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Interview: Firaxis On XCOM's Secret Origins

Known Unknowns

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Not content with a mere three interviews with the lead designer of Firaxis’ upcoming X-COM remake XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I recently settled down for a fourth lengthy chinwag with the effusive Jake Solomon. In this first of two parts, we talk about the difficulty of describing the essential X-COM/XCOM experience, why people shouldn’t immediately start playing in Iron Man Mode (or perhaps why they should), what’s yet to be revealed about the game, some of the near-catastrophic mistakes made during its creation and how designing boardgames/arguing with Sid Meier might just have saved it.
RPS: I just watched that hour of in-game footage you put up, and that was really the first time I got to see how all the stuff I’ve been told about fits together…

Jake Solomon: It’s nice because you kind of want to do that early, but until the game is finished it’s really to say ‘ok, let’s just play for an hour and show everybody everything.’ It’s kinda nice that the things I said a year ago aren’t bullshit today. I think that’s probably been the most rewarding reaction I’ve had from people who’ve seen it, “oh, that actually does look like X-COM.”

RPS: How much experience do you have of that sort of direct interface with the fans, where you’re actually right out there in front of your potential customers rather than some scowling journalist?

Jake Solomon: Apparently Civ V did it too, but I didn’t actually know that other games did this. When [2K] asked if I was willing to do this, at first I was like ‘what? Just… play the game?’ But then I thought , with something like XCOM and the way people are naturally sceptical … It’s very hard with a game like XCOM to sort of convey what it is. I’ve been trying to describe it for a long time and it’s still hard. Normally my first question to the media is ‘have you played the original?’ and if they have I’m like ‘oh good, I won’t try and describe it then.’ If they haven’t, I’m “errrrr… I guess.”

RPS: “It’s got guns in it.”

Jake Solomon: And zombies. It’s got zombies. So we’ve made sure to cover every trope – aliens and zombies and soldiers with big guns. It’s groundbreaking.

RPS: I had been quite worried that it might turn out to be quite gimmicky with all those special abilities like the grappling hook, but in that video I was relieved that it seemed like every shot really mattered, things really could horribly wrong. That was an accurate reflection of what we’ll get playing it, right?

Jake Solomon: Yeah, these moments are in there, and you can’t really explain them to people who don’t know the original game, but I was happy to see multiple missed shots in a row. In the back of my mind I was “good, that will help, people will now go ‘oh, that’s X-COM’” I think that the idea is we’re going to stream more gameplay at PAX, and I told them we should play on Classic and Impossible difficulty. We need to show a mission that goes horribly, horribly wrong.

That’s actually something great that’s happened recently. My lead programmer Casey, he was playing the game – we actually don’t have that much left to do it on it, so we’re all sat around twiddling our thumbs or playing the game, which is fun – and he just lost. My lead programmer lost the game on Classic difficulty. I was encouraged by that, which is very weird.

RPS: I noticed you said in the video that even people who think they’re hot-shit at this kind of thing should not go straight to Iron Man mode…

Jake Solomon: I’m concerned that it’s the hipster effect, “save and reload, why would I do that?”, but I would strongly recommend they don’t go straight there. I just don’t want people to romanticise getting your ass kicked too much, because while it is fun and internally we view playing on Classic difficulty in Iron Man mode to be the true form of the game, the pure form, I would not recommend that people do that first. Just because there are so many new mechanics to learn that it will be punishing. There actually is a difficulty level above Classic, Impossible, and we had one guy beat the game on that mode, just to prove that it could be done. And then we actually we had a guy at 2K who played on Iron Man Impossible. He made it further than I thought was possible, but even so, he just lost the game.
I’m very excited to see the first time someone beats it on that mode, because I’d like to say that it’s impossible but that’s never really the case.

RPS: But you honestly believe that don’t start on Classic/Iron Man thing? It’s not simply that some people know X-COM inside out, but also that they grew up in an age of games where they actually expected to fail, which is sort of lost now.

Jake Solomon: Well, I suppose, if that’s what they like… I don’t care what goes on in people’s bedrooms, so whatever they like. I think it’s true, if people are looking for that experience of actually testing themselves against a system and really wanting that feeling of complete consequences then yeah, play on Iron Man and it’ll be interesting to see. Again, internally we view Iron Man to be the true state of the game, but the first couple of times I played I definitely needed to save and reload just because – and this is really true – it can be really heartbreaking to lose units that you’ve invested all this time in. It certainly makes the game more tense, but it’s a fairly heartbreaking moment to lose them. In Iron Man, of course, you have no option, you simply cannot reload and get that soldier back. If that’s what people the first time, then I say more power to them.

