One Perfect Shot - Developing Tactical Encounters with Ian Hardingham

By Alex Connolly 23 Jun 2016 0

"I'm a sci-fi guy at heart and I'm always more interested in the speculative and the fantastical." 

That's Ian Hardingham, coding mastermind behind Frozen Synapse and one founding half of Mode 7 Games. Given the distilled, hyper-focused nature of 2011's tactical WEGO turn-based strategy, I'd asked him if he had any fascination with real-world firearms or special operations groups. Frozen Synapse felt very much the product of someone who had more than a passing interest in dynamic entry techniques, limited incursions and other CQC grit, but my hunch was wrong. "I don't."

"But having said that, I have an absolute love for the first Hidden and Dangerous game, and that's actually one of the inspirations for Frozen Synapse that we seldom talk about."

Illusion Softworks dropped their take on World War Two squad battles in 1999, the same year as Sierra Entertainment's SWAT 3 and Red Storm Entertainment's Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear. It was fascinating to discover that, despite two squad-based shooters with such heavy respective clout, it was a buggy and often frustratingly difficult underdog from Talonsoft that comprised some of Frozen Synapse's DNA. "You really had to coordinate four guys properly in that game to succeed," Hardingham explained, the connections immediately apparent. "It was such an amazing feeling when you got it right.  I think that taking a complex simulation and being allowed to plan multiple agents within it is a really interesting form."

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That era seemed to offer a rich cache of these highly-tactical simulations. The previous year, the original Rainbox Six had broken ground with its pre-mission planner, allowing players to arm and initiate complex breach-and-clear manoeuvres with an element of control previously unseen. In an unspoken bond with Frozen Synapse, the planning phase could be agonised over far longer than the actual mission; fastidious timing and deployment of arms as enjoyable to set up as to enact. Rainbow Six and the SWAT series were watershed moments, antithetical to the endless wave of arcade shooters in difficulty and lethality. Hidden and Dangerous, in the eyes of Hardingham, was just as important.

I asked him what he thought about Full Spectrum Warrior, Pandemic's breakout squad management sim that touted a similar level of lethality, combining the same tactical crunch as Hidden and Dangerous in a theatre then shockingly contemporary. 

"I played maybe an hour of it," he said.  "I seem to remember finding it a little too contrived - I like the gamespace in my games to really emerge from some simple fundamental rules."

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If there was one governing through-line in Frozen Synapse, it was certainly that. Simple fundamental rules. Fidelity by leanness. A few gun types, a two stances and a timer. The rest comprised of player-defined movement plots and firing vectors. Hardingham admitted the end product was pretty close to what he had started with, adding "In general I hate badly-defined bloat in games. Your decisions should be clear and differentiated."

It was the case in 2011, and once more in 2016. If you weren't already aware, Frozen Synapse 2 is set for a soft-release later this year. Combining the tried-and-true combat mechanics of the original with an ambitious, faction-ridden open world, the sequel is looking to expand in certain areas. Hardingham related elements cut from the original were appearing in the sequel in some form.

"One thing which I took out of the original, which I'm looking to add in Frozen Synapse 2's 'Advanced Tactics' mode, is 'reactive' orders - allowing a unit to do something different depending on what an enemy does.  I don't think it has a place in the core modes, but I'm also interested in deepening the planning interface as a tertiary mode."

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He emphasised that it was still early days with the feature; the notion of appealing to the hardcore who wanted to tinker with unit orders on a granular level, suggesting orders can be initiated based on an enemy or friendly's actions. If a friendly takes fire, a team mate might do x. If an enemy moves into a specific zone, your guys will do y. Not autonomy, but high-fidelity if-then logic. 

A year after the release of Frozen Synapse, Firaxis deployed their XCOM reboot to critical acclaim. It was a big, bouncy rejig of the original; beveled edges and streamlined of cruft, XCOM was a strategy game for the everyman. But then, so was Frozen Synapse. The big difference, aside from movement and theme pedantry, was the idea of dice rolls governing encounters. I offered a penny for Hardingham's thoughts on XCOM's system versus outright determinism. 

"That's kind of one of the most fundamental questions of game design. There's SUCH a lot going on with this issue. RNG takes away responsibility from the player; it's unpredictable; it's exciting - unpredictable things often add fun to a game. Obviously you have to have at least some deterministic mechanics if you aren't just making a slot machine, but the more responsibility a player has the more exhausting it is to play properly. I view RNG as like adding salt in cooking - you have to have some, and you need to keep springling it in until you have the perfect mix.

