X-Communicated: The Xenonauts Interview

By Alec Meer on November 16th, 2010 at 5:30 pm.

Amidst the web-wide frenzy resulting from the announcement of 2K Marin’s shooter-sequel to X-COM, those who were unwaveringly disappointed/infuriated that the series’ strategy roots had been abandoned had at least one source of turn-based solace. That was Goldhawk Interactive’s Xenonauts, one of more X-COM remake projects than any sane man could count – but this time determined to retain the original game’s key systems and concepts rather than slavishly recreate every feature, aesthetic and plot-point. Cold War-set and going for military grit rather than early 90s comicbook scifi, it promises to be familiar yet different.

However, a great many X-COM tributes have been, gone or simply stalled midway through development – indeed RPS gets advised of a new one at least every couple of months. So how/will this one be different? Best leave that one to the developer, really – read on for project lead Chris England’s thoughts on why do this, 2K’s FPS, bastard Chrysalids, and what’s going to be better than the original.

RPS: Why X-COM, and what does it mean to you personally?

Chris England: I guess everyone has formative games in their lives, and the original UFO: Enemy Unknown was definitely one of them for me. I bought it when I was about twelve, back in the days when I’d wander around the games section in PC World and buy games based entirely on their box art and blurb. I’d always been a sucker for strategy games, and the scope of the game blew me away.

I must have spent months playing that game in a semi-darkened room as a kid, drunk on a strange cocktail of tension, excitement and terror. I didn’t even realise that it was arguably one of the best games ever made until years afterwards, but I’ve no doubt the childhood memories of (vainly) trying to save the earth will stick with me forever.

RPS: What’s the balance between being faithful to the original game and pursuing your own vision?

Chris England: The Xenonauts team is making a big effort to stay faithful to the original game mechanics. Other titles have changed part of the game’s mix (for instance by adding real-time combat), and I don’t think they’ve been entirely successful in doing so. I think the Gollop brothers hit on a fantastic formula for a grand strategy game with X-Com, and I don’t see that there’s much to be gained by changing it unnecessarily.

I guess our vision comes through in translating those game mechanics into the modern age. You can’t just do a straight clone with improved graphics, because times have moved on since X-Com was released. Ground combat without a cover system, in today’s world? You’d be laughed out of town if you tried it. We’re not trying to remake X-Com, we’re trying to build the game it would be if it came out today.

RPS: What’s definitely in, and what’s definitely out?

Chris England: What’s in? All the key parts of the original (global strategy, turn based combat, destructible terrain) plus a new model for air combat, a more balanced economic model, a cover system for the ground battles, more unit/weapon/aircraft variations, friendly AI soldiers, improved alien AI, alternate mission victory conditions, flamethrowers, jump-packs and a more intuitive and expansive research tree. There are probably more features that have slipped my mind, I just pulled those off the top of my head.

What’s out? Blaster bombs and psionic powers for the humans have been removed because we feel they unbalanced the game, as are all the niggles from the original game (not being able to manually arrange your soldiers in the dropship, not remembering loadouts between missions, being forced to kill every alien on the map to win a mission etc).


RPS: How has the new setting affected your design decisions? Also, why the new setting?

Chris England: It hasn’t. I don’t particularly think the setting was a big part of the original X-Com. It was a generic near-future B-movie style setting, and had almost zero effect on the way the game played. It has affected the vibe and aesthetic design of the project, though – we’ve tried to give the human technology a blocky, industrial feel that contrasts with the sleeker alien ships, vehicles and technology, and overall the vibe is a little less cheerful than before.

The Cold War setting was partially because I liked playing with elements of the Soviet style when designing the ‘look’ of the Xenonauts, and partially because it clearly distances us from the original game and its clones.


RPS: Who are you working with on this project?

Chris England: Xenonauts is an online collaborative project, and there’s probably about ten core team members working remotely on the game on a part-time basis, and a number of freelancers who do contract work for us as and when required. Its mostly either industry or related-field experience on the team, so everyone is very capable.

RPS: How do you compare yourself to other X-COM fan projects or unofficial remakes?

Chris England: We’re radically different from the fan projects, primarily as we’re in this for commercial reasons. I’ve ploughed my life savings into funding this game, which eliminates a lot of the leadership struggles you have with fan projects – I’m paying the bills, so I get to decide what happens. Decision making is faster, there’s less feature creep and the vision is less watered down, and obviously paying for staff attracts a higher quality of personnel too.

