Chat: Xenonauts Dev On Firaxis And Outdoing X-COM

By Alec Meer on February 14th, 2012 at 12:04 pm.

Up until January 5, 2012, the mega-ambitious Xenonauts, Goldhawk Interactive’s Cold War-set tale of alien invasion, was our number one hope for a modernised X-COM. Then, on January 5, 2012, 2K and Firaxis announced they were making an official modernised X-COM. We’ve already chatted to Firaxis about XCOM: Enemy Unknown at length, but what did that shock news mean to Goldhawk lead Chris England? Here, I chat to Chris about his initial reaction, why it doesn’t spell horror for his project, where he’s at with Xenonauts at the moment, what’s planned for the future, how he believes Xenonauts will be better than X-COM and whether spending his life savings on making the game has paid off.

Also, IKEA UFOs and drinking eight pints.

You join us just after I’ve been apologising profusely for being rubbish at replying to emails, and Chris has been discussing how the game’s AI is currently being overhauled.

RPS: What’s going on with Xenonauts generally, apart from the AI stuff you’ve mentioned that you’ve gone to redo, was it the art, a little bit?

Chris England: Yeah, you last saw it back in October? And the game looked ok at the time, it was nothing spectacular, it got the job done. Recently we’ve hired a new artist to re-do all the ground tiles because the big problem with a lot of the maps was there’s relatively large expanses of open terrain, and under the previous system we had tiles that repeated. Which meant you can’t have much detail in them because, if you have a lot of detail in them and you put several of them next to each other it’s really obvious, so we’ve hired a guy to do the ground tiles as a bigger block – say like 10 by 10 tiles – and then we’ll slice that up.

We’ve got some program to do that, some tools which slice up automatically, and we can stick it in the game that way. It took us a bit of time to set up the workflow and get all the tools coded to do that, but the guy’s done a really good job with that, so what you’ll be seeing in upcoming screenshots that we’ll send through is the ground looks a lot more attractive, and because of that the maps look quite a lot more appealing, there’s a lot more variation there.

We’ve also been putting in more than one tile set, when you were playing it there was only the industrial tile set there, and we’ve re-done the ground tiles for that. We’ve also put in the ground tiles, the farmyard tile set, we’re working on some of the other ones. We’ve re-done the tiles for the drop ships, and we’re currently working on doing the tiles for the UFOs, because you know in X-COM, obviously if you shoot down a UFO it basically just sits there on the ground. We’re trying to make it look as if they’ve hit the ground and the UFO’s taken some damage, so it looks a bit more realistic. We’re playing around with some of the settings for that but it’s looking good. That’s hopefully what we’ll be able to show off in the next big update because that was always a bit of a bugbear of mine, you’d turn up and it would look like…

RPS: A pristine, IKEA UFO.

Chris England: Exactly. So that’s what we’ve been doing on the ground combat, behind the scenes there’s been a lot going on in terms of getting all systems set up. One of the big problems we’ve always had has been the fact that this is such a huge game, and a lot of the work is invisible. In order to have a preview copy of Xenonaut to send to people, we’ve got to have all the different parts of the game running independently, so there is the geoscape, the air combat and the ground combat, but also linked together. We’ve been doing quite a lot of work in terms of making them slot together properly, so the UFOs now spawn with crews and now if you shoot them down the crews are then reflected as the aliens you face on the ground combat. Before it we always had a preset map with a preset list of enemies whatever UFOs you shot down, now we’re actually starting to connect it all together and sort of do all the connections there.

It’s coming along quite well but it’s a lot of effort. It’s a bit of an issue in some ways when a lot of the announcements you make aren’t really big headline announcements, like ‘we introduced a new feature and it’s really awesome’, it’s kind of like, ‘no, we’ve implanted a load of features and now they work properly’.

RPS: And some people probably won’t notice the difference if they don’t pay close attention.

Chris England: Yeah. But the community have got behind us and the pre-orders are going well so it’s all coming along quite well really. It’s so long since I last chatted to you, the list of changes is huge. If you go on our forums we’ve got a different thread for each time we announce new build and there’s been, a good twelve or so [over the last] four months. Sso quite a lot has changed, but off the top of my head it’s quite difficult to remember what it all is.

RPS: Were there any builds or features that was a real Eureka moment for you, where you were like ‘wow yes, we’ve got this, this is it now, I’m extra excited.’

Chris England: Well the latest one’s been good because the latest one, as I said, we’ve got more than one tile set. Up until the release we had about a week ago it was just the same mission every single time we loaded it up, so having more than one possible tile set in the game with more than one possible map for each tile set, and having more than one alien race in the game has been a big one for us. It’s still missing the AI as I said but that’s been quite a big step forward for us. I’m trying to think back to the older ones and think what the other major advances have been. It’s mostly been incremental really.

RPS: That’s got to be the nature of this type of game really, that it’s about getting all the small features in the jigsaw of how they work together. You don’t really want to be announcing dramatic things, you just want to say ‘yes we’re getting closer to it being thing X’.

