Their name may be based on a defunct practice, but their ideas are cutting edge

Start-Up Spotlight: Mode 7 Games

Modern games tend to demand a lot less thought from players. Indie developer Mode 7 are creating games that require cerebral energy from players.

The company was founded by Ian Hardingham and Paul Taylor in 2005. Their first title Determinance, a multiplayer sword fighting game, gave you freeform sword control with your mouse and the ability to invent your own combos. It was an innovative start, yet too complex a premise to give the game legs beyond its niche market.

For the past two years they’ve been hard at work on their second game, Frozen Synapse, which is a turn-based tactical action game. Introducing more thought has served the modest duo well so far, as it’s received a positive reception from media outlets and consumers.

Taylor, who studied English at Cambridge and has written for Future Music, is Mode 7’s business brains. Develop asked the joint managing director to explain how they got here and where they’re going.

How did you start your company?
Ian started Mode 7 after realising that he didn’t want to work in the mainstream industry. I came on the scene originally to do sound and music for our first title Determinance, and after that took on the role of running the business so Ian could concentrate on development.

We started with creative rather than commercial motivations. As things have gone on we’ve started to learn how to balance out making money with trying to create great games that excite us.

How many people work at your company?
We have two full-time (the two managing directors) and one part-time. Outside of that, we use freelance contractors.

What’s your company culture like?
A lot of it hinges on the partnership between myself and Ian. Ian takes a creative and technical lead, designing the games and coding them, while I handle pretty much everything else.

This suits me, as I have a dual creative and commercial role – I can find myself doing art direction in the morning, then negotiating for some contract work in the afternoon – I love it!

Robin Cox is here to help us out with a lot of the complex tasks and testing which game dev requires, so having his support is always vital.

We’re definitely relaxed at certain times – I don’t think you can force certain aspects of game design – but we do crunch and we do some quite intensive pushes. I think we tend to work in fits and starts.

We really truly believe that making fantastic niche games and growing a community is our mission in life – we don’t want to make ultra-mainstream titles, but we do want to find a way of having a great relationship with our fans while simultaneously turning a healthy profit. I feel like we’ve come a long way towards that goal in the last two years.

Tell us a little-known fact or anecdote about your company.
There was a hidden snow level in Determinance which featured the giant disembodied head of Geoff, who was our technical artist. When you flew up to the head, it would say, “Charlie! Charlie!” in a hideous voice. Charlie was the name of the landlord at our local pub. Unfortunately we made a mistake at release time and the level never made it in there!

What could you, and/or your team members, not do without on a daily basis?
Carbonated soft drinks and a good, reliable internet connection. How stereotypical!

Why did you decide to enter the casual gaming market?
Frozen Synapse (our current project) is our attempt to make a hardcore strategy game that could be played quickly in short bursts, just like a casual game. We’re not part of the traditional casual market per se, but we recognise that not everyone has time for mammoth gaming sessions, and sometimes you want a quick burst of strategic thinking. We reckon that’s a pretty original approach.

What games/tools/services have you made since forming, and how have they been received?
Our first game Determinance was released in 2007. It won an award and got some pretty decent reviews, but the concept didn’t really gel with people. Frozen Synapse is currently in a pre-order beta phase. It’s due for release in Q1 2011 and we’re very excited about it. We think it could be a big deal for us, as the critical and fan reaction so far has been brilliant.

What are you working on right now, and what stage is the project at?
I’m working on the single-player narrative and music for Frozen Synapse, while Ian does some AI and single-player structural work. It’s nice to be doing creative stuff again! The game is basically there – we just need to flesh out the single-player, implement some new UI things, then tidy up all the loose ends and start testing.

What are your aspirations for the company?
Short-term, I simply want Frozen Synapse to reach its maximum potential audience on PC and Mac over the next two years, then make the transition to consoles in the most efficient way possible while we also start on our next title.

Long-term, I want to build up a sizeable community of fans who believe in what we’re doing. I’m not particularly interested in growing the company or starting new dev teams at this point – I just want us to be able to continue doing the games we want to do and continue reaching that audience in a profitable way.

Who do you admire in the games industry and/or beyond?
I’m definitely a bit of a Blizzard fan: I heard Mike Morhaime speak in 2007 and found that very inspiring. They put the quality of their products and IP first in all situations and it has served them very well.

He’ll laugh at this, but I’d also say Cliff Harris of Positech Games. He’s a very entrepreneurial indie developer who is very committed to both his creative and commercial ideals – I’ve learned a lot from him.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your company?
Mode 7 is about trying to make games people genuinely love. We would much rather have a smaller, more passionate audience for our games, than create a fantastically profitable-yet-bland mainstream title.

A lot of business people will scoff at that idea, but I actually believe that’s the route to success for us.

Frozen Synapse is available to pre-order from, and anyone who pre-orders gets a free full copy of the game for a friend.

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