THE MAKING OF... FROZEN SYNAPSE



The Concept

We started out making Frozen Synapse because Ian Hardingham, our lead designer and coder, had got really into Laser Squad Nemesis at one point and wanted to try something in that style. Strategy seemed to have ossified into very dry hardcore turn-based games, or super-fast overly-complex RTS's; there didn't seem to be any middle ground. By creating a simultaneous turn-based game, we thought we'd get the best of both worlds: a direct interaction with your opponent, but all the freedom of thought and planning that an unimpeded turn allows.





Early Days

The first thing we worked on was a simple gameplay prototype using placeholder art. Early on, Ian decided that there would be no health bars. It wasn't the sort of game where a unit on 20% health could have anything useful to contribute, and we wanted to keep the mechanics very pared down.

People keep telling us that FS is a bit like "cyber chess" or "chess with guns" and I think this is where that originates! The units are much more like "pieces" than realistic soldiers.

One thing that also emerged early on was the idea of being dealt a random "hand" of units. The card game Bridge and randomly generated games like Spelunky were both influential. With a random level combined with an interesting distribution of units, the player is given a series of important choices to make right away.

One disadvantage of the older XCOM-type games is that you spend a huge amount of time setting up. We wanted Frozen Synapse to be an instantly rewarding game, almost like a hardcore casual game, so the idea was to put players straight into the action. Of course, as it's turn-based, you can spend as long as you want setting up your moves, but essentially you are making meaningful choices from the get-go, instead of just shuffling your men into position.

Aesthetically, we knew we wanted the game to be a cyberpunk-style affair; a lot of games aim for this but don't go at it whole-heartedly. Initially, all this decision meant was that we would be using a lot of glow! Here's one of the first bits of concept art we had done...



This was very cool but a lot of things ended up being a bit too ambitious / unnecessary for the player. However, we still wanted to take the game in that direction...it was going to be a daunting task when our prototype looked like this...



I christened this "Annoying Wonky Triangle Wars"! One thing we noticed when testing this is that it started to be fun really quickly. We had a couple of other people working with us in the office and they have both never even seen the game before; we got into the "office wars" situation really early on with people shouting at each other - for me, that's a total litmus test. If the game is fun to play with basically no graphics, you're starting to go in the right direction.

Eventually things evolved a bit graphically...



...but we were still a long way from what we wanted.
This was quite a difficult period. We were balancing out contract work with work on the game and it was taking a long time to get things done.
We realised that art was never going to go far enough towards the original concept, as we'd started to deviate from it, so we thought it was time to get things sorted out...



This was a much more practical concept, as it took what we had already and showed us where we needed to go. The 3D walls and characters also were a nice touch that made everything pop a bit more...



We set about realising this while adding game modes to the core "Extermination" (kill all enemies) mode. "Hostage Rescue" is a mode where one player controls two civilian units and has to get them off the map within a specific time; this added a really nice dimension as distraction tactics and daring escapes often occurred!

Ian also added a mode called "Disputed" which is based around controlling territory: the player has to collect boxes which appear on the map during a specific turn. This added a bit of a twist, meaning that an all-out assault in the first turn was much more risky.

Beta the Devil You Know...

We got to a point where the game was looking good and playing well, and we thought it was time to get some external feedback.

There were two things that really helped us: the first was taking the game to the University of Reading. Through some local contacts we were able to set up a mass testing session with loads of students in one of their computer labs. This kind of thing is great for finding huge, hideous bugs, but also for getting good gameplay feedback.

We also took the game to Nottingham's GameCity festival, which is my favourite game-related public event in the world. This was very stressful but ultimately awesome - people were walking in, literally off the street, playing and enjoying our game. We got so much information just from watching people play.

We decided that the game was ready to go public - we needed to see what the paying audience would make of it so we decided to go for a "paid pre-order". Ian suggested we gave away a free key with every copy and I thought that was a great idea, so we adopted it.

Around this time, we started showing the game to the press, with a few people coming to our office and a few trips around the country! It was brilliant to get such vocal support from places like RockPaperShotgun, Edge and PC Format early on - it showed us that we had something exciting on our hands.

Kieron Gillen's very excitable preview was something we weren't expecting but were delighted by:

http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2010/04/19/preview-frozen-synapse/

The beta sold way more than we were expecting initially, and enough for us to carry on development for another year and make the best game we possibly could.

Single Player

The beta was essentially multiplayer only, so we had a huge task in getting from that state to a finished product.

We were very clear that we wanted to get the mechanics down in multiplayer first, then focus on single player.



The game is set in a near-future city by the name of Markov Geist. I was influenced by William Gibson, in that I wanted the city to be complex cross-cultural place, with a lot of competing motivations.

A corporation, Enyo:Nomad, has been voted into power by the populous, who were dissatisfied with an ineffectual electoral system. The player works for a small faction who are trying to overturn them.

We realised that the most elegant way of doing a single player campaign was to create a really solid gameplay progression first. As games writer Tom Jubert has named his blog, "Plot is Gameplay's Bitch"!

Robin (our level designer) and I started working on a sequence of generated levels that worked. Then, he started to add some pre-set geometry and buildings into the proceedings. Finally, we worked out some settings for various key levels.

During this time, I was building up the world and writing the internal mission dialogue. Every single mission has unique dialogue events that can be triggered based on how the player is doing: these aren't just re-cycled quips; they're literally different on every level. It was a lot of work but the reaction so far has been great.

After the SP was ready to go, we got together a small group of our community and worked with them to test it. As always, there were some very fundamental issues we'd never even considered, and I had to go back and rework some things, but broadly we got a sense that it was working.

Single player is very much about atmosphere - it's about taking a core gameplay experience and then pumping exciting moments into it that immerse the player; be those moments randomly occurring, emergent or linear. It doesn't especially matter as long as the moments are handled well enough.

Final Days

After the game was feature complete, we entered a heavy period of testing. This was pretty difficult for everyone but ultimately turned out to be rewarding. We released our single player into the beta and got some more attention and sales; this was great as it allowed us to soak test later builds of the game with more people on the server and lots of eyes on the single player.

Again, the reaction was good!

We're now ready to launch an indie game which has a critically-acclaimed multiplayer and a big, beefy single player that people are telling us is very immersive. It's definitely an exciting time!

Please do think about buying Frozen Synapse direct from us and supporting indie development - you get a free copy for a friend as well as a key to activate the game on Steam so you can receive Steam Achievements...

http://www.frozensynapse.com
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