Mode 7 (Frozen Synapse) Interview

Mode 7 recently came to fame with their turn-based strategy game Frozen Synapse, which was well-received by critics and gamers alike. I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Taylor, who, amongst other things, wrote the story for the single-player part and composed the soundtrack for Frozen Synapse. Paul told us a multitude of things about the company and Frozen Synapse, from the early days to what lies ahead. Read on!

Firstly, could you tell us something about who you are, your background in making games, and how Mode 7 began?

We’re a team of three based in Oxford, UK. Our Lead Designer and Lead Programmer is Ian Hardingham. He started Mode 7 after he left university because he wanted to try making his own games. Having worked in the mainstream game industry a bit to get some experience, he really wanted to explore his own ideas outside the confines of someone else’s company.

I joined Mode 7 with him while I was still at university, doing sound and music. My role in the company is basically to take care of anything creative that isn’t within Ian’s sphere, so things like art direction, writing, audio and some single player things. I also do all of the marketing and business development for Mode 7.

Robin Cox is our Level Designer and Tester – he joined us a few years back and is a vital member of the team, helping us shape some aspects of our games.

Growing up, what spurred you to make a career out of creating games?

My Dad was an IT teacher around the time I was born, so I was always surrounded by computers and cool things with flashing lights on them! Throughout my life, I’ve always loved creating imaginary worlds and writing electronic music, so games are a great context for me to do that. I think essentially though, one thing that really took me into the games industry was Ian’s drive to make original interesting games. I don’t think I’d necessarily be in this industry without him doing the kind of thing he does.

Could you tell us something about the inception of Frozen Synapse? What inspirations have you drawn upon for the game? Did the final version of the game differ much from your original idea?

Laser Squad Nemesis was the big inspiration – Ian played a lot of that with one of our friends in around 2004, and that set him on the path of thinking about ways he could design a game that captured some of that sensation. The big issue with those kind of games is waiting around to get into an interesting situation – there’s just so much build-up and setting up of your units. Obviously, that suits certain kinds of games, but Ian was mostly interested in the tactical side of things so Frozen Synapse was about emphasising that.

I think FS differs in some respects from its origins – we did go for a fairly straight rendering of an X-Com style game initially – but things like having no health bars and basing combat around when units spot each other really changed the gameplay. After that, it was really about working around those things. Of course, we have random level generation and that’s something which really changes the nature of a game as well.

Frozen Synapse is very different from your first title, Determinance. What did you learn from developing Determinance that carried over into Frozen Synapse? Did you have any experience with the tactical strategy genre before starting on Frozen Synapse?

Nope, no experience!

We really learned that the aesthetic and the gameplay have to go hand-in-hand, and that you should really finalise your gameplay before you start piling in assets. With Determinance, a lot of things were constantly in flux, like the control system, whereas with Synapse we were very careful to make sure that certain things got locked down early and weren’t changed. I think Determinance really taught us a great deal of things NOT to do – that was really about trying loads and loads of stuff and finding our feet in terms of making games.

Determinance, a multiplayer sword-fighting game, was Mode 7's first venture into the world of games.

As an independent developer you don’t have as many funds as the big guys to spread word of your game. How did you specifically go about telling people about your game? And was this something you’d considered from the start of development?

Yes, absolutely.

Well, from doing Determinance we did manage to get some press contacts, so the first thing we did was to make those people aware that we were working on something – we announced the game with just a logo and concept image, like a big publisher would! Even though that didn’t exactly make a massive splash, it did start to build up interest. Journalists who we’d known for a while like Brandon Boyer, who was writing for BoingBoing at the time, posted about us and we started getting interest from there.

During development, I tried as much as I could to build up a bit of a following on ModDB and on our blog – we even did a podcast for a while – we were just trying to get people interested. This was really challenging because it’s not a very asset-heavy game, so we didn’t have a lot to put out there. Things became a lot easier once we released our beta – we got some amazing support from big, influential UK sites like RockPaperShotgun and Eurogamer – that was really the turning point.

I’ve focussed a lot on PR because I think FS is a game that spreads best through word-of-mouth, rather than advertising. That’s one of the reason we do our free-key-for-a-friend offer.

During the development of Frozen Synapse, you involved the community in the crafting of the storyline, but how much of an influence did they have on it, and how much do you ultimately think it benefitted from going through this process? And how much has the community meant in general for you during development?

I had never written a game narrative before, so I wanted to get the community on it early and point out the big obvious flaws. I had some pretty amusing feedback (as you might imagine – story is such a subjective thing) but also some really key points in terms of how I was communicating certain things.

I had deliberately wanted to really alienate and confuse the player from the outset – I hate overly didactic, plodding, expository writing more than anything else in the world. However, I’d just really succeeded in pissing people off, which wasn’t exactly what I was going for, so I had to reign that in a bit, while still sticking to my original ideas. That feedback was vital for that and I’m really grateful to have had it.

In general, there is no way we could have developed this game without our community. Certain people were vital in helping us test certain things towards the end and we’re eternally grateful to them.

In terms of feedback, as a developer you get a LOT of feedback and one of the biggest skills you need to have is a filtering system. You have to listen extremely closely when people are telling you that something feels wrong, but most of the time the solutions they put forward, or even specifically what they’re identifying, are not actually relevant. It’s something you have to do some detective work with.

The music in Frozen Synapse has also been praised (by TotalBiscuit for instance). Going into development, how much did you consider the use of music to generate the desired atmosphere?

