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Tactical Treasure: Mode 7′s Paul Taylor Preps Frozen Synapse for Launch [Interview]

[UK Indie Dev Mode 7 Games' Paul Taylor sits down with us to expound on their soon to be released intensely fun and strategic simultaneous turn-based tactical title Frozen Synapse ahead of the game's official launch this week.]

Let’s start with a bit about you Paul, and how the Mode 7 team came together.

Paul Taylor: I have known our Lead Designer and Coder Ian Hardingham for an unfeasibly large amount of years. It’s a number so large that if you put it into a computer, it causes that computer to start counting backwards and then switch languages. That’s not true, it’s just a gag at the start of the interview so everyone likes me.

Anyway, when he left university he had an idea for a game and he needed music for it, so I did that. Then we decided that we wanted to try and turn that behaviour into a business, so Mode 7 was started. I ended up mostly running the business side of things while Ian took care of development, and we’ve stayed in those sort of roles ever since, although there’s a lot of crossover.

The third member of the team is our Level Designer Robin. Robin is another long-term friend and he’s the guy that does a lot of the detailed work on our games – he also helps me out with a lot of marketing materials and stuff, which is awesome.

We also use quite a few freelancers for bits of code and art – it’s a model that quite a few indies use and I think it’s effective. It means you can do more ambitious projects without the risk of hiring lots of people. There are inherent disadvantages too, but it’s the way we like to work.

A year ago this month you guys released the first public beta build for Frozen Synapse, and this week you see its official launch. Can you give us a general sum-up of what the game was then and what it is now in terms of additions, improvements, and changes?

Paul: Sure – the game was essentially mulitplayer-only at that point, it had a placeholder UI and there were quite a few behind-the-scenes issues with the server and so on.

What we have now is a polished game with a much more refined UI, as well as much clearer, nicer menus. Multiplayer really has turned into our original vision for it.

The biggest addition, though, is a 55-mission semi-randomly generated campaign with dynamic dialogue and a really nice intro and outro sequence. It’s a big, meaty campaign and I think it really does justice to the single player side of the game.

Aside from that, lots of little tweaks, just trying to smooth out all of those rough edges from the beta so it’s easy-to-use and a good experience for new players.

FS is a tactical turn-based game that has all the makings of a hit in my eyes. It’s easy to learn, hard to master, it’s a blast to play, and it has smart and intuitive multiplayer functionality along with a healthy community to support it even prior to launch. Forgive me for journeying into the dark reaches of your soul on this, but what were some of your chief hopes and expectations when you first entered beta as far as player participation and reaction? What are they for the game’s launch and beyond?

Paul: For beta, we wanted two things: make enough money to keep developing the game; get a committed community who cared about it. We achieved both of those things and more: getting some really amazing press from places like RockPaperShotgun, Giant Bomb and Eurogamer really meant that the beta delivered what we needed it to.

Everyone says, “Oh, we have a fantastic community”, but we really have a fantastic community. They are just endlessly supportive and helpful. Even the trolling is good natured! So that was just a huge victory. We always wanted to base our games around providing features for a really die-hard group of fans and players and I hope they’re happy with how we’ve performed.

It’s really nice to get mails like, “You guys listen to your community more than any other devs” and I do get a lot of them so I hope that means we’ve done it right.

In terms of launch, I just want to get it right, really. The end result…a lot of that is down to luck launching a product. From my point of view, I just want to execute it properly, and not be looking back thinking, “Oh, if only I’d done X and Y”. There is an immense amount of critical and fan support behind the game going into launch, I just hope that when we hit a more mainstream audience and a wider audience that translates.

Obviously everyone wants to make a hit and you don’t get very many chances…right now I feel confident that the game can do well and that we’ve done our best with it.

Some of the beta players have been hooked from the very start I’d wager. I played games against some who had hundreds of multiplayer matches under their belt. Can’t say I faired too well against them either. Have your beta players/testers had an integral part in the development of Frozen Synapse? If so, in what ways?

Paul: The way you take feedback is very important. It’s a skill that Ian has and I seem him working really hard on developing it – he pays a massive amount of attention to feedback. We always talk about how to process different kinds of feedback, positive and negative.

Often, with negative feedback, people are pointing to a problem by outlining it. They’ll say things like, “I don’t think X mechanic works” when they mean “the interface for X mechanic doesn’t work”. Or, “I really want to be able to do X, Y and Z” in the game, and those are things that would be insane to add and just don’t make any sense – you have to look at the subtext, is what I’m trying to say.

Sometimes, people will just absolutely nail it for you. They will come out with, “In this situation, this should happen” and it’s just perfect. That’s quite rare but you have to spot it when it’s happening.

The most important thing, I think, is to have dialogue with people. We have an IRC channel which is always full of players and we’re both in there quite a lot. Ian gets bombarded with suggestions and comments, so again it’s about that filtering process. You both have to stick to the core of your design but also listen – it’s a tough balance.

One thing I particularly experienced was doing the single player. Most of the dialogue was optional, or hidden a bit from the player, and characters used neologisms so their speech could be a bit bewildering. I intentionally wanted to create a narrative which wasn’t too exposition-heavy, but by seeing this feedback, “I don’t know what’s going on” over and over again, I realised that I was alienating people too much. This just lead me to tweak the start of things and put some more “hooks” in for people; and also provide people with a few more prompts about specific terms and so on. That meant that I didn’t have to sacrifice my core idea, I was just trying to make it work.

After that iteration I put out another version and people told me that it felt much better, and that kind of thing is really rewarding.

