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Sean Cooper On Syndicate

27 Jun 2009  by   Paul Younger

Talking to IncGamers’ Peter Parrish, creator of videogame icon Syndicate, Sean Cooper, reveals the secrets behind the success of the franchise and why he feels it’s unlikely to see it again.

Sean Cooper is sceptical about any revival of the Syndicate name. “They’ve been saying that for the last fifteen years,” says the man credited with design and programming of the original game, “looking at EA’s track record of announcing titles, saying they’re going to revive it … they don’t tend to do it, because I don’t think they really understand what the original game was.”

“Every time I’ve seen a prototype of a new Syndicate it’s just been misguided. They’ve tried to be too quirky. They’ve tried to do things that aren’t what the essence of the game was.” During his time at EA, Sean witnessed a couple of demo builds come and go and was unimpressed by what he saw;  “One of [the prototypes] … it was something about using different senses. Something was leaving a scent and the agents were following it. I remember seeing them demo it in a conference room and thinking ‘what are they trying to achieve? what are they doing?’”

“The essence of the game was killing people – and that was it. Big guns. Strong dudes. Terminators essentially. If I have to kill everyone, I will. That to me was the essence of the gameplay.”

Dark Future

When Bullfrog released Syndicate in 1993, that ethos shone through. The world portrayed in isometric 3D was a sort of libertarian super-dystopia, where corporate interests were imposed by cyber-agents down the barrel of a gun. Missions took place in industrialised population centres patrolled by under-equipped police forces, who would attempt to maintain order as heavily-armed agents pursued their own goals. Civilian casualties were nearly always high.

The sheer brutality of the future depicted by Syndicate can be traced back to the earliest moments in its development; “Peter [Molyneux] was moving on to Populous 2. I’d just done Flood, which was my first game, and he wanted to know what I wanted to do next. The group of us from Bullfrog, I think it was six or seven of us, we all went down the pub and got shitfaced and just said ‘what shall we do next?’ The discussion went from there. If you look back on the origins of the project it comes from statements like ‘we wanna gun everyone down, we want to kill loads of people.’ From there we thought ‘well how can we deliver that?’”

These early thoughts became ‘Bob’ (later renamed Cyber Assault and then, on EA’s recommendation, Syndicate), an isometric engine where eight blue and orange characters could run around as a squad and fire at designated spots on the ground. When multiplayer code was finalised that allowed the team to play this across Bullfrog’s internal network, the agents were now able to shoot at one other. Clearly though, this wasn’t enough. Sean explains how the idea of a general population presence in the game grew from the strange duality of high concept simulation and the simple desire for more targets to aim at; “I think Peter was the one who said ‘we should have a population that go to work,’ and all the press releases at the time were describing this great new simulation where people would go to work and then go home. It was a bit of nonsense, but good hype at the time.”

Ultimately, the civilians ended up closer to mindless cannon fodder – but still retained an important role in creating the impression of life. “Yeah, [in the finished game] they mill around, they look like they’re going in and out of buildings” says Sean, “we weren’t trying to create a simulation, it was just a slight illusion so the vast majority of players would see a living city. The essence of it was really to give players the conscious decision to gun those people down if they wanted to.”

This potential for wanton, bloody violence could have posed a problem for Bullfrog. Prior to the release of Syndicate, Mortal Kombat had drawn fire for its outlandish use of gore and Cannon Fodder, a Sensible Software title, had found itself the subject of a minor tabloid inquest after being criticised by the Royal British Legion for using a poppy on its cover. Had there been any concerns that Syndicate, featuring the ability to wade into a crowd of innocent people with a flamethrower, may fall foul of similar outrage?

