Around four months ago, I flew to San Francisco to see XCOM, 2K Marin/Australia’s remake of my favourite-ever videogame. Where once it was a turn-based strategy game, now it’s a first-person shooter. This upset one or two people. All that time, I’ve had to be quiet, despite my previews appearing in PC Gamer and Official Xbox Magazine UK – games publishers, I love you, but your print/online emargo split is just dark-ages idiocy.
Now, at frigging last, I can talk about it. There’s a preview over on Eurogamer as of right now, though I do advise picking up the PCG issue for more details still. Read at least one of previews first, then come back here, because I’m afraid I don’t have time today to re-describe the game in this post (but will definitely unfurl my thoughts about what I saw tomorrow). Back? Well, okay then. Below is a long interview from that showing in March, never before published, with three members of 2K Australia – Creative Director Jonathan Pelling, Art Director Andrew James, and Studio General Manager Anthony Lawrence. We talk about why it’s a shooter, why set it in the 50s, how it references the original, how it’s going to escalate and, yes, the possible fan reaction.
It’s a strange interview. Illuminating, guarded, amusing, awkward and out-and-out frustrating by turns. This is what happens when developers are forbidden from straying from the marketing line, and I’m really not convinced that anyone benefits from that sort of gag order. Plenty of detail and reasoning does emerge, however – plus they’re nice, smart guys, clearly passionate, and clearly dying to talk about their game even though their hands were often tied.
Important context: this interview was conducted back in March, mere seconds after I saw XCOM for the first time.
RPS: It’s fascinating waiting back there and hearing the conversations. “Oh my god it’s not turn-based, it’s a first-person shooter…” While it’s sad that it isn’t the same genre, I’m amazed anyone expected it to be. So – was it always going to be a shooter?
Jonathan Pelling, Creative Director: Absolutely. One of the great things about 2K is that we’re really good at making first-person shooters. We’ve got a lot of experience doing that and I think that provides a unique opportunity to present X-COM and everything that’s great about X-COM in a much more immersive and intimate environment. I think it’s going to create a new experience around the X-COM ethos.
We want to make first-person shooters, and coming off Bioshock we got a lot of momentum going. I think putting X-COM into the first person shooter is going to blow it up a little bit.
RPS: Is it the same engine as Bioshock, that Unreal 3 hybrid?
We’re using Unreal 3, it’s related but it’s not exactly the same engine.
RPS: So you’ve gone for the 50s setting – why’s that? Was that something that occurred naturally once you’d broken with the game’s past to a certain degree?
Yeah, the choice of the 50s was not about putting it into a specific time period. We don’t have a set date for when the events of the game occurred. It’s more that we wanted to create a beautiful, idealised world for players to explore, and to create a canvas to pain these strange creatures on. Creating this contrast between the horror of these beings and what is at stake. The 50s just lent themselves very well.
RPS: It’s hard not to see a bit of Bioshock in that.
I guess for us it’s more like the 50s of American advertising. Everything is pristine and beautiful, this is what life could or should be, whereas the infiltration of the aliens essentially destroys that. You’re invited into the immersive atmosphere of that, that beautiful era, and seeing the juxtapositions of these aliens, who are just making it not like it should be.
RPS: So, it’s a parable of the corruption of the American Dream? Or something.
You could put it like that.
RPS: Are you going for a conscious B-movie feel – the demo seemed to reference both the Blob and 2001. Not that 2001’s a b-movie, of course. But will the monsters generally be referencing Cold War/Red Terror films?
One of the things that we wanted to move away from was the kitsch or the expected with these creatures. We didn’t want to make a game about grey aliens, because part of the impact of seeing these aliens is that they’re not bipedal things walking around. It’s something completely different. Really you want to look at them, study them and explore them.
We want to create a genuine mystery that players are compelled to find more about. By creating a set of enemies loaded with preconceptions, that really undermines that. So these are just two examples of enemies in the game, and we’ve got a ride range of very original, innovative enemies to fight.
RPS: Are they quite thematically linked in terms of visuals, or will they be a loose collective of different species, as in the first game?
We can’t talk too much about the specifics of each one, but the overall approach, yes, we want to have consistency.
RPS: In terms of referencing the original X-COM, are you are going to leave most of the story stuff behind. I saw there were a few little references like the car was called the Interceptor, and stuff like that, but will we expect to see returning enemies or anything like that?
We’re forging a new mythology, but what we’re retaining is the core elements that made X-COM X-COM; the strategy, the base, the research, agents, all of those things being in charge, and dealing with this problem as you see fit. You are the one that’s driving the investigation, those elements remain but we want to create a new world with a new set of enemies that’s genuinely compelling for players to learn more about.
RPS: It’s definitely not a prequel?
RPS: What degree of control do you have over the other agents?
We can’t reveal too much at this stage, We’re real proud of the game. It’s really important to us that you feel strongly about the agents as you’re playing the game. But we can’t talk about that yet.
RPS: What are your influences for XCOM, outside of other games?
