"The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley," wrote the Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1785, referring to the Universe's tendency to throw a wrench in the works when you least expect it. Were Burns alive today, however, the line might have gone a little differently, perhaps bemoaning the fact that his little green men had got shot in the face because he hadn't quite anticipated what his opponent was going to do. That's somehow not quite as catchy, though.
Mode 7 Games' Frozen Synapse was a game about plans ganging agley with alarming aftness, largely due to the fact that while you were making said plans, your opponent was doing likewise at exactly the same time as you. Developers Ian Hardingham and Paul Taylor refer to it as a "simultaneous turn-based strategy" game and really there is no better way to describe it -- it's a game that unfolds in chunks of time, five seconds apiece, during which both of you set out what you want your little green men to do, then hope that your opponent's little red men don't ruin your efforts as they almost inevitably will. Then you both watch in horror as things go disastrously wrong. Or at least they do if you're me, one of the world's worst strategy game players.
Despite my proven ineptitude, however, Frozen Synapse is a game that remained appealing and enjoyable for me for exactly the reasons Hardingham and Taylor hoped it would: it allowed players -- particularly those of us who are a bit older -- to enjoy direct competition against others at their own pace, rather than becoming frustrated and annoyed at the superhuman reflexes of your average 12-year old Call of Duty player. While unfolding at a much slower pace than your average first-person shooter, many of the same appeal elements were there -- calculated risk-taking, the necessity to out-think and trick your opponent, and, occasionally, a lucky shot that will remain in your memory for years to come.
It wasn't necessarily the easiest game to pick up and play, though. Although the concept was simple, the wealth of tactical options that the interface afforded you could become overwhelming to some players -- not only could you move your soldiers around, but you could also order them to crouch, focus on a particular direction, wait for several seconds and numerous other actions. Some felt that this variety of different options made the game a little inaccessible to those who weren't gifted with a tactical mind, and this is part of the reason Frozen Synapse's in-development follow-up Frozen Endzone exists in the first place.
But what is Frozen Endzone? I took a look at Eurogamer Expo. Then I chatted with Hardingham and Taylor about it for good measure.
"It's the premier tactical future sports game," says Taylor, proudly. "There is no other game that combines the sleek tactical gameplay of Frozen Synapse with a future sports aesthetic. We've taken what we learned making Frozen Synapse and made a more refined simultaneous turn-based game with a really strong element of direct competition. It's a game about reading your opponent and reading the situation -- we believe that anyone who had an interest in Frozen Synapse's multiplayer, even tangentially, will enjoy Frozen Endzone."
Specifically, Frozen Endzone is a game that adopts a simplified version of Frozen Synapse's simultaneous turn-based strategy gameplay and applies it to a football-style future sport rather than a selection of game modes you'd more commonly expect to see in a multiplayer shooter. Hardingham and Taylor are keen to stress that you don't need to be a football fan or even a sports fan to appreciate the game, however -- the rules are incredibly straightforward, and even the interface and array of options have been significantly streamlined from Frozen Synapse.
A Frozen Endzone match is a two-player affair, with each player controlling a team of robotic football players. Players take it in turns to attack and defend; the attacker must first claim the ball and then, through passing and running, get the ball into the endzone at the bottom of the screen without being tackled by the defenders. The defenders, unsurprisingly, must stop the attacker from doing this, with victory for their side coming if they successfully tackle the ball carrier. The rules may be simple, but that doesn't mean the game is easy, as an incredibly tight match between me and Hardingham will attest -- you still need a keen tactical mind. At present, the game only incorporates a few challenges against the AI on preset maps and multiplayer matchups on randomly generated levels, though the full game will eventually incorporate a full story-based campaign, much like its predecessor.
The game is largely about controlling territory and reading what your opponent is going to do. Like Frozen Synapse, while you're planning what's going to happen in each five-second turn, you're free to move your opponent's players around on your screen in an attempt to work out what you think they're likely to do and figure out your own strategy accordingly. There is, of course, no guarantee that they'll do what you expect them to do -- best-laid schemes and all that -- but that's part of the fun.
