Syndicate in Review- Bifurcated Design

My review of Syndicate is up over at the House Mad Catz Built. The long and short of the B- write up is that it’s two decent but not particularly outstanding halves welded together to form a gestalt product that is less than the sum of its parts. It’s a bifurcated design. I really liked what I saw in the early hours as I reported here in my impressions last week, but going the distance with the game revealed a low ceiling over a host of underdeveloped, undernourished ideas.  This got me thinking about how utterly screwed up it is that developers are pressured- either internally or externally- to deliver fully realized single player and multiplayer games in a one-size-fits-all package, particularly in the FPS genre.

The reviews of any number of action games with “tacked on” single or multiplayer suites bear out the fact that this approach does not work, particularly when the game types are very different or incongruous. Syndicate is another game that splits its resources between two halves, weakening its own strengths. It’s hardly an overall failure and it’s definitely a “good” game, but neither half is exceptional. Or complementary.

If Starbreeze had designed Syndicate strictly as a four-player co-op game with a short-form mission structure, deeper customization, variation akin to Left 4 Dead, bots, and more content all around, I think it could have been an A-grade game. But somebody- whether it was EA or Starbreeze- wanted this game to follow on with this bifurcated design concept. Syndicate offers two suites of decent but unexceptional content instead of focusing on core competencies and doing what it does best.

The model isn’t exactly new. Quake, Duke Nukem 3D, and any number of games in the 1990s had this sort of dual-purpose design, but we’re also talking about a time when the cost of developing, making, and marketing  games even at the highest levels of the business was literally millions of dollars less than it is today.  It probably cost a lot of money to design levels, assets, and gameplay components for Syndicate’s single-player game, not to mention paying for music, voice acting, writing production design, playtesting, and other costs. And all of those resources could have- and should have- been brought to bear on the stronger co-op game. Or, the entire single-player game should have been scuttled and the co-op game released as a $15 download with optional content purchases. As it stands, the single player game feels like a tremendous waste while the co-op area feels lean and hungry.

When you’re looking at development budgets and project plans on a Call of Duty or Halo scale, having a “complete” package that appeals to the broadest audience possible and that has offerings for any type of player coming into the game makes sense. At this level of sales and public expectation, it’s good business to divide development and resources between these two areas. Yet we still see time and time again that the single player tends to be the weaker part, because when you get right down to it it’s the multiplayer component that provides longevity and fosters brand loyalty- not to mention long-term monetization and fewer aftermarket copies in circulation. Simply put the ROI on a strong multiplayer component is far better and long-term than what comes out of a strong single player game.

Then there is the issue that comes up every time a AAA shooter comes out where some people inevitably comment about how they never touch either the single or multiplayer part of the game. And then there’s folks like me that do both. Why are we all being sold the same $60 product again?

The games that fall outside of the Halo/Call of Duty tier are the ones where splitting development along these lines hurts them the most.  Did Dead Space 2 or Bioshock 2 really need multiplayer? Has anyone checked in on those servers lately to see if there’s anyone playing them? Could the resources spent to create those multiplayer games have been better utilized elsewhere?  It seems like such a waste- both of those games had very strong single-player content, and then a slapdash multiplayer that serves little purpose beyond filling in a bulletpoint and likely appeasing some guy in a suit somewhere.

The point of this is that games like Syndicate are shooting themselves in the foot by adhering to this fragmented product model. Purpose-built games that are very specific and limited in focus are the ones that tend to be the best. Not every game should have a single player campaign, and not every game should have a multiplayer option. If you’re going to half or quarter ass it- witness the single-player “challenges” in Gotham City Imposters, which are nonsense like checkpoint races in a game that should be a strictly multiplayer shooter- then don’t do it at all.

