THE MAKING OF SYNDICATE
December last year, I was interviewed by Edge Online about The Making of Syndicate. I hope you enjoy reading a little bit of 'history'...
"I used to get friends, around five of them, to come in at the weekends. Instead of going to the pub…” Sean Cooper’s train of thought momentarily stalls, and he pauses. It’s over ten years since he led the Syndicate project; more than a decade since Bullfrog’s dystopian opus beguiled gamers and critics with its combination of progressive, squad-based shoot ’em up, strategic planning and – for the time – refreshingly freeform environs. “What I wanted to do with my life at that point was work – I didn’t want to go to the pub or chat up girls,” Cooper continues, with disarming candour. “We’d come in and play it multiplayer. We’d all go round trying to kill each other, and I’d hear someone say: ‘Ah… that’s shit’, and then I’d try to fix the problem. It was just a great atmosphere in which to create a game. We had no one telling us what to do. We did what we wanted to.”
The most adroit explanation of Bullfrog’s success in the early ’90s is that its staff genuinely enjoyed themselves, making games that, first and foremost, they wanted to play. You can discuss Peter Molyneux’s qualities as a game designer, Glenn Corpes’ coding prowess, Les Edgar’s business nous, or highlight the quality of the post-Populous appointments to a growing company – individuals like Alex Trowers (who went on to work at Kuju and Lost Toys), Cooper (now an independent game developer) and Paul McLaughlin (now head of art at Lionhead), among others. But if you really want to understand why Syndicate worked so well, had so many innovative features, and is invariably namechecked in Best Games Ever! lists, know this: Bullfrog was very much its own best customer.
Syndicate, once called Cyber Assault, first took shape during a liquid lunch. “It really just evolved,” reveals Corpes, the former Bullfrog uber-coder who went on to found Lost Toys and is now about to release his first iPhone game. “I have very vague memories of a lunchtime design meeting in the pub, talk of multiple characters. I think it was an overhang from an older game. Flood – a 2D platformer for the ST and Amiga – originally had four players with their own cameras, and you could switch any camera to the main screen. It didn’t work at all, and Flood evolved into a completely different game, a cutesy platformer. But a few people were kind of attached to the four character thing…”
Actually, Cooper tells us, Syndicate once had eight on-screen charges for players to control. With all but himself and Trowers apparently finding this large number of heavily armed cyborg agents unwieldy, the decision to reduce the number of agents was to prove pivotal. “The eight players versus the four… that was a big transition,” Cooper admits. “It didn’t feel that good with eight, but we reduced it to four and, all of a sudden, it really worked. And you could set them up differently – you didn’t really have time to do that with eight.”
Syndicate was Bullfrog’s first game to lead on PC, an announcement that led to cries of anguish from Amiga users (later mollified by Mike Diskette’s excellent port). “I think the decision to switch was based purely on the fact that the PC allowed us to do all of the cool city stuff that we wanted to,” explains Trowers. “The Amiga, bless its cottons, just wasn’t powerful enough. Early versions of the fully isometric 3D, full-screen engine never used to get above 12fps with any more than a handful of guys running around. Even on the PCs in those days, we had to do some pretty nifty graphics stuff to get the whole thing to work at a reasonable speed. I think all of it made us think that the Amiga had pretty much run its course and that the PC would take over as the main platform. And we were intrigued by all this wonderful network stuff. The Bullfrog philosophy on making games was to try the whole thing out multiplayer and then make an AI to emulate the human players.
“Suddenly we weren’t restricted to just two players. I think we all got very excited about this potential.” Just as Populous evolved through multiplayer matches between Molyneux and Corpes, networked games of Syndicate were a staple component of lunchtimes and late nights at the Bullfrog office. “We were playing it before a line of AI code had been written,” says Corpes. “The gameplay evolved by playing it multiplayer over the network. This is the best way of designing games and should be done more often, rather than hacking multiplayer in as an afterthought.”
“We’d get a few of our mates over after work and just play the thing multiplayer,” recalls Trowers. “By doing that, we worked out what was fun and how the AI should operate and just built on that. It was a very iterative process and the most fun I’ve had in this industry – we’d play the game, make changes, whack out a new version and try the extra stuff.”