Chris England: I agree: what we’ve always been trying to do with Xenonauts I guess is keep the core mechanics from the original game, and then go through every single system with a fine toothcomb and think ‘how can we make this more functional and more intuitive?’ without changing the fundamentals. I guess when the game’s done our challenge to reviewers is always going to be, play Xenonauts, and then go back and play X-COM, and if you don’t find the experience of playing X-COM so dated and frustrating that you want to close it down and start playing Xenonauts instead then I guess we’ve failed. A lot of the features we add in or things we change aren’t going to be a big headline because they are basically incremental improvements, but I think that’s the way we have to do it. Nobody’s really done a proper remake of XCOM without changing the fundamentals, I don’t think even Firaxis are doing it.

RPS: No, time units are on their way out and there’s some big changes, classes and all that stuff.

Chris England: Well there’s a lot of changes, I don’t think any of them by themselves are particularly bad, I think quite a lot of them sound quite interesting, I just, the only concern I have is that they seem to be changing so much that whether at the end of the day it will still feel like an XCOM game. I mean I’m sure it will be a good game, because they’re Firaxis, they know what they’re doing don’t they? And I hope it’s good because I’m not going to be able to play Xenonauts when it’s finished so…(laughs) it’d be nice if I could play that game and enjoy it. It’s quite good from our point of view, they’re not treading on our territory too much with that, they’re making a much more progressive remake of XCOM and we’re making a much more faithful remake.

RPS: Yeah, they call theirs a reimagining rather than I remake, so I suppose…

Chris England: Yeah we’ve been calling ours a reimagining too.

RPS: Ah (laughs).

Chris England: (laughs) the word ‘clone’ is somewhat a loaded term so we’ve always gone for reimagining. But yeah, I think the game’s going to play quite differently, it’s quite nice from our point of view that that’s happened, I think if they’d announced they’re literally going to remake the original XCOM I think we’d be in a bit more trouble.

RPS: It’s good for fans in theory to have the choice of two fairly significantly different games, it’s better than two similar ones, definitely.

Chris England: Yeah, and from our point of view it’s been good for the project as well for two reasons. One is that it’s made us up our game a bit. I wouldn’t say we’re complacent but it’s always going to focus the mind when an established studio comes along and says ‘we’re going to remake the same game as you with the official licence and a multimillion dollar budget’. I did have a second reason but I’ve forgotten it…

RPS: What was your reaction when you saw that announcement?

Chris England: (indescribable groan)

RPS: (laughs) that noise says it all, but I don’t know how I’m going to transcribe it.

Chris England: It was a tough one. The worst of it was I was actually drunk at the time, I’d had about 8 pints, got back, loaded up RPS, front page and I was like ‘oh, brilliant’. It’s not been too bad really, because all the discussion and coverage of their game has also led to a lot of coverage of us, and our pre-order sales have gone through the roof since they were announced. So anyone saying XCOM has come out and Xenonauts is dead in the water – far from it, we’ve done really well out of it.

RPS: I guess there’s something to be said for people being able to get something right away, like if they’re jonesing for some X-COM you’re ‘well, we can give you this early build right away if you pre-order.’

Chris England: Yeah, I mean all the people who haven’t necessarily heard of the genre, because X-COM’s a great game and it’s quite famous, but a lot of people won’t have played it because it’s nearly twenty years old now, and not all the changes that Firaxis are making have necessarily gone down really well with all of the fans. I mean a lot of people will be really excited about the games but a lot of people will be a bit turned off by some of the stuff, and it’s very difficult to speculate on how the game will play because I haven’t played it, and nor has anyone else yet. But it’s nice that we can be the counterpoint to them and there can be a debate about whether people want to go for more the old style mechanics or the new ones. So, yeah, we’re established enough a project that we get mentioned when they are mentioned, and that’s driven a lot of traffic our way.

RPS: Do you feel any pressure to try and get your game out as soon as possible to try and head them off at the pass?

Chris England: We’d like to have the game out slightly before their game comes out, ideally, whether or not it happens is to be seen yet. But the reason for that is not that we don’t think we can compete with them, but that we’d like to piggyback off their coverage as we have over the last month or so. When all the reviews of XCOM appear and say ‘this is a great game’, if we are mentioned in the comment thread then we’ll get a lot of attention off the back of that. It’s not the end of the world if we can’t release before them or at a similar time, as long as we do a bit of marketing at the same time, so we are in the discussion.

The problem we have is that we’re an indie team and our timelines are relatively fluid, because so many people on the team are part time, we don’t have the money to have everyone on the team full time. So there’s always little bottlenecks that you wouldn’t have in a big studio that slow us down.

RPS: I suppose the other alternative is if the reception to the Firaxis one was terrible then you could come up after and really capitalize on it…

Chris England: I don’t imagine they’ll make a terrible game, because if they’ve been working on it for four years… Firaxis have a pretty good reputation and I think it’ll be hard to properly screw the game up, so I’m not really banking on them totally messing it up, and as I say, I think our target audience is slightly different anyway, so I’m not sure we’d necessarily get a huge boost from that. It’s not like the games would be as similar as us and the UFO Extra Terrestrials game. I don’t know what’s happened to that, but there was talk of it being out some time this year as well so…I’m trying not to worry too much about the Firaxis remake really.

RPS: Have pre-orders been able to cover the money you put into making this yourself, or is it still a long way off?

