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Divide and conquer: Mode 7's move to multi-title, multi-platform

Paul Taylor lifts the curtain on growing a studio after indie hit Frozen Synapse

Potential is very important to me. One of the most attractive things about making games is that there is no ceiling: with digital distribution and instantaneous word-of-mouth, it's never been easier for something you create to find its audience.

Even in this fertile climate, I believe that indie developers often create a rich seam of value that they can leave uninvestigated. When your primary motivation is creative, this is often a necessary consequence: you want to move on to the next stimulating project as soon as possible and leave the old work behind. Equally, porting titles can be very time-consuming, risky and ill-advised; it's often not a good idea for a small studio to attempt it. So, is it possible to uncover some of this value without getting dangerously sidetracked?

Here at Mode 7, we recently began the process of bringing our PC tactical title Frozen Synapse to iPad, Android, PSN and Vita. We tried to do all of this with minimal risk, while still keeping the quality level high. At the same time, we prototyped, announced and ran a Greenlight campaign for a brand new game, the futuristic sports epic Frozen Endzone. I'll take you through these decisions and what I think they mean for Mode 7 as a company.

The Indie Challenge

The current era is a fascinating time to be working in games but its complexity is undeniable. Early in our careers, the challenge was simply to get noticed as a new team working on an unusual project. Since the release of Frozen Synapse, this has rapidly transitioned into a situation where we have a community of fans and one relatively well-known game, but also a huge variety of peers, compatriots and competitors within the scene.

In the age of Kickstarter, we are no longer differentiated by our desire to bring back “classic PC gameplay”: hundreds of other studios, some with enormous crowd-sourced budgets, are trying the same thing. Even triple-A developers and publishers are leveraging the ease of digital distribution for niche products, with games like Blood Dragon taking advantage of both existing tech and creative enthusiasm within a mainstream studio context. Greenlight has made it much easier for new indie developers to achieve Steam distribution, opening up a major marketplace to any interesting project which is able to command a significant following.

"There's also a tension between headline-grabbing creative indie mavericks and “microstudios” like ourselves"

There's also a tension between headline-grabbing creative indie mavericks and “microstudios” like ourselves who are working on somewhat more traditional games. We are certainly being pushed to talk more and in a more interesting way: definitely a good thing for fans. The press, who once viewed any independent developer as a freakish oddity to be prodded gingerly, have fully cottoned on to the fact that a well-known indie is more likely to drop an inflammatory pull-quote about a major platform-holder or call someone else a rude name.

Simply being an indie developer isn't interesting to anyone any more: we are so numerous; we are all very different. The term, which seemed to have a relatively clear meaning (“not beholden to a publisher”) a few years ago, has now become almost impossibly amorphous. It's even been claimed by some to define a lifestyle rather than a career choice.

While the global indie scene's capacity for openness towards a vast spectrum of different attitudes is inherently positive, it all adds up to a very noisy, competitive climate in which to exist: very different from the quiet groups of obscure developers beavering away in bedrooms ten years ago.

New Developments

As I mentioned at the outset, our response to these challenges was to try and expand the audience for Frozen Synapse without compromising the vital early-stage development of Frozen Endzone.

Endzone is another simultaneous-turn-based game with a future sports aesthetic. It's a much more graphically ambitious project than Synapse. Our plan is to make use of some of the incredible freelance talent available in the UK, so we're using an ex-AAA Lead Artist (Richard Whitelock) and Lead Animator (Martin Binfield) to create something with extremely high production values for an indie game. The “triple-I” game will be a huge factor in the next couple of years, and we plan to be part of that.

We also believe that Lead Designer Ian Hardingham's design experience from two prior games will give him a great basis to come up with more exciting turn-based game mechanics. Endzone was inspired by his work on the later stages of Synapse: he wanted to make a game which switched the emphasis back towards reading the opponent and terrain. Having played the prototype extensively for the first time last week, I think he's hit a very high level once again with the design. I want to do it justice, and that's going to require a big team effort.

Frozen Endzone recently went through a successful Greenlight campaign and achieved Steam distribution. As it's a niche product, we wanted it to start building a community from the outset: Greenlight assisted us greatly with this. The audience for Endzone will be different to that of Synapse; although there will be some crossover, we didn't want people to feel like we were solely trading on Synapse's success. Greenlight gave people a strong decision to make when they first encountered the concept: “Would you buy this game?” There's no information which is more valuable than whether someone would actually buy your product or not! The community had the choice to make a real difference to its success: although it was a risk, it certainly paid off with a lot of people becoming very invested in it and creating buzz early on.