"We're trying to bring in new people," says Taylor. "Frozen Endzone is so much faster-paced than other strategy games, so we'd really like to be some people's first ever turn-based strategy game. In terms of theme, it's certainly a spiritual successor born out of Frozen Synapse -- it really shows the way we want to evolve this style of game."
"It's like a distilled version of Frozen Synapse," adds Hardingham. "We've cut down on the micromanagement and really made it more just about seeing some space and going for it. I love Frozen Synapse, but I find it quite stressful to play, and I find a little bit too often that it becomes about covering the stakes rather than being creative. I really wanted Frozen Endzone to have more creativity in it -- it takes out all the unnecessary gumph and just has a system you can look at and immediately understand. It's about space, about controlling areas, about reading your opponent.
"We had fantastic success with Frozen Synapse multiplayer," he continues. "There are still usually hundreds of people online, which is a massive achievement for an indie multiplayer game, so we feel like we really nailed that aspect of things. We're building all that stuff into Frozen Endzone -- it's a new game that is like Frozen Synapse, improving on some areas and making some a bit different, plus adding a completely new aesthetic."
Frozen Endzone's new aesthetic is certainly a big change from Frozen Synapse's abstract blue, red and green top-down aesthetic. It's still distinctive, certainly, but it's much more detailed and colorful, plus the new dynamic camera angles and replays make watching a match -- or just the outcome of your own turns -- much more exciting than in its predecessor. The improved looks are a direct result of Frozen Synapse's success -- the money the team earned with the previous game allowed them to expand their team from "three and a half" people to eight members plus freelancers, with many of the new additions to the art department having experience in triple-A development. Music is, like Frozen Synapse, the work of Taylor as his nervous_testpilot alter-ego -- he finds working on the soundtrack to be a welcome distraction and break from active development of the game, as he's not a particular believer in dynamic music programmed into the game's logic; instead he prefers a distinctive score made up of discrete tracks that stand on their own as pieces of music you might want to just sit and listen to. A selection of tracks Taylor has already composed for the game can be found on his Soundcloud page.
Frozen Synapse was partly funded and developed through an early access program, though this was long before Steam was offering such an opportunity and during the period when Minecraft was experimenting with the same model. What Hardingham and Taylor found was that not only did the ability for players to pre-order and get early access to the game provide them with helpful feedback during development, but it also helped fund the game as it went along. "It made us as a company," says Taylor. "It allowed us to do the work we wanted to do in the way we wanted to do it."
Such was the success of Frozen Synapse's early access campaign that Taylor and Hardingham are doing it again with Frozen Endzone -- both note that they prefer this way around to the Kickstarter model, because it allows them to give players meaningful input all the way through development while simultaneously allowing them to show something off that they're already proud of, rather than having to spend a long time preparing a pitch video and all the other work that goes into a good Kickstarter. They're not ruling out Kickstarter for future projects, but with the early access model having already paid off bigtime for them once, it makes sense for them to do it again -- particularly now they have an established community of fans.
Neither Taylor nor Hardingham are quite sure when there'll be something suitable to release to the public -- the Eurogamer build still had a few bugs, strange animations and weird camera angles here and there, so the duo are keen to polish it up a bit more before starting to take people's money; they want to sell a product that they truly believe in, even if it's not quite finished. They reckon a beta version will be ready for release "by the end of the year," and the full game will be ready within "a year to a year and a half," but note to me that they work according to a philosophy somewhere between Blizzard's "it's done when it's done" and the deadline-heavy approach of other triple-A developers and publishers. Taylor tells me that the team uses external events as deadlines and to apply pressure when needed -- Eurogamer Expo is the first time the public is able to play the game, so it needed to be in a playable state by then.
Fortunately, it's not only playable, but it's looking pretty good, too, even at this relatively early stage of development. Fans of sports games, competitive multiplayer battle and/or turn-based strategy games will find a lot to like here and should definitely keep an eye on the project as it continues to develop; you can do just that by checking out the official site and following Mode 7 on Twitter.