Chris England: I pretty much have on paper been able to take the money I invested out, which amounts to about 25k, which is about $40,000 I think, but that’s now gone from being a loss to working capital, because you don’t get paid immediately, you get paid 6-8 weeks in arrears, and all this kind of stuff. Sometimes you have to pay people upfront, so the money is not back in my bank account. In accounting terms I’ve made it back and I have access to it, but it’s still floating around in the business, but on the plus side it’s not a loss. The game is profitable, but that’s always a little bit misleading, because all the money that comes in is spent on development, and the development budget expands to fill the money available. If we have 10k to spend, that’ll all be spent on hiring better people, and if we have only have1k we’d still want to spend that, it just means the final product won’t be quite as good.

So the finances are a bit misleading, but it’s going quite well, to date we’ve sold 4,500 pre-orders. Interestingly, the game’s on sale at $20 base price point and $30 as premium price point, and the goodies for doing a premium pre-order have yet to be formally defined. We don’t yet know what they’ll be, at the moment you just get a shiny forum badge.

RPS: I heard you were going to personally visit the home of everyone doing it and cook them a lovely meal.

Chris England: (laughs) yeah I heard that too… There’s not really much advantage for doing a premium pre-order right now apart from the fact we get more money for it, but over two thirds of the orders we’ve done so far have been at the premium pre-order point.

RPS: I guess once someone’s already crossed the psychological barrier on spending on something they won’t get for a while, spending a bit more doesn’t matter.

Chris England: Yeah, I think it’s quite encouraging that people are willing to pay more than you’re asking them to pay for a game, because Xenonauts is a huge game. Compared to a lot of the other indie projects it’s just immense, and I don’t really understand how I didn’t notice this when I started making the game, and I bit off far more than I can chew…

RPS: Even Jake Solomon from Firaxis when I was interviewing him the other week was saying similar.

Chris England: It’s insane, if you look at the human units on the battlefield we’ve got seven different types of human armour, and there’s 30 different weapons, even if you leave aside all the grenades and all the little random pieces of equipment, there’s 30 different weapons in the game, so you have to animate seven different models each with 30 different weapons, plus all the civilians, plus all the local forces, and all this kind of stuff and you have vast amounts of models to model up and rig and animate, and that’s just for the humans. Then you’ve got the aliens, there’s about 40 different types of aliens in the game if you include the variations, and then they all have different weapons as well, and the tiles, the industrial tile set you’ve played on, in all now we’ve done the upgrade ground tiles has 1800 tiles in it. We need 8 tile sets in the game, because you can’t just play one tile set all the time. So it’s insane, it’s absolutely mad.

The good thing is we’re nearly done. All the modeling and all the animation’s been done. We’re still working on the tiles and there’s a few odds and ends there to get done, but asset wise we’re 90% of the way there, and it’s incredible, looking back on it, how we’ve managed to pull that off with such a tiny budget. There’s still quite a lot of stuff we’d like to do which we can’t really justify right now because we need to get the game finished and people are, because they’re part time, I can’t really ask them to do any more. So having more money would be good but happily we’re at the position now where we can finish the game and finish it to a good standard, assuming our pre-orders don’t just dry up overnight.

RPS: Sounds like it’s a good time to change the designation to ‘beta’ to me and see how many sites pick up on that.

Chris England: We’re hoping to launch a beta in amount 2/3 months which would be when the game is feature complete. Right now if you pre-order the game you get access to a build of the game which has only the first third of the game in it. It’s got a research tree but it’s limited to the very first tier of weapons, researchable weapons like lasers for example, and there’s two more tiers of those further on in the game. There’s some researchable personal armour but there’s only one extra one, so you only have access to three of the seven, you haven’t got access to any of the late game Interceptors or anything, and there’s only two alien races in it at the moment.

That’s intentional because we don’t want people to spoil the game. You know, you have that moment when you see a new alien race, you get your hands on a really cool new weapon, it’s not quite the same if you’re doing it in a game that’s half finished, so we’re intentionally holding everything back and in beta it’s basically going to be we’re releasing the full game. There was a lot of balancing and polishing left to do to make it more intuitive and get rid of all the bugs but everything is in the game, you can play through it from start to finish, and that’ll be the beta. We’ve got a bit more work to do before we can do that.

RPS: Because there’s going to be someone, somewhere, who reviews the game off that, which could be a bit of a gamble I guess.

Chris England: Yeah I suppose so, but there’s not a lot you can do about that. The great thing about having the community around the game is that they provide a huge amount of feedback on how we can improve the game, and what we’re looking for in the beta is mostly once we have all the systems in place, how we can make them as easy to use as possible and how we can make the game as balanced as possible… As a small indie team it’s very difficult to do that internally, it would literally be me and a couple of other guys playing the game and balancing it to our particular play styles, and having several thousand people play it and give their feedback on it would be a far better way of making an objectively better game. So there are downsides to what we’re going to do but I think it’s definitely going to be the way forward for us.

RPS: Crowdsourcing, it’s the future apparently…

Chris England: (laughs) The Kickstarter thing does look quite interesting, I’ll have to see how that goes, it’s a possibility for us but we’ll have to look into that in a bit more detail.

RPS: Has there been anything from the original game that you haven’t been able to realise?

