By Adam Smith on May 25th, 2012 at 6:00 pm.
After playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Adam sat down with associate producer Pete Murray and asked him about some of the changes that have been made, as well as seeking clarification on a number of issues. Discussion of the chryssalids’ new look attracts the wrath of an unseen assailant, queries about base invasions lead to talk of balance and punishment, and an unhealthy interest is shown in the various ways that a soldier can bleed to death.
RPS: Hello! It’s great to have finally played the game after hearing so much about it.
Murray: Yes! Jake has spoken to you guys on a number of occasions.
RPS: At great length. But not to me. Alec, who Jake has spoken to, is on holiday in Greece so I usurped him. I am almost equally in love with the original game though.
Murray: And are you OK with all of this?
RPS: It was most enjoyable. When you have such a huge and dedicated fanbase for a game, and I’m part of that fanbase, there can be a lot of cynicism toward what you’re trying to do with the license. Do you feel that at least some of the cynicism is evaporating?
Murray: I hope so. I understand where the concern comes from. People play these games – when did you last play the original?
RPS: Last week.
Murray: OK! I first played it back in college. It was 3 O’clock in the morning and I was scared shitless by it. It’s those early hours and those terrifying moments that you remember so well, they really bring you into this level of attachment with the franchise. And so when people are remaking them, you feel that you have such fond memories, so don’t go polluting that. I think that’s where a lot of this protectiveness comes from.
RPS: Obviously you’re doing a lot of things that are very different. Do you see that as a case of not wanting to just recreate the original game because, after all, it still exists?
Murray: Right. Exactly. And that’s the key thing to remember. The original will always be there and that game will stand on its own regardless of what we do now. The game we have now does a lot of cool things. I think, for me, the moment I got the most excited about the game was when the current combat system went into place. Suddenly, this plan that I made in my head for how I was going to fight the aliens was seamless to implement. Everything became more dynamic at that point.
That was the moment for me where it was like, ‘holy cow’. Not only have we remade XCOM but it’s still X-COM, heart and soul and bones, and we’ve added something to it. It’s a case of this game now being a worthy successor.
RPS: Having just played it for an hour, it was kicking my ass. And that’s what it should do.
Murray: Yeah. And when you start kicking its ass, it feels like you didn’t just get handed that victory, you earned it for yourself.
RPS: I always felt with the original that I started out very reactive and then by the end I was proactively going out and…
Murray: Kicking ass!
RPS: In the video you showed to us earlier, with the Sectopod (a giant alien mech-type thing crashing through a building), there’s a sense of escalation. The tougher you get, the tougher they get.
Murray: Oh yeah. The important thing to remember is that it’s an invasion. It gets more and more intense independent of what you’re doing, and that’s where the loss condition comes in. If you’re not able to rise with the tide, as it were, then you’re going to be overwhelmed.
RPS: So you can get punished for being too patient?
Murray: Ummm, well if you’re not making progress you get into this spiral where you’re losing veteran soldiers, you’re losing missions, panic levels are rising. You’re losing resources, which means what you do have can’t get any better, which means you’re losing faster, so there’s this cycle, this death spiral that you get into where you start to go downhill.
Players are willing to accept that because you tell them what the rules of the game are. You make sure they know what the consequences are if they don’t do well, that they’re going to get into this process. But if you do do well, you’ll find more and more ways to fight back, and so having players understand that is key to XCOM. Letting them know where they stand relative to that has always been an important challenge.
RPS: In terms of the way that the player progresses through the game, am I going to see the same options every time I start a new campaign? Or is there a randomisation in terms of the choices you’re given regarding missions.
Murray: It would depend. Given what you just played through, that initial experience, if you opted to restart the game that would be very similar, but there’s a point where things start to diverge. But if you start the game outside that controlled experience, the sort of tutorial, it will be different each time you play it.
You can play through the game twice in its entirety and never see the same map. Between that and the randomised starting locations on some of the maps, randomised enemy placement, dynamic AI that responds based on what you’re doing, even a map that you’ve seen before can seem very different the next time you go into it.
