Inventive and Elegant: Frozen Synapse Interview

TGP was able to track down the boys from Mode 7, creators of the indie hit, Frozen Synapse, for a detailed e-mail interview.  You will read about the success and failures in developing Frozen Synapse, DRM, piracy, Valve and much more.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Frozen Synapse.

I’m Paul Taylor, one of the co-founders of Mode 7.

As we’re a small company (only three in-house) I do a variety of things: music, audio, writing, art direction and I help out with aspects of single player and interface design.  I also do all of the PR, marketing and business development for Mode 7, so I’m quite busy!

How did you get started in developing PC games?

I got started when our other founder, Ian Hardingham, invited me to write some music for an indie game he was making.  That turned out to be Determinance, our first title, and so that was my first experience of development.

Ian had done some work experience at a mainstream studio in Oxford before he started Mode 7, so he actually had more industry experience than me.

Where did the idea for Frozen Synapse come from?

Ian came up with the idea in around 2004 when he was playing a lot of Laser Squad Nemesis with one of our friends.  He really wanted to create a game that stripped down strategy games to their bare bones; more of a tactical game.  In Laser Squad, you have some great battles but much of the game is spent setting up your unit positions and edging towards your opponent.

Ian wanted to focus on the actual combat itself, hence the randomly generated situations in Frozen Synapse.

What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Frozen Synapse?

We learned from Determinance that it doesn’t matter how good the core idea is; it has to be executed well with an aesthetic that people can accept quickly.  I think we’re a lot better at translating our initial concepts into reality now.

For me, writing the music, I knew that I had to establish a style that suited the game and then stick to it quite rigidly.  I almost had to invent a genre of music with its own rules – in the past I’d always swapped around genres too much.

In its current form, how close is Frozen Synapse to your initial vision?

Pretty darn close actually!  I think Ian would say that it achieved the atmosphere he wanted; certainly I’m happy with it aesthetically.  We put a lot of effort into tweaking it.

I mean, some things changed along the way: the game was initially envisaged as a kind of pixel-art / X-Com style thing but we decided to go top down for clarity.  So we need to find a way to make that look good and the current neon look was born.  But overall, pretty close, like I said.

Some indie devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game.  Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Frozen Synapse and if you faced a similar challenge.

We absolutely wanted the game to be hard!  It can be quite unforgiving at times but it was definitely a reaction to the fact that games are getting easier in an attempt to be more accessible.

We really wanted to give you a fairly intuitive toolset but then throw you in at the deep-end.  I’d say we’ve had a fairly even reaction – some people complain about it, other people praise it.

I’m always rubbish at all games so I’m quite a good benchmark for things being hard!  If I can do it, it’s probably too easy.

The one thing I got wrong is the first single player mission.  My concept for it was that people would be rushing their units in blindly at an early stage – it’s really easy to win if you do that!  The problem is, people are thinking too much and playing “properly” so it’s much harder!  That was just a straightforward difficulty error, really.

Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Frozen Synapse would run on the various PC system configurations?

Oh, all the usual stuff – there’s always unforeseen problems but I think we did reasonably well.  I’d like to thank all our beta testers who helped us out with this – we’re very grateful.

Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?

I’d say probably the all-encompassing nature of it.  You spend a LOT of your life on a single project, and it can make you obsessive over small details.

My main weakness is that I start to hone in on what I perceive to be problems and certain things just absolutely lodge in my mind irrespective of their overall importance.  That can really piss off other people because you’re constantly complaining about things they believe to be trivial.

Trying to be a good team member, even in a small team, I think is a challenge for all of us.

Beyond that, I sometimes find it a bit difficult during very stressful periods to keep my life in any kind of balance.  Just trying to get enough exercise and eat properly can be a challenge but I’m working on that as well.

How difficult was it to create funding for the development of Frozen Synapse and did you receive emotional support from your family and friends during this time?

Getting Frozen Synapse done was really a combination of us doing a lot of contract work, living very cheaply (sometimes with help from family during tougher times) and, as you say, relying on people around us being understanding.

Luckily, doing Determinance and a few other things brought us enough money to get started, and then once we were going I think people around us could see the game taking shape and really believed in what we were doing.  Our partners and families are all extremely supportive and we’re very lucky to have them.

Tell us about the process of submitting Frozen Synapse to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.

We were actually approached by most of our current distributors – it was actually quite an easy process for us!  This was mostly thanks to the amazing press coverage we received from places like RockPaperShotgun and BoingBoing who covered the game very early on – if the word gets out that you’re doing something interesting then distributors want to get hold of it.

I do get asked sometimes if there’s a sort of secret recipe for getting onto these platforms and really the only answer is that your game has to be exciting.  It has to be graphically polished (or very stylised), the appeal has to be obvious, it has to do something new, and it has to have a lot of depth.  If your game has those qualities, it will get press coverage and eventually make it onto those platforms if you stick at it.

How much pull do you have when setting sale and regular pricing through digital distribution channels?  Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?

Yes, we did research other indie titles.  One of our touchstones was actually Cliffski’s brilliant Gratuitous Space Battles, which is another niche strategy game.

All of our distributors have been very helpful with regard to pricing – it’s always a discussion that we can have with them.

Tell us about your overall experience in creating a multiplayer component for Frozen Synapse. 

Well, Ian started prototyping the game with placeholder graphics ages ago, and playing it a lot against Robin, who is the third member of the team.

Ian’s great at coming up with sets of rules, but what he’s even better at is iterating on those rules once they’re in place.  He’s very tuned in to the kind of sensation you get from competitive gaming and he’s always iterating to get exactly the right feel.  It’s a combination of a kind of objective rational and practically intuitive process that absolutely amazes me.