Chris England: No, I wouldn’t say there were any features from the original game that we wanted to put in but haven’t been able to, the original game was basically our blueprint for it as I’m sure you can imagine. If there was anything in the game that we weren’t going to put in it had to be a valid design reason why it wasn’t in – such as there’s no blast bombs in the game, there’s no human psychic powers in the game either. We took them out because we thought that was, it was a balance decision, we thought they made the game less fun, because it’s basically just like cheating at the end. But there’s nothing in the game that we wanted to put in but we couldn’t, we’re getting there eventually, there’s a lot of stuff…It is quite nice in that sense, we consider ourselves having improved on the original quite a lot, or certainly will have when the game’s done.

RPS: It is a bold and dangerous statement, but it’d be great if you made good on it.

Chris England: (laughs) Yeah, it’s a difficult one. We’re not trying to make a game that’s more influential than XCOM, because I don’t think we ever will, but making a game that’s better than XCOM is something we should be able to do given how dated the game is. It’s still quite a bold thing to say because I know a lot of the continental remakes have never really succeeded in doing it, but I think we’re on our way to doing it. I think we’ll be able to produce an updated version of the game that is better than the original ,even if it’s just because it’s much more useable and much more user-friendly and has more depth because of the way technology has advanced over the last 15 years.

RPS: Just having a higher resolution and a cleaner UI would help in so many ways.

Chris England: Yeah, but it’s not just that. Sometimes we get dismissed as a project that’s just high-res XCOM, but that’s not exactly what we are. We’ve looked at every single system in the game and thought how we could make it better without changing the fundamentals. I mean, off the top of my head, one of the systems we’re working on at the moment is the soldier recruitment stuff, which in the original XCOM, if you were an experienced player you started to name your soldiers at the end to talk about their role basically – so you can look with a click what that is, and we’re adding a little role button so you can remember a default load out for your snipers and for your riflemen and everything. You can quickly un-equip and re-equip your soldiers and change their roles just by using that.

RPS: That’s a nice idea.

Chris England: Yeah, things like that, and also in the original everyone used to hire loads of soldiers, and just fire the rubbish ones, we’ve basically put in a system where if you choose to hire a soldier you can choose from a list, so you can pick the one with the stats you want. Like if you want to hire a guy to carry your machine gun around you can pick one of the high strength guys. We’ve also put in controls around to stop people from basically just buying loads of soldiers and firing them all and just picking only the super guys. So we’re trying to make the game easier to use and more fun but also less abuse-able. There’re a lot of small changes but I think at the end of it I think the sum of the parts will be a lot greater than it initially sounds.

RPS: Are the soldiers all still really unhappy looking or have you put in some happy ones too now?

Chris England: No, they’re all very unhappy, everyone in the game looks unhappy, that’s our art style. I don’t think our artist can do smiles so yeah, I’m afraid you’re stuck with those.

RPS: Is that the real reason or is it supposed to be ‘these guys are in a really shitty situation; would you be smiling?’

Chris England: Well it is that as well – the whole aesthetic of the game is quite cold and unhappy, that is intentional, but that’s how it would be. I think especially once the whole game is finished and we’ve got the new UI set up it should be a bit more immersive and it should all fit together a bit better. We’re hoping to do a big media update in a few weeks, the game looks much nicer now and will continue to look better in the future, so hopefully we’ll be moving out of the territory of the kind of low res very obviously indie remake and being able to be mentioned in the same breath as the triple A titles that are coming out in the strategy genre, which will be nice.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Xenonauts will be out later this year, but you can pre-order it today and receive immediate access to current and future early builds.

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71 Comments »

  1. Donkeyfumbler says:

    No reason this has to suffer because of the firaxis game that I can see. I can happily buy and play more than one FPS at a time, so why not the same for X-Com based TBS games?

    • TheApologist says:

      Agreed – I’m sure the genre is big enough for more than one game at once.

    • c-Row says:

      Being able to buy and play two new X-Com based TBS games within a short period of time (assuming Xenonauts gets released around the same time frame) probably is the best thing that will happen to PC gaming this year.

    • Joshua Northey says:

      I probably buy a game a week and XCOM is one of my favorites so if this is at all serviceable I will buy it. If I hear good thigns at beta time in 2 or 3 months I may even pre-order, though the Sword of the Stars 2 debacle has really put me off pre-orders.

  2. Revisor says:

    Regarding XCOM vs Xenonauts – there is a reason why fast food chains like to stand next to each other: By concentrating on one place, they draw more people altogether than they claw from each other.

    The game looks and sounds great. Good luck to the devs!

  3. Meat Circus says:

    Planning to deliberately piggy-back off the inevitable flamewar comment threads about X-COM is a brilliantly cynical manoeuvre.

    • Donkeyfumbler says:

      As long as Xenonauts turns out to be a good game, then personally I’m glad that Firaxis has decided to make some changes to the format.

      That way we have one almost faithful remake with all the same gameplay elements as the original X-Com for the purists, and one less than faithful re-imagining which will offer a new spin on the format for those that want something a bit different, but is still a TBS. That way everyone wins.

