Satellite Reign: Syndicate Wars returns at last

Written by Red Bull UK
A Bullfrog classic is back - and all it took was 15 years, Kickstarter and male pattern hair loss.
Syndicate Wars: Satellite Reign
Syndicate Wars: Satellite Reign
Mike Diskett’s worked on some of the most famous titles in video game history. The British developer’s had a hand in everything from Bullfrog’s classic sim Theme Park to Rockstar’s legendary Grand Theft Auto IV. He’s been waiting well over a decade though to return to the game that’s closest to his heart however: Bullfrog’s 1996 Syndicate Wars, a cyberpunk strategy game on which he served as director.
So long in fact that he’s gone bald in the interim, he jokes. “I made Syndicate Wars 15 years ago back when I had a full head of hair, and I’ve been waiting ever since for an opportunity to return to the genre.”
Now, at long last, he has one. With a team of industry veterans, he’s formed 5 Lives Studios to create a 2013 successor to Syndicate Wars, Satellite Reign, which stays true to the PC classic’s game universe. You control four agents in a dank neon future dystopia, using their different skills to take down the mega corporations that have taken control of citizens’ lives.
There’s just one slight hitch: 5 Lives Studios doesn’t have the rights to the game, and as a start-up of just five developers and designers, they’re in no position to cough up for a licence either. Electronic Arts, which acquired Bullfrog in 1995, still owns the rights to the series, and well, that’s that.
“There wasn't really anywhere a conversation with EA could go about the intellectual property. They would want millions of dollars, we could only offer hundreds,” Diskett tells Red Bull UK.
As a result, Satellite Reign is a spiritual successor rather than a sequel proper but it’s the one the fans want - or the one that 15,000 of them want at least. EA released a Syndicate sequel in 2012, but it was not the fiendish strategy masterclass fans of Syndicate Wars were hoping for. Instead, it was just another first person shooter set in an urban and gritty and urban landscape straight out of Blade Runner. Hardcore fans were appalled, and so was Diskett.
“In fact, it was the outcry from the fans that they wanted an RTS [ realtime strategy game] like the original which spurred on the eventual Kickstarter of Satellite Reign,” he says. The game’s Kickstarter campaign in July smashed 5 Lives’ original goal of £350,000, raising £461,333 from 15,029 backers.
A cityscape from Satellite Reign
A cityscape from Satellite Reign
till, the long wait has been worthwhile says Diskett, who won his original job at Bullfrog in a magazine competition before working his way up to become a director at the studio - if only because games have had the chance to evolve and mature in that time, and establish new control paradigms.
“Satellite Reign is very much the game I would be making if I was still at Bullfrog and EA had asked me to make an official sequel to Syndicate Wars,” he says. “But it’s not the game I would have made in the 90s if the technology had existed.”
“There’s been a lot of game design evolution over the last 20 years, even just fundamental stuff like being able to use W,A,S,D for scrolling, or double clicking an icon - I don’t think when we made the original Syndicates we had double click as part of our vocab. None of us had Windows installed, mice weren’t used as part of the use of our PCs, they were just used as gaming devices for us back then. So there’s all kinds of interface rules that have changed and evolved since then.”
Even now there are still things Diskett wanted to include in Syndicate Wars which are not possible. “One thing I always wanted was to have the water towers split open when shot, spilling water realistically down the side of a building and onto the streets. While it’s possible to fake water, we’re still not at the point of truly realistic water in a video game. I do keep an eye on water simulation tech-demos - one day, we’ll have it.”
Good timing and advances in technology have allowed his tiny team to work faster and more efficiently than ever before, even when audiences expect bigger titles and better graphics. “I would say we are already further along with Satellite Reign than we were after a year of developing Syndicate Wars,” Diskett estimates.
The team have picked their battles wisely to make the most of their small team’s talents, and get the game out by December 2014. They haven’t taken shortcuts - just the most efficient route to get from A to B. They’re using Unity, the popular game engine that makes cross platform development easy (the game is due for release on Windows, Mac and Linux), and instead of creating an entire sprawling metropolis in high definition, they’ve create the building blocks for one.
“We can’t create two thousand unique AAA quality buildings like a $50 million budget game can,” says Diskett. “But we can make 100 AAA quality pieces that fit together in an almost infinite number of ways to make an epic, futuristic city.”
The team are using this modular approach to help speed up the production process elsewhere too. “We can take this further than just a way to build environments. Everything from AI to traffic systems can be built-up from modular pieces. Everything from marking a chair as something you sit on, up to a space port can be pre-tagged with meta-information that allows it to simply be dragged into the world to start behaving in-game as it should.”
It doesn’t hurt that the 5 Lives founders have all worked together for years. After Diskett emigrated with his family down under, he wound up working for Sega Australia - when the Japanese publisher shut down the studio earlier this year, he formed 5 Lives with several of its alumni. “Mike asked if anyone wanted to make a spiritual successor to the Syndicate series. We all jumped at the opportunity,” says Chris Conte, programmer and co-founder of 5 Lives. “The Syndicate series is actually one of the reasons I became a games developer.”
All of which means the team can focus on the story and gameplay instead.
Satellite Reign takes the mission structure of the Syndicate series and injects it with a healthy dose of open world freedom: you can roam the city and take on objectives in whatever way you choose. The game’s class system means there are multiple ways to work your way through the game, from bribing scientists to robbing banks or hacking citizens’ neural implants - and if all else fails, there’s always going through the front door with guns.
Though the team failed to meet the £650,000 Kickstarter stretch goal for it, they’re pushing ahead with co-operative multiplayer, so you’ll be able do it all with your friends online.
Syndicate Wars, on which Diskett served as director.
“Our stretch goal for co-op multiplayer will give the player and up to three friends the ability to play together in the same open world. Each player will take control of an agent and work together to take down the corporations ruling the city,” says Conte.
Of course, cyberpunk is very much the new black right now, with new neo-noir games in the Shadowrun series storming Kickstarter, and remakes of films like Judge Dredd and Robocop in the cinema. Has the setting Syndicate helped popularise become a cliche?
“I don’t think we’re seeing enough cyberpunk,” says Conte. “We have similarities to games like Shadowrun, but we believe Satellite Reign is different enough that it can co-exist with these games. I think we are creating a unique experience here with Satellite Reign: a real time, open world, cyberpunk strategy game where you control a small group of augmented agents is not something I have seen before.”
One thing the team won’t be doing anytime soon however is bringing Satellite Reign to console.
Fight scene from Satellite Reign
Fight scene from Satellite Reign
“This type of game doesn’t really translate so well to console. It would dilute the experience too much,” says Diskett. “There’s potential to try recreating the mouse and keyboard experience with the Wii U GamePad, or some experimental UI implementation with the Xbox’s Kinect, or even PlayStation’s Move camera. But I don't want to be distracted by those things. I love PC gaming, it’s been the one constant as consoles come and go, and it’s the perfect fit for indie game developers.”
Conte says 5 Lives are considering a sequel, mind. “We have thrown around the idea of doing expansions and the possibility of sequels to Satellite Reign and we also have a bunch of ideas for other games we might pursue, but we won't decide what we are doing until later down the track.”
Right now though, it’s heads down on Satellite Reign.
“We’ve spent so many sleepless nights getting the Kickstarter ready that I don’t know how we could possibly get an accurate account of hours put into the project,” says Conte. “It’s hard to explain just how exciting it really is to finally be able to start our own company and create the game we want to make without having to bow to a publisher wanting to water down the experience for ‘mass market appeal’.”
Judging by the Kickstarter reaction however, Satellite Reign might just have found the secret of mass market appeal anyway.