RPS: Is there much that we don’t know at this stage, if you’re at the point where you can show an hour quite comfortably? It’s not quite like a Mass Effect game where you need to keep the denouement under wraps until the 11th hour, after all, so what’s been held back?

Jake Solomon: I’ve tried to hold things back, but, y’know… But mystery was at the heart of the original, it was just sort of a built-in thing, you would have these moments with these completely unexpected twists and turns just in terms of how the game operated, and the mechanics and all these things that you would experience. As you know, it’s really hard not to give everything away nowadays: the media cycle is ‘ok, we’re announcing a new feature and we want to put it out there, and then we want to announce something else’, then somebody else wants an exclusive this or someone wants to hear about that… I think that it’s a wonderful opportunity to be able to connect to fans that way, but it is hard to hold large segments of your game back.

I mean, we haven’t shown all of the aliens, nor will we show all of the aliens, because that’s important, but there are some concepts we haven’t talked about either. I think the benefit that with a game like XCOM, even watching the livestream, there’s really no way to even tell you what it’s like to play. Even if I described all the mechanics, it’s not the mechanics themselves that make up the game, it’s the way that they interact and they way you experience them and the choices you make. So I am kind of hopeful the experience of playing XCOM cannot be summed up in any number of interviews. Even this tome, this autobiography that you and I are writing over the course of this game [laughs] I think that it would be very hard to describe to people what it’s like until they actually play.

That being said, we haven’t actually revealed any narrative either, we haven’t talked about that side of the game. XCOM is not Mass Effect in terms of the external narrative, but there is certainly a narrative to the game and cinematic moments. That’s a fairly large part of the game that we haven’t revealed, that will be completely new to players.

It’s made me very, very happy to see that our team are playing the game even past when they should, there’s no reason for them to play the game at this point. We’ve been working on it for four years, and we had a really ,really difficult last year. This last year was very challenging in terms of time and the effort that the team had to put in, so for them to then finish and they’re playing the game on the weekends…

The head of our QA department went home and he took a game with him: “well, I was halfway through my latest playthrough so I just kept playing XCOM.” And that’s one of those things where it’s a very, very good sign. Even now I have these guys coming in and talking to me about strategy and all the things that they’re doing, and as a developer that’s a very encouraging sign. ANd that’s what I’m hopeful, why the experience of XCOM can’t be summed up in words – you can even work on the game for four years and then you play it and it just feels completely different.

RPS: This is exactly the kind of thing someone will accuse me of a being a sycophant for saying, but watching that video it did quite surprisingly seem like you were all incredibly into it, like it was a great spectator sport even for the two of you not playing, as you stressed about whether a shot was going to make it. Despite all the stuff I could ask about, however you tried to explain it, ultimately it can only boil down that moment-to-moment decision making, whether the incredible tension around each and every shot is there or not.

Jake Solomon: Yeah, you can’t sum up what it feels like when you’re on a mission and your down two soldiers who you loved and the odds are again you. You can’t sum that up on words. I was sitting in my lead producer, Garth’s, office the other day, and he’d named all his soldiers after 80s and 90s action heroes. So he had Chuck Norris and Jean Claude Van Damme and Carl Weathers and Wesley Snipes…

RPS: The Expendables, except they’re actually expendable.

Jake Solomon: Exactly, and he had had them all customised to look like them. We’re just sitting there playing, and it was a very, very original X-COM moment. We’re agonising about these guys, but this is my lead producer and I, we’ve put in an absurd amount of time over the last year working on this game, but we there arguing about strategy, and he’s moving his characters and I’m telling him what to do. And then something horrible happens, but it never gets old. He’s still going “I can still beat this level” and I’m saying “I don’t think you can…” I hope people saw that in the livestream – we don’t get tired of watching it and playing it.

The other thing as well is all those mechanics you can describe in words, but you can’t really describe how they interact together. That’s really where the interest comes out of, how all those things pull on each other to lead to those subtle choices.

RPS: Yes, when you were describing, say, the change to ammo a few interviews back, it was out of context so all I was thinking of as I quietly worried about it was how it compared to the old system rather than how it fit into this game.

Jake Solomon: Yeah, and the time units thing – that was always difficult because I had to get designery and specific, and I felt the answer came off like a bunch of PR bullshit. But I really hope that when people play they’ll see that it’s all about using your guys together and stacking the abilities up. That’s the hope, anyway.

