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Interview: Defrosting Frozen Synapse

You know what we haven't talked about for a while? Frozen Synapse - the high-speed tactical strategy game from Oxfordshire developers Mode 7. It takes the spine of X-COM, adds a little procedural generation and tweaks it into something fresh, fast, instant and accessible. And it's still not been released, despite having been released last year. Oh, "beta," you beautiful, confusing word, you. I recently caught up with Mode 7's joint MD Ian Hardingham to find out what's happened since I last got shot to death in neon freeze-time, what comes next and how they're planning to make it as strong a singleplayer offering as it is a multiplayer one. It's an open and entertaining chat, I think, but also includes the worst joke I have ever made in my entire, pitiful life.

RPS - What's happened since the last time we all played Frozen Synapse and got horribly murdered by people who were really good at it?

Ian Hardingham - Mainly polishing the single player. The great thing is having the beta, having x thousand players, really allowed to find out what people want. We've just fixed those problems in quite a low key way - people don't like the menus or they don't like certain message boxes coming up, or they aren't getting certain game modes enough... All of those things are very straightforward to fix, you just roll them out there. The main challenge has been singleplayer.

RPS - If I logged into Frozen Synapse now for, I guess, the first time in six months, what's the first thing that should make me go 'ooooh?'

Ian Hardingham - Well, right now we haven't changed much visually but I think the first thing you'll notice is that when you actually get into the game, the path finding is so much better. The interface for making plans is so much better - I almost can't remember what it was like back then, but if you went back it would seem clunky. It's so much better. We responded to literally thousands of people telling us what didn't work and we fixed that.

RPS - Have plenty of players stuck with the game, making a very definable community?

Ian Hardingham - We have a small core of very hardcore players. We have a guy called The Beefiest who...

RPS - Is he indeed the beefiest?

Ian Hardingham - He is actually the beefiest. He has played almost as much as the guy on our team who is basically paid to play the game. And his winning percentage is significantly better. He has like a Federer level of winning streaks, and we're not sure how he did it. What we're finding is we have quite a high turnover, people come back after a couple of months. I'm interested to see what happens when we have like ten times as many players. Yeah, we have a core of people who advise us. But of course their advice is the stuff you should listen to least, because they already love the game. What you want to hear is 'why did they stop playing the game? or 'why didn't they get into it in the first place?'

RPS - How's the invitation system changed? I seem to remember it could get a bit spammy on occasion.

Ian Hardingham - If you look at the look at the problems that Magicka had, the problems that Demigod had - it's not on that level, but if we were to choose the biggest problem we had at launch, it was that you kept getting this notification box in the middle of the screen, saying "do you want to play against x?" over and over and over again. That was our biggest problem, so obviously we fixed that. Just very recently, people were complaining that it was defaulting to the base game mode too much - the people who played 10 or 20 matches weren't getting enough of the interesting game modes. We've changed that so that now the person who challenges has much more control over what the game mode will be. So rather than being challenged full-stop, you get challenged to a specific game mode. So it really advertises the game modes, I'd say.

RPS - Have you seen people trying to find ways to tailor the mode and units they're presented with much more, or have they generally seemed to embrace the random nature of each battle?

Ian Hardingham - That's an interesting question. I think we did so 100% that people have really... I don't know if embraced it is the right word, but it's so care to the experience that it almost doesn't occur to people. People do occasionally ask for the ability to set their own unit load-outs, and that is an option that you have. But what I'm so happy about is the level of intelligence of people who play Frozen Synapse. It's an unbelievable surprise in terms of how much they get it, they understand why random stuff is good, and I wouldn't have expected that. I would have expected much worse reactions.

RPS - So would you say that their synapses are not frozen?

Ian Hardingham - [Pained laughter] They're scorching hot!

John Walker, who is nearby at this point - That was a really bad joke!

RPS - It was a really good joke! So, moving swiftly onwards. Singleplayer - that was a long way off last time we spoke, but is what you've got now analogous to what you intended to do back then?

Ian Hardingham - I had no idea what I was going to do, and in fact the reason Frozen Synapse has taken this long is because I kind of wasted a load of time on singleplayer before we even got to the stage where we released the multiplayer. The reason it's important for us to have singleplayer is because I'm absolutely certain that at least 50% of our players will not play the game unless they've played singleplayer. That's the first thing. We thought long and hard about the idea of doing a management game, like an X-COM style management game, with it, but that's anachronistic, I think, to the core idea of Frozen Synapse. This is a game where you get into it straight away. What we've done is we've basically created a plotted progression of a lot of missions, where each mission shows a different tactical scenario. In my own personal experience, it's very replayable. We have this thing where it's different every single time you play, but I'm obviously scared that the first time we show it to our thousands of fans, they won't like it. I hope they do, but it's a fear.

RPS - Do they have a good sense of what it is, what's coming?

