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Hammer & Joypad - Weekly Interview: "Frozen Synapse"
by Chris Hawke

Every week, Gamer's Guide To Life will be hunting down and interviewing modders on their works - mainstream, unknown, up-and-coming and interesting mods are put on display as the author(s) answer questions regarding the mod, their line or work and providing deep philosophical insights into the universe, life, metaphysics...In the end, you get to discover or play an awesome mod, every week. Plus, you learn something. And learning is fun.

This week, we're chillin' with the makers of Frozen Synapse, an indie game being made by Oxfordshire-based Mode 7 Games. We had a frankly charming chat with Paul Taylor, aka Mode7Games (makes sense) and Ian Hardingham, both of whom are Managing Directors on the project.

GGTL: So, what is Frozen Synapse?

IAN: Frozen Synapse is about giving a small team of soldiers orders for the next five seconds of game-time. Both players' orders are executed together, and then you see the results. I wanted a deep tactical game that was different every time I played, could be played quite quickly, and where every turn gave me the opportunity to make meaningful decisions. There was no such game that I knew of, so I made my own.
PAUL: It's the classic turn-based tactical game updated for a modern audience; including a complete re-imagining of how a strategy game should be.

IAN: I feel that simultaneous-turn-based, or "We-go", is a fantastic genre that's criminally under-used. Let's hope Frozen Synapse changes that

PAUL: I hate the term "we-go". It sounds like something that Slap Chop guy would sell.

GGTL: Where did you get the idea for this game?
IAN: The core influences were Laser Squad Nemesis, Chaos League, and Counter Strike. I mixed those with my own ADHD and love of novelty, along with a tiny bit of Duplicate Bridge. Then I played it and iterated it a lot until it was fun enough for me to choose over all other games, even when I wasn't working.

PAUL: Aesthetically, the game was influenced by a bunch of different things: primarily the work of of the interface designer Mark Coleran, and movies like Mission Impossible. We didn't think there were enough games based on the slick, cool interface you might see in a movie. I wanted to make an indie game which really "popped" in screenshots and was a million miles away from the kind of irritating, faux-naive thing you see all the time at the moment.

GGTL: How did you get in to game development/modding?

IAN: I started when I was fourteen making hentai for the Psion series 3...

PAUL: It sounds like a line but that's...sort-of true. Unfortunately. I wouldn't say it was hentai... I don't think we should talk about this. Marketing says no. I would also like to state that I wasn't involved at this stage. However, I could describe...

GGTL: No. Please no.
IAN: My first big accomplishment was an editor for Dungeon Keeper called Dungeon Creator which was, in some extremely small and meaningless way, published.

PAUL: Wasn't it on the cover-disc of a magazine in Italy or something?

IAN: It was on the cover-disc of a multiplayer games magazine in England, and was referred to as "Ian Hardingham's flexible tool" (feel free to chuckle) at one point - my school-enemies loved that. It got published as part of a Dungeon Keeper add-on kit in Germany.
PAUL: That was what I meant - the Germany thing. Awesome.

IAN: I made a Red Alert 1 mod called "Didcot Apocalypse".
PAUL: Ha ha, I actually didn't know that. That's such a good name for a mod. I once made a series of three games called Sheep Splatter in Klik and Play. They were lightgun games and they were really really good. They'd probably win an IGF award for innovation these days.

IAN: Ha. Burn IGF, burn...

PAUL: I'm saying nothing.

IAN: I worked on a mod to port Shadow Warrior to the Unreal Tournament 1 engine. I modded Tribes 2 extensively.
PAUL: I actually started working on games when I did the audio and music for our first title Determinance.

GGTL: Is there a story to Frozen Synapse?

PAUL: Yes! It's hiding somewhere in our CVS repository right now. How much of it will get used, and what form it will take, really depends on what we're doing for the single player half of the game, which is still very much up in the air at the moment. I have grand designs, don't worry.

IAN: I am excited for the story. That is all.

GGTL: The game has a very striking art style, with simple Red vs. Green enemies - did you attempt to get this from the start, or did it come about after time?
PAUL: Originally, the game was based around the Two and Half Men IP, so all the characters looked like Chuck Lorre's bank statement. No, actually, it was originally going to be a "side-top" (original Zelda perspective) game... er, on the DS. That was pretty stupid.
IAN: This is true - that was the original idea. We wanted it to look a bit like a kind of updated X-com-slash-Police-Quest-Swat-2-slash-Chaos-Engine sort of modern pixel-ly thing. Which would have been incredible, but it didn't work, largely because the game is about a million times better top-down. Once we knew it was going to be primarily PC, we went in this "interface" direction...the red and green teams came out of that. We have actually planned some different coloured backgrounds and units, but we'll see how that pans out.

