Starbreeze president and CEO Mikael Nermark recently spoke to Joystiq about the fate of the studio’s Syndicate re-boot, which sold just 34,000 units in the first month of its release. Nermark said that although he and the company were proud of what they achieved, some fans may have had too high expectations for the title. “Syndicate comes with a lot of expectations,” he said. “Such a great brand, such a great franchise. I don’t think we could’ve ever lived up to some people’s expectations.
“I love the original. When I got into the industry way back, RTS and that kind of game were my kind of game. But you always wanna add your touch to it, you wanna make it your game even though it’s built on a great franchise. So I think that’s hard. Overall, we’re happy.”
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard Starbreeze search for an explanation for Syndicate’s low sales. Speaking to Games Industry International earlier this month, Nermark said that the recent troubles at GAME impacted the shooter’s success. “There are so many reasons why a game succeeds or fails from a commercial point of view,” he said. “The numbers are not as high as we would like, and I think if you asked anyone they would say the same thing about any game they made. But [Syndicate] was released in the midst of GAME going under; the retail space is hurting, and I think that hurt us because we were such a retail product.”
It’s a fair point. The troubles at GAME no doubt affected the sales of Syndicate to some degree, but nevertheless there were bigger problems that resulted in the game’s poor sales, and they’re mostly to do with the quality of the game itself.
Perhaps it was due to the budget being too small to match the initial vision of the development team, or perhaps that initial vision just wasn’t that big in the first place, but either way the fact remains that although it was both slick and enjoyable Syndicate wasn’t a brilliant game. It was just good; a short six or seven hours of nice-looking environments and acceptable combat that never aspired to be anything greater. You could almost sense the team’s lack of enthusiasm while playing.
There are so many ways Starbreeze could have avoided this. It could have made a brilliant, memorable, high-scoring experience that did the original Bullfrog title a far greater justice. As it stands, the structure and concept of the reboot are completely off. Taking the RPG elements of the original and streamlining them into a linear corridor shooter was a concept completely lacking in imagination. Yes, a lot of what made Syndicate so cool was its grimy cyberpunk aesthetic, but cool art direction alone isn’t enough to make a reboot. You need the gameplay that goes with it.
Syndicate should have been more like Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Eurocorp could have been a central hub form where you upgraded your character, selected kit, and then took on missions across the globe – or at least across one vast and detailed city. Each mission should have centred around conflicts with Eurocorp’s competing Syndicates, some of which would comprise the main narrative thread, the rest of which would have been smaller sub missions that unlocked new weapons and augmentations.
Those augmenation should have been far more in depth. In the reboot augmentations and modifications were relegated to a small grid of upgrades that only slightly altered the rhythm of play. When I remember the past games, I recall the screen which showed my team’s entire body. I could swap out and change different modifications that related to different limbs, their torso or their brain. This feature should have been retained in the sequel. Instead of just selecting a square icon that allows us to slightly upgrade reload time or regenerate health faster, we should have been able to install new optical augmentations, or speed boosts, or melee weaponry, or armoured skin, or any number of ideas that I could list off from the top of my head right now. It should have been a far greater part of the experience instead of what felt like a tacked on concession to RPG fans.
Finally, team play should have been a feature included in the campaign right from the start. The co-op mode in the reboot is easily one of its best features, but it shouldn’t have featured just as a standalone mode. Like the augmentations, watching and controlling a team of four agents remains one of the enduring images of the 1993 game – removing this in the reboot completely distanced it from the vision of the original game. Even if the other three team members were AI controlled and could be given simple orders with the d-pad as in Mass Effect 3, this would have been far better experience than the prescripted linear shooting that we ended up with.
Basically, Syndicate should have more heavily leaned on its RPG elements. It should have been more open to player choice. The enviornments should have been explorable rather than directed. You should have had more control over how you equipped your character. There should have been three other agents with you in the field. What we got, outside of the text logs that detailed the world outside of the game, was barely a Syndicate game at all.
So perhaps that was the biggest mistake of them all – naming it Syndicate in the first place. You were right about one thing Mikael – Syndicate does come with a lot of expecations, and you let them down. If EA had sold the game as a new IP and given it a new name, then perhaps the backlash wouldn’t have been quite so damning and gamers would have been more receptive to the experience. Instead you ended up with a pale shadow of a better game, with which it shared little more than a name.