Ian Hardingham - No, one of the problems is when you get to this stage in a game like Frozen Synapse, if we released singleplayer or a singleplayer test, people really don't have a very good imagination when it comes to singleplayer. If you don't have the graphics in, or you don't have the plot, or you don't have a feeling of progression, people don't understand how they're gonna feel when you have all those things in. So we'd have all these reactions which would be basically useless, because they're reactions based on things that we haven't shown them yet. In order to get proper feedback, we have to give a real vertical slice that's all of these things. And it's so hard to get to that real vertical slice until you've done a lot of work. That's the problem, basically. No, they don't have a good idea, because there hasn't been enough to show them - it doesn't have the plot and graphics at the level that for singleplayer you need. Multiplayer, people are able to use their imaginations much more, I would say.

RPS - At what point might you have to say "guys, we love you, but this bit isn't for you, don't take it as a sign of betrayal?"

Ian Hardingham - Yeah, I certainly don't think that everyone who likes multiplayer will enjoy the singleplayer. My concern is simply I have no idea have no idea how people who refuse to play the multiplayer are going to feel about the singleplayer. Having said that, I'm very optimistic because we've made an AI which is very humanlike, which beats our best players like 30% of time - which is a pretty good percentage. But it's difficult to stand on a position where you feel that the multiplayer is really like and popular, but have no idea what people are going to say about the singleplayer.

RPS - But you're not considering singleplayer as lesser or an afterthought, as games like Magicka and Multiwinia perhaps did to their detriment?

Ian Hardingham - No, I think for us there are four different tiers you can take. There's a tier where you literally spend a week making a load of skirmishes, there's the tier where you go a bit further than that and sort of polish it up a little bit and at the other the side there's the tier where you design the game from the ground-up to be singleplayer. I'd say we're the tier below that; we've spent have four months really properly tailoring the mechanics to a singleplayer experience.

So an afterthought is really not what I'd say at all. But the problem is singleplayer and multiplayer are different, and you can't be making two completely different games. You have to at some point make a compromise between the two.

RPS - It worked for Dawn of War II to some extent, but then they had the benefit of the license and an enormous budget.

Ian Hardingham - Yeah, that's an interesting one. I did play it, but... I'm really a singleplayer gamer myself I would say, and Frozen Synapse was designed around being a multiplayer game that you could play like a singleplayer game.

RPS - You've done the long lead time, buy the beta months before release, which was quite a common trend last year. How did it work out?

Ian Hardingham - Very well. I wouldn't change a thing about what we did. What I will say is that it's really great for the game as well. We have addressed so many problems that would just not have been addressed had we done a normal release and stuff came up afterwards. It sounds like a cliché and sounds like bullshit, but it's actually 100% true - there is no point at which you have a greater impact on a game as a player than during a pre-order beta phase. That's how we had it. A lot of people have very crazy opinions that it's not worth paying attention to as a developer, but when you have thousands of people playing a game, you really get to see the important issues, and they get fixed earlier. So I would say it's worked great for us, and it's worked great for our players, I think. Anyone who's a bit cynical, I would say that this really will lead to better games in general.

RPS - What happens when you do finally launch, and you're potentially up against a target audience who think you already launched ages ago and have already turned to something else? Is that a factor?

Ian Hardingham - My concern is not that. I think that there a huge number of people who will not consider a pre-order beta, and will definitely consider a finished game. I think that you get a lot of credit of from people who look at your beta game and kind of ignore a lot of problems that they have with it because it's a beta. Even though those aren't necessarily problems that you were planning on fixing... It's really important for us to find out what those are, so I really push people on forums - not to give us their wish lists but what they almost implicitly expected to fix, because those are the things that will damage us. If people say "yeah, I loved the beta, but they should have done x, y and z" - that's what they need to fix. In terms of not being new enough, I don't know if in today's internet society that's important. With the rolling news cycle being down to like a minute at a time, it's no longer important to have a massive launch where you hit all the news areas at once. If we feel like a massively important change has been made in an update, then RPS will cover it, I guess... If we say "this is so important" then we'll be able to get the traffic, I think.

RPS - The indie trend of late has been to get a game or a name established on PC, then move to iPhone or XBLA. Is the PC enough for you, or is going somewhere else a necessity?

Ian Hardingham - The great thing about the PC in the last year is that it's shown itself to be actually healthy enough to be a main platform. You're getting people who have made a million, as microstudios on PC. I'm not talking about Minecraft - I think Magicka is a good example. Other games like that, Amnesia - these guys are getting enough money to fund a microstudio properly. Having said that, I'm not convinced that you are doing the right thing business-wise if you have a great game that is at all applicable to the other systems and you're not putting it on there. Having said that, if I could choose only one platform of course it would be the PC. That's a no-brainer. It's more wonderful than anything else that Steam has arrived and made it completely viable to be a real microstudio on the PC, I would say.

RPS - Thanks for your time.

Frozen Synapse is available for pre-order now. Do so, and you get the current build of the game right away. You should totally do that.

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