Satellite Reign: Syndicate Wars, evolved

By Dave Cook
8 August 2013 09:36 GMT

Satellite Reign is the spiritual successor to Syndicate Wars. VG247’s Dave Cook speaks with 5 Lives about how modern tech is helping it realise a grand vision some 16-years in the making.

Satellite Reign

Developed by 5 Lives Studios, Satellite Reign is the spiritual successor to Bullfrog Productions 1997 title Syndicate Wars

The game is helmed by Mike Diskett, who was producer on Syndicate Wars, and has worked on many big titles including GTA 4.

Satellite Reign was successfully funded on Kickstarter, gaining £461,333 of its £350,000 goal. Payment is still being accepted over on PayPal.

An overview of the game’s visual style and world can be seen in this rather shiny concept footage.

First released in 1997, Syndicate Wars was the third entry to Bullfrog Production’s classic sci-fi series, and was the brain-child of director Mike Diskett.

It was set 95 years after the original game, as the ruthless EuroCorp corporation tightens its grip on the world’s infrastructure and is locked in armed battle against the Church of the New Epoch.

Between them are the antagonistic Unguided, a group of civilian rebels liberated from the corporate power-struggles that dominate every day life, now ranked and filed into a well-oiled resistance movement against the oppressive forces that be.

I recently spoke with Diskett just before Syndicate Wars’ spiritual successor Satellite Reign became funded on Kickstarter, and I suggested that the themes of corporate dominance and rebellion mirror the growing prosperity of the indie development scene today, stacked against the lucrative might of the triple-a pack.

“You’re actually one of the first people to point out that the game is mirroring the games industry right now,” Diskett replied, “and that’s absolutely a metaphor I had in my head when setting out to make Satellite Reign.

“I think PC gamers have never forgotten about mid tier indie games. I personally returned to the PC after Microsoft started putting adverts on the Xbox dashboard. That was the nail in the coffin for me. The great thing about Kickstarter is it is mostly funding PC games, because they are so accessible to self publish, so its going to help the PC gain ground on the consoles.”

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Satellite Reign is now funded to the tune of £461,333 but is still accepting PayPal donations at the time of writing, and Diskett told me that he hadn’t dreamed of creating a follow-up to Syndicate Wars until he saw how Kickstarter could be used to fund self-published projects.

Before he co-founded 5 Lives Studios he was head of Muckyfoot Productions, a studio that knew fine well the ills of the signing deals with big entities. Diskett explained, “I think Muckyfoot would still be around today if there had been as many opportunities to self publish back in 2003.

“Essentially your only chance to get to market was via a publisher, which is mostly signing a deal with the devil. You agree to make a game together and then the moment you agree you are passed onto the lawyers who basically tried everything they could to steal back every dime they gave you, it really was disheartening.

“In the five years we ran Muckyfoot we never once saw a royalty cheque, and apparently Blade 2 was in the top 25 of Activision’s most profitable games for a few years after Muckyfoot closed.”

Diskett is now living and working in the realm of self-perpetuated, financially dependent games development and with this freedom comes an opportunity to craft the game he originally envisioned Syndicate Wars to be. He told me that back at Bullfrog, the tech of the day simply couldn’t deliver his initial aims but this being 2013, those ambitions are now entirely possible.

The premise doesn’t stray from the original Syndicate formula at base level, as players will still control four cyborg agents and engage in real-time strategic battles as corporations fight for dominance in a futuristic world.

Except this time the city is open-world and missions must be discovered by roaming the streets. There is also an emphasis on emergent play in combat thanks to an assortment of agent skills at hand. You’ve got the assassin’s penchant for stealth and sneaky kills, the Scout’s ability to hack into enemy tech, the Support agent’s deployable shields and healing skills, as well as the Soldier’s tank-like resistance to bullets.

Diskett confirmed that the civilian populace will also have an important role to play in your war against rival corporations, giving rise to a city that feels alive and responsive to your actions in the field.

He explained, “The civilians essentially develop opinions on the player’s faction based on what they see and second-hand information passed between NPC’s, as well as the propaganda fed them by the corporations and also propaganda fed them by the player.

“So any individual is going to have an opinion about the player that’s all manner of shades of grey, not just black and white, and this will feed into every interaction with the population from the price of black market goods, to whether they help in a gunfight or hinder or run, or just cower.

“Using Neural hacking you can take over civilians and make them fight for you, but maybe its easier to get the ‘civs’ on your side by making sure none live to tell of the cruel way you used some of them as meat shields, or you could you know just be nice to them.”

It’s clear that this layer of civilian interaction simply couldn’t have worked as well as this in the original Syndicate Wars, and it promises to be something of a game-changer in Satellite Reign. Not only does it inject more tactical consideration into each mission, it also presents players with a sustaining moral quandary throughout.

Having also worked on GTA 4, Diskett knows a thing or two about living open worlds, “The main thing I learnt is it only takes a little bit of complexity to create a chaotic simulation,” he continued, “and I mean that in a good way, in terms of unpredictability.

“The other thing I realised is that games are only just scratching the surface of what can be done in the simulation genre, in fact if you think simulation genre you probably think SimCity, maybe Civilisation, you don’t really think RTS, and that’s one of the unique things people are picking up on and getting excited about with Satellite Reign.”

Diskett then recalled some of the world-building challenges he faced when making Syndicate Wars, and how the tech on hand circa 1996 caused his team to curb their vision a little. He said, “One big idea that failed due to time rather than tech was I wanted the Unguided – the street punks – to be a playable faction, but we already had two playable factions which was one more than most games.

“At the time we really were just inventing 3D, Environment mapping was the state of the art. I remember at the time discussing with someone how amazing it would be if you could do a dot product per pixel, that’s really a very, very basic lighting calculation that at the time we did per vertex rather than per pixel, and we just kind of shook our heads at the impossibility of such a thing.

“There’s loads of things we would fantasize about back then which are commonplace now; physics, pixel lighting, real time shadows, drawing people as meshes rather than sprites, resolution above 640×480 , coloured lights, reflective puddles. One thing I really wanted but we still aren’t quite there with is water physics. I wanted to destroy a water tower and have water pour out and down the sides of buildings from the rooftop.”

If you check out the Satellite Reign site you’ll see that a monumental amount of effort and skill has gone into crafting a loving continuation of the Syndicate ethos. If you’re someone who felt burned by the current-gen Starbreeze reboot and its dubstep soundtrack, then this is surely your reward for putting up with EA’s attempt to modernise a template that should have been left alone.

In closing, then, I asked Diskett for his thoughts on the Syndicate reboot and if he’s heard any feedback from his former colleagues at Bullfrog. “Lots have got back in contact with me as a result of the Kickstarter,” he concluded, “and are all really excited by it, wanting to help out too. Quite a few have backed the Kickstarter too.

“Just to be clear we don’t own any Syndicate IP and aren’t using any characters story or content from the Syndicate series. EA owns the IP and we didn’t consider even trying to talk to them , I imagine it would go something like this:  

EA: “That will be $10 million” .
5 Lives: “We have $10 “.
EA *Hangs up*.

“So as is the fashion, we are crafting a spiritual successor – a homage if you will to the Syndicate Wars game I made 15 years ago.”

What do you make of Satellite Reign? Let us know below and remember, you can still back the project using PayPal.

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