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While Frozen Synapse doesn't have any RNG, the "Dark" modes actually act as a proxy. Because you don't know exactly where your opponents units are, you have to play with possibilities and make calls based on limited information. Which is often more fun."

He mentioned he wasn't a fan of 'percent to hit'-style mechanics, and while it has its place, I remain inclined to agree. Where we did diverge slightly was on the idea of asymmetry in tactical engagements. I've always enjoyed games where the sides aren't equally matched of feature vastly different tools, forcing daring utilisation and irregular engagement. Think Jagged Alliance 2, fresh on the Drassen tarmac. Think Commandos 2: Men of Courage, four-odd soldiers against the Axis. But in concentrated kill-house environments?

"This is complicated," Hardingham said. "I don't want to have a symetrical start-state for a game. That just feels very limiting to the design. I prefer to balance using concepts such as 'duplicate' - where your score playing as Side A on Map 75122 is ranked vs all other people who've played Side A on Map 75122 - or bidding, where you gamble on how well you can do given a start-state, or "both-ways", where you play as Side A then your opponent plays as Side A.

"I don't personally though like games which are fundamentally about two very different kinds of sides being in combat.  It often ends up feeling very contrived and unnatural. I want both sides to be using the same basic mechanics."

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He went on to illustrate the point with Frozen Cortex, Mode 7 Games' interesting tactical effort that drew from American football as much as it did Frozen Synapse. Hardingham noted being on offense versus being on defense is obviously pretty different, but the core mechanics beneath are the same, making everything feel much more organic.

"It's just so important to me that the game rules are laid on top of a simulation of some kind.  I don't want to design or play games which are just built up from a set of rules which are all created specifically for that game mode."

One thing that dominated discussion on a few episodes of Visiting the Village -- essential development and culture podcast series by Mode 7 Games' Hardingham and studio co-founder, Paul Kilduff-Taylor -- was the rise of procedural generation for level creation and furnishing. It's an enticing prospect particularly for smaller developers; procedural generation doing the heavy lifting in level design and freeing up resources elsewhere. But it's more than merely a development fast-track in Hardingham's eyes. Procedural generation is key to player proficiency.

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"When you use significant procedural generation, you remove the part of the game which is learning the levels," he explained. "You make the process of playing the game more about becoming generally good at that game, and less about being good specifically at that set of levels." 

Contentious as that perspective may be in other genres, tactical games do fare better. Peripheral awareness replaces physicality. Being able to assess new junctions or prospective points of contact. Ascertain effective range of engagement. In short, take in the surroundings, manoeuvre with aplomb and chew out your targets. Over the years, I've gravitated away from economy-based strategy games -- hereditary Westwood and Blizzard fare -- because the economic puzzle has never really been a particularly interesting one. Another contentious perspective for a different time.

An interesting and largely forgotten experiment with procedural level generation was in Konami's portable cyberpunk shooter Coded Arms. Nothing tactical by any stretch of the imagination, but its virtual training simulator conceit more than effectively sold the procedurally-generated levels. It was primitive and unrepentantly cubic and often led to strange design irregularities, but Coded Arms' cohesion of theme and mechanics wasn't revisited until years later.

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I asked Hardingham about how theme had the power to effect level design. Much like the original game, Frozen Synapse 2 is taking computer-controlled level creation into the big city. No longer constrained to comparatively claustrophobic kill-rooms, would a larger game world threaten interesting and unique locations.

"The vast majority of most levels are completely generated, and the "designed" buildings fit in quite organically," he explained. "The way to nail that is usually in making the look of the game suitable.  If the actual models used to represent game-important stuff -- for instance a wall in FS -- are defined largely by that thing, then procedural generation tends to work much better."

The proof is not being able to tell whether early screenshots of Frozen Synapse 2 have been hand-crafted, or products of procedural generation. In any case, Mode 7 Games' brand of cyberpunk chess features almost no ancillary cruft. Its hacker-blueprint composite is the perfect fit for procedural generation, and the implications in the sequel -- an expansive luminescent webwork of atriums, offices and carparks -- appear to be a seamless, lean use of the technology. 

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Frozen Synapse 2 is set for a soft-launch some time before the year's end, with the beta period predicating the date of full release. Rainbow Six meets Syndicate in a living, breathing world of Alpha Centauri-inspired factions; each as dynamic as the other. It'll be an interesting test of the games' larger systems; to witness the trickle-down interplay between the strategic and the tactical. And, of course, to see new twists on a tight combat formula.

"It's exhausting to make," Hardingham admitted, "but it'll be an awesome game." 

I don't for a moment doubt the man.

Tags: Interview

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