Inspired by these network sessions, Trowers began to build Syndicate’s singleplayer missions. “Once the maps were all built, it was a simple case of populating them and messing around with the layout of bad guys until it felt ‘right’,” he explains. “There was no overall plot or story that had to drive the levels – each was a disparate, modular experience. I was completely free to design each mission as I felt at that time. Rather than the majority of missions in today’s games, where there is a linear, set path to completion, a Syndicate mission was more of an environment where the player was free to attempt it in any way he liked. Once you have the basic rules of the world established, these are very easy to create… but they can be an absolute nightmare to balance.”
With an ambitious and evolving brief – particularly its ‘living’ cities, populated by enemy agents, police, pedestrians and vehicles – Cooper toiled night and day to create a solid engine. “It was riddled with complexities – getting the city to display, moving people behind other stuff,” he recalls. “It was kind of driven by one function called ‘coversprite’, I remember. Basically, the guys were drawn, then you drew over the top again to cover them. Sorting that out went on for about a year.”
“I sort of inspired the isometric engine,” says Corpes. “I’d been working on an optimised scrolling isometric engine some time before it started that worked by only updating the parts of the screen that had changed – as opposed to Populous that just redrew the whole scene – but it went nowhere. Sean basically rewrote this a year or so later when we moved to the PC.”
“Glenn was the expert programmer, and I was… well, I’m still rubbish at it,” laughs Cooper. “For me, it was just about keeping things simple. But he knew a lot about technical stuff. I’d call him up at, like, four in the morning, and I’d say: ‘Glenn, I’ve got a problem. You’ve got to come in sort it out, because I’ve got to put it on to these disks and send it off’. And he’d be like” – Cooper makes an exasperated, theatrical sigh – “‘Oh… bloody hell! Right, I’m coming in’. And he’d come in and just sort it out.”
Corpes, originally hired as an artist, is arguably the great unsung hero of Bullfrog’s meteoric rise to the videogame development A-list. “Glenn was instrumental in that way,” enthuses Cooper. “He could see the engine; he could see the technology. He couldn’t necessarily see the game, but he could see the technology – raising or lowering the land in Populous, ways in which we could have really tall buildings in Syndicate and have people going behind stuff. And then there was Magic Carpet. If you take him out of the equation, I don’t think Bullfrog would have been anything, if you see what I mean. He was an inspiration. He’d come up with a technical idea, and we’d be, like: ‘Fuck me, that would be awesome! We could do this, and this, and this…’”
Drawing obvious inspiration from a certain Ridley Scott opus, Syndicate’s hi-res cityscapes were highly striking. “Paul McLaughlin and Chris Hill drove the visualisation side, and I was a right pain for them to work with,” admits Cooper. “We had to build these sprites, and they were all cut into little pieces: heads, bodies, legs.”
“Sean was always a pain in the arse,” says McLaughlin. “He’s mellowed a bit in recent years, I gather, but in the old days he wasn’t much of a ‘people person’. If he wanted something he’d ‘tell’ you rather than ask, and if he thought it was shit – which he always did – he’d tell you that, too. He got quite frustrated with his requirements being lost in the programmer-artist translator. Often he’d end up red in the face with Chris and myself just staring at him with smiles on our faces. It was cool, though: we were all learning together, really, and everyone on the team did have a sense of humour.”
“The sprites were a nightmare, though,” McLaughlin explains. “They had separate heads, torsos and legs so we could assemble a variety of characters. Creating something that looked like a person on that scale, let alone the cool superdetailed images in our heads, was such a struggle. We made a deliberate decision to sacrifice colours for dots. This was one of the first ‘engines’ that used such high resolution and we were really excited. Not seeing pixels and noticing aliasing was such a revelation – we felt the future of computer graphics was upon us.”
“It ran in 640x480 while everyone else was writing in 320x200,” Corpes contributes. “Everyone thought it was SVGA because of the resolution, but it actually ran in a very well chosen 16 colours and worked on any old VGA card thanks to the way it only updated parts of the screen at a time. It was all really sneaky stuff.”
“Looking at the game today, what you see on screen has very little to do with what was in my head,” continues McLaughlin. “Chris Hill and I had visions of dystopian futuristic cityscapes like in Blade Runner, with lots of trash, hover cars and atmosphere. Of course, very little of this came across in the end, and I’m now convinced that future civilisations won’t be tile and sprite-based.”
Syndicate’s unusually dark feel was not restricted to its countenance. Long before Grand Theft Auto, the populations of Syndicate’s isometric stages were populated with bit-part, bitmap victims. Self-appointed moral arbiters may blanche at the suggestion, but engaging in wanton, pixel-based slaughter was one of the game’s principle pleasures, and was always designed to be just that.
