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Death & Chrysalids: Firaxis On XCOM, Part 2

Investigating the unknown

Featured post I used to build my first base in Antarctica. That wasn't very clever of me.

In this next chunk of a mammoth chat with XCOM: Enemy Unknown‘s lead designer at Firaxis Jake Solomon, we talk Chrysalids, the death and critical wounding of your soldiers, the fanbase, why min-maxing X-COM’s not all it’s cracked up to be, the base, the geoscape and which of the original game’s aliens didn’t make the cut…
If you missed part one, that’s here. Where we pick up, Jake has just been discussing the reaction to 2K Marin’s oft-delayed XCOM shooter and what that meant for Firaxis’ strategy game.

RPS: How much were you aware of the passion and ferocity in the X-COM fanbase before the shooter was revealed; did it at all colour what you thought you could or should do on Enemy Unknown?

Jake Solomon: I can’t say that I expected it, I tried not to peruse too many message boards or anything like that because I think that at some point you could go down the rabbit hole there, but I think that certainly the passion is not a surprise and I have no problem with that. I know that some people are passionate about this aspect or that aspect and that’s not a surprise, I mean that’s not a surprise for me who plays the original game still till this day,. I don’t think any of us are bothered if people say like ‘oh, I don’t agree that they did this or did that’, I mean all it tells you is that you have something that I think people feel strongly about and that’s certainly, I know it sounds silly, but it’s certainly better than the alternative, right? I mean you release something and you say like ‘these are the things we’re doing’ and there’s deafening silence, as a designer that’s never particularly good.

I mean if you can have a conversation with fans of it and people saying ‘this is why I feel this way’, it’s truly amazing. XCOM is actually unique in the sense that I think one of the great things about the original XCOM is that when it came out I played it in high school and I didn’t have the benefit of the internet and things like that, so I wasn’t using that to look at facts or anything like that, so I played it as just a game experience. I absolutely loved it as just playing it and even not understanding all the detail of it – like you can tell like there is just incredible design at work, the game is very affecting emotionally in terms of the music of course, John Broomhall’s music, and the look of it, it’s got this very lonely feeling and you have all these interesting decisions to make. But then, also the advent of the internet and then the fact that people could exchange all this information about the original game if you go to something like a UFOpedia online, or there are so many wikis about the original game, you can go there and then you start to understand the depth behind all these systems.

I remember this was towards the end of college, I went back and played and was starting to get all this information in mind, and like there’s a whole new layer to the game as your understanding of these very deep complex system mechanics, and so it’s been very interesting because people can argue, people can make some points with some very deep information to back it up based on how the original game worked and things like time units and reaction fire. They’re very deep systems so it doesn’t surprise me that people feel passionate about it and it certainly doesn’t bother me that people feel strongly about it even if they don’t agree with the choices that we’ve made. Sometimes you’re surprised at the things that people do seem to get excited about or to latch on and maybe not agree with you on, but yeah, I think the passion overall wasn’t a surprise to me. Although there were some people on my team who weren’t familiar with the original, and of course everybody on our team had to play the original. When you start on our project, you have to play for a week…

RPS: You should have just fired them, they’re clearly no good.

Jake Solomon: (laughs) I just said if you can’t make it to Cydonia at the end of your week….you can just not bother coming in. So, I think for those that didn’t have that understanding of how the game continued to live on on the internet through the wikis, I think it was quite a shock to see how strongly people reacted to the idea of remaking XCOM, so that was actually kind of fun to see. But I don’t know that I was surprised by it. I mean Civ is certainly similar in the sense that you have fans that are so knowledgeable about the deep system mechanics that it’s a little bit daunting. You never question what you’ve done, the decisions, before the game comes out, because the decisions we make here are based on play, like we do not have paper discussions about Firaxis, nobody gets to write a design on paper and say ‘see why this is so great’ because those conversations can go on forever. What we do is that we put them in and we say is this better, is this not, take it out, move forward with it. So you feel confident that you’ve made your decisions the right way. Not to say that every decision we make is right, but yeah, it’s just the sort of thing where it’s fun to have people who not only feel strongly but can then pull out some pretty obscure math to back up their point, so…I don’t know, it’s nice to have that and then the opposite.

RPS: I do wonder about the change from how things were when the game first game out. It was just a complete self-discovery thing, there was no tutorial, there was no Gamefaqs – and now you’re going to emerge into a completely different era where people can just dissect you and share all the information straight away and there won’t be that same sort of mystery and very slow-burn understanding.

