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The Trouble with Typecasting: Starbreeze, Syndicate, and the Future

January 20, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Actors can carve out successful careers by being typecast -- whenever there's a stock character to be portrayed, casting directors know where to go. So, too, can studios become go-to houses for particular types of games. Does this bring bigger security, or lead to bigger problems?

Mikael Nermark, CEO of Starbreeze Studios, can't be sure. The developer grabbed the industry's attention with The Chronicles of Riddick -- an immersive, atmospheric, and adventures first person game that has become the go-to title for "better than the movie it's based on."

But with The Darkness and now the upcoming reboot of Syndicate for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, to be published by Electronic Arts, is the studio in danger of being pigeonholed? What if the industry swerves again, and FPSes are less relevant?

In this interview, Nermark discusses this issue -- and what he sees as the studio's future.

How long have you been working on this game?

Mikael Nermark: We've been working about three years.

There's sort of a trend lately of old, classic games coming back and being reenvisioned as an FPS. Do you consider that to be a trend?

MN: Yeah, I think there's a trend to it somewhat. We'd been asked by EA -- they came to us, and this is what we know; this is were our expertise lies. So that's why we made it an FPS.

Yeah, you're sort of specialized as a studio, and focused on FPSes.

MN: Yeah, exactly. The legacy comes from the Riddick games, of course, and The Darkness -- action-adventure games in the first-person genre.

Do you have your own tech, or are you using licensed tech?

MN: No, it's our own tech. It's 14 years old now.

You brought on a writer to work on the scenario in this game?

MN: Yeah.

Who is that?

MN: Richard Morgan. He's a sci-fi writer.

Did he come to the studio, or did he stay wherever he is?

MN: No, no; he didn't work with the studio the whole time, but he came.

Was it more of a pure writing process, or was it more of a process with the team, with the designers?

MN: It was a process with the designers, definitely. I also think, whether it's on this game or other games I've worked on, it's always good to have great new people from other parts of the entertainment industry to be part of what we're doing. Part of what we're doing is an experience that we're doing in the process.

What do you particularly like about bringing people in from outside the game space?

MN: The view they bring in. They bring something new to the table all of the time. Maybe it doesn't always fit into what we do, but it makes us open our eyes and see what else is out there and how other people perceive different things.

The things games are good at are interactive moments, right? Things that other media are good at are other things. Do you ever have to worry about balance?

MN: I trust my designers to make good judgments on that, but I think the broader the view you have, the better. You learn from stuff, and you grow from stuff; you're trying to make the best of everything you can.

Starbreeze Studios' Syndicate

Looking at it, I can't say for sure, but it seems like one of your biggest productions ever.

MN: It is our biggest production ever!

Is that in terms of length? Is that in terms of people working on it? Is that in terms of everything, basically?

MN: In terms of everything.

Did you expand the studio, or did you work with outside contractors?

MN: We used some outside contractors. This is the first time Starbreeze has ever done that. Yeah, we worked with a bigger team than we ever did before.

To compete in the FPS genre is extremely challenging. The expectations that players have for games like this are exceedingly high these days.

MN: Definitely. Look at what's out there. You have to trust your own skills and realize what your strengths are. I think we did that, and I'm extremely proud of the studio and the guys working on the team. But it's definitely a hard genre to be in, no doubt.

When you say your own strengths, what would you consider to be your strengths?

MN: Story-driven games; narrative-view games. What made Riddick and Darkness good: the story-driven, narrative single-player experience. That's our strength.

Do you have designers in the studio who are particularly concerned with narrative?

MN: Definitely, yes. We have different designers for different parts; you know, it's always a group of designers making a game, and we're trying to make everything as good as we can.

How is the design team organized? Does it break down in a certain way? Are there narrative designers like clusters, or does the design team all feed back and forth?

MN: All feed back and forth. When we do productions, we'll have cross-discipline groups.

So are you set up in cabals, or pods?

MN: In pods.

How are they organized? What is each group working on?

MN: It depends on when in production, but when we start up we try to explore the production team and say, "This is the game we're going to make. Set this goal together with whomever you work." Then we split up and build the different parts of the game. We try to do the cross-discipline. You have this little work together... We try to focus; everyone has dependencies on the next guy, all the time, and you try to fit that into a good pipeline and a good process. I think that's why it's important to have cross-discipline groups.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Ernest Adams
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It looks like a fine game in its own right, but I do wish EA had more respect for the fans of its original IP -- and perhaps more confidence in their own ability to bring new IP to market. Why call this "Syndicate"? It's clearly not Syndicate. Presumably they did it because they felt it had some name recognition; but the fans of the original Syndicate are getting old and may not be that interested in FPSs any more, and the name won't mean anything to the youngsters. I'll bet than 90% of the old fans are more irritated than pleased.

I anxiously await the My Little Dungeon bile demon virtual pet game; The Sims On Crack GTA ripoff; Theme Madden NFL stadium builder; and Bill Budge's AK-47 Construction Set.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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Don't forget the Billy Mays Point and Click RPG. I'm really surprised nobody did that yet.

Bisse Mayrakoira
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Cookie-cutter FPS is not interesting to seasoned gamers who have seen it all before (and probably done better), but I don't see a general mismatch between "old player" and "FPS". Especially with a single player game like Syndicate where you don't compete with the other players' twitch reflexes.

If the levels were open-ended with a heavy strategic and improvisation focus, there were destructible environments and car bombings, persuading/brainwashing masses of civilians, the player could jump between controlling different syndicate agents and give orders to the remaining agents, individual agents were considered disposable assets and there was no moralistic plot... the old fans would definitely acknowledge the game as a real Syndicate game, and most of them would tolerate or even appreciate the change of perspective.