Despite being one of the biggest gaming companies around, Western gamers don't pay much attention to Tencent. But name-drop just a few of the studios it owns such as Riot Games (League of Legends), Supercell (Clash of Clans), and 40 per cent of Epic Games (Fortnite), and it's clear the Chinese company is one of the gaming world's power players.
Tencent isn't only about raking in profits from the work of other successful studios, and has developed a vast range of in-house titles, the biggest one to date being the mobile-based MOBA Honour of Kings. This example also shows how something so ridiculously popular in the Chinese market can barely register with the rest of the world: the game’s international adaptation, Arena of Valor, was something of a flop.
While Western developers vie to crack the enormous yet heavily state-controlled Chinese market, Tencent is determined to make itself a respectable player in the global market, which brings us to the oddly capitalised NExT Studios.
The Shanghai-based studio’s creative director Clark Yang explains the company is representative of Tencent's push at global frontiers. “The new experience and technology is what we stand for,” says Yang. “Most Chinese games have been mobile games for Chinese markets. However, for us, that is not enough. We need to target the global market to see what the players on the other side of the world want to play, and the key for us is to really drive the product to a premium platform like high-end PC and console.”
Yang is showing me SYNCED: Off-Planet, a title announced at Gamescom. It’s a gritty third-person shooter set in a post-apocalyptic world, and comparisons to The Division would not be too far off. It’s an online team-based competitive multiplayer set on a 1.5km x 1.5km open world map, and with up to 16 teams made up of three players (so 48 players per match) there’s something of battle royale about it. It’s also got hordes of zombies, and I do mean hordes: around 1,500 at any time. In making a game for the global market, SYNCED looks like it’s basing itself around proven if perhaps well-worn triple-A trends, although this is also a starting point for something more interesting.
Let’s start with the zombies. More specifically, they’re a zombie and cyborg hybrid, the result of a dodgy biochip implanted in the back of every human, the corrupting technology turning the majority of the population into what are now called Nanos. What sets them apart from your usual undead is that besides just shooting them up, they can also be hacked. In fact, just weakening one nano allows you to hack your immediate radius, synchronising with a horde of nanos nearby.
There’s something strangely Pikmin about having these killer bots at your command. At its most basic, I can direct them to a nearby location, perhaps a building where another team of survivors are camping. So even if I’m not much of a good shot, I can focus on amassing a huge killer robot army to do the dirty work.
Despite the number of players on the map, this isn’t a battle royale in the sense that the map doesn’t shrink, teams spawn on randomly designated points on the map, and it’s also not about fighting to the last one standing. As the sub-title suggests, you’re actually looking for a shuttle that can get you the hell off the planet.
Naturally you’ll be fighting with other human survivors to get control of this one shuttle, which also takes time before it can launch. That's another similarity to The Division's great moments where you're trying to get prized Dark Zone loot out with a chopper: except here, you’ve also got hordes of player-controlled and AI Nanos to contend with.
You could potentially spawn right next to the shuttle, but that doesn’t guarantee a quick victory. As level progression also occurs during a match, it means the team that reaches the shuttle in the first minute who haven’t taken time to loot areas or gain XP to prepare for a siege risk being sitting ducks.
During a quick hands-on, there were glimpses of other varieties of Nano you might encounter, such as one who looked like a tanked-up terminator walking menacingly towards me. My bullets weren’t doing any damage, so it was up to my team-mate to flank him and exploit a weak point on his back. To my surprise, you could then also hack this fella then have him wail on the other teams.
Visually it looks like many other 'photorealistic' third-person shooters, though again there’s a bit more going on there, and I'm surprised when Yang tells me NExT is a very young studio with a headcount of about 50. “Most of the characters are procedurally generated,” Yang explains. “At our studio, we also have a photogrammetry lab. So we collected a lot of human facial features. Based on these, the system can calculate and generate new characters from those core features.”
Considering this is a 'pre-alpha' build I’m impressed, especially when I'd researched the studio it has mostly been making much smaller-scale games of the indie/mobile variety (there's no release date for SYNCED but it will be coming to PC first). Yang is nonetheless aware the studio has a lot to learn if it’s going to stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Ubisoft. It’s why NExT is also collaborating with Studio Gobo, a Brighton-based independent developer who do have AAA experience in contract work for the likes of the Disney Infinity franchise and Ubisoft’s For Honor. Gobo’s main contribution to SYNCED is developing Haven, the sort of pre-match area where players can hang out, customise their characters and load-out, and where the bulk of SYNCED's storytelling takes place.
That story is not an offline 20-hour campaign with scripted cutscenes. It might be better to say that lore and world-building are baked-in to how this works, think a kind of Souls-lite approach, which might be a first for what’s essentially an online match-based multiplayer game.
“It’s not just, oh, my level has gone up, but you will uncover more facts and info, so the narrative is one strong motivation,” says Xu Xiaojun, Gobo’s game director. “You discover how Haven changes, which might uncover more fragments of story that you won't be able to access before. So as you play through a match, it's not just your skill improving: you’re spending more time to get to know the world a bit better.”
“It's more like this is a world that people can feel,” says Yang. “You will get pieces of things here and there. It could be a tale, a note, a recording of some sort. For example, a character might say that they ran past a small cabin, and they want you to go explore it. So then on your next match, you’ve got your core objective to get out of the planet, but you might also run across this cabin. If I get in, I’ll discover a new story, either in the environment or through a retrievable item. So these kind of small pieces can lead to long non-linear storytelling techniques.”
Whether this kind of storytelling will engage with a player base primarily there for competitive looting and shooting is another matter. Still it seems a more interesting approach compared to a competitor like Overwatch where, despite rich character backstory and lore, once you get down to the actual game itself, the narrative is secondary or completely divorced from what you’re actually doing.
“Story for us isn't just complimentary, it's the driving force for us to go to the world,” says Xu. “We don't want to introduce friction, having you sit through cutscenes or having to talk to someone for half an hour to know what's going on. You can jump in match after match if you want to do that but we want to reward curiosity. If you're interested in this world and if you want to wander out in Haven, you might discover these fragments and absorb the story at your own pace.”
After some time in its world I came away impressed with the potential of SYNCED. Yes there are a lot of easy comparisons to existing titles that one could draw, but beneath that familiar-looking surface it has plenty of clever ideas that distinguish it from the other online shooters and zombie survival games that saturate the market. As someone who enjoys competitive games but also sucks at them, the mix of co-op, AI hacking and breadcrumb storytelling looks much more compelling than the fire-and-forget structure of many competitors. Players in the west perhaps don't realise how big Tencent is, and its development capabilities: SYNCED may well be the game that changes this, and the NExT step towards its global gaming domination.