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Afterthoughts: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Posted on June 21, 2013 AT 11:40am

Like a flying saucer full of Sectoids and Mutons, last year’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown appeared without warning and abducted hours of our free time with its challenging take on turn-based tactics. Now that we’ve recovered from the painful (but fun!) probing, we sat down with lead designer Jake Solomon to solve a few of the game’s otherworldly mysteries.

EGM: First question: I think it’s pretty safe to say that before Enemy Unknown came out, XCOM, though a cult classic, wasn’t exactly a household name. What’s was the genesis behind you guys wanting to revisit that franchise? Was that something that started internally at Firaxis?

Jake Solomon: Yes, definitely. It actually had a very personal beginning. The original is my favorite game of all time. It came out my senior year in high school, and I played it a crazy, crazy amount. In fact, I played it so much that when I went to college, that’s why I got a computer science degree.

And then I came to Firaxis, because I just loved strategy games. And ever since I’ve been here, I’ve been agitating to make XCOM. I’ve always thought that it was a perfect fit for what we do here, and it seemed possible to the point that I even made a prototype in 2003. But it was awful. I mean, it was really awful. Luckily for everyone—myself included—that didn’t go any further than a prototype.

It took me a lot longer, working under [legendary game designer] Sid [Meier], to sort of learn the ropes and learn how to really design a game. After Civilization Revolution, the opportunity came up to look at what Firaxis was going to do next, and that was, again, another time where I really agitated to make XCOM, and this time, I think, Sid had enough confidence in me from the design side.

We took it to 2K, and they actually deserve a lot of credit for this, because they’re creatively very brave. I think you can look at the titles that 2K does, and you can see that they’re interested in things that are different. You’re always afraid they’ll question, “What game is that like?” And with XCOM, really, the only answer is to say, “Well, it’s kind of like XCOM.” There’s nothing really like XCOM. That was actually a positive at 2K, because they’re always trying to do something new and cool. It worked out. These things are always a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work, but that’s how it worked out in this case as well.

EGM: Was it terrifying for you to take on a franchise that had basically defined a huge section of your life?

Solomon: Well, it wasn’t at first. This was a very long project—almost five years. I went in very naïve about what it took to make a game. This is actually the first game that I’ve designed. Because I’d worked for Sid for a long time, I thought, “Oh, man, I’m a great designer. I know what I’m doing.” I thought I’d take XCOM, up the graphics on it, make it a little bit cooler, put in some cool cameras, and we’d have ourselves a massive hit.

Of course, that’s not what happened. Our first version of the game was basically a reskinning, putting fancy new graphics on the original. But there were certain things I knew had to change. I wanted to add abilities to soldiers and aliens. I wanted to add a bunch of different weapons, a bunch of different items—all things that, I think, reflected my experience with modern games and I knew would add to the XCOM experience. But the original XCOM is a very, very complicated design, and I really overloaded it. It just really fell apart. It became this incredibly clunky, slow, hard game to play.

About Jake: Jake Solomon graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2000. Shortly after, he joined Firaxis Games and trained under legendary strategy-game designer Sid Meier.

We worked toward a vertical slice, and we had it done on April 23rd, 2009. We had a completely playable tactical game, a little bit of a playable strategy game, and completely different art than what we shipped with. We showed everybody, and we went out that night and got completely hammered. It was like we’d shipped the game. And this was more than four years ago. It’s great, right? We thought we were going to ship in like a year. The only problem was that the game sucked. There was a minor detail there, and that was that the game wasn’t any fun. It had a lot of problems, design-wise.

We put this massive amount of work into the game, and then the feedback started rolling in. If people knew the original, they said, “Oh, I thought it was really cool.” But if they didn’t know the original game, they just said, “I have no idea what’s going on.” That was the moment when I started to realize that this wasn’t going to be as easy as I’d thought, that I couldn’t just expect this design to come together. Sometimes, you think if you could just put all the pieces together, it would start working as a game. That’s absolutely not true. That’s not the way that it works, and I didn’t know that at that time.

That was when I became—and I’m speaking honestly here—very, very frightened. The job was suddenly incredibly overwhelming, because I had to tell a team of people that we were going to get rid of the work we’d just done for a year—almost a year and a half. I said, “We’re going to have to get rid of this work. We’re going to have to start over, because—I’m sorry—I’ve led you all in a very bad direction. I need to rethink this game.”

That was, by far, the lowest moment. I’d just done my best idea, but it wasn’t very good. In design, if something doesn’t work, sometimes it’s very hard to see what the right way forward is. That’s when I was really overwhelmed. My wife can tell you. I’d come home incredibly stressed, and I worked nights and weekends at home because I just felt the pressure of this team and the publisher support, and I think everybody was looking at the game we had and saying, “OK, when is this going to be fun? When is this actually going to be what we all thought it was going to be?” That was very difficult.

There was a period of probably a year and a half—maybe even two years—where the game was really in a bad state. But every day, we made a little bit more progress. And that’s when the combat got redesigned completely to be small squads, ability-based. I got rid of time units and traded them for actions. I made a lot of really sweeping changes. The only way—and the only reason I felt comfortable making those changes—was because I was desperate. You could look at them and say they were brave moves, taking a classic game and ditching the mechanics almost entirely. The high-level pillars were still there—destructible environments, the same aliens—but in terms of how the game actually worked, I ditched all the mechanics. But that wasn’t me being innovative and bold and forward-thinking as much as it was me being desperate.

EGM: At this point, I think it’s probably illegal for me to mention Enemy Unknown without using the word “hard.” Was there ever any concern that the difficulty would be a turnoff?