RPS: As you’re playing it now, at the stage where it’s basically too late to do anything else to it, is there anything you’re seeing that you wished you’d done differently?

Jake Solomon: I see stuff, I see it, but the way we see games here is that you never finish them, you abandon them. That’s just the way games work: at some point you have to say “well, I could work another four years but at this point we’re done.” So I see it when I play, but to be honest with you – and I hate even to say it, because people aren’t going to believe me – I will just start playing and stop paying attention to whatever I was supposed to be looking at. You’ll just get into that X-COM groove of “ok, now I’m playing the game, now I’m on the strategy layer, and oh Jeez there was that facility I wanted to build but I also want to launch a satellite…” All the other stuff sort of vanishes.

Actually, at PAX we have a panel that is called ‘1000 Stupid Decisions We Made While Making XCOM’…

RPS: Yeah, I was going to ask about that – can give you us a sneak preview of one of your stupid decisions? [We weren’t able to run this piece pre-PAX in the end – Sad Ed]

Jake Solomon: Yeah, we wouldn’t be so cavalier about admitting our mistakes if we didn’t think they were worth it in the end. And I made a lot of mistakes, but luckily we had the four years to work on the game. My team, I think, succeeded despite me at points – I have multiple strategy prototypes which are completely, completely different takes on the strategy, and tactical prototypes. One of the most fun times I had on this project was, after the second strategy prototype, I was really lost. This was maybe two and a half years ago, and it was really approaching a critical point.

I tried a turn-based approach to the strategy game, like a card-based approach – [disgusted tone] can you fucking believe that? And then I had a real time version, but it was like a fast real-time version and it was on a flat map, and it wasn’t country-based, it was city-based. All the cities around the world had a panic number, and the number would change all the time – it was like that Infection boardgame, but it was just terrible. Maybe it would have been a good iPhone game, but…

And Sid [Meier] always calls this moment The Valley Of Darkness Moment, where as a designer you have this massive team and studio behind you, and label, and they’re all looking at you like “this is going to be fun eventually, right?” and you’re sitting there going “oh, yeah, yeah, no problem” but you just threw everything out. So I was really, really lost. I should never complain about my job, being a game designer is a great job, but I struggling at this point, so I went to Sid and said “look, I need your help.”

RPS: I love that he really is this zen guru figure, like the Yoda of strategy.

Jake Solomon: Oh yeah. And this is how it was over the first couple of years of the project. In the past I always worked for him, and it’s much, much easier to be the guy who works for Sid, and you can play his games and say “that was shitty”, then he says “yeah, you’re right” and you think “woah, I’m a great designer.”

RPS: That sounds frighteningly like my job, except I say it into the void rather than to someone’s face.

Jake Solomon: Yeah, and you’re feeling good because it’s “I just told Sid Meier how he should change his game!” And then, finally, it’s “ok you’re the designer” and I’m thinking “I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing.” So I’d messed up these two strategy prototypes, and I had this incredible team who were working really hard, doing great work, and I was scrapping stuff time and time again. And I think people were legitimately starting to get a little nervous about what the hell I was doing. So I went to Sid and said “look, I’m lost. I’ve made two bad prototypes, they’re not working, they don’t feel like X-COM.” So he said “let’s just start over.”

So he and I started on paper – we drew the world, we had dice, we had little army men and he was saying “look, let’s just make a strategy game from the ground up.” We wanted it to be like X-COM so we used a few of the original rules, and we worked on it every afternoon for about two weeks, continuing to make this boardgame version of XCOM.

There came this point where he and I disagreed about the direction. He thought it should go one way and I thought it should go another. He’s a programmer and I’m a programmer, and it had sort of reached this point where we couldn’t do anything on paper anymore, so he said “you know what, you go away for the weekend, I’ll make my prototype, you’ll make yours and we’ll both play them.” So we got back together, and needless to say his was a little better than mine. At that point it stopped and I went on to develop a new strategy prototype that incorporated ideas from both, but that was one of those crazy moments. Looking back at it know I’m like “haha, isn’t that wonderful?” but at the time I was terrified. But if you had told the 13-year-old me that one day I’d be making boardgames in Sid Meier’s office, I would have been incredibly excited.

Another thing we had at one point was were going to show videos for every tech you researched, and they were done in a comedic, cartoon style – like the 1950s, “say, did you just build a motion detector?” sort of thing. And they were so off in tone. They were so bad in terms of mismatch to the rest of the game. It was the sort of thing where we did one, showed it to the team and it was just a complete failure. I cannot believe that I thought that was a good idea at one point.

Coming up in part two: your questions.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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