“I used to get friends, around five of them, to come in at the weekends. Instead of going to the pub…” Sean Cooper’s train of thought momentarily stalls, and he pauses. It’s over 20 years since he led the Syndicate project; more than two decades since Bullfrog’s dystopian opus beguiled gamers and critics with its combination of progressive, squad-based shoot ’em up, strategic planning and – for the time – refreshingly freeform environs. “What I wanted to do with my life at that point was work – I didn’t want to go to the pub or chat up girls,” Cooper continues, with disarming candour. “We’d come in and play it multiplayer. We’d all go round trying to kill each other, and I’d hear someone say: ‘Ah… that’s shit’, and then I’d try to fix the problem. It was just a great atmosphere in which to create a game. We had no one telling us what to do. We did what we wanted to.”
The most adroit explanation of Bullfrog’s success in the early ’90s is that its staff genuinely enjoyed themselves, making games that, first and foremost, they wanted to play. You can discuss Peter Molyneux’s qualities as a game designer, Glenn Corpes’ coding prowess, Les Edgar’s business nous, or highlight the quality of the post-Populous appointments to a growing company – individuals like Alex Trowers (who went on to work at Kuju and Lost Toys), Cooper (now an independent game developer) and Paul McLaughlin (now head of art at Lionhead), among others. But if you really want to understand why Syndicate worked so well, had so many innovative features, and is invariably namechecked in Best Games Ever! lists, know this: Bullfrog was very much its own best customer.
Syndicate, once called Cyber Assault, first took shape during a liquid lunch. “It really just evolved,” reveals Corpes, the former Bullfrog uber-coder who went on to found Lost Toys. “I have very vague memories of a lunchtime design meeting in the pub, talk of multiple characters. I think it was an overhang from an older game.Flood – a 2D platformer for the ST and Amiga – originally had four players with their own cameras, and you could switch any camera to the main screen. It didn’t work at all, and Flood evolved into a completely different game, a cutesy platformer. But a few people were kind of attached to the four character thing…”
Actually, Cooper tells us, Syndicate once had eight on-screen charges for players to control. With all but himself and Trowers apparently finding this large number of heavily armed cyborg agents unwieldy, the decision to reduce the number of agents was to prove pivotal. “The eight players versus the four… that was a big transition,” Cooper admits. “It didn’t feel that good with eight, but we reduced it to four and, all of a sudden, it really worked. And you could set them up differently – you didn’t really have time to do that with eight.”
Syndicate was Bullfrog’s first game to lead on PC, an announcement that led to cries of anguish from Amiga users (later mollified by Mike Diskette’s excellent port). “I think the decision to switch was based purely on the fact that the PC allowed us to do all of the cool city stuff that we wanted to,” explains Trowers. “The Amiga, bless its cottons, just wasn’t powerful enough. Early versions of the fully isometric 3D, full-screen engine never used to get above 12fps with any more than a handful of guys running around. Even on the PCs in those days, we had to do some pretty nifty graphics stuff to get the whole thing to work at a reasonable speed. I think all of it made us think that the Amiga had pretty much run its course and that the PC would take over as the main platform. And we were intrigued by all this wonderful network stuff. The Bullfrog philosophy on making games was to try the whole thing out multiplayer and then make an AI to emulate the human players.
“Suddenly we weren’t restricted to just two players. I think we all got very excited about this potential.” Just as Populous evolved through multiplayer matches between Molyneux and Corpes, networked games of Syndicate were a staple component of lunchtimes and late nights at the Bullfrog office. “We were playing it before a line of AI code had been written,” says Corpes. “The gameplay evolved by playing it multiplayer over the network. This is the best way of designing games and should be done more often, rather than hacking multiplayer in as an afterthought.”
“We’d get a few of our mates over after work and just play the thing multiplayer,” recalls Trowers. “By doing that, we worked out what was fun and how the AI should operate and just built on that. It was a very iterative process and the most fun I’ve had in this industry – we’d play the game, make changes, whack out a new version and try the extra stuff.”