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Tycho / on Mon, May 30 2011 at 12:00 am

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Inquiring Minds

If I actually had stopped the car, no doubt this scenario would have come to pass.  Occasionally, I make good decisions!  Good might be a stretch.  Latley, I’ve been making a concerted effort to go for “somewhat less bad.”

I asked Paul Taylor, Joint Managing Director of Mode 7 Games to tell me, well, anything he could about Frozen Synapse, their new simul-turn tactoid, which is a term I just made up.  I like it, though, and I shall retain it.  In any event: whither FS?

You’re sitting outside a pub with one of your best friends, having a beer, celebrating the release of a game.

Finally, you’ve got a clear moment to yourself…that kind of time is, naturally, always when you get The Call.

An email on your phone: Tycho wants you to write about Frozen Synapse for Penny Arcade.

This happened to me.

In the midst of opposing planes of reality arcing together, I pondered, if I were to take up this impossibly wonderful challenge, whether or not I would be permitted to deploy the italics or if, like some fiercely arcane ballista, their tight-wrenched springs could not be manipulated by the enfeebled hands of men.

That’s out of my system now, let’s get on with it.

Frozen Synapse is really not my game: like all games, it truly belongs to its designer.

Ian Hardingham is the friend in the pub, the kind of man who can inspire others to follow him on a quest to create a monstrous seething hybrid of Laser Squad Nemesis, contract bridge and Spelunky.  I think he’s probably a proper, actual genius but I would definitely never tell him.

He germinates the ideas and does design and code.  I write words and music, do art direction, fill in the gaps and run the business.  The third member of our core team, Robin “Bin” Cox, does level design and testing.

LSN was the beginning: extensive sessions played out while on holiday with our friend Tom set Ian’s critical faculties prickling.  Outwitting a skilled opponent was ultimately satisfying but the shuffling foreplay of getting units into position vexed him.

“I wanted to just predict where he was going to go, not play some weird meta-board game,” grumped Ian.

His original idea, provisionally titled “PsychOff” (you can see why I’m in charge of names now), was a Nintendo DS strategy game using a side-top (think Zelda) perspective.  It was going to look a little like Syndicate and was supposed to be played with friends while watching TV.

We couldn’t find anyone silly enough to publish that, so we decided to return to our ancestral hunting ground: the PC.

If there’s any real core inspiration at work here, it’s the great PC games of the 90’s: Wing Commander; Diablo; Dungeon Keeper; Thief; Terra Nova; CnC…the time when you could look at a screenshot and not even know what genre was being represented; when games were baroque monsters with a peculiar and surprising allocation of limbs.

Essentially, what games are meant to be.  They are supposed to consume the player.

PsychOff started life as a series of little wonky triangles executing tense little plans against each other on a 2D map.  The bridge influence was there from the start: you were dealt a random hand of units and had to make the best of it.

“My motivation was highest to make a game that had interesting decisions the whole time,” Ian told me.  “You keep playing bridge because every hand is new and exciting straight away; different every single time really fundamentally.”

There were other touchstones.

“I just literally realised that everything I wanted was in the Counter Strike mechanics.  I even had Bin make a 2D version of Dust in FS.

“Basically, after about 3 months, Synapse was kind of there mechanically and then we went off in a load of random single player directions, as well as one-turn matches called ‘Endplays’.

“That was just this big circling around of everything, the stereotypical indie thing.  I can’t really analyse what is a good mechanic: I can only say what I like and don’t like.”

Although Endplays were a design dead-end, they informed the architecture of Frozen Synapse: keeping games on the server, accumulating information about the moves of all players.  When multi-turn play was reintroduced, everything clicked back into shape.

Art finally coalesced around this time: we struggled initially with a more realistic “radar screen” look, before finally being seduced by the stylised, primary colour thing.  It was really that organic, which is why I get a bit irritated at people pointing out our “obvious influences”.  I just wanted the game to come through, and our brilliant freelancers realised that.

So, we had multiplayer which caused shouting and laughter in the office, and eventually, outside.

We polished it up and put that out as a paid beta; thanks to some lovely press, we started to get some momentum.  In some ways, we knew it could work.  I saw real people, engrossed in the game, after walking in off the street at Nottingham’s incredible Gamecity festival, and I believed.

The challenge of single player remained.

I really think that a campaign mode is about using game mechanics as the vector for an experience, the means to interact with a world.

I remembered exploring brilliant realities - bounding gleefully into ambushes in Terra Nova or lurking in obscure alcoves to pick up mercenary work in Strike Commander – so I wanted the same for our players.

The narrative is my personal take on pulp cyberpunk: politics, business and ambition spinning up into a shiny nightmare.  That’s the idea, anyway.

I was lucky enough to be able to come up with this world and then write a soundtrack for it.  It was kind of an amazing shot and I hope I did it justice: I so badly wanted it to work because I want more than anything else to be able to keep doing this for the rest of my life.  Grammar fails me when I get excited.

I felt that lack of grammar sitting in the pub garden, and that was the last moment I really had to myself, because after we got thoroughly Biscuited, Reddited and Wanged last week, it now seems like the world wants to play our little game simultaneously and immediately.

This is another impossibly wonderful challenge: a Call.  We will square up to it and work as hard as we can for all of our new community; we want each one of you to experience Frozen Synapse at its best.

I’d like to quickly thank everyone who helped us get to this point and cheers to Mr Holkins and all at PA for this unique gig.

You can have those italics back now: you know the ones.


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