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Analysis: Is  Syndicate  A Broad Franchise?
Analysis: Is Syndicate A Broad Franchise?
September 14, 2011 | By Tadhg Kelly




[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.

Broad Franchises

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.

Syndicate

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).]


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Comments


Mike Kasprzak
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Yeah really. If it's not a top down squad based high tech espionage game, then I don't want it. Same was true of Shadowrun. Given the huge budget they're surely throwing at it, they could have remade the original with "HD graphics" for a fraction of the cost, and actually appeased fans and newcomers to the franchise. I will admit Starbreeze has a good track record, but it's like EA is oblivious to FPS genre rot.

Bjoern Loesing
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Relaunching the Syndicate franchise is not a fanservice. Unfortunately. It's a money move. While the old IP gives some weight to the new game, it's FP(S) games that can generate the highest profit margin in today's markets.



Strategy titles are still a very successful niche, thankfully, but they are no longer the choice of major publishers. For the sake of the gaming industry, I sincerely hope that one day, Paradox will produce a Minecraft-like miracle and sell a few billion copies of a hardcore strategy title.



Until that happens, we'll be stuck with previously cool games becoming FPS. My bet for the next game? "Dungeon Keeper - the First Person Experience".

Chris Lewin
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And yet ironically, Dungeon Keeper has always had an FPS mode...

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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I dont get when people mis-use IPs like that, by taking a name and making something largely unrelated. Shadowrun was the worst example. People who love the IP will resent you, people who hate the IP will still hate the name, and it doesnt help you attract people who dont know the IP or are indifferent to it. You gain nothing, and you lose potential buyers. Just create a different IP!



Its like marketing people are incapable of analysing a situation any further than a simple brand recognition %.



"Research shows that Gandhi is a widely recognised name. Lets make an FPS! COD-Killer!!!"

Justin Nafziger
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I find it strange that you consider Halo a 'narrow' franchise. Halo was originally supposed to be an RTS, and even had an RTS released (Halo Wars).

Eric McQuiggan
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Would you call Halo Wars a success though?

John McMahon
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Yes as I and many I play with enjoyed it. The fact that it is still supported by MS as canon and within Halo Waypoint cements that feeling for me.

Kevin Patterson
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Let's look at the facts..... People yelled and screamed when Fallout 3 was announced, calling it an oblivion clone, and very upset that it wasn't a traditional fallout game. Fallout 3 did very well, and made alot of money, and spawned New Vegas. I remember reading No Mutant's allowed review where they just tore apart the game as it wasn't like the past games, but it again sold very well.

Most gamers today had no experience with Fallout and Fallout 2.

As much as Syndicate was loved, most gamers today have no experience with it, and probably wouldn't care that it's an FPS. Another series I would love to see remade, Crusader, is the same way, and if it's ever remade, probably won't be a isometric game. I would settle for an FPS.....

The Previews/reviews/articles on Deus Ex:Human Revolution really brought this home to me, as alot of them started of with "I never played the original", "I remember my dad playing the game", " I played it when i was a kid but never got into it", etc. Deux Ex came out in 2000, 6 years later than Syndicate which came out in 1994. Most gamers today probably haven't even heard of the series, and the new game might be their first exposure.

Who knows, maybe these remakes will bring about interest in making a real syndicate isometric game again, if it does well.

I have faith in Starbreeze, they did a wonderful job with Enclave, Riddick, and the Darkness, im sure this game will be wonderful too.

Thierry Tremblay
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I'm sure Starbreeze can make an amazing game. But it won't be Syndicate.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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So you're saying that the Syndicate brand name has very little recognition among today's market. Then, there's little reason to use it versus using a new ip with complete creative freedom.

Kevin Patterson
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Warren did a great job of making the point i was trying to make with his post below.

I will say that I never said no recognition, I said no experience and that is different. An example is that I have never played the original wasteland or Bard's tale, yet I know the names and know that they are beloved by gamers. When the remake for Bard's tale came out, I checked it out and enjoyed it, but I had no experience to compare it to the original.

It will be like that for probably 90 percent of new Syndicate players.

warren blyth
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@Thierry : I don't see how you are addressing Kevin's point.

Fallout3 was a great game right? Would you say "it was Fallout"?



@Mathieu : I'd wager that Syndicate has similar name recognition as Fallout3 had. Would you say there was no reason to use the Fallout ip for the Fallout3 game?



I find the knee jerk negativity of this article (and many of these comments) baffling. We haven't played the game yet. How we can appreciate the extent to which they worked in creative repurposing of the original game's appeal? Fallout3 was embraced because it was an RPG that kept the setting and tone (arguably? was it not embraced ultimately?). If this syndicate game maintains the setting and tone : fans will rejoice.



The Darkness and Chronicles of Riddick were both brilliantly dark games, with cool stories. It makes perfect sense to me to ask those devs to bring their sensibilities to the dark themes of syndicate. I think it exciting.

Tadhg Kelly
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Yes but Fallout 3 at least stayed true to the game type (RPG), which in the end worked to its advantage design-wise and marketing-wise.



Syndicate is more like as though EA decided to remake 'Football Manager' as a game where you are the player instead. But keep calling it 'Football Manager'. The difference is that the new Syndicate is not an upgraded game (as Fallout arguably was). It's a completely different game.

matthew diprinzio
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Never played the previous games, but this new game sounds awesome.

Bart Stewart
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I'd love to hear from someone who knows whether Dead Space was EA's attempt to "reboot" the System Shock franchise. Given the many similarities, it's at least plausible. But it's also possible that EA recognized that, despite its inspiration, there were enough changes (more about "monster closets" than exploration) that the System Shock name -- and all of the expectations the name would have brought -- was dropped in favor of the new Dead Space trademark.



Would Dead Space have been as successful had it been promoted as a "spiritual successor" to System Shock instead of as its own property?



The larger question goes to the notion of "narrow" vs. "broad" franchises. If this is to be a useful analytical tool, it needs to be better described than by reference to a few example franchises. What specifically are the characteristics by which a franchise is to be judged as either narrow or broad?



What are the characteristics by which Mario is broad but Fallout is not? It's probably not just "number of genre styles" since Fallout has had at least three that I know of. Does spreading to alternate media count, in which case franchises like Wing Commander and Dungeon Siege may qualify as "broad" since they've both expanded to feature films?



Does perceived quality or popularity count in determining whether a franchise is narrow or broad? How about total length of time as an ongoing franchise with new games?



My point here is not to question the value of the narrow/broad classification scheme, but to help make it more usable by looking for the qualities that reliably distinguish one class from the other.



Any thoughts on this?

Ian Milham
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I was the Art Director on Dead Space 1 & 2 and helped get the franchise off the ground. We guessed there was potentially an option to build off of the System Shock name, but never seriously investigated or proposed it.



We figured that it was a brand that only super hardcores would know, and that it was very tied to its creators. Those same hardcores would know that we weren't the creators and might resent us. But we never even proposed it to EA so I don't know what they would've said. Plus, you so rarely get a chance to do your own thing, we didn't want to give that up.

Bart Stewart
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Thanks, Ian -- I appreciate your taking the time to make this clear.

Joshua King
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What ever happened to Bullfrog anyway? Oh I see that was Molyneux.


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