Developer Blog: Prototyping and Playtesting Frozen Synapse

Posted on 21st Jul 2010 at 11:50 by Mode 7 with 2 comments

Mode 7
In my previous post, I discussed how we came up with the initial idea for Frozen Synapse.

As lots of boring industry types will endlessly tell you, ideas are cheap. Actually, this is complete nonsense, but the point they're trying to make - that the hard work is in the execution - is correct. Even if you do have a strong idea, translating that into a viable game is extremely difficult.

During the development of Determinance, we struggled to get the core mechanics right, so every aspect of the design seemed in flux throughout development. This is a phenomenon that afflicts games of all sizes, and we were determined to overcome it this time around.

Developer Blog: Prototyping and Playtesting Frozen Synapse Developer Blog:
Annoying Wonky Triangle Wars - the Frozen Synapse Prototype

See that picture above? That was our primary weapon in the noble fight against failure! I like to call it “Annoying Wonky Triangle Wars.” It was how the game looked for at least a year while we tried to get everything else right.

Effectively finishing the core mechanics before we did any art meant that we started with a fun game, rather than trying to create one round a load of constraints. Annoying Wonky Triangle Wars was just as competitive and fun as Frozen Synapse is now. Prototyping it this way meant that we prioritized gameplay, but it also showed us what the art needed to accomplish.

Essentially, the job of the art was going to be to take this game board and make it as exciting as possible. It had to add in some nice aesthetic rewards for accomplishing gameplay moments such as outwitting someone, blasting a hole in a wall or skillfully rounding a corner.

Next time, I’ll talk about how the visuals for the game were created by taking a look at our early concept art. Now though, I'll answer questions from last week - though there was only one this time. If you have any questions for next week then sling them in the comments!

Developer Blog: Prototyping and Playtesting Frozen Synapse Developer Blog:
How Frozen Synapse looks now

Question: One thing I was wondering is how important playtesting is in the development cycle and whever it's possible to overdo it? - EndingCredits

Answer: This is a fitting question to answer this week. Most of the work on the prototype you see above was done with pure iterative development: Ian and Robin tested the game extensively after every single gameplay change, then went back and tweaked it again. We went down a few blind alleys at that point, but playtesting helped to get us out. So much of game development is actually intuitive: you play for a while and something doesn’t “feel right”, so you think about it for a while and then go in and change a mechanic.

As I mentioned before, we still play the game quite a lot: I play the least as, my main job in the company is to focus on things outside of development and not get too bogged down with it, but Ian and Robin play every day. It’s the only way to stay in touch with what’s happening.

I don’t think it’s possible to overdo it, but it is important not to neglect the needs of new players once you’ve become used to the game yourself. Something we always do when we get near the end of development is take the game somewhere where we can observe total newbies getting to grips with it: the University of Reading very kindly allowed us to do this with Frozen Synapse and it was very eye opening!

Paul Taylor is the Joint Managing Director of Mode 7 Games, makers of Frozen Synapse.


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Material 26th July 2010, 13:31 Quote
It sounds like your approach of taking the time to get the core mechanics correct before moving onto the art side of things is the correct way to go about things, but is this easier or harder for a small dev studio like yourselves?

As a smaller studio I assume you've got more freedom to dictate your own time scale but at the same time you don't have the cushion of cash or other revenue streams the bigger studios do if things take longer than planned.

It must be a complex balancing act.
PaulMode7 27th July 2010, 11:52 Quote
Yeah, it is a difficult balancing act. With Frozen Synapse, we were doing a lot of other contract work at the same time, so we basically had the luxury of saying, "We'll just work on the mechanics until we're happy", which I think is very important. If the balance of our work changes in future, then timing will become a lot more important - it's a massive struggle. I truly believe that indie games aimed at a broadly hardcore audience now have to have quite a lot of depth to them in order to be successful - there are so many great free "short" or "small" games out there that you really just can't compete. The only way to get good gameplay depth is through a lot of iteration of the mechanics.
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