Mode 7 released the asynchronous strategy game Frozen Synapse for PC in 2011 to a solid critical reception. Tomorrow, it will be coming to iPad. We talked to managing director Paul Taylor about the history of the game, what they changed to make it playable on tablets, and what makes Frozen Synapse different from other competitive strategy games. This is the first half of a two-part interview, the second of which will posted on Friday.
Frozen Synapse seems like a perfect fit for the iPad, why not bring it there when it was first released?
Frozen Synapse was originally conceived as a Nintendo DS game, so it’s been through quite a few changes. We decided to develop on PC first simply because that was easier in terms of translating our original intention. It is also an easier place to release stuff. We didn’t really know about the App Store, or how to get a product into that market successfully.
It actually took quite a lot of community asking and a lot of thought in order to put it onto the iPad. One of the reasons is that the interface is massively complex. Pretty much every successful tablet game has quite a simple interface. So that was the main thing that we needed a good plan of how to overcome. Once we figured that out, it became an easy decision to move.
How did you make that complex interface work?
We looked at the most fundamental way the interface worked – things like making waypoints and moving the map around – and trying to prioritize those. You can pinch to move the map, which is a nice, intuitive thing to do on a tablet. We made double-tap work to make waypoints.
We had a button-based system originally, which tester feedback told us wasn’t working so well. So we went for something easier and clearer to do. So it was just a case of trying to prioritize and structure everything. We’ve been really clear that we don’t want to compromise on the possibilities that the interface can have. So it still is quite a complex game, interface-wise, but we managed to whittle it down to a few important priorities that you can get straight away.
You mentioned that it was originally imagined as a DS game. What would that have looked like?
The original Frozen Synapse was a side-top, Zelda-like perspective pixel art game. It was much more in the style of Laser Squad Nemesis or XCOM, which were the original influences. It was much more of a direct, conceptual reimagining of those.
As we moved through development, we realized that top-down was much better for planning out moves. It really gave you a lot more flexibility. However, top-down is really hard to make look decent. We went through a couple of iterations before we found something we liked.
It was originally conceived as something you do in between other things. Watching TV and doing a few turns, that sort of thing. Then it turned into a much more hardcore game. Aesthetically, it didn’t fit the DS. A lot of the strategy games that headed in the more hardcore direction don’t do too well on the DS, as you might imagine. We wanted to bring it to the more appropriate fashion.
It’s kind of funny, though. We’ve almost come full circle by making it a portable game again. We’ve certainly been playing the tablet version in a much more relaxed way.
Typically, asynchronous strategy is the realm of the casual game. How did you walk the line between email-style turns and super hardcore gameplay?
That was kind of the main debate that Ian Hardingham, the lead designer, and I had. How can I create this game that has all these possibilities with full analog controls? There’s no tiles, so you can move characters in these very precise ways. A lot of the high-level players will use that to their advantage.
But you can play by email. That’s the central fulcrum of how the game is balanced, really. You can have timed terms in the game. That was very consciously not on by default. You can log in, take your turn, and come back a few days later. We wanted to preserve that. But for competitive play, having timed turns is quite good. You’re forced, and your opponent is forced, to commit to this RTS-style match, where you play for 40 minutes and are done.
But being able to stop is so great. Even something as simple as getting a phone call is something you can’t really cope with in other games.
Have you seen anything in the competitive Frozen Synapse scene that surprised you?
One of the things about Frozen Synapse is that it has a really tight design. It’s not like StarCraft, for example, where you have millions of different builds and unit possibilities and micro scenarios. A lot of the game is played within our expectations, which I think is quite nice in some ways.
However, what I’ve seen from high level players is that they know very specific things, like if they’re one pixel out this way and aiming, they’ll win when the enemy stands up. And they’ll know exactly when that’s going to happen. There’s a lot of that meta mind game involved in that.
There was a way to abuse the mechanics by standing and ducking very quickly. There were a lot of people doing that, so it was mildly abusive. That was the only thing we’ve taken action on, so now there’s a slight penalty on that.
In higher level of play in other games, there’s this element of what’s called cheese, or high-risk strategies designed to surprise and abuse opponents into losing. Have you seen much of that?
You can’t really cheese in Synapse. It’s somewhat of a defensive game. So, there isn’t really a low-percentage aggressive strategy that you can do early on. What we’re doing with [Mode7’s next game] Frozen Endzone is working to make something with more strategic breadth. So, it’s much more about trying to catch your opponent off guard at certain times. And cheese is definitely possible in Endzone. We just started to properly play the prototype in-house, and it’s interesting that standard play is emerging. But you can also do early rushes. You can really overcommit in certain directions.
That’s a cool element that Ian is bringing into his design, but there’s not much of that in Synapse. There are situations where you can rush a specific area or overly gamble on a specific thing happening, but it’s not as coin-flippy as cheese in other games.