Twenty-five days ago, the independent, Australian dev team at 5 Lives Studios hopped on Kickstarter with an offer for classic PC gamers. Did you like Syndicate Wars for PC when you were just a lad or lass? Well, how about a new version of that game, done up with all the 21st century shinies, made by the lead designer of that game? Mike Diskett and crew asked for £350,000 to make the game - Satellite Reign - a reality.
Fast forward to today: 5 Lives has five days to cross the finish line. The Kickstarter's total currently sits at £326,872 with 10,588 backers. As we near the moment of truth, I spoke with technical director Mike Diskett and studio boss Chris Conte about the game and the Kickstarter drive. Diskett jumped into the fray first, telling me how his passion for reactive AI is informing the design of Satellite Reign.
"I love emergent gameplay, My favorite part about GTA isn't the missions - it's actually just playing in the sandbox of the world. I want to take that side and extend it more into the core gameplay of Satellite Reign," Diskett begins.
He notes that a futuristic cyberpunk city isn't a setting players see much outside of the FPS genre, giving Satellite Reign a chance to stand out. Diskett also explains that while there's a good deal of turn-based or real-time strategy games out there, there's "nothing really out there like Syndicate that involves micro-management of just a handful of powerful units."
Satellite Reign will offer a class system, so each of your four agents will have a specific set of skills to help you conquer each mission. So, far 5 Lives has shown off the Soldier, the Hacker, and the Support agents. Diskett says the change is meant to offer "more tactics and depth" to the game.
"The classes essentially add more things for the player to do, so its not all just shoot-shoot-shoot," he tells me "There's more stealth; hacking is a big part of the cyberpunk literature and we want it to be a big part of our game, especially when you consider everyone has neural implants, so you can hack humans! We don't just want to add a hacking weapon purchased by one agent we want it to be a character you have to manage within the game."
You'll still be able to play your way, as each of the agents can be customized with upgraded skills, gear, or augmentations.
"Each agent will have a set of skills they can upgrade, giving them a range of abilities, like the Hacker's 'Neural Hijack' or the Soldier's 'Intimidation.' They will also have augmentations to physically enhance their bodies, giving them the ability to carry more ammo, run faster or soak up more damage," says Conte. "For less permanent changes, players will be able to also pick what gear and weapons they want to equip from a number of locations scattered throughout the city. Depending on the weapons, gear, augmentations and skills equipped, the player will have a lot of different options in moment to moment gameplay that can change drastically with each playthrough."
The city your agents inhabit will also be a character this time around, with Conte going so far as to call the city "the star of the game."
"We will be spending a great deal of time on the city and its population," he says. "After all, you will be spending all of your time in it. The AI systems we plan to create won't just be used to make the enemies attack you in believable ways, the exact same system will be used to make the civilians behave and react the way you would expect them to. We are aware of our budget as well, so we've included a bunch of our ideas into our stretch goals. The bigger our budget, the bigger and better the city will become."
Part of that "emergent gameplay" Diskett loves means allowing the world to react to players' choices. 5 Lives is planning to use a reputation system that's tied to the citizen AI: citizens will remember your actions in a certain district and react accordingly when you return. Light up a citizen in a firefight and you may find the district less friendly during a later mission.
The city and its inhabitants are the star of the game. We will be spending a great deal of time on the city and its population.5 Lives Studio Boss Chris Conte
"There’s a concept of your organization's reputation in the city, and it varies by district based on the history of what you have done in that district," explains Diskett. "In one district you may have killed a lot of civilians just in the crossfire of a battle, or used them as meat shields by hacking their neural implants. In that district civilians are going to more inclined to take a negative stance against you; it will factor into their AI decision making process."
"They will be more inclined to side with the corporations in a battle and dealing with black market traders in that area would also be impacted. It’s very much shades of grey. Your behavior will factor into the fuzzy logic of the AI rather than a binary good/evil thing," he adds. "You may find it's in your interest in a district with useful tek - underground science labs or black market weapon dealers - to become a kind of protector for that area, resulting in better deals when buying black market weapons. Or perhaps you can find a way for fear and intimidation to pay out better in the long run."
Satellite Reign is a "spiritual successor" to the old Syndicate Wars, but it's not the first Kickstarted game to use the term. A number of crowdfunded titles have banked on nostalgia to get the backers flocking in. Diskett admits that it's harder for original titles to succeed when it comes to crowdfunding, but Kickstarter is still great for industry.
"There is an issue with Kickstarter in that its hard to get funding for an original title unless you are a big name like Double Fine," he says. "That certainly doesn't hold back the industry. It's opened another avenue for funding, which has caused some new original titles to be created as well as spiritual successors."
Just because a game is a successor to another title, doesn't mean there isn't any room for a developer to innovate. 5 Lives is treading that fine line between being faithful to an old game, while blazing their own trail. Diskett says that the team is "extending the original ideas and base gameplay" of the Syndicate games and bringing the whole thing "into the modern area." Of course, fan expectations don't always line up with developer intentions.
"We had one backer pull out of backing in a rage after we went into more detail on the game. 'You're not just remaking Syndicate, you're making your own new game. I’m out.' This is very true, we are making our own game. Even if Bullfrog still existed and I was leading the sequel to Syndicate Wars, you can bet it wouldn't just be a HD remake. It would be taking the franchise in new directions, just like we are doing now," says Diskett.
With the game being a callback to something older, I wondered if 5 Lives think that all the nostalgia might keep younger or neophyte players away from Satellite Reign. The team is hoping the setting draws new players into the fold.
"We are pitching the game as a spiritual successor to Syndicate Wars, because that immediately gives people who know those games a clear idea of what the game is about," Diskett replies. "The challenge for us is to bring in new players; I think if you look at our cinematic trailer it informs the player of the kind of world they will be immersed in. It's a very compelling world. For all the attraction of a cyberpunk city, it's really been an under-utilized theme in the games industry. In fact, the whole concept of controlling a handful of agents in real-time in a living, breathing, city environment is - I hope - quite compelling."
Finally, I ask Mike and Chris about their feelings on EA's Syndicate FPS, which was developed by Starbreeze Studios. Surprisingly, neither gentleman had played the game because it's banned in Australia.
"Since it was an FPS, I never felt the need to try and import it," says Diskett. "I actually spent about an hour watching YouTube videos of other people playing it though. I can understand EA taking the world and atmosphere of the original games and trying to make use of them for a genre that typically picks up bigger sales. With the huge dev costs of AAA titles, publishers don't want to invest in what they consider niche titles and niche to them is probably anything that isn't likely to sell a million copies."
"As Mike says, we weren’t able to play the game. I have heard it’s actually a good shooter and that the multiplayer is heaps of fun," adds Conte. "Having said that, it wasn’t what I was expecting when I heard a new Syndicate game was being made. I wanted to relive the experiences I had with the original games: researching crazy weapons and augmentations, equipping my agents with all sorts of gear, and running around blasting the hell out of anything that got in my way. We want to take those experiences we all had and use them as a core to build and expand on for Satellite Reign."
Sound like something you'd enjoy? Then head on over to the Satellite Reign Kickstarter and help it get made.