GGTL: What's been the hardest part of development?
IAN: The hardest thing technically is the simultaneous turn-taking, which is a lot more complicated than standard turn-based.
PAUL: The hardest thing for me is simply balancing all the different roles I have. Marketing and PR, art direction, music and business development can all expand to fill a huge amount of time if you let them - I'm still trying to figure it out. Music wise, I've been trying to do what I'm pitching as a "just-shy-of-AAA" score - you can hear that I don't have a real choir and a real orchestra - but beyond that I want it to blow people away - keeping up this standard has been VERY challenging and it's quite hard to keep that going alongside everything else.

GGTL: How in-depth are the tactical choices?

IAN: Every one is meaningful. Exactly how you enter a building will define whether you succeed or fail - but really, whether you look through window x or y first, or whether one soldier covers door A while another runs through door B and ducks behind a table. In this it is most like Counter Strike - think of the number of different things that can happen based on the decisions just two opposing people make when entering the same room.
PAUL: Yeah, it *actually* matters what you do a lot of the time, as opposed to older games like Laser Squad: Nemesis where it seemed that there was a bit of blunder factor - you just had to minimize your losses when blundering around, and then follow up with a big push in a particular direction. Our game is... sleeker, I guess. Hopefully.

IAN: Paul didn't get on with LSN that well. LSN is more about the larger strategy, which plays out over a long time. Synapse is more about smaller forces and making individual tactical decisions.

PAUL: It's properly tactical.

GGTL: Will you be able to customize load-out, weapons, team specialties, etc?
IAN: Not really - you customize your strike force by deciding which unit types to bring along.
PAUL: Yeah, we've talked about this a bit recently - units are more like chess pieces than kind of awesome dudes that you totally upgrade in a gnarly fashion. Sorry that didn't make much sense.

GGTL: Can the AI fend for themselves, or do you have to tell your men to do everything (I.E. aim, engage enemy, avoid friendly fire...)?

IAN: You have to tell your units to do most things, but they will fire by themselves. This really is the game - telling your units exactly what to do.

PAUL: You have to tell the unit where to *look* rather than specifically aim. That part is slightly hard to describe - expect videos that explain the gameplay a bit more in the near future.

GGTL: How large is the scale of the game? Is it always 4v4 games, or will you be commanding whole armies?

IAN: Most games are with 4v4 or fewer, but if you want, you can play with 10 or 20 or 30 units. When I get the framerate OK for that.
PAUL: That's the first I've heard about that! Awesome. OK. I'm waiting for that version. That will take AGES to play - well, it will for me. In single player, I'm planning on placing individual battles on a grander scale, but we'll, again, see about that.

IAN: Synapse is based around small teams, but people will always want to try it on an epic scale - and who am I to stop them?

GGTL: Will there be any Multiplayer component?

IAN: Frozen Synapse is a very multiplayer game.
PAUL: Its heart is a multiplayer game. There are going to be lots of modes. Talk about the modes.
IAN: There are lots of them! Hostage and Secure and Land Dispute and Bomb Defusal - you will have modes. And they are original.
PAUL: We should have seven modes. I promise that's the last time I'm ever going to say that.

GGTL: Are you pleased with community generated around the mod so far?

IAN: Hugely. The small team of beta testers are playing a lot, and those who are following us are very excited and supportive.
PAUL: I'm pleased, but I think we can go much bigger. People have got very excited about the game and I'm trying to find all the ways I can of keeping people entertained and interested in what we're doing.

GGTL: What other mods have you played/do you like?

IAN: Counter Strike, Havok Combat for Tribes 2, and Earth's Special Forces for HL1 are my favorite.

PAUL: I don't really play mods, probably because I don't really seem to have time to get that far through actual games. Some of the newish HL2 ones out there look awesome though: I really like the look of NeoTokyo. The Nameless Mod for Deus Ex also looks utterly amazing. I guess I get scared of playing mods for single player games because I worry that they'll be immersion breaking, or break the core of the game in some way. I was attracted by a bunch of different mods for things like Vampire the Masquerade, Bloodlines and Oblivion, but always got turned off by the "what if I can't finish the game" factor. That's fairly idiotic, especially with Bloodlines since it's often hard to finish that WITHOUT a mod. Ah, Bloodlines...

GGTL: What's the plan for the future? DLC, a sequel, a new IP...?

PAUL: If the game performs well enough, we will definitely be doing expansions. We'd love to do console versions as well.

If you'd like to follow all the news on the mod, click here. Stay tuned for another interview next week. Have fun!

If you'd like to contact Chris, stick this in your inbox.

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- Chris Hawke

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