Frozen Endzone – interview with Ian Hardingham
When Frozen Synapse was released in 2011, it made waves quickly due to its unusual approach – a turn-based shooter allowing simultaneous moves by players, where predicting your opponents actions were perhaps more important than reacting to them. Receiving very good reviews and building a large community, there is now much attention focused on follow-up title Frozen Endzone, with the alpha version available to play at the recent Eurogamer Expo. Games Fiends took the chance to speak to designer and developer, Ian Hardingham.
However, very nearly the first thing to come out of my mouth was a mistake – describing the game’s aesthetic as “robots playing American Football.”
“Well, it’s not actually American Football, though it looks a bit like it,” he corrects me. Having played the game on Mode 7′s stand at the show, I have to agree. There is just a similarity in the aim of play – “basically having to get a ball from one end of the pitch to the other.”
The step from a shooter to a sports title seems pronounced, but Hardingham sees common ground. “Frozen Endzone is the same kind of thing, it’s still simultaneous turn-based, [but] rather than guns and lines of sight and cover and everything it’s about who’s controlling areas of the pitch by blocking off, where can you pass, where do you choose to cover, what’s your opponent going to do?”
Having had a play at the Expo, controlling a team against the AI and trying to use the obstacles in the arena to control movement, while keeping team mates clear to receive a pass, there was a sense of achievement at even beating the AI. Working out how best to use all the five available players also came fairly quickly – even for someone like myself, who had to admit to not having played Frozen Synapse.
“The mechanics are really naked – you can understand space, you can understand how this guy got there before that other guy. I can see the map, you can see the map – we can both see the same thing. Whose [plan is] better? Who bluffs better?”
The demo just had you on offence, getting the ball and trying to get it to the far end of the pitch. Each game had a randomised arena to cross, with obstacles making paths. Some parts were low, preventing movement but allowing the ball to be thrown over; others were high, with the ball-carrying player having to risk running clear of them before passing.
This randomisation will be part of the final PvP element too. “We call it ‘one play each way’” Hardingham tells me. “If we were playing each other I’d be on offence, I’d have a chance to score, then you’d be on offence on the same map. And that’s really nice – if all the maps are randomly generated, obviously we’re both playing on the same maps both ways. That means that the maps can be quite unbalanced and it all balances out because we both have a chance to maximise [it]. There are lots of areas on the field that you can go through to increase your score, but obviously at a higher risk.”
That one play will be broken into several smaller turns – “it can be as few as two, it can be as many as six, but it’s usually about four turns on each play”. These turns are not fixed lengths however – they end when an event occurs. This means that there is no fixed time for things, and it allows for the defending team to react as play progresses. Most significantly, performing an action like a long throw will be broken on route – meaning that passing the ball all the way down the field isn’t a game-breaking manoeuvre.
“You’ve got to be able to balance to do things correctly,” Hardingham explains. “Most turn-based sports game really have to nerf throwing because they find that throwing is a little bit too over-powered. We just find other ways of doing it – you can throw wherever you want, however far as you want, you’ve just got to give [the defending team] the power to react to it.”
The game is presented as a broadcast of a game being played – after the turns are confirmed the result is revealed as though cameras are tracking the action. This means that a lot of attention has gone into the game’s visuals, with further customisation options planned to personalise the teams. There will be additional body components and animations to unlock, and a facial expression editor is planned.
Beyond extra customisation, there is another element to having robots playing though. In many future and fantasy sports – games like Speedball and Blood Bowl getting brief mentions in conversation – the idea of sports being violent to the (usually human) players seems commonplace. Yet with robots, it seems to sidestep that sense of violence without actually changing the game – was this deliberate?
“First off, robots are awesome – why not use robots?” he answers, before continuing. “There are two other reasons than that. I wanted to have really out-there animation; if a robot does something a little bit unrealistic, well – cool, it’s a robot. And the second thing is I want it to be massively violent and visceral, and I don’t want to have people dying and bleeding everywhere.
“You can have these massive hits, like people imagine sports to be, with robots without showing any blood. It’s nice to have a game that’s really visceral that doesn’t involve humans getting hurt.”
This does open up the door to a younger audience for the game as well, and I mention how a game that involves forward planning could be different for kids, compared to how many involve quick reflexes.
Hardingham’s view is clear: “There are hundreds of words that can be filled on children and videogames, what is appropriate or not appropriate. But it’s definitely true that kids that play videogames have better judgement, they can make better decisions quickly, so I would challenge anyone to say that videogames are straightforwardly bad.
“Certainly, this is the kind of game I’d be happy for my children to play because it’s got both things – it’s got viscerality, but it’s also definitely got a way to develop your brain.”
As a game played online, your experience may still only be as good as the people playing against you, but even there Hardingham seems positive. “You get a lot of bad multiplayer communities but we’ve found our community fantastic with Frozen Synapse, a bunch of very intelligent people. They always say “good luck, have fun” beforehand, they always help you out, there’s not a lot of rage-quitting, not a lot of swearing. We’ve been very lucky with that.”
Frozen Endzone is being developed for PC, Mac and Linux, and is due for a beta release in December or January.