I think some people in the games industry think game design is the process of writing a design document, but really 90% of the work takes place after that point.

One of the major influences on FS was Counterstrike – it was always about the idea of being able to win if you could predict your opponent’s moves correctly.  That’s what Ian was striving for quite a lot of the time.

Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Frozen Synapse.

Art style – we started off with a much grittier, sort of “radar” concept than we have now: a bit more organic-looking.

Then we realised that we couldn’t actually do that justice so we wanted something simpler.  We had an amazing freelance concept artist who came up with this current look.

I was influence by the “glowy” abstract trend that was doing the rounds at the time…actually, interestingly not by Tron, which is what a lot of people mention when they talk about the art style.  It was actually a combination of more recent stuff, and then just simply going for a look which worked, which would look cool and convey the information we wanted.

Level design is really Robin’s domain – he does all of that.  He would come up with shapes, or I would say, “I want this level to be set in a power station” and then he woudl take that idea and run with it.  We realised that we could do all kinds of different things with abstract levels, so we had a lot of different settings, which I think helps with the variety of the SP campaign.

Music: as I mentioned earlier, I wanted to create a unique style for this game, so I took a lot of influences on board.  I’m very into late 90’s electronica like Plaid and Boards of Canada; and I’m a fan of pretty much every genre of dance music, so all of that came in.  I also love games composers like Jesper Kyd: he’s someone who is very good at melding different styles together.

So, I wanted an electronic focus but also melody is very important to me.  Pretty much every piece of music I write has to have a strong melody – I’m not like some of these composers who can work solely in ambient or abstract tones.  That can be great for specific things, but I need a tune!  So each piece of music in FS has a tune, apart from possibly the menu music, which is a big ambient Biosphere type thing.

You released a demo while most big budget studios no longer release PC demos   Why do you think this trend is occurring?  Did you encounter any problems when creating the demo for Frozen Synapse?

Releasing a demo is a giant pain in the butt and nobody really wants to do it!  The wrong demo can completely screw you over so it’s a gamble, essentially.

We actually started looking at how people were reacting to the game, and also had a quick look around at other demos.  The turning point, really ,was that we believed people would be willing to accept a demo without multiplayer, which took away a giant technical hurdle.

The results have been great – the conversion rate on the demo is currently rather astonishingly good so it seems to have been the right choice.

Problems…not really, just trying to fit in doing it alongside patching the game, making DLC and starting our next game!

How important is it to get instant feedback about Frozen Synapse from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?

Oh, totally vital.  FS wouldn’t exist without that – it’s the only way small companies can turn out worthwhile games: you simply have to have a group of people out there playing it.

I always want to know what people think – you can be quite divorced from the experiences of your players sometimes, so any kind of considered opinion, positive or negative, is very valuable.

How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Frozen Synapse professionally?

A huge amount.  I grew up reading game reviews; they’re piece of work that matter a great deal to me personally.  So yes, a huge amount of value.

How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?

We’re very interested in any kind of effective distribution means for the game.

Obviously, you’re referring to the Humble Indie Bundle here and that’s something we are certainly very keen to be involved with.

What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?

I think a lot of companies still get this wrong: DRM is not a solution to piracy; effective, non-troublesome, online-only content is a solution to piracy.  You have to protect your game in ways that are acceptable to your customers – that is demonstrably more beneficial to you in the long run.

I don’t find piracy particularly interesting – it’s just an environmental factor for indie developers.  Far better to focus on your real customers and how you can keep them happy.

Bill S.978 was introduced to the Untied States Senate earlier this year which could make it illegal to post unauthorized copyrighted content on YouTube and other video sharing sites.  How do you feel about individuals outside of Mode7 posting videos of Frozen Synapse?

I am completely happy for anyone to post videos of FS – in fact, we encourage it with our in-game YouTube uploader!

We need to find some better solutions to protect copyrights which don’t impinge upon creativity.  It’s a difficult and complex issue with a lot of irrationality hurled around on both sides.

How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?

DLC is a powerful force and it should be used for good, not evil!  I think it’s a great way to give customers what they want.  Personally, I kind of favour the old-style “expansion pack” rather than lots of small bits of DLC, but we’ll be trying all kinds of different things with FS.

I think a lot of developers see it as cashing in – for us, it’s a way to experiment a bit and try stuff we couldn’t try during the main part of development.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about the modding of PC games and the relationship developers have with modders.  How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Frozen Synapse?

Mods are great but FS isn’t particularly easy to mod – it’s just one of the things we haven’t been able to sort out for people.  You have to pick your battles and mod support slightly lost out for this game.

That said, making custom maps and game modes is pretty easy, so we’d love to see people doing more of that.

What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?

  • 1.)  Read this article and then finish a game
  • 2.)  Put it on sale
  • 3.)  See how few copies you sell!
  • 4.)  Finish another game and try to do better this time

Seriously, if more people who wanted to get into indie games actually just started making and selling games, they would learn a heck of a lot more than anyone else can teach them.

Indie games are booming right now, so your game has to be something really special to make an impact.  It has to have great art AND great gameplay these days.

Finally, I’d say “aim high” – you’re competing against triple-A titles for people’s attention; you have to give people a specific reason to play YOUR game and not anybody else’s.

Oh, and hire a good musician! – End

TPG would like to thank all of the boys and girls from Mode 7 who have given us a wonderful and unique PC gaming experience.  You can pick up Frozen Synapse from Impulse and Steam.

Give all the guys at Mode 7 a virtual fist-bump by leaving a comment!

7 thoughts on “Inventive and Elegant: Frozen Synapse Interview

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