Frozen Synapse Interview

by on 26th May 2012

Frozen Synapse caught gamers and critics by surprise when it was released, with its unique graphics, catchy soundtrack and addictive turn-based gameplay making this indie title a well-respected success.

To mark its first anniversary, we caught up with Paul Taylor, man of many hats (see the game's credits, this isn't a joke) over at Mode7 to pose questions from the players here at StrategyCore.

StrategyCore (SC): We know you’re busy preparing the DLC, and some of us wanted to skip the interview so that it would not interfere with the development. Yes, we want it that badly. Still, our irrational side took over and here we are.

When you pitched the game to publishers, what were the reactions?

Paul Taylor (PT): If I recall correctly, we didn't formally pitch the game to any publishers. I remember mentioning it informally to a couple when it was originally intended for the Nintendo DS, and met with some raised eyebrows!

SC: How many copies have you sold to date? What about piracy?

PT: We've sold over 400k units to date, and we don't track pirated copies.

SC: Jasper Byrne (Superflat Games, Lone Survivor) recently commented that after one day on Steam, his game sold more than it ever had from his own site. Was it similar with Frozen Synapse?

PT: Yes, definitely similar: Steam is absolutely vital for our business.

SC: What do you think of Fray and other genre competitors?

PT: We've actually chatted with Brain Candy quite a lot about various different things: they're super nice guys. I know Ian (Lead Designer and Co-owner) and Robin (Tester and Level Designer) have played Fray a little bit already - I'm really interested to see how it turns out when it's released.

I've not seen anything that I would call a direct competitor to FS. Sure, there are other simultaneous turn-based tactical games around, and a few coming out that might be closer to what we've done, but FS is fairly distinctive.

We're really interested in what other people do with simultaneous turn-based; it creates so many different challenges that it's always fascinating to see how others have approached them. There's a lot of space in the market for things to co-exist, so it's more like friendly rivalry than literal competition.

SC: How do you feel about the growth and viability of new markets like the iPad versus the traditional market of PCs?

PT: I think you have to be a little bit careful, because something that is a success on PC may not necessarily translate over to iPad. We had to think long and hard about making that move because we had to be sure we could make a great iPad game. We've been confident of that for a while now and it's progressing really well, so we know that we're going to come to this new big unknown challenge bringing an absolutely awesome version of the game with us.

So, I'm positive about different platforms but just keenly aware that there are big considerations to take into account.

SC: You have already announced iPad port of Frozen Synapse. The Android lover in me is very, very jealous. Will you satisfy my needs, too (I hope you are feeling awkward right now)?

PT: We get asked this a lot and all I can say at the moment is we're doing all we can to make it happen. Things are looking very positive right now, but the worst thing I can do is to confirm it before it's 100% locked in and development has started.

SC: Simultaneous tactical systems so far are mostly pseudo real-time, with planning done during the always-available pause and execution when time was "released". How did you get the idea for FS' true simultaneous turn-based system?

PT: Ian was a huge fan of Laser Squad Nemesis and FS was envisaged as a simultaneous turn-based game from day one: that never changed despite how the game morphed over time.

It's a fantastic way to do strategy games and we were always surprised that more people hadn't adopted it. Ian did a talk about it at GDC and they were turning people away at the door because it was so crowded, so maybe the games industry is getting excited about it now!

SC: Did the look of the game evolve, or was it always a kind of primary-coloured SAS close quarters battle?

PT: Oh, no it changed a lot. It actually started off as a side-top (think Zelda) perspective game with pixel art. Then it went to a kind of top-down ultra realistic monochrome radar-view type-thing. That didn't end up clear enough so I did a little kind of idiot-art sketch with red, blue and green blocks; then a really good concept artist took that and came up with the key look we have now.

SC: What features were dropped that you would have liked to include?

PT: We had a little base-building meta-game at one point: it would have been nice to get that in there. But we could never find a way to make that sane: when you don't have unit stats or health, there's no kind of subtle analogue way that a meta-game could affect gameplay. It would have been nice to find a way to make it work but we just couldn't.

SC: It is frustrating to find your vatform in a situation that will unavoidably end in his death in the first turn. Is there no way to avoid that?

