Agents Of Change: Starbreeze Talk Syndicate

It's just like being inside his head! As opposed to just on the right side of his gun.

This isn’t going to help. More likely quite the opposite, in fact. But, for the record, here’s Starbreeze’s claimed explanation for why they’ve so controversially made revered RTS/RTT/whatevs Syndicate into an adrenalised FPS.

Convinced? Me, not so much.

Speaking to OXM, game director Neil McEwan claimed that “It was always going to be an FPS. The original nub of the idea was to take that viewpoint from the original game and zoom into the Agent’s head, and play that part.”

Inevitably, he has it that “We’re big fans of the original Syndicate” and despite the genre switcheroo “we’re definitely paying as much homage to it as we can – bringing across the essence of the world, the core essence of what it is to be an Agent. That sounds wanky but it’s true – we’re taking the Persuadatron and evolving it in different ways, the weapons and brutality.”

McEwan is conscious that he’s playing with fire – ‘fire’ being the many and passionate fans of the original game. “I would love them to like it. You’re never going to please everyone.”

And here’s the quote that’s going to make people particularly upset. I’m not upset as such (I’m actually pretty resigned to old games being remade as shooters these days, and entirely subscribe to the ‘the old games don’t stop existing’ mindset), but I don’t think it’s a very useful or entirely accurate thing to be saying. So, take it away, designer Rickard Johansson: “I don’t want people to stop playing the old games, but time has moved on.”

This is what time has moved on to: a machine gun on the lower-right of every game, ever

Has it? Has it really? Perhaps he didn’t notice that Starcraft 2 outsold most of EA’s (and everyone else’s) portfolio last year. Perhaps he didn’t notice that SEGA refer to Total War as one of the major jewels in their crown. Perhaps he didn’t notice that Valve are spending a fortune on a DOTA remake. Perhaps what he really means is ‘publishers will give us a bigger development and marketing budget if we make it a first-person shooter.’ And that is what winds me up. The fact that Syndicate is being remade as an FPS I can actually deal with just fine – the original game still exists. Being asked to swallow claims that it’s genuinely a creative decision is entirely bitter pill, though.

I believe that this is absolutely nothing to do with changing times, and everything to do with cold commerciality. Because times have not changed, not in the way or to the extent that kind of claim (and similar ones made by 2K regarding XCOM) suggests: strategy games can still sell very well and can still do amazing experiential things. It’s just that first-person shooters are the more likely games to shift absolutely, honkingly enormous numbers.

Look, I’m entirely prepared for nu-Syndicate to be great and I am looking forward to it – if Syndicate has to be turned into an FPS, there are few studios I’d trust to do that well more than Starbreeze, who* did amazingly clever things with both Riddick and, to a lesser extent, The Darkness. It is highly likely to do interesting things and to expand Syndicate’s world and fiction in new directions: that is okay. Potentially even exciting. I’d really much prefer it, however, if we didn’t put up with nonsense ‘creative’ reasoning for the change on top of having to accept the cold business logic that really motivates it, however. Who on Earth do they think they’re kidding? (That’s not to say they can’t then go on to do impressively creative things with the brief, of course).

Moreover, a well-made Syndicate sequel proper would quite clearly sell pretty damn well: the fanbase is huge and the concept is strong enough to bring in newcomers. Unfortunately, ‘pretty damn well’ isn’t enough for a top-tier publisher anymore, not in these ultra-competitive times – that’s the nub of it. There isn’t the same interest in bread and butter, solidly-selling releases anymore: if a game isn’t a bonkers-scale smash hit the big firms just aren’t happy.

For both this and XCOM, however, I honestly do think there’s a good chance that if the FPS remakes do well, it’ll lead to far more faithful, if lower-key remakes of the more stately, less headshot-obsessed originals. If there’s one thing rights-holders love to do, it’s to capitalise on brand awareness – and for once, that might well end up being to our benefit. Releasing a high-res old-Syndicate as a promo game for the new one would make an incredible amount of business sense. I do hope EA high-ups are aware of that.

* Yeah, I’m aware that some of the major creatives behind those games have moved on. I do suspect a company philosophy extends far beyond key figures at the top, however – but we shall see. I expect at least some of that pedigree remains, and enough that I am highly interested in what they’re doing with this game.

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