With a new Syndicate game on the horizon and an X-COM reboot in the pipeline you might be forgiven for thinking we'd fallen into some sort of time-warp and been whisked back to the giddy heights of the early 90's - where mobile phones are the size of a small dog, Sega and Nintendo are still a big thing and everything is ludicrously cheap! Unfortunately no, we haven't. Sorry about that. Anyway, the 90's was a thing that happened, and though there's arguably a long list of really good games from the era that never really got sequels or continued in some form rather shamefully most have been forgotten by publishers and developers and the mainstream in general - Syndicate and X-COM among them until now. The strange thing is though this attempt to breathe renewed life into old intellectual property has highlighted something about the games industry: just how much it's changed since the early 90's.
Both remakes have seen a shift from Isometric-Strategy to First-Person Shooters, a move sure to disappoint many fans of the originals but something that doesn't necessarily mean either remake will turn out bad. Still it begs the question: Why the change in the first place? And why such a huge shift in gameplay mechanic?
Probably one of the biggest factors is the shift in the types of games that sell the most and the types of games developers find it the most convenient to make. FPSs tend to lead in this regard, especially since there are so many FPSs out there already that presenting a game narrative through a First-Person Shooter is reasonably straight-forward. Whether you like First-Person Shooters or not you have to admit that story-telling and the cinematic experience a game can provide have come a long way since the early 90's. People now look like people in games (instead of just jagged box things), the quality of writing generally is a lot better (even if the plots are still pretty cliché) and with good music and the right kind of artistic direction a game can really exude atmosphere to such a degree that the player really feels like they're in
It wasn't always this way though, back in the early-to-mid 90's most FPSs were pretty plot-lite, mainly because of the limited resources developers had on hand, but also, speaking more generally, because plot didn't seem to matter as much as it does today. FPSs tended to follow along the lines of 'you're a guy with a gun, kill stuff', with most of the effort put into making the detailed art and animations for your enemies rather than heavy story-telling elements – obviously there were exceptions to the rule, with the odd plot-driven/RPG-inspired FPS popping up, but for the most part developers just didn't have the ability to tell the sort of grand stories that today's modern developers have the resources to.
Isometric-Strategy games (or indeed any kind of strategy game) were a good way to overcome this limitation. Unlike First-Person Shooters where rooms and areas (levels in general) had to have some relatively realistic sense of scale with Isometric-Strategy you could tell stories on a much grander scale with less resources. It also meant people could focus on story-telling through text, and having the player fill in the blanks with their imagination. Throw in an introduction animation and the player could believe they were really a general commanding an army, rather than just somebody moving coloured blobs round the screen. Not only could you have a believable story but the player could control entire armies or fight across a world without the need to have a NASA-size computer on hand just to be able to run it.
Both of the games that inspired this piece are a good example of this. Each franchise was in it's own right known for being an Isometric-Strategy game that told an interesting story with limited resources. X-COM for example used a large globe to represent the Earth - first of all so you could establish your base, then secondly so you could monitor alien activity; then a large-scale map of your base, so you could build and organise your forces; then finally an isometric battle-map which covered the area you were fighting on. Syndicate did something similar, with a large world map to reflect the territorial division of the world - from which you could move to a load-out screen to prep and arm your team; then finally to have your agents deployed on an isometric representation of a city to complete their mission. They overcame the limitations of the technology of the time by increasing the scale and reusing game resources again and again – Syndicate's cities are almost all nearly identical and X-COM features a range of standardised areas that all look very similar to one another.
But games have moved on a lot since those early days of mainstream gaming - and so has the technology. It's now possible to create really life-like representations of people's faces, complete with realistic facial expressions and behavioural clues. It's taken games years to advance this far though, and it's in that space of time that what consumers demand and what developers expect consumers to demand from their games has shifted so drastically. The mainstream of gamers want to be right up-close and personal with the action in games rather than commanding from on high. They want to be able to see the characters and interact with them, as they might in real-life. Gaming has become less about strategy and challenge and more about how visceral an experience the player can have, with more explosions, more action, more excitement.