As far as the other remakes are concerned, that will (hopefully) really come down to game balance and overall polish. The other unofficial remakes have often been poorly balanced games, frequently suffering from writing and translation issues. We plan to spend quite a lot of time getting the gameplay right, and we’re hoping that will mark us out.


RPS: Do you feel confident that Xenonauts could stand alone and proud in the unlikely event we saw an official remake/turn-based sequel announced at any point?

Chris England: Difficult question – it depends on how good the official remake was. We don’t have the resources to compete with a AAA studio as far as graphics are concerned, so we’re concentrating more on the gameplay and balance. I think strategy players appreciate that more than the graphics.


RPS: What was your reaction to the 2K XCOM FPS? How does it affect your plans for Xenonauts?

Chris England: Honestly? From a personal point of view I was delighted, as we couldn’t have asked for a better publicity opportunity.

From an X-Com fan’s point of view, I was obviously disappointed that the license had been so blatantly plundered. However, while I’m not entirely convinced by the aliens shown so far, I’m actually quite interested in the XCOM FPS because the period setting and planned features do appeal.

It doesn’t really affect our plans for Xenonauts at all, given the vast gulf between the two projects in terms of genre. I genuinely hope 2K produce a good game, because it sounds like an interesting twist on the FPS formula. It’d just have been nice if they’d picked a different name for it.

RPS: Why do you think 2K, or anyone else involved in the original games, has let the series lie fallow for so long, and isn’t pursuing the mechanics now?

Chris England: I’ve no idea at all. People say ‘Oh, a major publisher couldn’t get away with just remaking an old game!’, but I don’t actually think that’s true. I’m not saying they could advertise it as one of their flagship projects, but they could quite easily produce a turn-based X-Com sequel with a small team (essentially doing what we’re doing) and I’m sure they’d make a very handsome return on their investment.


RPS: Chrysalids. Bastard, evil Chrysalids. What’s your equivalent?

Chris England: We’ve an equivalent in the game with all the same abilities as the original creature, but with a little twist that makes them even more awful than the original Chrysalids. I’ll let you discover for yourself what it is, though.

RPS: And finally, when can we expect to see more from Xenonauts, and get a good sense of how it looks and plays?

Chris England: We brought our new site up in the last couple of days, which provides a lot more detail on the project. The code has made great strides over the last couple of months, and a lot of the functionality is in place (you can see exactly how much on the Project Status page of our website).

We’ll start producing videos and screenshots in the next week or so (I’m just polishing a bunch of the UI elements), and continue to do so until release. If you want to see how it plays, you’ll have to pre-order. In a similar vein to the chaps at Wolfire, we’ll be giving pre-orderers early access to various parts of the game in order to seek feedback on how we can improve it before release.

, , , , , .

58 Comments »

  1. MrWolf says:

    Hard not to get at least a wee bit excited about this.

  2. monkeybreadman says:

    Hmm, so many have tried and failed. Would like to see some in-game video before i get off my big fence.

    Good luck to them though

  3. Eschatos says:

    For those who can’t wait for this, UFO: Alien Invasion is releasedish, free, and regularly updated. It’s also quite good though it takes way more liberties with the XCOM idea than Xenonauts will.

    edit: http://ufoai.ninex.info/wiki/index.php/News

    • Premium User Badge

      Andy_Panthro says:

      I’d also heartily recommend UFO: The Two Sides, which is currently in beta.

      It expands on the original X-Com, adding in multiplayer and the ability to play as the Aliens in single-player.

      More info:

      http://ufotts.ninex.info/

    • battles_atlas says:

      UFO:AI is quite good, but all the little niggles that tarnish so many fan projects eventually killed off my interest. Also, it must be said, the battlemaps are incredibly ugly.

  4. Vinraith says:

    This looks extremely promising, and I say that even as someone that never played that much X-Com.

  5. Iain says:

    How come everyone is always so down on real time combat in these clones? If you’re going to identify an area to modernise that’s a good candidate.

    Turn based was just a limitation due to being unable to process all the information quick enough and as a throw bag to miniature games.

