Sunday, 11 September 2011

Syndicate: Is Plot or Mechanic the Essence of a Game?

Before I say anything else I should point out that despite working on the previous Syndicate games and knowing people at EA, I know nothing of the new Syndicate remake beyond yesterdays announcement.

Like everyone else I saw a Tweet, followed a link, read an article containing news news of a very cool sounding game but it didn't sound a lot like Syndicate. Sure, someone had taken the original plot, expanded it in some cool ways but what was the gameplay going to be like? Oh there it is: 'FPS'...

Don't get me wrong, FPS games are cool, I played Quake, its sequels and games made with its engine multiplayer in the office at Bullfrog and then Lost Toys for at least six years. I've also heard good things about the developer and look forward to seeing where their focus on co-op takes the game. This blog isn't about the developer, FPS games or any predicted quality of the new Syndicate game, it's about the difference between a story and a game mechanic.

The blank stare

Programming games is hard. It's fun to be coding things that make pretty, animated stuff appear on screen but you come to realise pretty quickly that the artists, designers, producers (and if you are working alone, your girlfriend and kids) aren't going to be interested in the details of it. You get a blank stare or worse. If you want people to get excited you have to translate it into something people can see. Just ask Josh :)

Similarly, if you're a game designer you could try talking game mechanics but certain people aren't going to understand so you have to translate it into a story to avoid that blank stare. The thing is, talking game mechanics isn't quite like talking code. It's understandable that artists, producers etc. can't talk code but if you are working in games in any of those roles, you should be able to talk mechanics.

In fact, the twitter and forum reaction to the Syndicate announcement show pretty conclusively that gamers absolutely know the difference between a story and a game mechanic. Almost everyone seems to want something that plays like Syndicate rather than an FPS based in the same universe.

Where the original story came from

Syndicate has a pretty cool story but, I'll let you into a little secret, it's not where it started. Sean Cooper (lead coder and designer) has a great account of how it all happened here on his website. Alex Trowers (Designer) also covers it pretty well in his article On Retrofusion. 

My own involvement was pretty minimal, I helped design the isometric system at the start and designed six of the missions near the end but I was sat (mostly working on Magic Carpet) near Sean for the entire project so got a good view of how it evolved and where the plot came from.

Weirdly,  it started as a side scroller on the Amiga with the main idea being that you controlled four guys. It quickly switched to isometric and became about grouping and ungrouping these four agents and selecting their moods via sliders to enable them to do more useful stuff via 'AI'. Like several old Bullfrog games I would call it a proto-RTS as the genre didn't really exist at the time.

So, basically They had these four agents who you could group select and run around shooting. There was no scripted game as such but it could be played multiplayer over the network so more features were added. Controlling a group of four at once was the most fun but it felt kind of limiting, Sean added the 'Persuadetron'. This let you recruit civilians into a huge mob, taking them into battle with you.

This is the essence of Syndicate and the story was built around it. People were fitted with 'chips' which explained their susceptibility to the Persuadetron and also provided a plot point of how the control sliders worked on your agents. Why did people have these chips in the first place? It was a kind of electronic drug that everyone wanted. It all fitted together really well and a dystopian, cyberpunk, Bladerunner-esque plot was born.

Maybe it all fitted together a little too well and it could seem to some that story came first but it did not happen that way. The game came first, the story second, the way it's supposed to be. We're talking games not books or movies here.

Making a sequel after many years

So what happens when a game franchise is picked up after a fifteen year break? I guess at this point you have to work out exactly what the game consists of. Syndicate Wars, the original sequel from '96 had expanded hugely on the original plot, the game was set some years later in a time of rebellion and could be played from three sides. Very cool and it even shipped with a novella. I'm guessing the sequel started by reading this. Sure, it's a cool plot but

  • Is it the essence of Syndicate? 
  • Did they talk to people who played and remembered the game?
  • Did nobody talk about the mechanics?
  • Did they think about the mechanics and reject them because RTS games "don't work" on consoles
  • Is there a generation of gamers who think that all games involve running around in first person with a selection of guns or is that just the ones advertised on TV?
  • Do big publishers underestimate the intelligence of gamers?
  • Am I (and the other people moaning on Twitter) boring old farts stuck in the past?
Please leave a comment.


  1. We are right, they are wrong. We can also handily prove them wrong since we actually have the skills to make it better than their retarded FPS idea.

    XCOM as an FPS anyone? IDIOTS

  2. I'm actually pretty convinced you can deliver a number of the syndicate mechanics in a FPS package actually. I know, it wont be that way, but the formulation of squad control and AI based interactions is definitely do-able. I know because I've been doing it.

    But am I hopeful for this? not really. It will be a pretty FPS with some kind of scripted storyline, rather than a sandbox AI fest. Always is these days.

  3. Erm, I forgot to mention. I've been doing this for my syndicate-like game Damzel (currently on hold doing some other work, but will be back eventually).

    Think brothers in arms or even the new XCOM actually. That kind of thing works.