Story-telling has moved on by leaps and bounds in games too with better writing in general helped along by the fact they can have characters whose faces can emote and express what they're thinking, aswell as better graphics allowing for much more presentable and believable characters, and a larger capacity for creating scripted actions and motion-captured movements to relate believable human behaviour. All these things are important because part of why FPSs hadn't really hit their stride yet in the 90's was because games weren't a particularly attractive medium for telling stories, sure they were fun but most were never able to create truly believable, emotive characters and there was no real human aspect to the pixel art or crude textured 3D models you interacted with. Strategy games offered you the ability to have the best story a 90's game could offer whilst also having much larger scale stories and a sense of purpose.
Also important to consider is the technology available at the time – most games didn't use 3D and instead relied on 2D graphics, which can be extremely time-consuming to make, so games tended to either re-use resources a lot (like with Syndicate and X-COM) or use them for a long time (i.e. by either having the player retrace their steps a lot or have each unique map or level be of such a difficulty that they ended up taking the player hours to complete.) Resident Evil 1 and 2 are good examples of the first - as you'd have an area (the Mansion, the Police Station) and then slowly but surely work round it, opening up new areas but always having to retread old territory to get to any new areas that might open up. The Commandos series is a good example of the latter, where each map was pretty much one big painting but each could take hours to complete.
Because of this games tended to be more slow and ponderous, if it took ages to make a huge scene with explosions and action and the scene still didn't look that great then what was the point? You might aswell stick to challenging the player's brain rather than using bad effects. In many respects game design hasn't changed that much – it's still immensely time-consuming to make game resources and to put them all together, so most developers can't afford the 'one room, one visit' rule that tends to apply to the really big games we've seen in recent years, but unlike the 90's we now have publishers and developers with the resources to plough into games to achieve the really high-end, and expensive, stuff that makes modern games what they are. So we've seen a shift, we still see strategy games, we still see games where you have to think and where the action isn't so fast-paced, but the games that really sell the most have become more and more about that visceral, intense experience.
This seems to be why X-COM and Syndicate are being revived as First-Person Shooters - publishers inevitably want their games to sell the most, and at the moment in the industry it's First-Person Shooters that are the 'big thing' that everybody talks about, so inevitably they end up saying 'well if we want this franchise to come back, to be big, to be successful, then it's going to need to be an FPS, because that's where the big money is'. Not to mention the fact that FPSs really have come so far in terms of story-telling in the last two decades, that they can, more often than not, out-perform other styles of game in terms of narrative impact. So the shift is hardly surprising, still it does seem something of a shame to leave strategy games behind.
I must admit I was never a huge strategy fan as a kid, I mainly played the games where everything blew up within 20 secs of the game starting up and you could shoot stuff 24/7 – well that or Resident Evil, so I probably don't quite have the same sort nostalgia for the old-school turn-based and real-time strategy games of old that some of my generation may have. However in my (somewhat) older age I have begun to appreciate strategy games more – there's so many action-packed games out there these days that more thoughtful, slower-paced games are often in the minority, and usually a labour of love on the part of the developers. Sure clever games are still popular (Portal anyone?) but the really big sellers are usually the shooters rather than the strategy games. So though I'm interested to see how both X-COM and Syndicate turn out, it seems a shame they've left their strategy roots behind, the idea that you'll no longer be able to manipulate the world on a grand scale like you could in the originals is sort of sad.
Still it's not all doom and gloom, the upsurge in tower defense games in recent years, aswell as a growing number of indie and smaller studio games focusing on strategy shows there is still an appetite on the part of developers for strategy - even if the big studios seem to be ignoring it. I'd probably put the shift away from Isometric-Strategy and towards FPSs for big title games as something of a product of the gaming world we live in at the minute – games are always constrained by - and also designed around - the limitations and capabilities of the hardware they're on. FPSs couldn't achieve what strategy games could with the resources they had in the 90's primarily because of the limitations of the hardware of the era, and vice versa, at the minute strategy games can't achieve what FPSs can because though we have the technology to create beautifully realistic likenesses of individual people we don't yet commercially have the capability to create say an army of life-like on-screen characters that the player can interact with from on-high.
It's more than likely that in maybe 10-15 years time from now developers and gamers will have access to that sort of hardware, and perhaps in the future we'll see games evolve to such an extent that strategy games do become the leader of the pack once more. Who knows, if anybody's still making X-COM or Syndicate games by then maybe we'll have come full circle and we'll all be playing some sort of first/third-person-cross strategy game, and waging war across realistic cityscapes. One things for sure it really doesn't seem like we've seen the last of strategy games, especially given how much potential the genre has.