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In 2004, two guys went on holiday to France to drink beer and play computer games.
One of their diversions was Laser Squad Nemesis, the turn-based strategy game from X-COM creator Julian Gollop.
As they battled it out over the gridlocked landscape, certain patterns began to emerge: the most satisfying feints and dummies were abutted by long stretches of units waddling towards each other. Yes, a certain tension was evoked, but wasn't it all a little bit... unnecessary?
Three years later, Ian Hardingham had learned a little about designing games; he decided to test out his assumptions.
His company, Mode 7, began development on a project with the cumbersome working title of Psych-Off, a simultaneous turn-based game which foregrounded tactics rather than strategy. Over the course of four years, this evolved into Frozen Synapse.
The game went on to sell over 300k units in its first year, and took Mode 7 from quiet obscurity into the glare of the indie game spotlight.
As the company's co-owner, I was lucky enough to play my part in seeing it through to completion. Development took almost four years of on-and-off effort as we battled to fit it in around contract work and other commitments: it was certainly a significant investment of time and energy!
1. Refining the Core Gameplay
A couple of big work-for-hire contracts enabled us to adopt a "when it's done" attitude to gameplay iteration. We took very low salaries and kept overheads to a minimum, allowing our focus purely to be on making the best game we could.
Also, we took every possible step to lock the core gameplay before any assets went into production. Prototyping with very basic programmer art until the game was delivering the right sensations was absolutely vital.
"My motivation was highest to make a game that had interesting decisions the whole time," Ian told me.
Taking some inspiration from Counter-Strike and trying to focus the gameplay on predicting an opponent's movements, Ian was able to use this time to explore several vastly different avenues. These included one-turn matches known as "Endplays", and a mechanic which allowed the rewinding of time. Although neither of these made it into the final design, having time to explore them was vital.
A playtesting session at the University of Reading.
Robin Cox, our level designer, played the game against Ian every day; the dynamic this created enabled them to shape the design around their own emergent play.
Ian made a conscious decision to start with the basics of the multiplayer game and work outwards, designing units and adding mechanics only when a solid base had been established: this process worked so well that we'll be adopting it again for our next game.
Core mechanics such as as "time-to-aim" (units fire on others automatically; the unit who sees his antagonist first generally wins) were established early on and lasted through a variety of different iterations: a good sign that they were solid.
I would thoroughly recommend that anyone making a game do some in-person testing when they are relatively confident of the core gameplay. We had two major opportunities to do this: one was kindly provided by the University of Reading, who organized a computer lab for us to try out the game with a big group of students.
The other was an event at Nottingham's GameCity festival, which allowed us to see how the general public responded to the game with no preconceptions.
One of the reasons that this worked so well is that people aren't often able to articulate the problems they're having with a game. Witnessing new users struggling with the UI, or trying to approach the game "incorrectly", paid dividends and contributed directly to the design.
2. Minimalist Aesthetics
The game was originally going to be viewed from a "side-top" perspective (think The Legend of Zelda or The Chaos Engine) and have a pixel-art Syndicate-style look.
However, we decided to go for something more "readable" (and less expensive -- high-quality pixel art is surprisingly costly!) and so shifted to a pure top-down perspective.
Initial concepts ended up being a little too difficult to realise so we went with a more pared-down color-coded look...
The addition of 3D walls to the concept was a really key turning point -- we knew then that a selective blend of 3D and 2D elements would yield the best results.
The resulting art style meant that we had a lot of flexibility but also allowed us to suggest and evoke different types of architecture. This came in really handy for single player content creation, allowing the narrative to span many differing environments without vast amounts of concepting and assets.
Also, we wanted to hark back to the "glory days" of PC gaming, and this art style certainly contributed to that. At several points I noted -- always affectionately -- that the big, linear single player campaign coupled with the monochrome backgrounds made Frozen Synapse feel like an ancient DOS shareware puzzle game: mission accomplished!
Some ideas were kicked around regarding using the background to provide a bit more detail on specific rooms, for example tagging each room with a little bit of text that would only become visible occasionally. Ultimately, I'm glad that we stuck to our guns and kept things simple.