Your own approach will be different as well, with different soldiers that you’ve brought and maybe it’s later in the game than it was last time, so instead of sectoids maybe you’re up against mutons…
RPS: And they will have their own companion aliens?
RPS: I got a few guys killed, but I got one guy injured as well. I didn’t have a medikit so I had to watch him die. What decides whether a guy gets injured or dies?
Murray; If your soldier takes exactly as much damage as he has health remaining, there is a chance that he’ll be critically wounded, which means he’ll bleed out in a number of turns and you better get over there with a medkit to stabilise him. Even if you stabilise them they’ve taken a hit to their stats so they’re not going to be quite the same anymore.
RPS: And are those stats then permanently lowered?
Murray: Oh yeah. You’re gonna have Shakes McGee if someone gets close to death too many times. His will’s not going to be quite what it was.
RPS: I saw a guy panic as well. He froze on the spot. In the original, sometimes they went berserk, sometimes they dropped all their shit, which I guess they can’t do now since there are no inventories as such.
Murray: No, but they will shoot at stuff, they will randomly spray fire. And sometimes that leads to some random positive outcome, you could have some rookie who flips his shit and still manages to kill an alien. When that happens it can be so awesome. It’s the kind of thing you’re going to go back and tell people about. ‘You wouldn’t guess what this guy did!’ That was important to Jake, to have that in the game, to make sure it carried over.
RPS: One of the things that struck me was in the tutorial, seeing the squad coming out of the Skyranger, they look absolutely terrified. Their expression says ‘Oh God, what is out there’. I know Alec was concerned by some of the voiceovers, that they’re a bit too gungho, but when the guy panicked, the radio chatter there is really intense. The fear and the tension is important to carry over, right?
Murray: I think the tension rises out of understanding what the consequences are for failure, so knowing that if you do badly some of the guys aren’t coming back. There are things that we do in the game that reinforce that, like having the rookie freak out and yell in the radio. That’s what we do to reinforce that.
That tension really comes out of the game itself though. It just rises up from the experience. If we’re having that happen it means that we’re doing something right and we hope that people are going to feel a little bit of the trepidation that those rookies feel.
RPS: The visuals are pretty horrific…
Murray: Having a chryssalid burst out of your guy? In the original it was a sprite, a zombie drooling green…
RPS: The chryssalid autopsy image in the original was kind of ludicrous. They’re one of the most terrifying things ever created but they didn’t look all that…
*A loud crash is heard*
RPS: Did I just piss of a chryssalid?
Murray: Nah, chryssalids don’t burst through walls. That must be a berserker.
RPS: Speaking of chryssalids, we knew that they were going to be there. Or at least if they weren’t, people would have been baffled and would have thrown bees at you, but the way that you’re reinventing things, to keep with ‘enemy unknown’, how important is that? That some of us ‘know’ them but don’t really know this iteration of them.
Murray: You want the aliens to be able to stand on their own, so they need to be good, worthy enemies. And there are certain gameplay characteristics that they need to conform to. We could have an alien that is completely invisible but that wouldn’t be the most compelling thing on the planet.
The chryssalids work well because we have a lot of technological aliens like the floater. That guy is half machine. We don’t have an alien that is as organic as the chryssalid is and the chryssalid is organic in the gross sense. It’s right up there with the xenomorph in terms of the bad shit it’s going to do to you.
Creating an image that is more buglike, that fit for that character too in terms of the hunger that they have. It wants to feed to make more chryssalids, it wants to eat your face to make more chryssalids. Creating that in this scary kind of alien increases the fear that it produces. You already know what it does, it’s already a scary alien, and now it looks like a cockroach too. It’s like, ‘Oh God, I just want to kill that right now!’
RPS: When you talk about the fail state, how you lose, it makes me want to ask about base invasions. Is that a fail state, losing the base? Or is it to do with losing all the funding?
Murray: (long pause)
RPS: Can I be attacked where I live?
