game was Tribes, and that had an issue with different modes really splitting the community and one side died out. You got to be really careful with stuff like that and we try to be.”

The other thing you’re working on is an iPad version. How’s that going and how has it been translating that to a tablet?
“We’re at the stage now where we have a functional port, so the game kind of works, but you have to use your finger as the mouse pointer, so obviously that’s terrible. So there’s some optimisation to be done with that but it basically runs and it’s pretty stable and it’s all good. I’ve just had the first build through with some new interface elements, and we’re just going to do that step by step.

“The thing I’m working on right now is how to add way points, because on PC you have to double click and double tapping on an iPad is terrible, because timing is hard, you might accidentally tap different places, it’s not like double clicking a mouse. So the very first basic action we’ve come across needs a new UI system to make it work, and that’s what we’re working on right now.

“And we’re just going to step through every single action and try to make sure that it’s really, really easy and then look at how they’ll integrate. It’s going to be quite a slow process. We are hoping to try to get it out in the first half of this year, but again it’ll be done, we’ll test it a lot, we’ll try to find things people are having trouble with and fix them, because it’s really important to me that it’s not clunky.

“There’s going to be a whole new group of players for whom this is their first experience with the game, so it has to feel as good as it can. It’s a hard game to translate to a touch device and despite the fact that people have said this will be great on an iPad… but yeah, you don’t have to make it!”

Are you tempted to tweak elements of the game? I believe there was a post-mortem that said the single player introduction was too hard.
“We changed that after we got the feedback for that – we changed the tutorial and the first mission. The problem with that is I think that it’s really diminishing returns. There are some things that you can do, like we fixed the first mission, that was straightforward, but beyond that you’re getting into territory where it’s like your’re designing a new game.

“It might be better to put that energy into something new instead of this, especially if this has been pretty successful already. Personally I’m not interested in tweaking it. Adding stuff to it is cool. And also there some emerging issues with some parts of the UI that are just bad and we can fix those, but I just wanted to do minor things and not get too involved with rearranging because you’ll go crazy and you’ll revisit old decisions, and that’s bad territory.”

Something I’ve noticed is that you guys seem to have a lot of on your plate, and at the same time you said [in the talk] how good it is to be small and focused and dedicated to your project. Are you guys happy with your size at the minute? Would you like to expand and grow?
“Well we’ve just scaled up by hiring a new person, and the new game that we’re working on has two freelancers on it currently, so actually we’re scaled up in a freelance way. At the moment I don’t want to grow beyond that right now.

“Although we do have a lot of things going on, the major thing is the new game, and when it comes to it we will putting our full focus on that when the time is right to do that. But at the moment, although it’s stressful to me and for everyone to try to learn this new size, it’s actually working pretty well, we’re being pretty productive.


“We’ve got some things done, like the updater has been done, the DLC is really close to getting into beta, and we’re making good progress on the iPad. I feel like we’re experimenting with this new size and it’s productive and equally it is hard and you have to have dedicated time on things to make sure you don’t lose focus.”

You mentioned a new game and I imagine you don’t want to talk about it too much. In the talk you said you originally wanted Frozen Synapse to be a more relaxed game and less obsessive. I assume this new game won’t be like that?
“Yeah, I think there’s some element of reacting against that element of Frozen Synapse in the new game. I mean one thing we said is that there’s going to be some reuse of tech from this game to the next game, and also that it will probably be simpler, and that’s something I’m really excited about.

“I love some of the gameplay in Frozen Synapse but it’s obscured for a lot of people by the complexity of the UI, and in the new game, the UI is going to be clearer, and it’s going to let you do interesting things in a much simpler way. I really hope we can stick to that and not add too much to it as time goes on.

Is it a similar genre, can you say that now?
“I’m not really saying anything beyond that.”

Can you say when you’ll announce it?
“I don’t know, actually. I’m not very satisfied with the way things get announced at the moment. I basically just don’t like how people do it. I don’t like these teaser sites with alternate reality games, I think that’s played out and boring. I don’t like teaser trailers because they’re stupid.

“I’m just trying to figure out a good way of doing it. Ideally I’d like to wait until we have some proper gameplay footage and announce with that, so do it in an ass backwards way. We have good concept art and so now it’s pretty illustrative of what the game will actually be like, so we might actually announce with that. In terms of when, erm… we’ll see.

“We’ll have to schedule it against the other things. I don’t want it to get in the way of the iPad version, which is going to be a huge, big push from us to get that noticed, so that will be first, and then we’ll see.”

Frozen Synapse is available now on PC, Mac and Linux. An iPad version will be available later this year.

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