Solomon: When I was doing the final balancing, that was something I struggled with a lot. What is it that the audience really wants? Do they really want a hard, challenging tactics experience? That was kind of an open question for me. The way I decided to fix that was to say that the normal difficulty was going to be something that I thought most people would find challenging but could get through. The Classic difficulty was meant to be the pure form of the game—not quite roguelike—but a game that you legitimately stand a chance of losing every time you play.

EGM: So, what difficulty setting do you play the game on?

Solomon: I play Classic. I typically don’t play Ironman mode, because I’m always playing half with a mind on development, so I don’t want to run the risk of losing the game 15 hours in. I’ll admit, when you don’t actually have the Ironman flag on, you’re going to cheat. I cheat all the time. “Yeah, I’m going to reload. That didn’t go the way I wanted.”

But I think Classic difficulty, to me, feels the best in terms of those first three or four months. They’re incredibly tense, which is what I enjoy the most—that sense that things could wrong at any moment. It kind of surprised me that people have responded so well to Ironman mode, because that was something we put in super-late in development, but now it’s become something that people really enjoy. It’s given a lot of life to the game.

EGM: What’s your favorite squad build in the game?

Solomon: Solomon: If I have an ideal build—which, by the way, XCOM tries not to let you get. Typically, you’ll go into a mission limping in with three Snipers and two Rookies, and you have to make lemonade out of the lemons every time. But I’d say two Assaults, two Supports, one Heavy, and one Sniper. That’s a pretty good build, there.

EGM: What is the one feature or area of the game that you’re the most proud of? What was particularly challenging that you actually managed to pull off?

Solomon: That’s a good question. I sort of banked on the idea that, when I played the original XCOM, I became pretty attached to my soldiers. They really were just a name and a set of stats, and they all kind of looked the same, but even so, I became pretty attached. My goal was to really push that in Enemy Unknown. We added a bunch of things to form an emotional bond between the player and their soldiers. It’s as simple as the flag—soldiers have a nationality, and that flag is always visible on the back of the armor, when they’re in combat, whenever they’re listed, whenever you look at them in the strategy layer. When they level up to a certain level, they earn a nickname, which always forms another little bond with them—the fact that you can go visit [the ones who have died] in the memorial wall.

We were always talking about having the player form a bond with their soldiers, and that actually seems like it’s worked out. I get lots of messages, I get drawings in the mail, and people tweet pictures of their favorite soldier to me. That’s something that’s actually made me really, really happy. And when I play, I even feel it myself. I just feel this connection with my favorite soldiers. That’s probably the thing I get the most enjoyment from.

XCOM is funny in the sense that it doesn’t have much of a narrative, but I think people experience more actual, more genuine emotion in Enemy Unknown than some other games. And I think it’s because the stakes are permanent. When I lose my favorite soldiers, I feel [something.] Sometimes, it’s just like a twinge, but if I’ve been with that soldier—or if, for whatever reason, I’ve named him after somebody, I actually get a genuine sense of loss. And I know other people do, too. You get a genuine sense of elation when you win some battles. It’s a powerful thing, and that’s probably the thing that I’m most proud of and the team is most proud of. We’ve made a game where people actually feel emotions when they play it, and that’s probably the neatest part of the whole experience.

EGM: So, flipside of that. In light of the fan and critical response, what do you think is the one feature or area that you wish you’d done a better job with?

Solomon: I think we underestimated how much replay value the game needed. So, the fact that the maps are pre-made—they’re beautiful, they’re handcrafted, they’re tactical—but I think everyone wants more, and that’s totally understandable. I agree. I don’t know how we could’ve made more with the time we had, but I think that’s something that we’re always looking at.

And I think the strategy layer, too. It’s funny; I think I worried too much about the player losing the game, so I made it that you have to get satellites up or you could lose the game. And that forces you to play the game in a certain way. Forcing the player to do something kind of takes some of the replay value away, and so that’s something I wish I’d probably designed a little bit better than I did. I mean, all in all, of course, I’m super-happy with the game, I think the team’s super-happy, and generally, it seems like the fans are happy. But there are always, as developers, things that we look at and go, “OK, we could’ve done that better.

EGM: On a related note, what do you think was the most interesting feature in the early iterations of the game that you had to scrap?

Solomon: Random levels. We actually had that working. I say “working,” but they weren’t really working, and that’s why we scrapped them. In that first vertical slice, we actually had these psuedo-random levels, and that was a feature that we were all jazzed up about. But then, the more and more we worked at it, the more and more it became clear that it was a huge technical hurdle to have environmental destruction and random levels. Pretty quickly, it became clear that we weren’t going to solve that problem in the time we had. There was no way.

EGM: Final question: Are there any interesting secrets or Easter eggs squirreled away in the game?

Solomon: There are some jokes and stuff we put in there. I don’t know if you know about the hero characters [that appear when you give one of your soldiers a certain name]. We have Sid Meier and Ken Levine, who’s a huge friend of the family over here. There’s Joe Kelly, who was a friend of our studio. He was a kid who was sick, and he came in to visit us a couple times, and he actually passed away before we finished the game, so we put him in.

Also, if you listen to the base announcements, there are a couple of hidden jokes in there. Every once in a while, if you sit in the situation room, Central will make references to things, and they get more and more bizarre as time goes on. In fact, at one point, we reference UFO, the old 1970s show that supposedly gave Julian Gollop a lot of his inspiration for the original XCOM. If you go back and watch it, you’ll realize how much in XCOM actually came from that show.

Josh Harmon, Associate Editor
Josh Harmon picked up a controller when he was 3 years old—and he hasn't looked back since. This has made him particularly vulnerable to attacks from behind. He joined EGM as an intern following a brief-but-storied career on a number of small gaming blogs across the Internet. Follow him on Twitter @jorshy. Meet the rest of the crew.

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