We will continue to use the system to keep people updated with development right through until our pre-order beta, which we hope will be later this year. Endzone matters deeply to us: we have to prove that we're capable of making more than one good game; we have to create something that will justify the increased expense and forge its own path.

The Neural Network

This month, we are also launching iPad and Android versions of Frozen Synapse, representing a brand new phase for Mode 7.

"translating a complex mouse-driven UI to a touch interface is extremely difficult"

Expanding an existing game is something that we have a little experience with, though. Our first foray in this direction was creating the Red expansion pack for Frozen Synapse, which released in May 2012. DLC can be something of a dirty word but we realised that there was a significant crossover between what the community wanted added to the game and what we felt would be worthwhile to work on. Certainly, there were times when it wasn't the most creatively satisfying project but also we felt by the end that we had done good work. The community reaction was almost exclusively positive and Red has been a small commercial success, selling 44,000 units to date (including those bundled with the main game in a Complete Pack). Red told us that people were ready for more Frozen Synapse content and that the community was still strong.

The tablet version of the game has been similarly tough to work on: translating a complex mouse-driven UI to a touch interface is extremely difficult in general and expectations are very high. Once again, there were times during the project when the team felt demotivated and it was hard to keep pushing. When taking on big secondary projects, it's absolutely vital that there is some key factor to keep you motivated: for me, it was the idea of Ian's original design working in a completely new context. Doing this while he was working on Endzone also interested me: much of the value of our company is in his design abilities, so I felt like we were making maximal use of them.

We decided to handle the iPad version ourselves in conjunction with an external programmer, so that we would get direct control over the interface. As the UI is one of the most fundamental parts of the game, getting this right was essential. Although this necessarily resulted in a lot more time spent, I would have refused to do a tablet version if we couldn't be certain that the interface was robust. Once we had achieved the core of the design and port, San Francisco-based Apportable took on Android duties, using our iPad work as a guide.

Early previews have been positive and we have heard good things from the community, so we are hoping that it lives up to their hopes at launch. Although we've been playing it down as a side-project to some extent, a big success here could transform Mode 7. Tablets offer such interesting chances for portable gameplay, we are banking on the fact that an audience who largely favour simple casual games will have a niche which is looking for much more depth and complexity. We don't pretend that Frozen Synapse will be a mass-market product on either iOS or Android: we are hoping it'll be more of a curiosity that gamers who own the platform feel compelled to pick up. If it works, we will do our best to bring all our future games to tablets as well.

A Deeper Freeze

I always wanted to see Frozen Synapse on consoles; after many months of investigating various possibilities we struggled intensely with trying to find a low-risk way of exploring the idea. After reading about the difficulties Introversion experienced with Darwinia+ on 360, as well as tales of woe from other indies, we knew we didn't want to handle it in-house or fork out a large upfront fee.

However, Sony have been increasingly proactive in talking to indies: it's extremely heartening to see this and it certainly gave us more confidence that aiming for Sony platforms was a good choice. So much revolves around the platform-holder's willingness to embrace the unique oddities of each individual game as well as investing in promoting them: I really believe that indie games can work as long as they are handled correctly.

Eventually, we got in touch with Middlesbrough's Double 11, who are currently best known for their fantastic work on Little Big Planet Vita. We came up with a deal which would allow them to work on a completely new version of the game for a console audience: Mode 7 would remain in the background, offering assistance and input when needed, but it would very much be D11's project.

"Getting real data on whether one of our games can succeed in the fickle console marketplace will be fascinating and extremely useful"

Frozen Synapse: Tactics is a full graphical overhaul which will have all the features of the original and a lot more; we're very interested to see where they take it. While it's another risk for us to allow another developer to work with our IP, Double 11 have a great pedigree and are extremely committed to the project. We greatly preferred this risk than attempting to convert our small inexperienced team to a console development studio in a short space of time. Getting real data on whether one of our games can succeed in the fickle console marketplace will be fascinating and extremely useful.

Size Matters

When I see the impressive work done by teams like Mojang, Supergiant and Introversion, all of whom are capitalising on past success in interesting innovative ways, I know the benchmark I want us to hit.

Other developers have told me that their successful games go on to have a meaningful sales tails even five years after release: this leads me to believe that indies are still not reaching a significant percentage of their possible audience. Whether it's hitting a new platform, raising your profile, releasing new content or any other option, I believe it's worth having the confidence to push your completed games even further.

When our iPad version launches on Thursday 16th May, I'll find out if I'm right.

Paul Taylor is the co-founder and joint MD of Mode 7 Games. Contact him on Twitter at @mode7games.