    • Zombat says:

      There’s a big difference between play styles of real time and turn based strategies.
      An RTS is more about quick thinking, reflexes and micro managing (or hitting the pause key fast enough)
      TBS is more about strategic planning, making the most of your allocated time units, etc.

      An RTS version of xcom would have to remove one hit kills otherwise it will be incredibly frustrating for the majority of players as they wouldn’t be able to keep up, and that would ruin most of the atmosphere

    • Urael says:

      I think the argument is that you lose so much control in the process; the ability to move your men like the finely honed chess pieces they are, according to intricate, web-like strategies. Enough games do real-time combat to satisfy that particular hunger – why can’t we still have a few turn-based gems too?

    • Nick says:

      “Turn based was just a limitation due to being unable to process all the information quick enough and as a throw bag to miniature games.”

      Utter drivel.

    • wm says:

      There is a reason why the Civilization franchise hasn’t gone RTS (and never will, or so shoot me dead). It would be a completely different game.

    • Pardoz says:

      How come everyone is always so down on turn-based combat? If you’re going to remake a game defined by its combat mechanics that’s a good candidate to keep.

      Real time is just a commercial limitation due to wanting to sell more copies to the ADD konsole kiddiez.

      Real-time and turn-based games are different genres that appeal to different people in different ways. There’s room – and a market – for both.

    • Archonsod says:

      “An RTS version of xcom would have to remove one hit kills otherwise it will be incredibly frustrating for the majority of players as they wouldn’t be able to keep up, and that would ruin most of the atmosphere”

      Depends on the implementation. The real question is why they insist on a UGO system, I’d love to see one utilising a WEGO system.

    • malkav11 says:

      Astonishingly wrongheaded statement, really. There’s nothing -wrong- with real-time gameplay, combat or otherwise, but it plays very differently than turn-based and some of us prefer the latter (in contexts where it is appropriate, of course, although I take great delight in games like Metal Gear Ac!d and R-Type Tactics that recast intense real time action games into fiddly turn-based tactics for no particular reason).

      Saying otherwise…well, I guess you could play chess where both players move their pieces as fast as possible and whoever happens to get there first takes precedence, say, but it wouldn’t be chess anymore.

    • Tuco says:

      @lain: you’re so fucking wrong.

    • kp says:

      I’d be tickled pink if they added an optional real time component copied off of X-Com Apocalypse’s. That was my favorite, so much fun.

    • Premium User Badge

      Devenger says:

      malkav11: it wouldn’t be chess, it would be a turbo variant of Kung-Fu Chess. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kung-fu_chess

      It was a stupid, silly game, but it’s still a shame that it’s disappeared off the ‘net. Chess is more fun when your king can dodge incoming bishops, right?

    • Nethlem says:

      I like what X-Com apocalypse did…
      It gives you the decission at the start of each mission, because let’s be serious here: Some missions where you heavily outgunned your enemies tended to be very annoying in TBS mode because you had to micro EVERYTHING. While it had been much faster to play the same mission in RTS mode where you wouldn’t be annoyed by so much micro management.

      So it’s basicly the best of both worlds and everybody is happy.

    • Premium User Badge

      wengart says:

      My biggest problem with UGO is the inability to implement suppressing fire and flanking. (you can “flank” but not in the LMG sprays bullets and some dudes run up the side kind of way)

      In fact, I want an X-com remake that plays like MOW, but with better tacai/movement handling.

  6. Zombat says:

    A chrysalid equivilent thats an even bigger bastard than the original game?
    Is… is that even possible?

    • Hematite says:

      I’m guessing the neo-chrysalid somehow infects people without it being visible until the parasitic alien larvae bursts forth from the depleted carcass of your veteran trooper to devour his friends in an orgy of blood and death. Or something.

      Or maybe it looks like a clown now. Clowns are fucking scary.

    • ZamFear says:

      @Zombat:
      Of course it’s possible.

      Flying chrysalid.
      Psionic chrysalid.
      Invisible chrysalid.

      The trick is making sure it isn’t too much of a bastard.

    • CMaster says:

      Yeah, TFTD had Tentacluites. Like Chrysslids but flying and with 99(99!) TUs.
      Motherfuchers.

  7. Yargh says:

    I like both pausable real-time and turnbased. Both give quite different results, so I’m happy to play both types of game.
    I’m not obsessed with realism so the idea that one is more realistic than the other doesn’t factor into my enjoyment…

  8. Cronstintein says:

    I wish them the best.