    • Meat Circus says:

      I am planning to enjoy both. But I’ll still be fanning those flames. :)

    • PoulWrist says:

      I played the 8.9 alpha build (latest is 9.0) as the first build, just last month, even tough I’ve had the preorder since sometime in 2010. Have to say that even though the tileset was so limited, that there were so many bugs, and weird little problems, the game IS X-COM. The feeling of horror is the same as always and playing it felt great. I really can’t wait till I get the rest, and that it’ll be out around fall is just perfect. Wet, cold and dark outside, spooky alien invasion inside. :D

    • diamondmx says:

      You know, it will be interesting to see if finally we can make both sides happy – the people who will rage because a game is not faithful to the original, and the people who rage because it’s just a copy of the original.

      On the other hand, this being the internet, probably we will find a situation where they all rage twice as much just because they don’t want the other side to be happy.

    • Saiko Kila says:

      I won’t rage if this will be just a copy of the original (I still play UFO1 and UFO3), but I will be disappointed if none of the games (Xenonauts or XCOM) takes bits from Apocalypse, or enhances the format in any meaningful way. And I don’t mean realtime combat. I mean different factions and relations, espionage and (counter)intelligence, property damage, craft upgrades, varied races of humans and so on. Some of these elements were hinted upon in UFO1 (like X-COM agents, who sometimes were able to locate alien bases), many were introduced in UFO3, but the lead designers of current projects seem to be content with recreation of UFO1 as it was, with only minor additions to gameplay.

      Well, maybe they include at least mod support. We’ll see.

  4. G-Bee says:

    Hurrah for Xenonauts!

  5. UncleSmoothie says:

    I cannot overstate how hard I am cheering for these guys. I hope they’re making something great.

    I’ve pre-ordered but haven’t bothered with the alpha. I want to go into the game completely fresh.

    • Hematite says:

      Me too! I rushed out to get the fancy version as soon as I heard about FIraXCOM* because I wanted to give them some encouragement. Sounds like I’m not the only one.

      I’m glad to hear they’re deliberately keeping the alpha builds light on content too, I don’t want to play the actual campaign until it’s all done and prettied up.

      * I really hope that doesn’t become a thing, but I can’t not write it now I’ve thought of it.

  6. FhnuZoag says:

    I’m still skeptical about Xenonauts, and it’s still the same skepticism I had from the beginning – it’s this: the team doesn’t seem to understand the relative importance of parts of their project. It’s all well and good doing art and tiles and concept art and tech fluff and stuff. But at this late stage, 2-3 months to go until ‘feature complete’, why are they still missing the AI?!?

    Isn’t the AI basically 90% of the game, and the thing that at the end of the day determines whether the game is playable and fun at all? What’s the point of implementing bazillions of guns and aliens and stuff, when you still don’t know if the AI is capable of handling even the most basic interactions, let alone the vast numbers of things you are going to throw at it. I would have a lot more confidence in this project if they started with the core, difficult features of the tactical engine and the core game, have that done, before playing around with ancilliary features, than rest in the complacent belief that this can be delayed till later.

    • Baboonanza says:

      Considering that the original game’s AI consisted mainly of aliens wandering around randomly it’s not really the major issue you suggest it is.

      Besides, you can’t properly implement AI until you have the majority of the game systems in place and at the end of the day it’s not that big of a job. Asset creation can take a hell of a lot longer than that, especially on a small team with part-time artists.

    • Donkeyfumbler says:

      I have to agree that this is also what worries me most about Xenonauts and has stopped me from pre-ordering so far. Only 2 to 3 months away from beta and no AI to speak of? It does seem a bit late for such a core part of the game.

    • FhnuZoag says:

      @Baboonanza:

      I think you are pretty wrong here. For example, one big problem with Apocalypse is the enemy AI – the whole ‘line your guys up in a firing line’ strategy shouldn’t work, and the fact that it did kinda wrecked the game. AI in the original Xcom was also much more complicated than ‘wander randomly’ – aliens for example used scouting for firing, which accounted for why some aliens appeared to have better sight ranges in night missions even though actual sight ranges were the same. And anyone can tell you the aliens were pretty smart about blaster bomb use, not getting stuck on terrain, and not letting you pick them off one by one at range. Would a ‘randomly wander about’ AI really be sufficient for you? I’d think you’d get bored with the game very quickly. These days, you’d expect at a minimum that the AI should comprehend what cover is and how to move their units as a group, and the capabilities of their weapons, and I think you are underestimating how difficult that is when combined with destructible terrain.

      It’s also fairly easy to start work on AI before art assets and so on were in place. You can use placeholder art. More to the point, art assets being made should in no way interfere with the programming work of making AI! Why would it, unless you mean to say you have your programmers drawing artwork? All of this strikes me as highly unprofessional, if nothing else.

    • PoulWrist says:

      The AI they had in the game was around as good as the one I remember from XCOM :p they stripped it out because they hired on an actual AI programmer who would be doing more powerful AI routines than just “run and gun” style of old.

      Even then, if the game just consists of randomly wandering aliens with a bit of reaction fire and basic templates like “move forward and explode”, “stay inside” or similar, then it’ll still be an awesome game.
      I was sceptical too, but the time I spent with alpha 8.9 (which still had the rudimentary AI) completely erased all such scepticism. I can forgive clunkiness with the level of mood that this game generates.

