Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Cold As Ice

Frozen Synapse is a indie game in just about every sense of the term. It has a stylized abstract aesthetic, it's a style of gameplay rarely seen in mainstream titles, it has an extremely steep learning curve, it's extremely rich and deep, its servers buckled from traffic come launch day, it has a built-in IRC channel and its tutorial is terrible. All but the last make the game fantastic (well, the servers being bunged up ain't great, but it means a lot of people are playing the game, which is awesome for them).

If you haven't heard of Frozen Synapse, it's a turn-based tactical squad shooter developed by Mode7 Games, which I believe is only three guys in the UK. If you took just the combat from Jagged Alliance or X-Com (except Frozen Synapse deliberately makes your soldiers faceless), this is basically what you'd end up with. It's the kind of game that self-selects quite a bit, but if this is up your alley, it's really up your alley.

In addition to being built upon a very solid foundation of game, Frozen Synapse goes the extra mile in handling multiplayer. All matches are conducted online and complete asynchronously, meaning you and your opponent can be issuing turns hours apart and the servers simply process and report each turn's results next time you log in. While not quite as deliberately paced as an online wargame like Warlight, I can imagine easily handling a half-dozen or more games of Frozen Synapse at once.

The tricky bit is understanding the game enough to want to play a half-dozen matches simultaneously.

In an all too common refrain, where Frozen Synapse falls down is its tutorial. In indie game fashion, the tutorial is just a handful of very canned micro-missions that tell you what to do and then have you do it. The problem here is threefold. One, all you are asked to do is perform rote mimicry. The dialog prompt says to click here, drag there and twist here, and you do it. It breezily explains what that all meant, but as long as you're able to translate text into simply mouse/keyboard input, you can pass the tutorial. The problem is, you're never required to demonstrate any kind of understanding. The scenarios aren't presented as "explanation-then-demonstration."

Without being required to demonstrate any kind of understanding, you're merely following prompts without realizing why doing so is important. And then the first time you're dropped in a proper mission, you have little recourse to understand why your dudes keep getting their heads emptied all over nearby walls.

The second problem with the tutorial is that it's all frontloaded. You get a deluge of contextless information, being presented with the "how" well before the "why." Without any kind of proper mental model for the game, it's very hard to synthesize the information you're being bombarded with. And the worst part is, this wouldn't be that hard to fix. Rather than a bunch of canned explanations, providing simple missions meant to teach a specific skill would likely ease players into Frozen Synapse far more successfully. The challenge scenarios in Starcraft II do a pretty good job of bridging the gap between the duvet coziness of singleplayer and the Russian prisonyard of Battle.net. Imagining something similar for Frozen Synapse isn't hard at all.

And of course, the final issue with the tutorials is they're just missing information. Probably the most important mechanic in the game, how combat between two characters is resolved, isn't explained in the tutorial at all. The rules that govern these outcomes are actually quite simple and involve just four simple factors: direction, stillness, aiming and cover. But I didn't get that from the tutorial, I got it from a supplemental tutorial video.

Not to give the wrong impression, I like Frozen Synapse quite a lot and I can easily see it being the lunchtime go to game at work for a while. But yikes, if I had to introduce someone to the game, it would come with some caveats.

The ideal way to learn to play Frozen Synapse seems to be: play the tutorial (it ain't great, but it's a start), play a few singleplayer missions and then watch this YouTube video tutorial. The video clarified a ton of things for me, but it probably won't make much sense unless you've played at least a few matches.

Given that Frozen Synapse isn't meant to have broad appeal (not multi-millions, anyway), these problems certainly aren't damning. And it is a bloody brilliant game. But with changes, I imagine those first five minutes with the game could be exquisite, instead of just bewildering.

I quibble about the tutorial only because Frozen Synapse is an excellent experience with (for some people) a big ol' wall around it. Pulling out a few of those bricks would open the game up to folks who would just walk away shaking their heads right now.

Oh, and note that in multiplayer, you can issue your opponent's men faux turns to test out possible scenarios. Work great for visualizing outcomes, not so great if you confuse which dudes belong to who, issue your opponent's guys bunk turns and fail to do anything with your own. Doing so in your first multiplayer match ever leaves quite the taste of shame broth upon your lips. Don't be like me, and we'll all be better for it.

And if you want to order your dudes to shoot my dudes, drop a line! I've been playing on the UK3 server, but I think the plan is to collate all the servers soon anyway. I'll hopefully be seeing you on the Plains of Manshoot.

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Blogger Kevin said...

There may also be a lesson in the fact that, despite having a poor tutorial, the game is doing quite well for itself. If your game is specifically targeted at a niche that yearns for complexity, it may actually be counterproductive to try to spoon feed them the mechanics. Just think of how clever you must have felt during your first match after looking up the initiative calculations outside of the game :)

June 7, 2011 at 9:00 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Kevin I think there are ways to explain one's game elegantly without it turning into spoonfeeding, but I think you're exactly right that it's not exactly a priority for Mode7. And more importantly, it doesn't matter all that much. The people who are interested are probably already sold.

That being said, I can pretty easily imagine ways that FS could have made their tutorial a lot more useful without it being any less enjoyable.

June 8, 2011 at 10:24 PM  
Blogger smita said...

"Sometimes, the customer isn't always right. Sometimes the customer is an asshole."

Omg this is the best discovery ever. I have worked in the hospitality industry and am now working as a therapist and I have never found a better statement. I would like to emphasize the word "sometimes" here because it is not that most customers are like that. Here we are talking of the select few, who think they have bought you and not your service.

June 15, 2011 at 12:58 AM  

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