Jake Solomon: No, and I think that’s what’s funny is that we’re all the hard core guys right, like the original fans, and for us it was this sense of like, you get dropped on the Geoscape, right, and you’re looking at it and it’s already affecting because you have the music and you’re looking at Earth hanging there… And I love the Geoscape, I think it’s brilliant because the first screen you’re looking at, you’re just staring at the earth and it looks very vulnerable because it looks a little small and it’s surrounded by the black and purple mists of space behind it and you’ve got this music playing and it’s just very affecting, right from the get-go, but you don’t know what you’re doing. The first thing you do is, pick where you wanna put your base, and you’re like ‘umm….I guess I’ll pick Kansas city. So I always put my first base there, before I learned that I should put it in Europe, but I always had Nuramcom, which was the name of my first base, and that was always in Kansas because that was where I grew up. And so, then you have these experiences, and the game just continues to reveal itself to you and you’re like ‘what the shit?’ the first time you meet Chrysalids let’s say. And the first time you meet Snakemen you’re like ‘Those guys don’t look so tough, right’, and then a Chrysalid comes out of the dark and you’re like ‘what the hell?’ because he walks right up to you. If you can see a Chrysalid then you’re dead – they’ll walk right up to you, chomp, chomp, your guy dies, and then you’re like ‘wow, that’s amazing’. Then next turn, what the hell, all of a sudden this zombie rises up.

And without knowing that stuff beforehand and almost being dropped into that, that was a different experience and I think that that’s what a lot of us remember too, and certainly as a developer that again is daunting because we want to have all those notes, we want to have that depth. I mean trust me, we’re trying to have all that depth all and those notes, but this isn’t the same situation – we don’t want to eliminate any depth but then now what we’ve got to do is make up for all that by making it a little more clear to the player and making sure that the game blossoms appropriately to where the player starts at the right point and then learns all these mechanics and has all the same mechanics. That’s obviously been the most challenging part of development.

RPS: So how much do you spoil, almost, in the tutorial which I guess you feel you’ve got to have in this day and age, and how much can you still keep for later once they’ve got the basics?

Jake Solomon: I think the way you do that is you set up systems, you set up some pretty core systems that once you teach them how to use one element in the system, then they’re good and you sort of let them out into the wide world, and then when the later elements appear, they function somewhat the same but they’re completely different and they introduce all kinds of interesting interactions. So it’s true, the way that I played the game then and the way that I played the game after I got online and saw how your manufacturing can actually be optimised… I learned all these mathematical systems and how you’re supposed to manufacture, how to use reaction, how to level up your soldiers by, I won’t say cheating, but you load your guys down then you take all these reaction shots, and so then I played that way, and now when I play, I’ve actually gone back to how I first was, I play in the way that I think Julian would have wanted me to play. So I, use, like, the Firestorm – people don’t use the fFrestorm, right? Well I use the Firestorm, and you’re not supposed to put fusion ball launchers on your ships but you know what, I AM going to put those on my ships and I do use the heavy laser because I think the elements they put in there originally in the flow, I can play. I’m good enough now to win by not min/maxing so it’s fun now to use all these elements that for the last couple of years I’d avoided using because they weren’t optimal.

RPS: I’ve never played it in the optimum efficiency way myself, I’ve always preferred the fantasy of it being a world teetering on the brink of destruction and one false move from you can create untold disaster. The idea of knowing precisely how to react to an alien invasion sort of ruins it for me a bit. It is called Enemy Unknown…

Jake Solomon: No, absolutely, it’s absolutely true. I mean, there is satisfaction of course in playing the game the best you can, you understand the system and you’re like ‘ok, I’m going to manufacture Medkits to start off, and I’m gonna manufacture xyz, and then laser canons, because this is most profitable’, but then it does suck a little of the joy out of it. So now I’ve gone back now to playing like, you know what, I’m not going to worry about that, and when I research the Firestorm I’m going to build it, I don’t care that I should probably just go and build the Avenger and throw plasma beams on it, but that’s not the way I play any more. Now I sort of play more narratively because I just get more enjoyment out of it.

RPS: How are you approaching the narrative in yours – is it still that slow-burn of new stuff, new understanding without resorting to cut scenes and things like that?