    • Drakythe says:

      I can’t find the exact post, but Brad Wardell of Stardock mentioned that he had about 4 months for the AI on Galactic Civilizations 2 (I think) and that AI was pretty sweet. Xenonauts looks to be a bit more complicated, so I would agree than 2-3 months of AI work probably won’t be enough, but I hardly consider “feature complete” to mean they will never touch the AI again. To my mind that would be a good portion of what the beta is, for things like “This is abuse-able behavior/research/weapon” so that before the game releases it can be polished off.

    • Archonsod says:

      “aliens for example used scouting for firing, which accounted for why some aliens appeared to have better sight ranges in night missions even though actual sight ranges were the same”

      Actually they didn’t. The AI didn’t have to cope with the fog of war – it had full visibility.

    • Sparkasaurusmex says:

      I’m actually more skeptical about the Firaxis game. I haven’t seen a modern remake improve on a classic game… ever? Even Civ V did very little to improve on Civ IV (many would say it did the opposite).

      I know it isn’t really related, but the new Jagged Alliance has me really skeptical about these 3d “modernizations” of classics. A straight up indie remake would at least have more of a chance of nailing the fun of classic gaming.

    • Chris England says:

      Regarding the AI programming, generally it’s a good idea to get the combat mechanics locked down before you start doing the proper AI model – you won’t know what parameters to work within otherwise. Getting all the systems in place for the ground combat is very time-consuming; it’s a deceptively deep game particularly with regards to the tiles and their destructability.

      @ FhnuZoag – I was not aware it was unprofessional to not be able to magically summon up an experienced AI programmer willing to work for basically no money to join our team. Sometimes it’s not a quick process to find a suitable candidate for a role, particularly where specialist skills are involved and you’re relying largely on goodwill. Obviously the AI coding isn’t linked to the art – that’s why we didn’t just stop producing all our artwork because we couldn’t find an AI programmer.

      And no, the AI is nowhere close to 90% of the game. I’m not saying it’s not important, but if you look at the man hours sunk into producing the game the AI won’t even amount to 5% of it even if done to industry standard.

    • Reefpirate says:

      I think you guys are worried about the AI a little too much. Certainly I understand your concern, you don’t want dumb enemies in the game. But you overestimate how good XCOM’s AI was and also how little the Xenonauts team has worked/thought about it.

      The ‘scouting’ you talk about isn’t so complicated, you just let them see what their teammates see and then choose a target and fire. This doesn’t take months to figure out. Also, keep in mind that the enemies in XCOM had the illusion of being a lot smarter than they were because of the fog of war. If you could constantly see their every move, I imagine they would come across as fairly unintelligent.

      As for ‘having no AI just 3 months away from beta’, I think this must have been taken out of context. I’m sure they have prototypes, plans and designs already in mind about how to approach the problem, whether or not they’ve begun to integrate it with the full game. Also, there is institutional knowledge that will do most of the work for them, the A* pathfinding algorithm for example, as well as other well established AI systems that are basically public domain.

      In any little game project I’ve ever worked on, the AI wasn’t the really hard part. Art, sound, user interface and combat mechanics (which are separate from AI) were often the bulk of the work by far.

    • FhnuZoag says:

      @Chris England:

      Well, it’s obviously not my place to tell you what your development priorities are. Just don’t end up pulling a Sword of the Stars 2, please.

    • Donkeyfumbler says:

      I agree that saying it is unprofessional is unwarranted. I don’t think Chris has ever hidden the fact that this isn’t a conventionally developed game and is closer to a labour of love than a truly professional production – they are doing their best to make as good a game as possible on very limited funds and should be applauded for it. It’s credit to the work they have done that hopes are as high as they are and concerns over AI are more that it can live up to the stuff that already exists, at least for me. Having seen all of the fan projects and commercial reimaginings fail in various different ways over the past decade I don’t want to see this one stumble at the final hurdle.

    • FhnuZoag says:

      The problem is when the game has been taking $30 or $20 preorders for years now, from back when it was little more than a collection of concept art. I think people should have some reasonable expectation that core elements of a game they’ve paid for would be in place. They talk of magically summoning up an AI programmer, but the development project has been going since 2009 – that’s coming on to 3 years now. Leaving it till the last few months is the definition of ‘last minute’.

    • mckertis says:

      “For example, one big problem with Apocalypse is the enemy AI – the whole ‘line your guys up in a firing line’ strategy shouldn’t work”

      And it didnt work. In turn-based mode. You chose to play real-time, and thats what you got for that – braindead AI. In turn-based it was a little issue when a bunch of aliens rushed you from the doors of their UFO, but it was so not “line up and wait”.

    • Havok9120 says:

      I don’t want to be rude but….the two people most critical of the old AI haven’t played the game. It really wasn’t as terrible as they seem to be assuming. To say the game had NO AI is oversimplification and plain unfair. They had no professionally done AI, but that’s something totally different.

      The fact is that the old, slapdash AI was NOT all that worse than XCOM’s. I’m not even sure it cheated as much as XCOM’s did and it still didn’t operate markedly worse. Feel free to be skeptical, but don’t go overboard based off nothing more than the fact that Chris & Co only just found the money to get an AI programmer on board.