Granted, this doesn’t all fall at the feet of developers and publishers. Whenever there’s public outcry about a game not having a campaign or not having multiplayer, game makers respond. When the top-selling games mostly have extensive multiplayer, then that’s the success trend and it will be followed. When there’s money to be made from one type of game or another, they’ll keep doing this. And as Mass Effect 3 hits next week with a full-on multiplayer game in its traditionally single-player mix, it’ll be interesting to see if BioWare has weakened the single-player content of what will certainly be one of the top-selling and best reviewed titles of2012 by bifurcating its development.

14 Responses to “Syndicate in Review- Bifurcated Design”

  1. Austin March 1, 2012 at 2:32 pm #

    Great write-up. Probably one of the most objective insights on the subject I have read in far too long.

  2. The Killmobile March 1, 2012 at 3:21 pm #

    When I read things like this I end up excited to play a game that doesn’t exist. As if developers are reading this and not only refining their view of what a pitch-perfect game can be, but releasing it today. Alas, as many times as Master Barnes has pumped me up with his “if they’d only done it this way” reviews, that perfect game still doesn’t exist. Blast. Why aren’t the right people reading this?

  3. Dorkmaster Flek March 1, 2012 at 4:03 pm #

    The article is great, but what I’m interested in is the fact that you guys got posted over at the Penny Arcade Report. Great to see you guys getting some recognition in a larger community! I predict a traffic spike in your future…

    • McKay March 1, 2012 at 4:07 pm #

      I predict an unintentional DDoS in their future… :P

  4. Brian Rowe March 2, 2012 at 12:42 am #

    Oh geez, don’t jinx us like that!

  5. Yorioto March 2, 2012 at 2:36 am #

    Does this issue have something to do with the stagnant pricing model of AAA releases? Would it even be an option to release a multiplayer only game for a lower price point? I think people complain about value when they have payed 60 dollars and want all the modes and whatnot. Personally I play mostly singleplayer and look for games that focus on this aspect. I’ve avoided many games that have good multiplayer but crappy singeplayer because I’m not shelling out for 5 hours of corridors. I’d even be happy to pay seperately for just the singleplayer or for some people just the multiplayer. But hey, that’s wild and crazy, and publishers don’t try anything crazy at all nowadays.

    • Michael Barnes March 2, 2012 at 5:40 pm #

      Yes, I think it absolutely does. There’s likely something in there about creating the illusion of value by offering a “complete” package. But when the complete package is two mediocre halves, what are you really selling?

      A la carte…$60 for the whole package, $35 for each component. Why not?

  6. Hobbes March 2, 2012 at 3:27 pm #

    Meh.

    The game stank of commercial cynicism, and it’s not disappointed in that regard. The singleplayer was lazy and the multiplayer was formulaic (it’s telling that PAYDAY is a fraction of the price and by and large does most of what syndicate’s co-op does just as functionally). As I made reference to elsewhere, this is a game where the designers had several good ideas which were vaguely applicable, but forgot that they were building into an existing world and mythos that already had a developed fanbase. Eidos did -not- make this mistake with Deus Ex and the results there were excellent as a result.

    To put this in perspective, a much better SP campaign would have on the surface looked more like the original Syndicate approach, but with the levels THEMSELVES being FPS based. Take what worked in the campaign narrative, don’t try bolting on some godawful hollywood tale of redemption and being the good guy. The whole point of Syndicate was a story of evil bastards screwing over other evil bastards. It -worked-.

    Modernising Syndicate was a brave decision. Reinventing it into COD with Sci-fi overtones was not.

    • Michael Barnes March 2, 2012 at 5:45 pm #

      I don’t know Hobbes, the Syndicate brand is hardly current and I don’t think the game was really dependent on players from ’93-’96 or whatever to get on board with it. There’s likely many, many people who played Syndicate in the 1990s in any of its incarnations who don’t even play video or computer games anymore. It’s not a major brand at all, and the game seems more like an attempt to maintain copyright and possibly re-establish the name than to make money off it. Because I’m not really sure there’s much to be made off of it anyway.