For us it’s all about capturing the feeling of the advertising of the period, it’s all about what the world could be. Our Art Director…more to the art influences and so on, I think we’re looking at J. C. Leyendecker and (oh, I’ve forgotten their names)…
RPS: Norman Rockwell?
Yes that’s the name that I was looking for. I think the Team Fortress guys are on to that as well…
RPS: Right, that much more stylised look rather than brown pseudo-photo-real.
Those guys have really influenced our style, the rich pallet, the simple shapes and broad sheets of light and the design of the characters as well. Very influenced by ?. So yeah, we’re just looking at aspects of the 50s as they were portrayed, the world as it should be. We’re trying to make people feel there was.
A world where people feel comfortable and everything is optimistic, feel that there is a great future ahead.
Hey, we were just talking about Rockwell and Leyendecker? [Waves over Andrew James, Art Director]
Andrew James: I guess when we were looking at creating the art style for the game, we looked at the American masters of the period, and a lot of 50s advertising and illustration, and we had people like J. C. Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell, and we were trying to create a similar world to what they create in their artwork, inspiration for innocent world of 50s Americana.
RPS: Did you ever toy with a fully stylised look, or did it always have to be believable despite those sort of elements?
We definitely did a lot of exploring with how far we could push that stylisation, but I guess we’re making a first person shooter, and there’s a certain kind of level of frugality that that genre requires.
RPS: Team Fortress 2 does something similar, but I guess you’re not going to capture creeping horror if you’ve got these cubist cartoon characters…
I think tension was one of the high level goals of the game, so our style had to support that tension, so couldn’t be too stylised or cartoony.
RPS: And how much are you going to push the sci fi element of the armour and weaponry? The oil bomb looked very homemade there.
The more you research the aliens, and the more we uncover about how they work and what their abilities are, then the more parts of those aliens will take on in the weaponry you use. At the start of the game it’s mostly human technology, just harnessing little parts of the alien abilities, but then as you do more and more research that weaponry advances and the things you can use to throw back against them improve…
Pelling: We want to try and maintain a very connected… maintain a juxtaposition in the weapons themselves, and that’s why you’ve got your human and period elements in the weapons, as well as the more exotic alien things.
RPS: I guess you’ll say you can’t talk about this yet, but in terms of people, are we going to see live humans and populated areas? It’s only been corpses so far, but obviously one of the extra factors to bear in mind in the original game was trying to complete the mission with minimal human casualties.
We can’t talk about that, unfortunately.
RPS: Well, it’s always good to at least not get a no. Similarly, and with the same expected response, will we progress beyond human environments at any point?
[Rueful laughter, then silence.]
RPS: Okay then. [Everyone is a bit flustered by this point.] In terms of mission structure, without going into detail if you can’t, will most of them follow similar beats to what you’ve shown today, or will we see plenty of diversity and varied challenges? I mean, is it random – will there be ones where almost nothing happens, others where it’s a wall-to-wall firefight?
Yeah. We want, um, a nice varied experience for the player but the er, the the the core of the experience is in the escalations of the encounters, when you get out in the field. As you saw in the demo, there’s quiet period where you get to investigate the scene a little bit, but then it starts to ramp up and you’ve got a few peaks and troughs and then it sort of gets more and more as you stay in there. Because that’s the dynamic that you try… you can leave a mission at any time, but the longer you stay, the more stuff you can obtain like research and other findings, but the stakes are also increasing so you’re faced with this filling one bucket with stuff and emptying the other bucket of health and ammo and everything else and the foes are getting stronger and eventually you have to evacuate.
Anthony Lawrence, Studio General Manager: One of the great things about putting it together is it’s all unpredictable. You don’t what’s going to turn up, how things are going to turn out. It could be different every single time, you don’t know where things are going to be coming from.
Pelling: That’s one of the core parts of the experience. The white-knuckle tension that you experience while you’re out in the field.
RPS: How is that escalation managed? Is each mission pretty much scripted, or because you’re picking those missions yourself and they can expire and disappear, is it procedurally generated each time?
There is a sort of dynamic level element. Can’t go into too many details right now, but the game is generally fairly unscripted. You’ll not be able to expect where these enemies are coming from or what you’ll encounter on any given scenario.
James: No two playthroughs are ever the same.
RPS: But presumably you’re doing some degree of management, so you don’t end up with those situations in the original X-COM where there’s just one little bastard hiding somewhere and it takes you hours of schlepping around to find him?
Oh, God, yeah. There was always something hiding in the corner of the barn behind the hay bales… That’s definitely not the experience we’re aiming for.
RPS: Will it escalate on a broader level, as the technology and the evidence mounts, the missions are going to be higher stakes?
We can speculate about that. Look at the demo there – we had an enemy that we could kill versus one that we couldn’t. Somewhere in between that, you know, there’s going to be stuff around…
RPS: Presumably you can kill that obelisk thing at some point?
RPS: That’s just the end of the game, isn’t it? X-COM is only 20 minutes long: exclusive! What about the destructibility of the environments – it’s another sacred cow for fans of the first game, and an element which very few of the unofficial remakes have pulled off. I noticed a lot of stuff was getting trashed in the demo, but was that purely aesthetic?