“Not at all, no. Anyone making a moral argument with me was just going to lose the battle, because I’d just ignore them. That’s how I felt. This was the reality of the game – the blood comes with it. The Germans kicked up a fuss and said ‘no blood, no blood’ so we made it white or green … something android coloured, that was the way around it. But it’s just ridiculous, because people still know it’s blood, they still read it as blood.”
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Assimilate Target

Despite all this talk of red splatter, one of the iconic moments of Syndicate was walking around the map with a flock of re-programmed civilians, gathering more and more until the crowd had swelled to include almost everybody in the mission. The narrative fluff to support this feature hinted that everybody on earth had been implanted with a chip that could alter their perception, to the extent that the majority of the population now dwell in a Matrix-like utopia to avoid the horrors of the world (an idea fleshed-out by the sequel, Syndicate Wars.) As a result, anybody could be re-chipped in-game to follow the player’s agents around and even fight on their side. It was non-violent, but morally just as dubious.

“Peter came in one day and said ‘it’d be really cool if we could have gangs and increase the number of agents you’re walking around with’ and we just went off that. It was some artist I think who said ‘oh you should have some sort of weapon called a Persuadatron or something, where that takes the people over’ – and that was a really good idea, so we put that in.”

Sean explains that the use of multiplayer played a crucial role in getting ideas like the Persuadatron implemented rapidly. “What we would do is set up a four player game, mainly in the evenings because we were doing coding and art during the day. You’d hear people saying ‘aw this is fucking shit!’ and you’d quickly run over and ask ‘WHY is it shit?’ It wasn’t so much watching people as listening to them, because I’d be playing the game myself, writing ideas down as I was going.” By listening to this direct feedback and monitoring areas that needed to be improved or altered, the game could quickly take shape, “[it] allowed the tuning to happen almost instantly – you could make a really nice build out of one nights playing.”

“It was pretty much standard Bullfrog practice. We’d played Populous multiplayer over serial port [during development] too, and what that eliminates is the need to write a computer player or any complex AI. The challenge is other human players playing the game. So therefore that gives you that inspiration to think ‘what else will players want to do?’ earlier – rather than trying to implement this computer player at a point when you don’t even know what the game is yet.”

Sean believes the results of this method can clearly be seen in the finished title, “It was such good fun, modifying the game to suit all the players in the room. It made the game what it was I think.”

Sadly though, general multiplayer didn’t make it to the final release Syndicate. “Yeah, it failed QA (Quality Assurance) … it was really disappointing actually, I think we were two days away from the release window and we wouldn’t have made the June release. The problem was it went out of synch, so the games weren’t the same on all the machines – and that happened when the connection dropped below a certain rate.”

That issue had been fixed in time for the release of American Revolt, an expansion disc released later in the year, but this update brought its own problems. An extremely punishing difficulty level and something of a lack of new features gave it an unpolished feel. Sean is candid about the mistakes that were made and his own role in the process; “We just didn’t monitor it enough, we didn’t monitor the levels enough and I didn’t play it through because I just wanted to get on with the next title. I dunno … what a disaster, I mean I would never do that now.”

“If I was thinking about [American Revolt] today I’d think ‘I want everybody who bought Syndicate to play it and I also want loads more people to play it because it’s just so cool’” he says,  “we’d have added twenty new features instead of about three.”
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Solo Mission

Sean left EA in 2006, due to personal circumstances and a desire to get back to making games without first presenting a lengthy design document that nobody would read. “It was pretty scary, you know? But I didn’t like what I was doing any more with EA. There was always this push to be a producer, or a ‘superproducer’ I think someone called it. I thought ‘what planet are these guys on? I just want to create games.’ And that’s exactly what I’m doing now.”

He now designs and programmes original games in flash, hosted on his own website and on flash gaming sites around the world. Zombie Wars, the fifth and latest in his isometric, weapons-and-blood Boxhead series (objective: “Kill as many zombies as you can in different ways.”) currently resides on more than 10,000 different hosting sites and gets an average of 65,000 visits per day. And if the Boxhead design model sounded somewhat familiar, that’s because it is; “I think [Boxhead] is Syndicate. I think all the games I’ve done have been Syndicate. Looking back at it I think ‘well it worked then, I’m going to use it now,’ with a few tweaks and adjustments for flash. It’s the same code-base really.”