      See, I really like your idea of retaining the original mission structure and framing but having FPS resolution. That would have been a great idea. But the standards and trends are elsewhere, and a risk wasn’t taken. And likely, there weren’t the right resources to do that since they were looking at effectively designing two games with different purposes.

      I think the COD comparison is off base, unless you’re just referencing the structure of the SP game. It really doesn’t play or feel anything like COD other than being a corridor-bound shooter with occassional setpieces. It’s become too easy to loop any and all FPS games back to Call of Duty. I think it’s not a good shortcut.

  7. coyote_blue March 2, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

    I want more, better SP. And I don’t mind if that means cheaper production values.
    But I’m afraid the success of multiplayer additions to Assassin’s Creed (and probably ME3) will teach the industry the wrong lesson: bigger, safer, more sequels, more map packs.

    Improving single player seems to have hit a development wall, and the current path of least resistance is more multiplayer. I’m trying to think of a single player experience that would be just as easy to nickel and dime as, say, coming out with a few new skins, guns and maps every month.

    • Michael Barnes March 2, 2012 at 5:37 pm #

      I’m with you Blue. The problem, again, really rests on the consumer again because like you say- if people favorably respond to the multiplayer in ME3, you can expect to see it in every BioWare game from here on out, and that’s less resources for the SP game.

      The problem is that multiplayer _makes sense_ from a business perspective. You can hold up examples like Arkham City and Skyrim all day long as very successful SP-focused IP, but at the end of the day the ROI is likely far lower. With multiplayer, for example, you don’t have to hire a team to program AI or dialogue writers. And you can effectively sell subscriptions.

      I really believe the key is to offer either completely SP or MP focused games or offer each component a la carte. There’s no reason that the Call of Duty fan that only plays MP should be paying for SP content when they’d likely be willing to pay MORE for the game down the line anyway with subscriptions, add-ons, and so forth.

      There’s also the issue that SP is often a one-shot deal with a limited shelf-life and therefore a limited window of opportunity to recoup costs and turn a profit. Particularly now when we see games hitting 30-40% price cuts _two months_ after release. But multiplayer titles continue to sell, and when they’re annualized like Call of Duty, they never quit being monetized.

      • Hobbes March 2, 2012 at 9:40 pm #

        “There’s also the issue that SP is often a one-shot deal with a limited shelf-life and therefore a limited window of opportunity to recoup costs and turn a profit. Particularly now when we see games hitting 30-40% price cuts _two months_ after release. But multiplayer titles continue to sell, and when they’re annualized like Call of Duty, they never quit being monetized.”

        If it’s a one shot deal, it’s either by design or by lack of design. Case of the latter is Call of Duty as a series, each game has a defined path through which you travel through the game (and associated narrative), and by the time you’ve gone from the first Modern Warfare to the latest one, you’ve played a complete and enclosed story. If you wanted you could replay it another time, but in effect by design it’s “consume once”.

        If it’s by lack of design (hello nu-syndicate) then no number of clever tricks or fancy artwork or WUB WUB WUB is going to rescue it. The big issue is that there is actually a genuinely untapped market where Syndicate goes, and it’s not so much the fact that people look back on it nostalgically, though I imagine that in itself is perhaps an element.

        It’s the fact that Syndicate was essentially the anti-hollywood, you played a bad guy, you murdered other bad guys, you kidnapped researchers, you developed tech that would probably violate every possible arms treaty conceivable, and that, sadly is a facet of gaming that’s not been explored much (Deus Ex HR did finally touch on it, but not to the depth that it could have). There’s so much emphasis on “being the disney hero” or “seeking redemption” that as of late stories all feel the same.

        A modernisation of Syndicate as I touched on, could have remained quite faithful to the source material, ethos, and game world, without having to set the damn thing on an on-rails-story-fed-down-your-throat shooter, and I can bet you that if designers had put some genuine thought into the structure and approach, come up with that rarest of things – a replayable single player game.

