Designing the Synthetik Universe

Updated: Sep 27


With the announcement of Synthetik 2 we have mentioned the ominous new

"Synthetik Universe", but what does this mean?


Fundamentally "Universe" is a very different approach to the underlying game design. There is a strong focus on consistency, the world with its lore, factions therein, and it also focuses on building up our IP for the future, not just for Synthetik 2.





A new approach for game design

Shrike: Synthetik 1 was basically a big playground for testing ideas and mechanics. There was no focus on world building, nor did things have a lot of consistency in their designs. As most game devs do, we just added things which were missing in the game over time or things which would be a cool addition in the spur of the moment.


"Hey we don't have lightning stuff yet (because nobody did any particle effect for it) let's do some lightning stuff. Hmm, maybe some battery? What does it do? How does it look like? Maybe green lighting would be cool?" This is a normal process when making a game.


Now, however, after years of iteration and trying out new things, the Synthetik Universe has been built from the ground up as a world to host varied games, starting with a fundamentally different approach.


Concept art for the new missile silo level, based on the S1 missile silo


Instead of "adding as you go" as is generally done, we designed the world from scratch.

The first step being the creation of the factions and the technologies within the universe.


It started with the technologies and then these technologies were used to define the factions. (If Machine Military is all about explosives, Ion and ballistic tech then the police can not have these, but what is the implication for the humans ...)


The foundation was laid brick by brick in a broad fashion, even if that meant doing design for game elements that were not needed now, and some others might not be needed for years.


Concept art of Terminals / Shops


The foundation for all human and machine factions (around 8 at the moment) was laid out, this had to consider their visual design, aesthetics, roles and especially their gameplay.


Knowing each factions strengths and weaknesses, technology affinities, roles and stylistic choices is the culmination of the last 5 years of work. This required a lot of hard thinking and many months of excel, mapping things out in a huge spider web that felt exactly like this:



Instead of planning for the X weapons needed for the game, I had mapped out complete faction arsenals for each faction which were supposed to be logically "complete" within itself, meaning that a faction arsenal can deal with any reasonable threat that it might encounter in a realistic fashion. So the S.A.T. police force needs weapons and tools to deal with any threat like a real police and special forces would.


But most importantly, they fit within a grand scheme encompassing all factions, where all weapons are distributed carefully to contribute to this big universe weapon loadout where nothing is repeated or redundant and everything has a clear role and definition.


A similar thing goes on for the faction units, vehicles, doctrines, buildings and more.

All of these were considered in this planning cycle.


A tiny excerpt from the many design documents, showing a piece of the chrono and shock squad overview. Its very important to see the big picture. Get it? Because this is a big picture? Very funny.


Essentially all major factions and their sub-factions in the world were designed far in advance at once with the big picture always in mind (right now in conception: 4 machine factions and 4 human factions) with all their roles, traits, visual design, technologies, weapons and gameplay concepts. While these are far from final, knowing at least the essence of each faction and their respective strengths and weaknesses, makes it much clearer how design should and shouldn't be done for them.



But why this approach?

Before Synthetik 2, we had briefly started on what was called "Game 2" which is set in a different genre but within the same world, although in a different location.


While designing for that game and designing for S2 at the same time, naturally, I wanted to keep things as consistent as possible and thought about formats of how to make design work on one game add value to the other. Game 2 went through varied designs and many considerations especially around units and factions; there were a lot of formats tried and conceptualized but in the end, the design that fit both games was actually much better than all previously uniquely tailored ones.


It dawned on us that a faction based approach for building the world would not only fit perfectly for the enemies in Synthetik but was what was also needed for the other game, and the amount of variation and amount of units needed for both games to have nice variance in choices and gameplay was exactly the same.


Concepts for Faction logos


After this revelation it quickly came about that there was a clear optimal design format that would fit to most possible genres we are interested in and a big iteration on the entire world design was screaming to be made.




The benefits

All this work is of tremendous value for game design once you have the huge puzzle filled in. It grants clarity and greatly improves future design work in all sorts of areas.


Disc formats made within the visual design language of their respective faction.


Now, if someone wants to design something like a unit or weapon per example, as long as you know for which faction it is supposed to be, things are much easier than before:


- The technologies available to each faction are clear (more info about these in a later post)

- You know the style, audio design, materials, and tech behind each technology

- The visual design language of the faction and their technologies are known

- Color scheme is known by its faction or even sub-faction allegiance

- Naming is much easier as you generally have a similar theme in names

- You know the game design patterns, strengths and weaknesses of the faction and tech

- You know what the other factions have in their arsenal and what you should avoid doing

- And you can always look back at the big roster of all factions and see what would benefit the game the most in the grand scheme


All these benefits greatly reduce open questions, increase visual and game design consistency, efficiency while working, and increase overall quality of content down the road.



What happens to the S1 designs?