  7. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    X-COM is BEST COM. But XENONAUTS is BEST NAUTS.

  8. Flappybat says:

    I paid the £20 for this and I’ve been really impressed watching the development. I hope it can get more budget to let him be more ambitious, you get to see the results of that when he gets stuff improved and it’s always worthwhile.

    • Danopian says:

      I’m reading other folks’ comments and thinking, “I’ll buy this in Beta,” but my money might be more helpful to them now rather than later; so the selfish question I’m left with is, is it fun to play in its current state?

    • Strange_guy says:

      No. The place holder AI was removed in recent updates in preparation for the real one- which currently consists of nearly (if not actually) nothing at all. Thus ground combat missions aren’t fun at all, and they are a big chunk of the game, especially with how much of the management and all of the implemented research concerns it.

    • Havok9120 says:

      Good Lord, man. You speak as if the AI is nonexistent.

      Is it barebones? Yes. Is it markedly worse than XCOM’s without rose-colored glasses? No.

      I’ve had a blast with builds of Xenonaughts going back to 8.2, and the game has advanced miles since then. I really don’t understand where this vehemant near-outrage over the game is from. Though keep in mind that several of the most vocal naysayers also made it clear that they haven’t pre-ordered.

  9. Jimbo says:

    It’s imperative that they get their game out before the Firaxis one.

    • enobayram says:

      Well, the game is practically out, and apparently, it will definitely be feature-complete by the time FiraXCOM (@Hematite :P) is released. So they’ll still catch the disappointed conservative fans spilling all over it, as well as surf the publicity wave.

  10. Frosty840 says:

    While I’m glad they’re going over the game with a really awesome toothcomb, I’d be happier to hear that they were going over it using a comb with really fine teeth…

    Pet peeve whinged about; moving on.

    • Hematite says:

      Perhaps the stenographer is trying to give Alec a hint about his dental hygiene?

  11. Bluerps says:

    Aww, no PSI and no Blasterbombs? I always loved making the aliens blow up themselves, even if it did make the endgame too easy.

    Still, I think this game is going to be awesome.

    • cptgone says:

      i enjoyed making the aliens walk towards my squad, to serve as fire practice fodder.

    • mckertis says:

      As i recall, you dont actually gain any stat increases from shooting psi-controlled aliens.

    • Havok9120 says:

      It makes sense with the way the universe is laid out, so I’ve been okay with it. Hard to say how it affects gameplay given that, as Chris mentioned, we pre-orders haven’t been able to advance passed the first couple tech tiers.

  12. Lemming says:

    “I was actually drunk at the time” should be a quote on the box. :)

    Having said that, I’m a little worried that he’s talking about ‘realism’ and ‘cold and unhappy’ when it looks like a Saturday morning cartoon. Something not right, there.

    • PoulWrist says:

      And saturday morning cartoons can’t have that mood? If they had funny voices and went around giggling while going on magical adventures in bizarro town, then sure. But then, I guess you don’t read comics if that’s the vibe you get from the artstyle.

    • Lemming says:

      I’m well aware of graphic novels, thanks.

      I was expecting more of a moody horror look to an XCOM a-like game based on they way he describes it. It doesn’t look ‘cold and unhappy’ at all to me – and he’s talking specifically about the aesthetic.

    • Havok9120 says:

      How would you change it? I mean….it looks like the Cold War, and the guys look suitably Grim and Foreboding. Aside from that, I’m not really sure what you could change. Its not like the world is in Doom Mode yet, its just that the Xenonaughts have read the reports of previous encounters, have their (fairly crap) period-accurate technology, and more or less know that they’re screwed.

      Not sure what they could change aesthetically to better show that.

    • enobayram says:

      I catch myself daydreaming about Xenonauts nowadays, and that hasn’t happened to me about a game for a very very long time. The game really puts you into the shoes of an inhabitant of a world, which is attacked by aliens, and facing probable annihilation. All thanks to the incredible visual art style and the soundtracks. It’s all just… right… On the other hand, these are the words of a 28 year old. Teenagers seem to bite exaggerated heroes much more easily.

  13. Sigvatr says:

    The guy on the right does not look very friendly.

  14. Kefren says:

    I loved the reward of eventually developing my own PSI team for some missions, and a heavy blaster-bomb psi-resistant team for others. It was one of the things I looked forward to in the later game. I didn’t have to use them, but they were fun. Removing those two elements seems like a real shame to me. UFO is a long game, and those were amazing elements to spice things up when the campaign got tough. :-(

  15. deadly.by.design says:

    I never played any of the X-Com games during their prime, but both remakes interest me.

    Which X-Com do fans recommend for me in terms of what holds up best in light of modern UIs?

    • Tatourmi says:

      I’d suggest UFO defense and Apocalypse. Don’t try Terror From The Deep before having tried UFO defense.

    • cptgone says:

      TFTD has a big advantage over it’s predecessor: squad members can crouch.

    • Persona Jet Rev says:

      @cptgone: You can crouch in Enemy Unknown, too. TFTD did allow you to save time units for crouching, in addition to a reaction shot, which was a big help.