        • coyote_blue March 3, 2012 at 10:10 am #

          I wish I had enough data to refute your point on ROI, Michael, because I’m honestly not sure that you aren’t right.

          But let’s take Braid. Love it or hate it, that was a small group of dudes making a deliberate SP experience on the cheap. Or Analogue, which I found out about on Rock, Paper Shotgun, which took one woman a year of coding, then getting someone to draw pictures, and another person to make 30+minutes of music.

          They both decided what they wanted to provide, picked a price point that they could justify, then jettisoned everything else that didn’t matter. Analogue, for instance, has maybe 30 hand-drawn frames of graphics, and once you’ve read the hordes of text blocks that contain the game’s story, the game only takes ten minutes to play through.

          I’ve played both games into the ground. I probably won’t ever boot either game up again, unless I want to show them to someone else. And while an art-house-douche platformer and a lesbian scif-fi romance novelist aren’t necessarily the sort of folks that the broader market are probably ready for, they have established that good SP things can be done cheaply.

          I’d like to believe that this is ultimately a failure of vision. I can’t imagine that all game designers – even most of them – get into gaming because they want to make shooters until the end of time. And even among those who do, some of them want (as TWOxACROSS says below) to make BioShocks.

          If there’s a way to compel business dudes to acknowledge this opportunity, maybe it’s the dev cycle? Yes, you get subscriptions with every edition of CoD. But that’s a 12-18 month commitment of lots of resources. Why not create a few “Miramax” SP teams, who give you a little bump every 3-6 months?

  8. TWOxACROSS March 3, 2012 at 12:05 am #

    I have to agree with a lot of what was said here in the comments, and with the article. I recently played through Syndicate’s SP, and I had a blast. I did like it, but when I told people about it I said “it was entertaining, but not $60 entertaining.” I had a lot of fun with the game, and I don’t normally like the FPS genre, but this had enough quirks that made it something different, something more than just “shoot the bad guys.” The addition of Apps and the Overlay, as well as purchasing different upgrades throughout the campaign made it more interesting than just “another FPS/CoD-clone.”

    I do believe that developers need to start looking more responsibly at where they pool their resources, too. Bioshock was a great game as SP narrative, but Bioshock 2 seemed to fall short of its predecessor, and a lot people attributed that to putting too much focus on the MP. The idea of only paying for the portion you really want out of a game is a great idea, and in our digital distribution age, it’s entirely possible. Killzone 3 has started allowing people to play the MP for free off the PSN, only locking your Level advancement at a certain point. Then if you wanted to keep going, you could purchase the “full MP game” for $14.99. Whether or not Killzone 3′s MP is any good, the idea behind that “Digital, MP-only” concept could be a great place for the industry to head. It unfortunately doesn’t readily solve the problem of funneling resources into the wrong “-player” mode.

    Developers need to pay attention a bit more to what their fans that tout the game liked about it. With Call of Duty, it totally became about its MP, and it was obvious (look at the campaign from MW1 compared to MW3) they started putting all the eggs into one basket. Alternatively, look how Bioshock, a game touted for its fantastic SP narrative, had a successor that fell short because they listened to the Halo/CoD-hungry masses saying “this should totally have a multiplayer,” even though most fans of Bioshock and its narrative rightfully disagreed. The result was a SP narrative that didn’t live up to the first, and “tacked on” MP that only ended up diminishing what could have been a better SP narrative, had they not wasted the resources on a MP that no one plays anymore.

    I’m becoming a bit more concerned about where I spend my dollar now, because if a game series suddenly introduces a MP mode, I’m worried that the SP aspect won’t live up to the $60 I’m paying, and I won’t be able to get the enjoyment that I missed in the SP from the new MP. This is my big worry with Max Payne 3, actually. I loved the first two games, and played the crap out of the spiritual successor Stranglehold, but I’m worried that no matter how cool Max Payne’s new MP sounds, I’ll end up with a diminished SP experience.

    Sorry for the wall of text >.<

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