Jake Solomon: Yes, I mean we accent moments throughout the gameplay with cinematics and more dramatic moments but it’s driven by the player in the sense that it’s obviously not a linear progression, but the player can achieve certain things and we’ll say ok, that’s a big moment, so… One of the things we always wanted to do was get across that sense of the world teetering on the edge, and there was one thing about the original game, which I think is kind of its appeal, but it feels very lonely. You’re managing XCOM, you’re the one making all the decisions and that can be a very lonely position, but you never got too much sense of what was going on in the wider world – and we’re not trying to change that and have this be some kind of linear scripted experience, because that’s not what XCOM is. But we still have the opportunity to say like ‘oh, look at that, the player did this or achieved this big thing or this dramatic thing happened, let’s enhance that with something more dramatic’ so we certainly do have cinematic, but we also understand that the player driven narrative is always going to be stronger than the overarching linear narrative in a game like XCOM. That’s something we enjoy ourselves and love and believe in.

A lot of things we do we do to try and enhance the player driven narrative, you know, your soldiers earn nicknames at the sergeant rank, so once they reach sSrgeant they actually get a nickname and of course everything’s customisable, the names, the look of your soldiers, because again, it’s that sort of thing where you feel like you’re not a movie director, you’re more of like the stagehand and you’re trying to give the players the best props that you can to tell their own story. So we do things like let them earn nicknames and let them customize their soldiers, and along those lines, every soldier, they come from all different countries. We want to make sure that this feels very international, so every soldier when they go into battle they actually have their country’s flag on the back of their armour. So you’ve got a soldier from Brazil, and they’ll have the Brazilian flag on the back of their armour. A lot of those touches that as a player from the original game I said, ‘I always wished I could….x, y, z’, and we’ve tried to bring a lot of those into this game.

RPS: That sounds like it’s handy…it could be quite hard to tell your soldiers apart later in the game when they’re all wearing the same armour and you can’t see their stupid haircuts anymore. Maybe the flags will help differentiate that.

Jake Solomon: Right, exactly, it’s one of those things where by the end, everybody’s like an orbiting death station because everybody’s in the flying armour and they’ve got the heavy plasma, and so it becomes very difficult to tell. But of course you would associate with them, and maybe rename them so that their stats would show up or something like that. We want the player to form that attachment, you’re gonna form that attachment to your soldiers anyway, and so we just want to do things that enhance that.

RPS: Are you keeping them being hospitalised and wounded so that you can have that guy not quite dead – ‘oh, he’ll be coming back, it’ll be so amazing when he’s back on the scene’ thing, and then…

Jake Solomon: Yeah, obviously your guys can die of course, the rookies also have to go through the meatgrinder, and of course even your veterans can die. There are permanent consequences to your guys getting wounded as well so if your guys get wounded in combat, when they come back of course they’re going to have to go to the infirmary, and one of the things that I’m excited about is that we actually have our HQ – you’ve seen the screenshots of the base, so that’s actually a living diorama, you’ll actually see there’s people walking around and they’re your actual soldiers, so when you come back from mission they’re shooting pool together, they’re having a beer down in the bar, so your wounded soldiers are laying up in infirmary and maybe some of their oldest friends are down there standing next to the bedside visiting with them.

There’s a memorial wall where you’ve got all your fallen soldiers, so maybe somebody’s visiting that, and there’s the officers’ quarters, there’s the rookies’ quarters, which aren’t as nice, so you’ve got your scientists walking around and your soldiers, and those are your actual soldiers. Again, it sort of plays into the player narrative is so much stronger and so it’s just fun as a player to come back and be like your two officers are there and they’re shooting pool together, and when they’re wounded they’re laying up in the infirmary and there’s doctors and nurses walking around taking care of them.

And a fun game play thing is we have critical wounding in the game, so when somebody takes a critical wound, just like in the original, they’re bleeding out and you’ve only got a couple of turns to get to them with a Medkit and stabilize them. But those soldiers who are critically wounded, if you stabilize them, well then good for you, you’ve saved one of your soldiers, but the problem of course is that they suffer a permanent Will penalty from that point on, and so now they become a little shakier. Like God forbid you suffer two critical wounds, you’re going to be jumping at every sound. I mean depending upon what their starting will was, but then you get these guys who are a little shaky and they’re going to panic at the first sign of things going south and they’re going to start chucking grenades everywhere and freaking out and firing off their gun wildly…

RPS: and presumably when the Ethereals turn up they’re the first to be mind controlled.

Jake Solomon: Right exactly, those are the guys who are just a little bit shaky in the mental department, and again it’s one of those things that, it sounds like a penalty, but it’s really one of those things that carries over from the original game because you would have guys that would go all through the game and maybe they had a very low bravery or morale stat, or they get to the end of the game and you realize that your stud Colonel, who’s like your best soldier, has like the mental prowess of a goat. So, he’s immediately the one that the aliens turn on his own men and so that was always such a heartbreaking moment, so we wanted to have elements like that where as your soldiers get wounded they suffer some permanent effects of that.