    Much more interested in this than the FPS official sequel.

    X-com is one of my all time favorites from when I was growing up, never did beat it. Once battleships and bases came into the mix I found it quite difficult. I’m curious as to whether I could do it now.

  9. groovychainsaw says:

    I particularly like how they’ve identified all the minor niggles in the original (which, don’t get me wrong, is a 10/10 stone cold classic for me) that could be improved using modern ideas. Many of the things mentioned are things I’ve often thought could be improved. Whether or not they can maintain the oppressive atmosphere and skilled tactics that makes the game I’m not so sure (talk of more weapons and craft options worries me slightly, as more choice doesn’t always make for a better game), but they’re talking a good game…

  10. Inigo says:

    “We’ve an equivalent in the game with all the same abilities as the original creature, but with a little twist that makes them even more awful than the original Chrysalids.”

    COMMIE CHRYSALIDS!

  11. Malawi Frontier Guard says:

    Game mechanics can never be more modern. They can’t be old, either. There is no such thing as innovation in game mechanics. I know this can be hard to understand, as the history of game development is strange and convoluted. It’s easy to mistake improvements in presentation, usability, and processing power as changes to underlying game mechanics.

    Real-time games and turn-based games are fundamentaly different. You can say you like one or the other better, but you can’t say one is an improvement over the other.

    Edit: This was @Iain. Dammit, captcha.

  12. Nova says:

    I found Ethereals to be much more annoying than Chrysalids.

  13. kulik says:

    Hoping for the best.
    Instead of RTS they should make a WEGO mode.

  14. Clovis says:

    XCom didn’t have cover? Is that right? I was more of a Jagged Alliance guy. Those games definitely had cover.

    • Archonsod says:

      Not in an abstracted way. You could duck behind a hedge and shots might hit it rather than your guy if they went low enough, but it didn’t affect the chance to hit or the like.

    • CMaster says:

      I hope they don’t mean the addition of abstracted cover, but the addition of having your soldiers say, ducking down behind a window, popping up to fire, then back down again, rather than the slight crapshoot that using any kind of cover was in XCOM.

    • P7uen says:

      I agree, the cover already in the original (i.e. poo-ing your pants behind a lamppost or rickety fence) was perfect and natural, no abstract cover button for me, please.

    • DrazharLn says:

      Yeah, X-COM had cover. I have no idea what he’s talking about.

      The cancel button in the edit dialogue should return you to the thread at your comment, I think. It doesn’t actually do anything at the moment.

    • Airen says:

      The nifty new thig about xenonauts is the fact that now cover is automatic. if the soldier is next to the fence, he’ll automatically duck down: no player input required. the popping up and ducking back down are also automatic.

  15. Premium User Badge

    theunshaven says:

    Preorder, you say?

    These words intrigue me. Possibly next month, when The Money happens…

  16. nobody says:

    I do love the original X-COM and would have loved to see a remake in the Silent Storm engine.
    That being said, I still feel the system which fits the genre the best would be the Smart Pause semi-realtime system in Brigade E5 / 7.62: High Calibre.

    • dadioflex says:

      The “smart pause” is what the UFO:A(ftermath etc) games used. Worked fine IMO, although the first two games were a bit of a drag in the campaign. Third game was pretty good.

  17. noobnob says:

    We’re not trying to remake X-Com, we’re trying to build the game it would be if it came out today.

    This is what I expected from the Jagged Alliance 2 remake. Oh well, will be watching this as well!

  18. coldwave says:

    Creatures more awfull than Chrysalids?

    Bobby Kotick clones?

  19. Feet says:

    Yeah I need to see more before I put 20 of my hard earned down on that table, but I am open minded. Hopeful though.

  20. Starky says:

    What worries me is the line “I’ve ploughed my life savings into funding this game”… which can be a good thing, or a very, very bad thing. Due to the level of personal stake he’s going to have a very hard time making hard decisions, and viewing progress objectively.

    That said, often these labour of love, everything on the line projects produce something utterly amazing.

    9 times out of 10 though they fail spectacularly.

    Still, I like the direction he’s aiming for – the big mistake for all the x-com-alikes, is that they took the basic fun mechanics of the game and added more and more complexity thinking that would make it better. It doesn’t.

