If a game's not unique, what's the point? asks Frozen Endzone dev

Gamasutra talked to Ian Hardingham from Mode 7 Games about taking the core concept behind Frozen Synapse, and recreating it on a more widely accessible basis for Frozen Endzone.
You may know Mode 7 Games as the studio behind tactical turn-based strategy shooter Frozen Synapse. The team today released the beta for follow-up Frozen Endzone, and it's got this strange familiar yet entirely different feel to it. It's once again a turn-based, asynchronous multiplayer tactical strategy game, but this time around, the guns have been replaced with an American football, and the soldiers are robots looking to get the ball to the endzone. Gamasutra talked to Ian Hardingham from Mode 7 Games about taking the core concept behind Frozen Synapse, and recreating it on a more widely accessible basis.

Can you give a brief outline of what Frozen Endzone is all about?

The key concept to both Frozen Synapse and Frozen Endzone is that it's a turn-based game, but you and your opponent are making your plans at the same time, and the plans are played out at the same time. So rather than I go and then you go, we're both going at the same time. It's a really interesting paradigm, something that I found really exciting when I first encountered it with Laser Squad Nemesis [from Codo Technologies] about 10 years ago. It really allows for a lot more feinting, a lot more surprise tactics, and a lot more prediction - it really allows for a very hardcore kind of mental competitive game. And I've always wanted to have a really fast-paced but interesting tactical game, because I find a lot of traditional tactical games are very long-winded and can be a bit boring, and are often very similar at the start. The first 10-15 minutes of a lot of these games are often exactly the same, and it's really important to me that the start of a new game is always completely different. If you look at the best card games like Poker or Bridge, you find that one of the things that spurs you to keep playing more and more hands is that it's dramatically different at the start of each new hand. And that's really one of the core principles. When you boot up Frozen Endzone, you'll see this is in full effect right from the start. So we've got completely random playfield that's generated every single time you play a new game, with different formations. This is the core game mode for quicker play, it's called 'Duplicate' - that's what we call it internally - and what happens is we play the same map twice.

Something I'm quite proud of - we have these dynamic turn lengths. We call it a "turn break" when something interesting happens. So for example picking up the ball, getting tackled, the ball being caught or hitting the ground, that kind of thing. So again, it adds some interesting tactical ideas. So you don't need to pick up the ball straight away - you can actually wait a long time to let your guys get in position and made a gamble that I wasn't going to run towards you. Something important that we want to communicate - it looks a bit like American Football, it's got the same shape ball, you throw it in the same way, but the rules are completely different. It's just sort of inspired by the aesthetics of American Football. Having said that, I'm a giant NFL fan. I think it's a really exciting, exotic sport. It's got a lot of weird rules, and it's really fun and really violent. I wanted to make something that felt a bit like that, but had a bit of a future sport aestehtic. I like the idea of having robots tha can be really violent to each other, but you don't actually have human violence. It does seem like a strange one, but a lot of my friends are big football fans, and we just thought it'd be something fun to do.

Frozen Endzone feels a lot more accessible and straight-talking than Synapse was -- you get the ball, you take it to the goal -- yet it still has lots of depth to it. Was making the game more accessible a key aim for you?

The key thing that I wanted to do differently from Synapse was, there was a lot of detail work in Frozen Synapse. You really had to spend a lot of time thinking about the angles, refining your plan to a really large degree. And that was awesome, but I wanted something I could play when i was a bit more hungover and a bit quicker. So the idea was to simplify down the move set. There are basically hardly any orders in the game - you really move, stop and pass - but I really believe that we've kept as much depth as Frozen Synapse just even with all the character not having any stats. The one area where it's different is in Frozen Synapse, at least you just had to kill the opponent, whereas in this, we have a couple of rules. So it's been quite a challenge to develop a tutorial that can communicate that effectively. All those little rules are easy to understand once you've learnt the game, but they're pretty hard to pick up early on. So we had to work eally hard to get a tutorial that could teach that. But certainly, I really hope that people look at the game and see it's a really easy idea - I need to get the ball from here to here - but then when you start playing, just how difficult that actually is, given what your oppoent's doing.

As a studio, do you purposely aim to make unique games?

The simple answer is probably yes. It's not a case of just wanting to do something different for different sake - but why am I making indie games if I just want to make something that's the same as everything else? I'd say that one of the greatest advantages I have is that I'm incredibly disatisfied with most games. I get bored incredibly easily, and I have a really low attention span. I pretty much have ADHD, and just so many games don't work for me.

So I really just set out to make games that I wanted. I'm just not interested in making games unless they are original. I mean, to be a successful indie, you have to stand out. A lot of people when we first announced Frozen Endzone said, "That's a bit of a crazy idea, that's not going to work." And that just made us happy, because as long as everyone thinks we're doing something stupid, they're not going to do the same thing. And I truly believe that people want something new - that's the thing that indie gaming really is about. It's grassroots, and it's small teams. It's away from the ridiculousness of a lot of publisher models. But it's something new, something different.

How did you manage to beat "The Curse of the Multiplayer Indie Game"?

Our very first game, Determinance, was a real-time eight-player sword-fighting game, and I experienced first-hand what the curse fo the multiplayer indie game is. The problem was that there was just no-one online, and we had to have low lag - I estimated that the number of active players that we needed to always get a game was probably in the hundreds, because there always needs to be people playing at the same time as you, in the same vague timezone as you. So Frozen Synapse was actually designed from the ground-up to survive with few players. All the features we have, like the traffic light at the bottom left which allows you to basically find a game through instant matchmaking, it actually emails all of us if there's ever fewer than five people online and someone can't find a game, and we'll jump on and play with you straight away. So even though we had this great sucess, and there's usually hundreds of people on he server, the whole thing is designed to never be a dead game. All you need is two people online at once to play.

What's it like being a developer in the UK? What's the game development scene like from your perspective?

I think we've got a pretty amazing scene. Whenever we go to any event in England, especially the London indie scene, it's just really fantastic. They are a lot of really high-profile guys like Introversion, Dan Marshall, Cliff Harris - you really have a lot of people who are not just doing well now, but have been doing well for a long time, and have a lot of experience. We all know each other, and we really give each other advice. You go to one of these events, and you're guarnateed to have a lot of people to talk to. We started doing this 10 years ago, and for the first seven years or so, there wasn't really any scene to speak of. Now it's so vibrant and fantastic. I feel happy being part of it.

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