IGF Factor 2012: Frozen Synapse

The crayon house is this year's Gary Barlow

In 2010, we ran a series of cheerful chats with (almost) all of the lovely indie developers whose PC games had been nominated as finalists in that year’s Independent Games Festival. In 2011, we forgot. In 2012, we haven’t forgotten. We’re the best! So, here’s the first: Ian Hardingham and Paul Taylor from Mode 7 Games, whose high-speed turn-based strategy game Frozen Synapse is in the running for both Excellence In Design and the Seamus McNally Grand Prize. Read on for what went right and wrong with their game, how they feel about their IGF rivals, what comes next and their answer to the most important question of all.

RPS: Firstly, a brief introduction for those who may not know you. Who are you? What’s your background? Why get into games? Why get into indie games?

Ian: I am Ian Hardingham, designer and coder of Frozen Synapse. My very first game was a highly unsuitable Psion 3 Hentai game whose name rhymes with “Doctor’s Legacy” which I wrote when I was 14, and it was all downhill from there really. I made a Dungeon Keeper level editor when I was 15 which was released in some mild way at retail, and my dissertation at uni was an AI sports-cast “director” for Tribes 2. I worked at a big UK games company during my summers at Uni and didn’t like it, so struck out on my own (with the help of a lot of my friends and my family) as soon as I graduated.

Paul: I am Paul Taylor and if I’d ever actually seen Ian’s Psion 3 Hentai game, I very much doubt I would be working with him now.

I did a lot of electronic music stuff when I was younger, so I wanted an outlet for that. Ian asked me to do the music for Determinance, and that’s how we started working together. Eventually, my role ballooned into encompassing all kinds of things, including writing and art direction.

Games can be both ludicrous and profound – I think that’s why we like being around them so much. I am surprised literally every day by something that happens in the games industry!

Indie gaming is where most of the passion and creativity is located these days, so that’s where I always want to me.

RPS: Tell us about your game. What was its origins? What are you trying to do with it? What are you most pleased about it? What would you change if you could?

Ian: As a person I feel kind of alergic to doing anything I don’t think is meaningful. When playing strategy games I found that a huge proportion of the decisions I was making were either not meaningful or uninformed – so while they were meaningful to the game, they weren’t meaningful to me. Frozen Synapse was really simply meant as a strategy game where every decision you make is meaningful, and where the mechanics are not obfuscated.

I also am in love with “simultaneous-execution turn-based” as a genre, and felt that it was under-developed when I started work on FS. Turn-based clearly doesn’t have to be clunky, but it really often is – I wanted to make a turn-based game which wowed people technologically.

I’m most pleased very simply that an awful lot of people seem to love it.

I’d certainly change the tutorial… I’m actually hoping that our next game will always show what I’d change about our last game.

Paul: Yeah, the tutorial and the first part of the single player didn’t come out right, sadly.

I’m most pleased that *some* of the things we thought during development turned out to be correct! You have to make a massive number of assumptions about what people will like, and it’s lovely to find out that you were right.

I wanted to take Ian’s ideas for mechanics and atmosphere, then make vast amounts of content on top that really did them justice – that was my goal. We wanted to make something that felt like a big, full, 90’s-style PC romp.

Naturally, I’m personally pleased that so many people love the soundtrack.

RPS: What are your feelings on the IGF this year? Pleased to be nominated? Impressed by the other finalists? Anything you worry has been overlooked?

Ian: It feels fantastic to be nominated – we’ve entered many times and not made the final cut so I feel like I know both sides. They have a very difficult task: it’s impossible to please everyone when you have to choose just 25 games out of a list of 600.

Paul: Unbelievably pleased to be nominated – it means a lot to us.

I must be the only person in the entire games industry who still hasn’t played Johann Sebastian Joust or Proteus, so I need to correct that! Atom Zombie Smasher is cool and I’m intrigued by Gunpoint.

Terry Cavanagh’s At a Distance is probably the most impressive “art game” I’ve ever played…if it’s fair to call it that. Whatever it is, I think it’s flipping amazing and I hope he wins his category.

I like how they’ve really tried to get a full spectrum of different kinds of indie game – defining “indie game” I think might get increasingly problematic, so I appreciate their response to that. It feels very inclusive to me.

RPS: Which game (other than your own) would you like to see take the Grand Prize this year?

Ian: Spelunky is my favorite indie game of all time. It may be three years old but it’s still way ahead of its time. I think it would be a hugely deserving winner.

Paul: Yep, Spelunky for me too. It’s genuinely a classic game.

RPS: How do you feel about the indie scene of late? What would you like to see from it in the near-future?

Ian: I think we’re seeing a giant explosion in slow-motion. The amount of talent and money in indie games is increasing exponentially, and also the people making indie games are interesting enough that people want to talk to them and hear about them. Being part of this – especially the UK scene right now – is the most incredible feeling.

Paul: The indie scene, particularly in this country, is very diverse but also very friendly. You have people with quite different values and goals who all love talking to each other, comparing notes and playing each other’s games: I really hope that things stay that way.

Personally, I want to see more ambitious stuff in terms of scope: I really enjoy being bowled over when I see a huge game that was made by a tiny team or an individual.

RPS: And how does the future look for you, both in terms of this game and other projects?

Ian: Exceptionally busy and somewhat iPad-shaped initially: we are trying to get that out in the first half of this year. Also more fixes and additional stuff for Frozen Synapse coming soon. Finally, there’s The New Game, of course…

RPS: If you could talk to the monsters in Doom, what would you ask them?

Ian: I’d ask them to show, on a doll, where John Romero touched them.

Paul: I’d ask them why that reviewer from Edge is the only person they never talk to.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Frozen Synapse is out now. The full list of IGF 2012 finalists is here, and keep an eye on RPS for more interviews over the coming days and weeks.


