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Tycho / on Mon, Mar 10 2014 at 3:11 pm

Frozen Endzone

Frozen Endzone hits Steam Early Access today.  I find “sports” challenging, but tactical games based on sports are another irresistible clutch, so I’m glad they went that route.  I don’t remember if I asked him or if he asked me, but I’m happy to do my part to spread the word.  Ladies and Gentlemen, here is Paul Taylor of Mode7 games.

Last time I was here, Mode 7 was at a pivotal moment.

In fact, we were right in the middle of our pivot from “Struggling Indie” to…whatever we are now.

In some ways, this week is no different.  Frozen Endzone, the spiritual successor to Frozen Synapse, is set to launch on Steam Early Access.  It’s grown from a hasty sketch of robots and boxes scribbled down in a quiet meeting, to a fairly meaty beta with a small community, established tactics and its own unique baggage.

Endzone is another simultaneous-turn-based game; it’s a mechanical schema that is still - handily for us - massively underutilised.  Both players make an individual plan for their side and then watch the consequences unfold together; it’s a deeply competitive and tactical set-up.  This time around, we’ve refined things: Endzone is a very pure game of vectors, timing, positioning and psychology.  It’s creator Ian’s original plan was to whittle away some of Synapse’s more fiddly aspects and present something that relied on bolder moves and big ideas.

My Frozen Endzone team, the Leamington Spa Turbots, are a desperate bunch.  Named after a collection of friends and embarrassingly weak comedy references, they flail hopelessly in the face of top beta players like the indomitable Neofelis.  His terrifying team of slow-moving but hyper-aware bots ran rings around me the last time we met; not only was he tactically superior, but he’d also come up with his own take on the player management meta-game.  Micro and macro, he crushed me.  I am really terrible at our games.

That’s why I can’t wait to watch this sort of tactical encounter play out between minds far superior to mine.  I want to read the silly team names and watch the commentators mock their terrible defensive positioning.  One of the coolest things about being involved with games is seeing them take on a life of their own in the hands of players.

So, the pivot.  My hope right now is that Endzone is about to tip over from “Weird Sports Thing That’s a Bit Like Frozen Synapse” into its own unique category.  I’ve now heard so many times from Synapse players that they think it’s a massive improvement; I constantly get stories like this: I think the gameplay is breaking through people’s preconceptions about the aesthetic.  As Edge put it, “Frozen Endzone is not a sports game”: so why does it look like one?

The reasons are actually surprisingly disparate.  Firstly, and most importantly, the idea came fully formed from Ian’s many-chambered brain: the gameplay is intrinsically bound to the idea of robots playing a futuristic sport.  The tough battle to gain distance, the positioning, the carefully orchestrated group movement: that’s all part of it.

Secondly, we love the idea of a futuresport.  We grew up with Speedball 2 and the awesome arcadey swoop of EA Hockey; Ian and I sat and watched Rollerball in his mum’s house as teenagers laughing at the ludicrous exploding tree scene.

Madden taught me the rules of football; the insane pomp and hilariously taut, overly analytical culture around it made me something of a casual fan for life, while Ian is a hardcore devotee.  We’re British, so we’re free of the tiresomely brutish jock connotations and high-school locker room embarrassments: we see it for what it is, an enticing surreal multi-billion dollar physical turn-based epic played out between red-faced middle-aged men screaming at kids through weird curvaceous microphones.

In the last couple of years, I’ve also got heavily into esports.  The dangerous levels of dedication, split-second decision-making and rich strategic vocabulary that flow through Starcraft were all deeply compelling.  Witnessing Tasteless and Artosis freaking out over TLO cancelling nukes in GSL Season 1 was like stumbling on a strange entertainment channel from a distant advanced civilisation.

We want to synthesize all of that into a game.  With this aesthetic, we can take your simple geometric movements and extrapolate them into a crazy cinematic where two robots smash into each other, sparks flying.  If our plans for single player come off, we can go much, much further: we’ll put you in a living world full of league politics and intrigue.  We’ll simulate the trouble your team members get into on their off-day and let you have clandestine meetings with other coaches to arrange nefarious deals.  Every action you perform will have a huge impact, both on and off the pitch: that’s what a game should feel like.

It won’t be easy to get there; it certainly hasn’t been easy to get here.  We will have been through births, deaths and marriages by the end of this thing: that’s not allegorical or even exaggerated; it’s been a weird few years since FS came out.  It’s easy to have a daft hero complex about game development purely because it’s difficult and time-consuming - we are just composing electronic frippery after all - but I feel so strongly about keeping this team together and trying to make more stuff people like.

Putting out an early version can be tough and awkward: the core of what you want to say is there but the sentences don’t flow well and a lot of the punctuation is almost wantonly bizarre.  Endzone’s gameplay does really shine through in this build, though, and getting to this threshold has been an essential step on the path to completion.  The competition around new games on Steam is brutally fierce now: we’ll soon see if Endzone can cut it.

He says that “If you like this waffle” then you can “experience a liquidised drip-feed of it” on his twitter @mode7games