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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.

BioShock: Infinite Set for October 16 Release

Ken Levine via the Twitter dropped this little nugget this morning: BioShock Infinite will ship in the states on October 16th with an International release date of October 19th. Now, this is pretty standard “news” but consider this:

BioShock, the original, was released in August of 2007. August is a fairly slow time as far as releases are concerned. It’s still summer. It’s not quite holiday rush. It’s for games that publishers feel are “tweeners” and if you recall BioShock was in NO way a slam dunk from a sales perspective because everyone was harping on the “System Shock was great but sold poorly” mantra and BioShock was being compared to System Shock at every turn.

Fast forward to BioShock 2. New developer. Hit/miss buzz. 2K releases it on February 9, 2010. February is another interesting release window. It’s smack dab in the middle of the 2nd quarter fiscal year for public companies. Early February is an odd choice because people are still reeling a bit from holiday spending. This year we see games like The Darkness 2, Amalur, UFC 3, Syndicate, Neverdead, Ashura’s Wrath, etc. all dropped in February. February could also mean a release date push from 4th quarter.

March, on the other hand, is (usually) when big AAA releases start to flow again (unless you are releasing a Blizzard game but they are a very unique circumstance). Mass Effect 3, Resident Evil, etc. These are clearly not hard and fast rules and it’s easy to point out outliers when it comes to release dates but companies don’t throw darts at a calendar when they decide on when to drop a game on the public.

I do find it interesting that this is the first Q4 release for a BioShock game. That’s either random chance or 2K has more confidence in Infinite than the other two games in this series. And there’s a lot of eggs in this particular BioShock basket.

Oh, yeah, the press release. Here ’tis:

2K Games announced today that BioShock® Infinite will be available in North America on October 16, 2012 on the Xbox 360® video game and entertainment system from Microsoft, PlayStation®3 computer entertainment system and Windows PC. The title will be available internationally on October 19, 2012.

Developed by Irrational Games, BioShock Infinite won more than 75 editorial awards at E3 in 2011, including the Game Critics Awards’ Best of Show. The title has been named one of the most anticipated games of 2012 by more than 50 media outlets, including WIRED, USA Today, TIME, GameSpot, and GameTrailers. The BioShock franchise is one of the interactive entertainment industry’s most successful and critically acclaimed series, which has sold-in over 9 million units worldwide.

“After BioShock, we had a vision for a follow up that dwarfed the original in scope and ambition,” said Ken Levine (@iglevine), Creative Director of Irrational Games (@irrationalgames). “BioShock Infinite has been our sole focus for the last four years, and we can’t wait for fans to get their hands on it.”

BioShock Infinite puts players in the role of Booker DeWitt, a hard-bitten former Pinkerton agent, together with the revolutionary AI companion, Elizabeth. The two struggle to escape the sky-city of Columbia, in a 1912 America that might have been. Armed with an arsenal of new weapons and abilities, they face menacing enemies, in unique expansive environments. Classic BioShock gameplay joins innovations such as aerial combat on high-speed Sky-Lines in the service of a immersive storyline – an Irrational Games signature.