When Oxford-based indie duo, Paul Taylor and Ian Hardingham, began work on the blocky prototype for turn-based strategy game Frozen Synapse, little did they know that this would be the one to put them on the map.
A little over a year after its release, Frozen Synapse has been nothing short of a smash hit for Mode 7 Games, receiving high praise from critics, award bodies and, most rewardingly of all, the gaming community. It exceeded the expectations of its creators by selling over 400,000 units to date.
Last month Mode 7 had another accolade to add to its collection in the form of a Develop Award for New IP.
Taylor, the studio’s joint managing director and music maestro, sat down with Develop to reflect on the success of Frozen Synapse, what it’s like for a small indie to maintain a large community and discuss how his relationship with his co-developer has changed.
How does it feel to be recognised for your creativity with a Develop Award?
We were up against so much great stuff. We’ve never felt part of the mainstream industry, and winning a Develop Award was kind of a vote of respect.
It feels strange because we’ve kind of moved on from Frozen Synapse and onto new stuff. So it feels a bit like this wave of what’s happened since release just won’t end. That’s been the interesting thing about it; just how long it’s gone on for. The game’s been out for a year and we’re still getting new attention for different reasons. And that’s just beyond all our expectations. Originally, we thought it’s quite a niche strategy game, it will hit a niche audience. But it’s gone beyond that and it’s transcended everything we thought.
Advice from indie developers who’ve had successes is that new studios really must put in the promotional push in the run-up to and post-release. What was your approach?
We did a lot of work early on trying to get attention for it. The biggest thing for us was the preview on Rock, Paper, Shotgun that Kieran Gillen did and then Alec Meer followed up shortly after with a Eurogamer preview, and that was us really breaking through in terms of getting really solid coverage.
That really changed it from this weird thing that we were working on ourselves to being something that people were excited about. I think that helped so much in terms of building up the audience.
So has your current relationship with the press made promoting your activities easier than it was for you before Frozen Synapse’s release?
It was certainly much more of a challenge in 2005-2006 to get a big site to cover an indie game. But as things went on, I think the press really realised that a lot of the more exciting stuff was coming out of that scene anyway.
People have really adapted to the climate we have now where there’s a huge number of indie games being produced. I just feel we’ve come such a long way, and it’s been really nice to see some of the bigger sites get on board with niche games and help them reach a huge audience.
I think it’s a really great time in terms of how the press handle things now. Even sites like Develop, they’re now interested in the process of making indie video games as well, so you get all the press that the triple-A guys could do, like the process of development, and consumer press and PR. Indie developers can do that because people are interested in our process.
Why do you think it’s taken time for indie games to latch on to public imagination in the way they have today?
I think there was basically a tipping point effect. There were a lot of people making indie games, but they didn’t necessarily know how to get awareness for them and they didn’t necessarily understand what that market of gamers wanted. Also distribution hadn’t really kicked in, so you wouldn’t really see that many indie games on Steam.
And Steam opening up to a wider range of content was probably one of the biggest factors in the current success of indie games. So it’s a tipping effect with a combination of distribution, more interesting stuff being produced and the press covering things more.
More platforms means more choice, but it can still be a struggle for indie developers to get their game onto multiple platforms – especially when they’re just starting out. Is that why you decided to stay with a single platform to start with for Frozen Synapse?
We originally intended for it to be a Nintendo DS game and then we realised that to do the kind of development that we wanted to do, and for the audience we wanted to hit, we could execute this better first with a mouse and keyboard and the PC was the right place. And, of course, the promise of Steam was always there.
But as the game has matured a bit we’ve seen that it’s not just a PC title – we’ve got an iPad version coming out.
I think PC is a really great place for people to start, and it’s really important for other platform holders to understand that a lot of really good indie games are being grown on PC. And I think that understanding is coming in.
I really support people developing on PC because it’s open, you can reach your audience really easily. But I also encourage them to look at the fundamentals of their game and see what other opportunities are there.
It’s very important for indies because you spend so much time and effort making a game that you have to maximise it once it’s done. And you have to get to those audiences that wouldn’t otherwise see it.
Platforms are really important to people, even to the extent where there might be somebody who buys a Humble Bundle who isn’t necessarily a Steam customer. It’s that segmented. So you have to keep working to get that side of things developed.
Getting back to Frozen Synapse, are you driven to do better because of the community the game has built up?
We owe an enormous amount to our community, especially those people who bought the game when it was in beta. The beta community really helped us shape the game in terms of the actual development. And then, since launch, things have been building up. We’ve just had unbelievable support from our community.
One of the biggest indicators of that was the IGF audience award, which was voted for by the public. Our community got behind us there and it was a message from them saying: ‘we like what you’ve done’. And similarly with our DLC release, we actually found the community very supportive. They really understood what we were trying to do and that we were trying to add something to the game that they wanted.
I don’t think we’ve been perfect in terms of how we’ve handled everything with the community. I think we could have done better on certain things. But my response to this great amount of community affection is to keep trying on those things. Keep trying to do a good job, keep trying to listen to them and really try to improve our communication with them and just support them with the things that they need and want.
It’s always a learning process. And as a newer company it’s just one of the big things you have to learn, because you don’t get to experiment with having a sizeable community, you just kind of get given one and then you have to deal with it at that point. That can be hard, but the benefits are enormous.
Since you’ve experienced the success of Frozen Synapse has anything changed between you and your co-founder Ian Hardingham?
I think that my relationship with Ian has actually strengthened. You see a lot of business partnerships where there’s a lot of hidden animosity. Ian and I, the most important thing is that we talk each other a lot. It’s a close relationship so we talk how we feel about things and we make sure that the other person knows exactly where we stand. Even if we disagree, we want to make it really clear so that there’s nothing that we keep from each other.
I like the fact that we have incredibly different skills and we often do things differently. But there’s no jealously. I don’t want to design the game, he doesn’t want to write music. He doesn’t want to do business development, I don’t want to come up with exciting implementations of AI algorithms. So we have very defined areas. I love working with him and we just want to continue doing this for as long as we can.