As I mentioned, music is always vital to me. Music in games is something that I find incredibly powerful from an atmospheric standpoint – if you look at something like Streets of Rage, which is, at it’s heart, a very simplistic game…that’s entirely driven by the combination of amazing art and music. I mean, there are a million side-scrolling beat ’em ups but nothing has that atmosphere, and much of that was down to Yuzo Koshiro’s soundtrack.

For Mode 7, we have a slightly weird situation where one of the co-founders is a musician. So, for my part, I always want to deliver music that is just more ambitious and more interesting than you’ll find in *any* other game, be it triple-A or indie! I set myself high standards! I don’t know whether I’ve quite achieved that here, but the reaction has been quite astonishing – just people posting the tracks up on YouTube and then getting hundreds of comments about how the music is “the best score I’ve ever heard” and so on – that means a lot to me.

TotalBiscuit’s reaction to the music on his video was probably one of the highlights of the post-launch period for me! Someone like that, who has based his career on being cynical, just raving unreservedly about how awesome it is…that really made all those long nights of endlessly tweaking hi-hat sounds worth it for me!

Frozen Synapse has been a financial and critical success, getting great scores and plenty of appraising words. Did you at some point during development think that it could be so successful?

Well, you have these different ranges that go from, “We can definitely do as well as X game” to “I really can’t see why we shouldn’t be able to do X number of units if the game is a hit”, but you never quite know what’s going to happen.

I certainly didn’t think we’d be pulling in scores like 9 / 10 from Eurogamer and Edge; I definitely didn’t think I’d be writing the news post for Penny Arcade – that’s kind of surreal and nobody can ever really predict that.

We did have some indications that the game was good though – the two big things for me were seeing members of the public come in off the street and get engrossed in the game at Nottingham’s Gamecity festival, and also Kieron Gillen’s preview – those two things made me believe that we were working on something that was a bit exceptional.

Now, over two months after the official release of Frozen Synapse, are you still getting new players to your game, or has the initial wave subsided? What are you doing actively to keep the old players in the game?

Well, sales of any indie game (Minecraft excepted, though I shouldn’t really have to say that!) go in waves. So you have a wave at launch and then another wave when you do a sale or promotion, and so on.

However, with FS, what we’re seeing at the moment is that the base rate of sales is very high. There is a level below which sales really don’t want to go, so that’s great!

In terms of keeping the older players engaged, we’re just about to release a patch which has a lot of fixes in it. We’re really serious about fixing those problems that people have and trying to get everyone the best experience possible. Centralising the servers again was something we did along those lines.

We’re also about to release the first bit of DLC. It’s going to be a collection of small things, just to test the water – if people like what we’re doing there, then we’ll definitely go ahead and do some more ambitious additions to the game, but for us that’s all about proving that people want us to keep working on FS.

What obstacles have you met as an independent developer? Or has it solely been a positive and liberating experience? How has your relationship with Steam been, and what do you think Steam means for independent game development in general?

Obstacles…obviously, the big one is time. We had to spend time doing other work to support ourselves during the development of FS, and that meant not having a great amount of time to work on it at certain points.

Things like QA and bug-testing can be a bit brutal in a small team – that’s when you really do have to crunch properly and that’s fairly unpleasant for everyone. I certainly find it quite hard to stay healthy during very intense periods of work, but that’s just life and you have to find ways of coping with it.

But other than that, even when we didn’t have much money, I was still doing precisely what I wanted to be doing with my life and that has almost infinite value. The conventional thing to do in life is find a job that roughly matches up with your abilities, but if you ever have the opportunity to do *exactly* the thing that you want to do then it’s incredibly important to go for it. The value of getting up every day and working towards a goal you’ve set yourself, rather than some arbitrary thing dictated by someone else’s ambitions, is almost impossible to quantify.

Our relationship with Steam has been fantastic – for such a huge and powerful company they really listen to developers and are very flexible based on how you want to do things. They will take the time to debate issues with you and let you try things. Steam means that there is a platform out there to bring indie games to a mass market of gamers, and that’s something nobody should ignore.

What advice do you have for other independent developers?

Read Derek Yu’s piece called Finishing A Game – that’s actually one of the best pieces of creative advice I’ve ever seen and I agree with all of it.

Once you have some experience, that’s the time to be ambitious. Create some good core gameplay, then go mad on the subsidiary features. We didn’t need to have a giant campaign with a story in Frozen Synapse, but we did because we knew we could accomplish it and because we wanted the total package to be almost overwhelming in its scope – once you have a solid base to work from, go for it!

As game developers and gamers, what do you think of the state of the industry today? Is there any particular direction you wish it to move?

The industry is so multifaceted – we are always constantly amazed, amused and in awe of something the things we see happening. New distribution models are really changing the nature of games, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.

Certainly, the level of quality in indie games developed by small teams is going through the roof – we’re in a much more competitive environment, but I think that’s good as we have the tools to compete.

In terms of where I would like the industry to go…I always want to be in situations where the right thing to do is focus on quality, so whatever will facilitate that for us!

What does the future hold for Mode 7 and Frozen Synapse? You’ve been releasing plenty of updates and patches for Frozen Synapse, but do you have any plans at the moment of creating other games? If so, can you say anything about it? Will be in the vein of Frozen Synapse, or do you intend to go in entirely different directions?

We have recently had the first production meeting for our next game, but we can’t say anything about what direction we’re taking yet – we will in due course! Sorry to be boring!

But, in the near future, expect to see more FS DLC and additional content.