[In this opinion piece originally posted on the What Games Are blog, and reprinted in full with his permission, UK-based game designer Tadhg Kelly analyzes "broad" and "narrow" video game franchises to see which category Electronic Arts' FPS reboot of classic tactical game Syndicate falls into.]
A firm fan favorite, the 1993 tactical strategy game Syndicate regularly features on lists of games that should be remade. It seems Electronic Arts is finally about to grant fans their wish. Well, sort of. While it shares a setting with the original game, the new Syndicate is a first-person shooter, sounding like a mix between Deus Ex and Left 4 Dead.
Personally, this makes me dubious as to its prospects. Publishers often fool themselves into thinking that their franchises are applicable to any kind of game, but this is rarely true. More commonly the result is disappointing, both for the publishers and for the fans who just wanted to see their favorite game reborn.
Successful game companies are built on updating franchises. The most common examples of this are annual or bi-annual sequels, large content packs, or continuous updates such as those in social games.
These kinds of franchise are narrow. Different settings, weapons, levels and improvements to the play experience are released, but the fundamental game remains the same. FIFA is always going to be a soccer game that simulates a real world sports experience. Halo is always going to be a first-person shooter with vehicles. FarmVille is always going to revolve around planting and harvesting.
Narrow franchises are based on some successful game dynamics that are recast again and again, and they can continue indefinitely. Though the appearance of a narrow franchise may change over the years, even dramatically (Fallout 3 compared to older Fallout games, for example) the role of the player does not. Expectations are well-defined, and fans like it that way.
The other kind of franchise is broad. It spans across multiple types of games, giving rise to several narrow franchises that are connected by a common intellectual property. Mario is an excellent example of this. He has appeared in many games over the years, many of which have become successful narrow franchises in their own right, such as Mario Kart.
Broad franchises are harder to establish, but they are what publishers (big and small) really want. An intellectual property that can be adapted to almost any purpose is hugely valuable, but most narrow franchises simply can not be broad. They either just don't have the depth, or the kind of game that the narrow franchise is based on is the only one that its tribe of fans really cares about.
CCP, for example, is encountering a great deal of resistance from fans of its key game (EVE Online) because they have no interest in playing anything other than space trading. Even some of the updates for walking about on planets or space stations are contrary to what fans want, and this means that EVE can likely only ever be a narrow franchise.
It comes down to whether the fans want the developer to find completely different games for them, or different expressions of the same game. Usually it's the latter.
If you invoke a franchise, then you also invoke associations with that franchise, and if it's a beloved franchise then of course that can make it instantly newsworthy. But beyond that, is that invocation smart? Unless you're also sticking to what that franchise is about, probably not.
It might make sense to strategic planning, but usually the associations from the source franchise end up compromising the design of the new game while simultaneously not seeming pure enough for original fans to be interested. In particularly ill-judged cases, the resulting blowback actually harms the original franchise. Such as happened to X-Com.
X-Com was a series of turn-based strategic games in the mid-90s whose owners tried to change it into a different game. First with real time modifications to the rules and later with whole action games set in the same universe, the series thoroughly lost its focus on existing fans and eventually petered out.
Problems like this usually arise when publishers misread or rationalise the behavior of their audience. In Syndicate's case, the fiction of the game has a certain resonant quality, but a central aspect of that resonance is the role that the player plays.
In Syndicate, you are not one of the soldiers stuck in a bad situation, you are one of the puppet masters. You run your own company and train and deploy soldiers on missions. You are a part of the evil that's actively destroying the world for profit.
There's no significant tribe of Syndicate players who always wanted the game to be a first-person shooter or role-playing game like Deus Ex. Syndicate was unique, and it is so well-remembered because of that uniqueness. EA don't seem to have fully appreciated that. Instead I fear they're trying to create a nuts-and-gum no-brainer with all the hallmarks of a game that only innovates half way.
Regretfully, I expect it will have a hard time, and will be a wasted opportunity.
[An Irish lead designer and producer living in London, Tadhg Kelly is the author of a challenging book about, as he describes it, "Reclaiming games as an art, craft and industry on its own terms", entitled What Games Are. The blog for the book is whatgamesare.com. You can also follow his tweets on Twitter (@tiedtiger).]