  1. Blackcompany says:

    This was a very interesting read. Always enjoy learning more about the personalities behind gaming. Perhaps now I will go and give Frozen Synapse a try. Seems its an interesting game. And I feel like the only PC gamer in the world who has played neither this nor Minecraft yet. Given the attention both games get, I surely must be missing something…

    • Fumarole says:

      Definitely give it a go, it’s my game of 2011. And be sure to pop into our RPS league sometime.

    • Zakski says:

      Dark Extermination isn’t the best type

    • Blackcompany says:

      I will download the demo today, give it a go. Sounds like a really good time.

    • Radiant says:

      Zakski Dark Elim is the only game type I play!
      Play me! (Majic)

    • Zakski says:

      Never :P

    • InternetBatman says:

      Thanks for the tips. You shouldn’t need a workaround, but I’m glad one exists. This game is really good.

  2. InternetBatman says:

    Frozen Synapse is a great game. It perfectly nails its scope; it’s a good casual strategic game that you can pick up for a few rounds and put down. There’s only one small technical flaw, which is that you can’t blow up a wall and order units to move through it on the same turn and even after that pathing gets a bit weird, but it’s still very fun.

    • Zakski says:

      You can actually move units through on the same turn, but the pathing as I understand it is always calculated from the start of the turn

    • Hdfisise says:

      IIRC, holding shift or ctrl when placing a waypoint allows you to make an unbroken line through a wall for this reason.

    • Fredie007 says:

      Using shift it is indeed possible to set waypoints through obstacles, used it quite a few times and always felt satisfying to barge in like that, killing a bunch of unsuspecting enemies.

    • Radiant says:

      Or remove the extra waypoints using the delete key.
      Always a way.

    • Devenger says:

      Orders that rely on walls disappearing work perfectly from my experience, once you’ve set them up (tends to require a few attempts to get the timing perfect, but that’s why the full next-turn simulation capabilities are so appreciated). Using in-turn level destruction to do interesting things in the same turn is the most fun I have with the game – I love using tricks like destroying walls to give my machinegunners line-of-sight from some cover to the enemy, or timing a launched grenade to fly through an wall exactly as the wall is destroyed (to cover a gigantic contiguous area with explosions).

  3. TychoCelchuuu says:

    If Frozen Synapse isn’t my GOTY, it’s at least making a good effort. There’s actually a ton of stuff I don’t like about it (mostly interface/lobby related) but the stuff there that works is basically perfect, and it’s the core of the game.

  4. Sander Bos says:

    There seems to be a question missing from this RPS interview:
    “Do you think your game should have been included in the 2010 or the 2011 RockPaperShotgun Games of Christmas, and what do you make of being excluded just because of RPS’s staff poor calendar handling skills?”

    (as explained on link to rockpapershotgun.com)

    • Wizlah says:

      Lego star wars. Pffft. We get 6 pages of tedious outrage over a VN review, everyone gets a massive tanty in their pants when quinns didn’t like Fallout: New Vegas, and yet on this RPS are given a free pass.

      RPS readers: more feeble than an Irishman’s anger in the face of austerity measures.

  5. Lucky Main Street says:

    In the same way that, if I’m into a certain band, I’m really interested in what music they personally enjoy and are listening to, I LOVE hearing what games developers I’m into are playing or are interested in. I hadn’t even heard of Johann Sebastian Joust or Proteus, and after checking them out I’m really glad I now have.

  6. Radiant says:

    I’m going through some of my favorite games [I’m top 5 in the world] and explaining what I’m doing at each step.
    Here’s the first:
    link to youtube.com

    I’ll do some more and stick them on the FS forums when I get a minute.

    • Zakski says:

      Only by 5. something points :P

      Though technically I’m retired

    • Radiant says:

      I was #2 a week ago then lost a couple of late night games. [ran into everything that hit me].
      Wonderhero is some kind of charge mode machine I can’t catch.

    • Zakski says:

      He has always been that way since he started playing back in the beta, I think the best I have ever done is draw with him

    • Radiant says:

      I managed to snatch draws from a couple of wins vs him […I get blood lust]. I think he’s one game up on me.

    • RodeoClown says:

      Majic/Radiant, come join us in the Dark Extermination league!

      link to rockpapershotgun.com

  7. Wedge says:

    Blueberry Garden was the worst anything ever. It’s good to see some real games up for nomination this year. Especially this one.

  8. Snuffy the Evil says:

    I love Frozen Synapse, and I really hope they win. It’s at the top of my Games Of 2011 My Friends Don’t Really Care For But I Talk About Anyway list, along with Portal 2 and Deus Ex.

    However I’ve pretty much stopped playing because I’m on a winning streak I don’t want to end. I’ll definitely get back to it, though. This year feels lucky.

  9. Wizlah says:

    I’m too scared to try frozen synapse against real people. It’s so remorseless. I don’t think I can take the sight of having my arse handed to me repeatedly.

    • Zakski says:

      You’ll be fine, the vast majority of players have no real experience what so ever

      plus you can ask in the irc for advice

  10. jackflash says:

    My favorite of 2011. Must buy.

  11. squareking says:

    “…my dissertation at uni was an AI sports-cast “director” for Tribes 2.”

    I want to read this.

  12. Shadowcat says:

    Frozen Synapse is great, but I wish they’d stop faffing about with less important issues while there are still game-breaking bugs. The whole gameplay is based on deterministic outcomes, so it’s absolutely ludicrous that the game can suddenly decide that the outcome of one of the previous moves was different to how it played out originally, completely revise the game’s history, and ruin the game. Why that is not the #1 issue on their hit list is a mystery to me.