Murray: Base invasions are, in the original, something that happened if you were doing very well. Once it happened it changed the way you played the game ever after. It was something you were guarding against.
With something like that, which is almost entirely punitive, that is such a psychologically intense moment for the players, you have to be really careful with how you handle that. I know Jake has considered the base invasion question from a number of angles but getting it to work in this version of XCOM has always been a challenge.
I actually don’t want to answer the question entirely in terms of how it stands because there are elements that work well in this XCOM. We have a fail state that you can get into. But adding a component that is punitive and not only punitive but really punishes you for success feels a little counterintuitive to the idea of making a game that’s very hard but very fair.
RPS: I think that when people ask these questions, a lot of it is a fear of change. Losing base invasions feels like a big change. When we speak to Jake, we’ve found that he’s very good at explaining the changes. People just want to understand the reasons behind things…
Murray: Are you trying to coddle the answer out of me? (laughs) I think the fear of change comes from having such fond memories.
RPS: People have a checklist of expectations.
Murray: Right. And you get fifty fans of XCOM and they have seven hundred features between them that they want. Some of them are more relevant than others.
RPS: One of my top features, perhaps weirdly, is that I have to be able to rename my soldiers. I would have been so pissed if that wasn’t in there.
Murray: You can do that!
RPS: I know, if I couldn’t I’d have been yelling at you this whole time! It was always my family and friends getting killed.
Murray: Well, that is in the game and it turned out to be a really common demand. We knew we could implement that no matter what because it doesn’t affect balance and gameplay, so we’re going to go ahead and give people that control.
Something like base invasion touches so much else of the overall experience that we really have to be careful, there’s a huge knock on effect to so many other things. And I know people ask about it because it was something that was such a strong moment. The people who ask about it have had that moment, at 3 AM in their dorm room, with a battleship descending on their base, with only fifteen wounded guys with pistols to deal with it.
RPS: On the video of the late game stuff we were show, when everything goes to Hell they call in a second squad as backup. Is that something that can actually happen in game?
Murray: No, that’s a little bit of demo magic. We just wanted to show the difference between rookies and the guys with the late game equipment and training.
RPS: So essentially a squad is on its own once it lands?
Murray: Yeah, completely alone.
RPS: And can they always retreat by heading back to the extraction zone?
Murray: Yeah, you just head to the extraction zone and opt to abort the mission, in which case the guys who are in the extraction zone evacuate safely and the guys who are left behind are toast.
RPS: What if somebody is bleeding out and you finish the mission?
Murray: That has swapped back and forth a few times. Sometimes we’ve had it where if you don’t get to him in the field we decided he should die in the Skyranger, sometimes we decided it’s assumed that you get him the treatment he needs on the Skyranger. I don’t remember where it is right now.
RPS: It’s a very specific question isn’t it?
Murray: Yeah! (laughs) We’re in the balance stage at the moment so some questions like that can vary almost daily in terms of how we answer them.
RPS: I don’t want to ask too much about endgame because we all want surprises there, but the sense of escalation is very important. The way the alien tech and species escalate in danger and fear level, and the way XCOM’s response escalates alongside that. How do you balance that?
Murray: We make sure you stay terrified. We keep increasing the challenge. By the last mission you undertake you’ll still only have six guys and they will have their hands full. Trust me, when you see what we have for you there…well…
RPS: So you’ll never let us get too confident that we’re winning?
Murray: It wouldn’t be XCOM. You hold the fate of the world, and it’s like an eggshell. If you trip, it all goes to Hell. If you don’t have that, it’s not XCOM. It doesn’t matter if you have base invasions, it doesn’t matter if you rename every soldier, if it’s a cakewalk it’s not XCOM.
RPS: I always used to refer to the Skyranger as The Frying Pan.
Murray: (laughs) Yes! And sometimes you didn’t make it out of the thing. Blaster hit, everyone dead.
RPS: Now at least they always manage to get out.
Murray: Yeah, we gave them that.
RPS: Thanks for your time.