RPS: Yeah, I can remember stuff, like the psychic stuff, where I was actually sacrificing lesser troops just to try and keep my main guy alive and rescue him somehow….

Jake Solomon: It’s not a bad thing when you realize that the Sectoid leaders are going to go after the mentally weakest one in your squad – you realise which one’s they’re picking on and you go ‘ok, fine. From now on, you get to come with us but you get a pistol and that’s it’ and like ‘You’re off the drop ship first’. So when they start controlling that guy, you don’t have to worry anymore because you’re like ‘oh yeah, that’s his thing… Don’t worry about him, he’s freaking out and gnashing his teeth but he only has a pistol so he’s not going to kill anybody’ and you basically bait the aliens, which is a horrible thing to do if you actually thought about that realistically, but, yeah, that was always an effective tactic.

RPS: One of the things that XCOM’s so great at is making you be horrible, as I was saying earlier – killing civilians and sacrificing your own men, but you’re goning ‘it doesn’t matter because we’re saving the world, okay, don’t ask me about it’.

Jake Solomon: That’s right, you can have a very utilitarian point of view because you can say ‘ultimately, I’m the guy saving the world’, so and of course it didn’t help that the civilians, they walk around and you are like ‘do you not see the giant snake behind you’, (laughs) ‘do you not see the eight foot snake behind you, why are you walking back into the room with him? Why do you not come this direction?’

RPS: So how much of that have you been able to recreate or expand on?

Jake Solomon: Well, we certainly still have terror missions, some of the mission types obviously we’re not talking about, but the terror missions we certainly have and so we still have that element of civilians running around. In a very fun way, it becomes this exasperating element of like, you’re saving the world and there are these horrible monsters here, they’re running around, and you feel like you’re herding cats because there are all of these civilians and they’re screaming their heads off and you actually feel like this is probably what a military commander would feel like. You’d be ‘for God’s sake, would you just stay still, I’m coming over there to rescue you, please do not….’ And then they run out and you’re like ‘ok, well that’s your own fault’. Yeah, so I think that that element is still there.

RPS: Are there any of the original aliens that you weren’t able to keep in?

Jake Solomon: Well yeah, I suppose I should never say never, but I will say that the Silacoid didn’t quite make it, what I would say is that… You know what, I’m going to get blasted for that aren’t I? you just set me up, didn’t you?

RPS: (laughs) I did not! Though now you mention it, maybe I have my headline…

Jake Solomon: ‘They eliminated the Silacoid’…. and then I’m going to get forty comments about the Silacoid and why it was crucial… No, what I would say is that we have a deep love – I don’t want this to sound marketing-ish – but we do, the original characters mean an awful, awful lot to us, so I don’t think that people should worry on that score. But yeah, if I will say there’s one that didn’t make it for sure it was the Silacoid, remember the old rock spitting blob, well he didn’t make the translation, but in general we love the original aliens. I mean the only ones we’ve talked about so far, the Muton, the Cyberdisc, the Sectoid and the new one, the Thin Man, but we do have a deep abiding love for the rest of the original aliens as well, so…

RPS: I will read between the lines and presume Chrysalids are in there then, which will make a lot of people happy.

Jake Solomon: (laughs) I did not confirm or deny anything! I didn’t say anything!

RPS: What about new guys, are the Thin Men the only ones that are in there or have you really expanded the rogues gallery?

Jake Solomon: I think that I’m under embargo to talk about any more past that, but yeah, the Thin Man is an example of where we felt it made sense to expand, because the original is rooted not in camp but in UFO mythology, so they have the greys and of course it got weirder and weirder, but you know the Sectoids coming from the greys is obvious, and I think that that’s a very fun place for the player to start. Even like when I was new to XCOM, of course that’s what you expected to see, you expected to go onto the field and see a grey, and that was always very fun, and so we felt with the Thin Man we could do that because it’s a play on the idea of an infiltrator which everybody always knows. The aliens are among us, they’re watching us, and so it’s a play on the idea of that infiltrator and also a play on the men in black mythology, so that obviously made sense and it fits within that whole idea of these aliens being rooted in some sort of UFO mythology.

In tomorrow’s third and final part, we discuss the thorny issue of why time units were removed, how the replacement system works, Julian Gollop, mod support, random mission generation and why call this game X-COM instead of a new IP.

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