“I wanted to flame them, I wanted to shoot them, I wanted to blow them up,” says Cooper of Syndicate’s sprites. “I think we didn’t quite implement it as well as we could have. I’d liked to have seen bodies flying through the air; I wanted to minigun people and have them pinned to a wall. All those things we so badly wanted to do, but we’d have been adding another year to the project time, or so it felt at the time. Memory constraints were the big problem.”
From the explosive gauss gun – originally an EMP weapon, according to Trowers – to what must be the most satisfying implementation of a minigun in videogame history, Syndicate was packed with a wishlist of excellent armaments, upgrades and gadgets. “Once we’d developed the gameplay and we’d got the squad-based shooter element, people started coming up with ideas for weapons,” recalls Cooper. “The persuadatron came out of nowhere, really – I don’t know to this day whose idea it was. I think Peter’s still convinced that it’s his. It created something interesting: being able to build an army, and was actually quite simple to do. It could be done a lot better… Ah, if we were to do it again now…”
With a management component that drip-fed new gadgetry as players progressed through its many levels, Syndicate’s frontend was a perfect complement to its tense, often frantic in-game combat. Strangely, Trowers remembers it with a certain regret. “In hindsight, it was a bit of a pain to implement as it made it quite easy to break the game,” he admits. “You could just sit there and wait for the next thing to be ready. The balancing of the
Obviously, certain features had to be dropped; working with 80386-based PCs and needing to maximise compatibility, sacrifices were made. Cooper has one piece of trivia that may surprise one-time Syndicate devotees: its vehicles were only ‘locked’ to roads at a late stage in its development. “We had, at one point, allowed players to get into a car and drive anywhere,” he reveals. “The reason I took it out is because it didn’t look very good – we didn’t have enough memory to store the eight different directions for each vehicle and had to reduce them to four. And when playing multiplayer, what was to stop players from simply running over the other agents? We couldn’t come up with anything that solved that. It was quite late on in the alpha when I took it out.”
However, the biggest disappointment for the Syndicate team was the enforced removal of its multiplayer mode during the QA process. “EA couldn’t get the network game working on their system, so we had to drop it,” laments Trowers. “This was a major blow in my opinion as the multiplayer game was so strong and not many people got to experience it that way. It was how we used to play it, and it was the way it was designed to be played. Snipers behind buildings, carjackings and drive-by shootings take on a whole new dimension when it’s your mate you’ve just ambushed.”
Although later reinstated for the American Revolt mission pack, the loss of out-of-the-box network play was a huge shame. Might Bullfrog be regarded, with id, as a pioneer of network gaming were it to have been fixed in time? Who can say? Listening to Trowers, though, it’s clear that the published version of Syndicate lost a killer feature. “People who would normally leave at six on the dot would hang around for hours to play the game,” he explains. “If you weren’t on your toes at lunchtime, the game would fill up and you’d be left out. I’m not sure how much of this is rosetinted specs, but I’m pretty sure, even at the time, we knew we had a classic on our hands.”
“It was Sean’s first crack at leading a team, and he really did everything he could to make it work,” says McLaughlin. “In all honesty I think it’s one of the most fun titles I’ve worked on. It’s certainly the one I remember playing at lunchtimes, after work and at home even when I didn’t have to.”
Syndicate shipped to the sound of critical approbation and a healthy rustling of cash changing hands. Closing our interview, we ask: how does Cooper feel about it now? Does he have any particular regrets? “Looking back now, it’s a bit of a masterpiece in some ways,” he replies. “It was one of the highlights of my life working with Glenn, with Alex and with Peter. Looking back on the working relationships we had, on the team, that was the big thing.
"My biggest regret is that we didn’t put enough destruction into it. I would have really liked to have, you know, fired a rocket launcher at a building and have a hole appear in it. But you just couldn’t do it at the time. I wanted to see people flung into the air, people landing on buildings, people landing on cars that screech to a halt, all that kind of behaviour, that kind of world. But we just didn’t know how to do it.
“It was my second game, and I’d only just started to get to grips with C at that point. We were there until four in the morning most days, getting in at 11 in the mornings. We were so inexperienced, all of us: a bunch of guys going into so-called work, and it was a hobby! Someone was paying us good money to go in and do it!”