    The joy of X-com was the fact that it had simple mechanics, simple gameplay that was and still is fun. Even for the time it was very, very basic as far as TBS games went.

    Too many statistics, variables, gear choices, classes, research paths… so on so forth can detract more than they may add.

    • Salem5 says:

      My words exactly. Do you think it is fun to check every single soldier if he/she has 1 point more for aiming in a scale between1-100 and that he also can carry the weapon you want to give him, only so he/she could die in the next mission and you have to repeat that stuff again? I think not.
      If Shepard and Crew can manage with 5 levels for about 6 skills, then why not the UFO canonfooder? Also progress is funnier then a sh*tload of weird initial stats you can’t or don’t want to use anyway. Complexity should open oppurtunities, not hindrances.

    • malkav11 says:

      Well, except Shepard & crew -couldn’t- manage with that few stats. Might as well have had none at that point for all the impact it made.

    • Starky says:

      Well I think the good example mass effect made is in gear – loads of useless pointless gear with many levels in the first game.
      Reduced down to basic gear with simple but noticeable upgrades in the second.

    • malkav11 says:

      Not noticeable that I could tell. But anyway.

  21. Katsumoto says:

    Yeah, I absolutely can’t agree that turn based games are obsolete because modern technology obviates the need to make games anything other than real-time. Turn based games use an entirely different skill set, and also allow one to approach a game with an entirely different frame of mind: I’m rubbish at strategy games like SupCom that require extremely quick thinking, because I like to sit back and come up with grand plans and i’m just not quick enough on my feet to come up with detailed strategy in a game like SupCom. Turn based games allow for any level of brain-power you can muster because you only have to proceed once you’re ready to. Perfect for people like me who don’t like to be rushed!

    edit: that was in response to Iain. Grr!

  22. Rich says:

    I’ll wait for this one to be complete and on Steam and its ilk before putting any money in. I wish him well, but having played some of the UFO games, I just find this genre too damn frustrating to invest in. UFO: Afterlight for instance only allowed you to have five guys on any one mission, and didn’t readily replace casualties. I realise that was the point, but the learning curve was such that it was easy to lose your entire squad in one go on a mission that is suddenly harder than any you’ve faced so far. Once all your trained fighters are gone, you’re toast.

  23. khamul says:

    The issue with UGO turn-based is not when you’re actually in combat – that works beautifully, provided there’s some kind of system to save action points for response fire.

    The issue with turn-based is all those turns when there’s no threat and no-one around, but you still need to painstakingly move each man in turn. Until you get careless with your placement, at which point an enemy comes out of nowhere and reams you.

    That’s the problem that pausable real-time tries to solve: but there are other ways to solve it, such as, for example, not having to hunt down and kill every last alien. Or good ranged threat detection. As long as they’ve thought about how they’ll address the issue, UGO turn based is definitely my first choice.

    • Premium User Badge

      Feste says:

      A good UGO system could potentially solve the issue with ambushes. It would have include some form of response for unforseen events, similar to how Combat Mission runs, so you could tell your guys to seek the nearest cover if they spot an alien.

      Also, half the fun of the game is the tension as you wait to get totally ambushed by a Sectoid with a plasma rifle.

    • Rich says:

      “good ranged threat detection”
      That’s something I really didn’t like in the UFO games. They tend to model view range, rather than line of sight, which means one of your guys can be looking straight at an enemy a few yards away and not see them.

    • malkav11 says:

      There’s also – and I realize this isn’t really ideal for X-Com – the approach games like Fallout took where movement etc is in real time until combat breaks out and it needs to be otherwise. I think this is a big part of why I couldn’t get into Fallout Tactics despite it theoretically being the perfect game for me. It offered real-time and turn-based options, but not “real-time until you see an enemy”, so I either had a lot of slow, boring moving several guys around the map turn by turn, or I moved them in real time but suddenly people were dying because they were under fire before I could click the button to switch or react otherwise.

  24. MrBRAD! says:

    How come while the turn-based mechanic is shot down so often, Frozen Synapse isn’t under attack from the internet hate machine?

  25. Dave says:

    No blaster bombs or psionics for the human side as its unbalanced!?!? what about getting your entire team mind controlled by ethereals in the first turn????