You can get obsessed with trying to please everyone but at the end of the day, you have to just identify what are core problems and try to do your best with those, rather than worrying about literally everything that gets raised.

Speaking of single-player, you recently introduced a robust offline campaign that brings Frozen Synapse to life in a different way by introducing a world where the game takes place complete with a story full of interesting characters. What’s unclear is how long the mode has been in the works, at what point in the process did you decide you were going to add a single-player component? Do you view it mainly as a teaching the basic elements of multiplayer? And is there replay value there, or do you see players going through the campaign once and then permanently migrating to the online side?

Paul: We basically always knew we had to have SP – it’s vital for this kind of game. I have been writing notes for the backstory since 2007, which is completely daft!

We had two or three goes at single player in around ’08 / ’09 (Ian, who remembers all dates, will probably say I’m wrong there) but it just didn’t work. One of the iterations was basically this puzzle thing where you had to work out a specific plan or set of plans to win a level – that was horrible. Another thing was based on entirely scripted enemies – that was also horrible.

We also kept kicking around these really insane structural ideas, like you’d have a linear mission progression, but when you lost a mission you’d go down to this randomly-generated “loss track” – just really mental.

I think the breakthrough came when Ian did quite a bit of work on the AI and we went, “All we need now are interesting missions”.

I’d say the current version of SP has taken about a year to do.

While it does teach MP, people really like it in itself – I think the story is a bit unusual and my hope is that people are playing through to get at that. There are also quite a few surprises, we really tried for that Cannon Fodder “something new on every level” SP approach.

I genuinely think we have more replay value than most games – each level is partially randomly-generated, so a lot of the terrain and the unit positions are different each time you play it. If you fail a mission, you can just regenerate the level and see what situation you’ll get this time. That’s a really nice feature, we’re very proud of that.

Once you complete an SP mission, you unlock it and you can play all the random variants of it. So, if you like a specific seed, you can replay that as many times as you want as well.

The music for the game is terrific. The subtle and calculated tracks unfold at a slow but steady pace, rarely call attention to themselves, and mesh with the gameplay hauntingly well. It’s not something I like to do much of, but I did a tiny bit of research and found that you were in fact the composer of these tracks? Was the game the main inspiration for the soundtrack or were there other major influences that brought it to life? Do you have any other music projects you’re working on or care to share?

Paul: I am indeed the composer – I’ve been really privileged to be in a position where I can write music, write a story and work a lot on a single player campaign for a game.

The game itself is definitely the inspiration – I was thinking a lot about the atmosphere as well as the sort of world I was imagining. But also I take a lot of cues from my musical influences, people like Jesper Kyd, Vangelis, electronica acts like Plaid and Boards of Canada…

I feel frustrated with a lot of game soundtracks, I just don’t think they’re ambitious enough. This was really a case of going, “OK, I have this amount of time and a certain amount of equipment – what’s the absolute best I can do?” It’s also very important to me to have melodic themes throughout.

I always like a combination of very high-tech, “expensive” sounds and lo-fi bleepy tones, so this was a great opportunity to explore that. There’s both high-end software synthesizers and gritty samples of me scrunching up paper and so on combined there!

In terms of other things, I have my chiptune project _ensnare_ which some Mode 7 fans will know about. I also write dance stuff as nervous_testpilot, which is released on the Subtraxx label.

Music was basically how I got into working on games, and I’ve been doing it for about 13 years or so, so it’s great to keep that going.

Touching on the future of the game, can we expect any free or paid content updates? What’s the longterm plan going forward as far as community support post launch?

Paul: We are talking about this a lot. I’m almost certain there will be at least one bit of paid DLC, which should hopefully contain some of the bigger things people keep asking us for.

We’re very committed to the game – if there are features which people think are really needed we will do our best to provide them.

I’m assuming you have in one form or another a Frozen Synapse account. What’s your online win/loss record? Is Mode 7 the best in the world at the game, or has your community deposed the creators from the throne? And on a more philosophical and less silly note, do you still find yourself playing the game for fun at this stage?

Paul: Ha ha, there’s no way I’m telling you my win/loss! And anyway, it’s messed up a lot by testing…

No, I’m properly bad at the game – I’m just rubbish at it – I don’t have the patience! Ian and Robin are better; Robin is one of the best players in the world, but even he has been overtaken by some of the community. They have totally schooled us now. There is one legendary player called TheBeefiest who is only spoken about in hushed tones…

One really great thing that has happened is that we have a little bit of a competitive scene going now. There’s two guys called Zolkowski and MrK who have started casting matches – they just did their first livestream and they got something like 50 viewers, which I thought was amazing for a first go. That kind of thing really excites me; I’m a big esports fan and I watch a huge amount of competitive Starcraft, so for us to get a bit of a scene going is fantastic.

Do I play for fun? I actually don’t at the moment – a month of testing every day with no time off at the weekend has really put paid to that. I will definitely be playing the game again more after release. I think Ian is playing a little for fun at the moment, which is really nice.

My role in the company has pretty much always been “guy who is rubbish at games”. I just get bored easily and I’m so intolerant of anything I don’t think is intuitive – it’s incredibly annoying for the other two guys but it’s also quite useful!

Thanks for taking us for a spin around Frozen Synapse!

Paul: Thanks for having me!

[Thanks again to Paul for sitting down to chat. Frozen Synapse's official release will hit this Thursday, May 26, available to purchase from Mode 7 as well as on Steam and other digital stores. It's really fantastic and quite addicting. Those interested can still pre-order the game for the next two days and net an extra copy for a friend as well as plenty of other goodies directly through the developer.]