    • Hematite says:

      In TFTD you can open doors without having to walk through them!

    • mckertis says:

      “In TFTD you can open doors without having to walk through them! ”

      In Enemy Unknown you can too. Seriously, its as if UFO Extender didnt exist for several years now…

  16. Tatourmi says:

    The game sounds way too “realistic” to me, in terms of design as well as gameplay. The whole point of X-com was to be a huge internationalist wet dream in near future where you are faced with an apparently incomprehensible force. Putting the psi powers out seem kinda counterproductive. It was precisely the first time aliens really used it you realised the menace was really “alien”. This is why Sci Fi fucks physics.

    ALSO: Your first X-com agents were armorless for a reason: No point in having any armor if it would only slow you down in a “one shot” world. That kevlar jacket seems a bit awkward. YEAH, COME HERE PLASMA!

    EDIT: Oh, no “human” psychic powers. Well. A tiny bit better I guess, but still, the super baddass team also was a part of X-com’s magic.

    • G-Bee says:

      If it is THAT important for you to have human psi powers in X-Com, I suggest you just continue playing the original.

      Also, by your logic the soldiers might just as well be running around in their pyjamas. Come on now, you are just nitpicking here.

    • sinister agent says:

      The standard issue outfit in UFO actually did have an armour value, so one could surmise that they were wearing kevlar or something of the sort. It’s true that you died instantly most of the time anyway, but once in a great while, that sliver of armour would keep a soldier alive even after a direct plasma hit.

      Armouring soldiers for a 2% chance of surviving a shot is better than leaving them for a 0% chance. I’m sure every XCOM fan had a mission where two or three hit points were the difference between success and disaster.

    • Havok9120 says:

      Which is more or less how the gameplay goes in Xeno. One shot is usually insta-death with the early armoring, but every now and then….

      And their plasma weapons really caught me off guard the first time I was playing Xeno. Through the first couple ground missions, I’d lose a guy or two, but my APC was generally able to kick ass and take names. Then one of the aliens saw it before it saw them. Badass APC go-boom very, very quickly.

      As for the Psi, it really DID unbalance the game. Not to mention that in 1979 (remember, this is not XCom time-line) the militaries of the world hadn’t even scratched the surface on their (epic-fail) Psionics projects. We didn’t even know enough about human brain chemistry to map the effect of hallucinogenics. Heck, we were just starting in-depth studies on what hallucinogens WERE.

      Hard to go from there to Psi powers during the scope of the game. I love when Sci Fi and realism come together to make plots, and the fact that it helps game balance is just icing on the cake. And while the whole point of XCom was the internationalists’ wet-dream….that isn’t the point of Xenonaughts. Which is probably a good call because while the internationalists were making some decent strides following the Cold War, most of their ideas have hit the wall, crashed, and then exploded in recent years.

  17. Craig Stern says:

    I’m way excited to play this. :)

  18. JackDandy says:

    I’m glad the new XCOM hasn’t ruined this dev’s chance at success. I’ll probably buy both of them.

  19. Robin says:

    I agree with Tatourmi, the design is too realistic.

    I think that the main Xenonauts competitor will be UFO2:Extraterrestrials (it should come out this spring but it has been delayed already several times, so it won’t be a shock if it happens again). UFO2:Et. could also benefit of not being the first parturition of the team, unlike (provided I’m right) Xenonauts.

    I, as a uber-fanboy, still think that all these games (Firaxys’s one too) ignore Apocalypse, and what it did/tried to do (even the mistakes), way too much.
    (Sadly Apocalypse is even more huge and complex than UFO, so an indie team just could be unable to take that task).

  20. aircool says:

    The more the merrier. If it’s good, I’ll get it, regardless of which game it is.

  21. Celtti says:

    Once again RPS shines its rudimentary yet ever-so-modest illuminator underneath my humble rock-dwelling and interrupts my attempts at distilling vodka in used rubber boots – bravo! I’ll drink to that. I also bought the game. With actual money, worth 21 euros.
    21 williedingles, though? That’s nothing! I sink more than that into drag racing – annually. Who cares if it doesn’t have AI or its alpha state. It’s got XCOM written all across its pretty, pretty face. It’ll be done when it’s done. It feels right. And it’s just the sort of pioneering spirit I don’t mind supporting.

    Firaxis’ reimaginationingin will find its way onto my harddrive. Or is somebody truly arguing that you can have too many XCOM remakes?

  22. mr_zen256 says:

    The gameplay goals the devs have for Xenonauts are very reassuring. I just hope the art style we see in the screenies is not the final art direction for the game. It just looks so bland and amateur.

    • G-Bee says:

      The last couple of screenshots are from earlier builds (someone correct me if i’m wrong), so they have the old tileset etc. The first screenshot is a new one, and I’m really digging the hand drawn style!

  23. sneetch says:

    Just give the bloody aliens the cabbages! I assume that’s what they’re after? They seem to be fighting over them in most of the screenshots I see.

    Anyway, grand theft brassica aside, I think it’s time to get this one, I want to get a new fix of turn based combat and it seems to be shaping up nicely. Desura, ho!

  24. Alexandros says:

    Go Xenonauts! This game is going to be great, I’ve played around a bit with the alpha build and it feels just like it should.