Thursday, 14 May 2015

Blogs of the Round Table: The Planning of Frozen Synapse Prime and Reactionary Planning

Thanks to a recent Humble Bundle, I've been able to play Frozen Synapse Prime with a couple of friends, and it is exactly the reason why I love how it uses planning.

This has been written for the Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table, for the theme of Plans. Find everything else written for it here!

A while ago, towards the release of Payday, I had a group of friends which often played the game together in a group. None of us were especially good at the game, but we often played on the highest difficulty for a challenge. The original levels never posed a huge problem for us, we would often be able to just wing it for the most part, but the DLC levels were incredibly difficult, as well as the 'final' First World Bank heist, Overdrill.

Overdrill was almost impossible without planning, the time we went in blind we barely even started. Some people would plan ways to get around the heist - hiding in one room would mean the game wouldn't spawn enough enemies so you could wait for as long as you needed. We found a good tactic which allowed for the 4 of us to rotate through positions, allowing us to get more ammo and health when needed. Unfortunately, that plan would often fall apart, and we'd improvise to an extent. Some people might compare it to emergent gameplay, but to be honest, I despise that term.

Being made to plan was a result of the game being too difficult for us, we couldn't get by on FPS skill alone. Strategy games force players into planning, but Frozen Synapse Prime's system of incredibly short games tied into synchronous turns means that this planning stage is all-important rather than something that is used just to beat the level you can't complete.

Planning in strategy games will often fall down to the multiplayer component. Your planning in Starcraft 2 is meta, it's creating a build order and learning what is played. Company of Heroes 2's introduction of boosts outside of the game results in a large amount of planning needed before the game starts. In fact, the vast majority of real-time games are too difficult to plan without already going in with an idea.

Frozen Synapse Prime, in fact all of the 'Frozen' games, allows for you to react every time you plan your move. It's impossible to plan before you get into the game, there's no 'meta' as many strategy games have. That's incredibly important, and that's why the planning face makes it such a phenomenal game.

All of the popular esports, the most popular competitive games out there, rely on a 'meta'. This is a set of strategies that the communities define as the best, and so they play around them. Despite what some people might argue, every single esports has one. Frozen Synapse Prime does not have a meta, it is too clean and simple to have one.

I might screw up in turn one, have two of my soldiers killed. In many games with a meta, this can throw you so far off course that there's no returning. By having a planning phase that repeats over a game, the planning becomes flexible, reactionary.

Frozen Synapse Prime has everything great about planning. In turn one, I can create one big plan, then micromanage it later. I can just decide to set myself up in this turn, take each other as it comes. Or, I can see what my enemy will probably do, then counter that. Rather than games which rely on a meta to define how planning works, the Frozen games embody how planning is a reaction, it should just be a set of rules to play by.

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