Units: All the unique machine designs done for S1 were split amongst the machine factions or adjusted to fit their style, although in many cases minimal changes were needed as they already had a somewhat similar background in mind. Some of them, such as the raider weapons were already spot-on,.


As an example, the Spider bots and tracked vehicles belong to the machine military forces which use legged and tracked vehicles. This makes sense, given that they have to be ready for poor terrain conditions, while the police sub-factions rely on wheeled vehicles and sometimes hovering drones which are suited more so for a city or even for the inside of buildings. Ball-bots are more experimental and would fit better with a faction like the Bright Guard (name pending). The Red Guard relies a lot on expensive, slightly dated and power inefficient gliders and laser technology.


Older overview of some of the machine military faction units


Having each faction posses a strong identity in such a way adds a lot more character and definition than the previous state of just mixing it all together (ball-bots, gliders, spiders, tracked vehicles, etc) in one bag and shaking it through for a random mass of "stuff".


Items: In terms of items, nearly all of the designs are still very fitting and you will see many return over time for sure.


Weapons: While some were already spot-on, like the later created raider weapons, the weapons in S1 are a mixed bag in terms of visual design. Some are "tacticool" some are retro, some are neomodern. They were united in color scheme but not in terms of visual design, era or themes. Some weapons like the Belgian SCAR laser socom may look cool but don't really fit any faction and don't make any real logical sense and are too modern to fit a 1980-1990s theme. At a second glance, a good amount of the weapons rely a lot on their color schemes to stand out and don't have a ton of unique design to them.


Some of the machine S.A.T. Police forces weapons from the story trailer


For the future, we plan to have more unique designs for the machine factions which may still be based on real weapons, but overall use a lot more unique in-house designing, which may not be perfect at first but will allow us to grow and find new favorites, of which the best ones we plan to evolve and keep alive throughout the future of the universe.


The human weapons will be still largely based on real weapons but follow a more consistent line, and we are aiming towards using more "alternate timeline" designs, like for the Soviet Brotherhood, we are not going with the standard AKs and SVDs etc. We're rather going a lot more with rarely used prototypes or underrepresented weapons. As an example, the standard AK would be replaced with a design based on the Dragunov MA or the TKB-0111 from the competing Soviet design bureau of the time.


Early design explorations for Soviet Brotherhood weapons


I personally feel a little disappointed after seeing the same mixture AK-47 and M4/AR15, M14, Bizon, Mp5 etc. in nearly every shooter and think it's much more interesting to dig into some of the competing designs. For the American weapons this would be the Stoner 63 that would replace the M4/M16 in that case, and as such we will try to bring more creative and rarely seen weapons into view.



Setting & Art style

In terms of the setting, I also think the Synthetik universe will fit best with something that is sci-fi and fantasy but with a more grounded standpoint given what is already around.


While a grand world like Warhammer 40k is amazing (and takes an insane amount of effort over decades), it is not what we need in order to make great gameplay and cool designs. The real world has many great things and we want to keep these things that are well known and make space for where we will have room for a 1970s Dodge Charger, a stealth tank and a laser rifle. Having to explain everything from nil when things are too far apart from reality is also not helpful given our already complex designs and mechanics.



With the retro-future 1980s setting I think we land in a good spot that is far enough from current big sci-fi players. With the clean look and bright colors, it will definitely be recognizable, especially against the currently popular Neon Tokyo / Cyberpunk style and Destiny, which are either very grungy and dark or a lot more detached from the real world.


The current retro-future artstyle is inspired by traditional sci-fi alá Chris Foss the advent of sci-fi anime Akira / Neon evangelesis and Syd Mead style futurism and Braun / Bauhaus style clean industrial design but in the end I think we do have something that looks distinctively different.


Painting from famous artist Chris Foss - A big inspiration for patterns and colors


I would say the strong colors and the simple designs with special shapes is what defines the Synthetik style the most but this could fill an entire new blog post.



Conclusion

The Synthetik Universe is in a special starting position, generally either a world is created around a protagonist or a certain specific story and goes deep into detail around that storyline but has little substance beyond (such as in movies), or it is extended around an existing game as it fits best.


Our approach now is maybe more similar to how I would imagine a tabletop or board game could be designed, first outlining the technologies or basic elements (as a foundation for the art and gameplay) and then defining everything from the factions and the grand world history, then only at last, picking a storyline somewhere inside that world.


Early concepts for android and machine helmets, maybe too crazy. Maybe not crazy enough


We think for us and our plans it is more important to know exactly about all the gear, arsenals, tech, infantry units, vehicles and buildings that define each force. Knowing those we should have a great balance and well defined gameplay elements for each, rather than a lot of stories of NPCs or a certain city the player is inhabiting within the game, but we will see how well this approach will work out.


We are also working on our upcoming lore hub which will go more into the story side of things, so stay tuned!


- Shrike / Team FFG


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