Naturally those similarities also extend to the in-game gore. “[Boxhead] has loads of blood in it. You paint the map red,” Sean says happily “people love spurting blood everywhere.”

“I’ve had a couple of emails about that, one of them was from a Christian Unity Group. I just sent them back a nice letter saying ‘that’s the game, blood’s real and we do bleed when we’re shot.’ What can they do? They can’t do anything. If they put me on the BBC news, it’ll just make the game bigger and even more people will play it.”

While such a thing could provide a temporary spike in publicity, the main revenue models for flash gaming rely on steadier sources of income. The first is sponsorship – all of Sean’s Boxhead titles are sponsored by an exterior flash gaming portal. They pay to have their logo featured in the game in the hope that when a player tires of Boxhead, they will move on to different flash games at the sponsoring site. It works too; Sean tells me that there’s around a 55% followthrough rate.

Money can also be made through microtransactions, such as on the iPhone where single dollar purchases for small applications can easily add up, and through sub-licensing of the intellectual property. A 32 player version of Boxhead is currently in development thanks to the latter. Then of course there are advertising opportunities – and in some cases companies pay for exactly the opposite, to ensure that the game features no ads at all.

Despite the popularity of online flash gaming however, coverage on mainstream games-media sites is relatively sparse. “It’s a bit like the film magazines not featuring stuff from YouTube,” says Sean “the comparison is similar to that.”

“But if you watch the flash business now, you’re about to see a massive turn. A lot of the big players EA … Eidos are already there … a lot of them are going to start producing free, distributable games. This is where the real professionals get it and write some really good games. Especially EA’s back catalogue, if they plan it well and push the retro games like Command and Conquer onto the flash market they will have a massive hit on their hands.”

He thinks the market for these titles will extend beyond nostalgic players who experienced them first hand and could easily reach a new audience, “Cannon Fodder [by Sensible Software] for instance – get it in flash. They’ll have a success on their hands, because the kids have never seen it, it’s a brand new game to them.”

“The bottom line with flash games is if the core gameplay isn’t good, you aren’t going to get your hits. If it’s rubbish no-one is going to look at it. It’s not like in the commercial business where you can somehow get a metacritic rating of 80% when the game is really worth 30% and still sell it for $50.”
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Automated Aggression

Returning to the subject of Syndicate, Sean expands on his misgivings towards a new version. “EA doesn’t like games where the player doesn’t do everything” he says, “at the time of Syndicate [they] could never understand that some things can just happen without the player, could help the player, with automation of its own.”

“A key part of the game that gets missed every time is the automation. You could lower the agents’ perception and aggression – otherwise when a policeman pulls a gun, they just autofire back.”

Management of the main agents and the relevant AI reactions are crucial in Sean’s eyes; “If there were to be a new Syndicate, I would think about the AI that surrounds the AI characters and how they can help you out and kill things, in the same way they did in the original, by the player adjusting certain things – basically they could win the game for you, but through a bit of light management.”

His passion for focused game design was clearly a major factor in Syndicate’s success, but Sean is also quick to praise the role played by Peter Molyneux at Bullfrog; “Peter completely trusted me, so he just let me get on with it and let me be creative. He would come in from time to time and we’d just talk about the game, nothing was pushed or enforced. Basically, it was like I was writing a game for my own company. It’s really nice to have something like that to look back on. Magic Carpet was a lot of fun to work on, but Syndicate was the start of my career.”

That early experience of working independently has evidently paid off. With Boxhead set to be ported to the iPhone sometime next month and work on Shadez II: Battle For Earth in progress, Sean’s creations show no sign of letting up.

“I might do a Syndicate clone soon” he mentions casually, “keep watching my website.”

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