Pelling: Well. Can’t talk about too much [mutual sad laughter]. We do want the world to reflect the impact of your actions, and the actions of the creatures, so… Yeah, we can’t really talk about that too much.
James: One of the reasons behind the art style having not a lot of fine detail on some things, flat surfaces and flat colours, is so that when you do go in and the battles are off, you really transform things. Like that living room is absolutely trashed, and things get smashed, and everything goes to hell. So, yeah, we want to try and push the player’s impact on the world, and get the results of those battles as much as we can.
RPS: That map we saw in the demo – you said we saw maybe a third of it before the player had to run away?
Pelling: The environments in the game are quite expansive, and it’s up to you on any given field operation how much of the world you want to and can explore before you feel like you have to leave. But it’s very open-ended in terms of environment.
RPS: Are you generally going to hit a point where you absolutely have to leave, rather than just that you’ve seen or killed everything?
Well, you saw the dynamic we were setting up there. Can’t really talk about other examples. But…
Lawrence: It’ll be up to the player to choose, yeah, depending on what their goals are.
RPS: Just trying to think of questions that won’t get a Can’t Really Talk About That… Er.
James: [Laughs]. I do feel kinda bad about answering every question like that.
RPS: Are we going to get a period soundtrack? That seems to be the big thing for all these retro-set games, and especially 2K ones at the moment…
Pelling: We certainly want to reflect the era. Building a good sense of the 50s, certainly, we’re going to do a lot to make the player feel part of that world, so…
RPS: The car – is that purely a tool that loads the next level, or does it ever come into play more?
Er. Can’t really talk about it. [Laughs]
RPS: Aaargh. What can you talk about?
Anything in the demo.
RPS: Right. You can’t possibly no-comment this one. Can the other agents hats be shot off?
Currently they…. well… possibly. We can’t…
RPS: Oh God.
[Laughs] There’s a lot of things with the agents that we’re working on, but we can’t talk about that yet. We’re pretty excited about where we’re going with those guys.
RPS: Hats have to be shot off. That’s the best thing in any game, ever. Well, let’s talk about interactibility, which is a made up word but never mind. What can you do in those big environments apart from shoot aliens? There’s a lot of visual detail in there, after all – like the cakes on the side in the kitchen.
We can’t really… Um. Can’t really talk about that I suppose. [No laughs this time. From anyone.] Y’know, we’re trying to set up an experience where the player is under pressure at all times, so even when you’re not fighting you’re under pressure. I guess a thing to say is you wouldn’t want to create too much distraction outside of that core experience. Which is not to say that you won’t have it or whether we will, but we’re trying to create a really tense experience where the player is sweating at all times. So we don’t want to rip them out of that.
James: We’re trying to get that tension you had moving your guys around in the original game, we don’t want you to lose attention.
RPS: Going back to the base, I wasn’t sure how much you were doing as opposed to just watching. When you’re wandering around labs and the engineering, are you doing much there, or is it just seeing the progress of the NPCs?
Pelling: Those areas were closed off just because we don’t want to show them yet, but you are in command of this area, this whole base. We really want to make sure that you feel like that, so we’re doing whatever we can to make the player feel like he isn’t just a casual observer, and that he’s actually giving orders, setting directions, all these people are there to work for him. They’re all there to carry out his orders. That’s the experience that we’re trying to create. There’s going to be a lot to look at in the base. You’re at the top of the org chart, I suppose. You’ve got people like Dr Goldberg and Mal, who are your like seconds, you’ll be interacting with them, they’ll be interacting with their staff and all of the stuff will unfold.
RPS: What are you expecting the fan reaction will be? I realise a new audience is probably the main priority, but when this hits the internet people are going to have something to say – and a lot of them may be negative on principle.
I hope that it’s very positive. The series has been sort of fallow for a long time now, and I think what we want to do is pick up those key elements that defined the original X-COM as something that is remembered and we want to take those great things and present them in a new take. We want to push those elements into the first-person genre and get people excited about being on the ground during this invasion. I think, I hope the reaction is positive. I think it will be once people start to see the kinds of things that we’re doing. I look forward to hearing what the fans have to say.
RPS: They may just be glad that it’s not Enforcer 2.
That’s why we are really trying to capture the essence, returning to the source, because those were the things that were cool. Diverging off that path I think would be a mistake. And it was a mistake. Y’know. Arguably.
RPS: Have you worked at all with the Gollop brothers, the original creators of X-COM?
[Pelling shakes head. Serious looks all round.]
RPS: So this is billed as 2K Marin game but you guys are from 2K Australia? So whose game is this?
Lawrence: 2K Marin is essentially the studio name. So there is two studios called 2K Marin, one of them happens to be in Canberra. We’ve worked closely together through Bioshock 2, so it’s not exactly a new establishment, the two studios being apart but working as one.
RPS: Are 2K China involved at all?
Lawrence: Yeah. We work with a lot of 2K studios. 2K China is just one of those studios.
RPS: Thanks for your time.