PT: That's part of random generation, especially in multiplayer. Sometimes that will happen, and although it seems slightly weird, it can actually lead to some amazing situations. It's definitely intentional, although I have asked for certain situations to be pruned out of the generators for various SP levels when it gets a bit much.

SC: Will you be adding complexity to the battlefield in the future? Bigger, non-rectangular maps with more scenery, a third dimension?

PT: Probably not a third dimension. The game gets quite annoying on a bigger scale so... probably not bigger! I'm interested in trying to see if we can add curved walls in some way in the future, which will allow for more attractive maps.

SC: Will soldiers ever be given any new abilities, like secondary weapons, climbing through windows, sprinting?

PT: This was something we had to hold firm on throughout development: especially the diving through windows thing, which a lot of people mentioned.

When you start giving units loads of different abilities, you immediately make the game more inscrutable and more complex. The core strength of FS is that you often know *exactly* why you won or lost an encounter. If it was "oh I think I lost that because he had +3 armour and he was sprinting", you actually suddenly step right back into the realm of more traditional strategy and you lose a bunch of advantages.

Yes, there are a load of aesthetically cool things which get missed out, but ultimately preserving the purity of the game matters more. It's a difficult balance, though. If we add mechanics in the future, we'll think long and hard about each one first.

SC: Any area-denial weapons planned?

PT: We don't have any plans for new units beyond the riot shield we're adding in the expansion pack that's about to drop. We'll look at the units again after we see how players react to that and how the meta-game evolves.

I would like to see units with different weapons but that's up to Ian and it depends on how things pan out.

SC: Have you thought about adding “if" actions? For example if I move my soldier to spot X but if he spots enemy, he should retreat.

PT: We did have this for a while but the game has a lot of planning options already: there has to be a cut-off point otherwise you can drive yourself (and your opponent) insane with the amount of possibilities you're trying to account for.

It's funny, but even adding things like the ability to plan for your opponent's units really hugely changes gameplay. Suddenly there are all these things you *could* have anticipated, or could have checked: it makes you feel very differently about the game so you have to be careful with features like that.

SC: Do you have plans for more expansions or are you moving on to other projects?

PT: We will see how this expansion goes: I would like to do more if people want them, but trying to do a good expansion is a lot of work and a big creative challenge.

One thing I would like to do is add some more free content to the base game. We've just started a feature called "Fixed Maps", which are non-randomized maps for competitive play - I want to work on a few more of those in conjunction with the community and maybe see a bit more high-end competition going on.

There is another game which is currently at the prototype phase: we've just moved on to building art tech for it and some asset creation is going to start soon. So, we've very consciously tried to do the best for FS but keep things moving forward: it has been tough but we're always looking at balancing those two aspects.

SC: What we would really love to see is the inclusion of FS' tactical system in a bigger game, where decisions on the battlefield - and out of it - would have real consequences on the progression of the game. Thinking... X-COM. Have you thought in this direction?

PT: As I mentioned earlier when discussing the base building, that's really not viable from a design standpoint because of the lack of stats and health bars on units. That's if you're talking about a very literal implementation of FS' combat.

The outcomes from the "bigger game" would have to result in essentially random consequences to make the "FS part" work; because the only variables you can really have is the unit composition of both sides and slightly extraneous things like map size. That's very unsatisfying for a player, especially a strategy gamer who would want all of their actions to be profoundly meaningful.

I have wondered if you could do a kind of hybrid of FS (with timing and line-of-sight-based combat mechanics) and a more traditional strategy game, but I'm not a designer so my musings don't mean much!

Thank you a taking the time to answer our questions Paul and happy birthday to Frozen Synapse from StrategyCore!


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Space Voyager\
27 May 2012 - 7:25am
Space Voyager
I'm quite a bit ashamed that I never even knew what LSN looked like... I checked after I saw it mentioned as an inspiration for FS. And boy was I surprised. In a way, it was far superior! Larger squads, several races... Was Julian so far ahead of his time that he failed with a great concept?!

Anyway, I'm glad FS is still alive and kicking. I really do hope that Paul's musings get designers' attention.
26 May 2012 - 9:59pm
I had wondered if there was some inspiration drawn from LSN in terms of the gameplay style. It certainly works well in both LSN and Frozen Synapse and it's just a shame the former seems to be dying a slow death at present.

Looking forward to more from the Mode7 team, DLC or otherwise Posted Image


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Developer: Mode7
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