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XCOM Enemy Unknown: The Final Chatdown

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After something in the region of 30,000 words across four interviews, the odyssey that is my series of chats with XCOM: Enemy Unknown lead designer Jake Solomon finally comes to an end. While my battered transcribing fingers are inordinately relieved about this, I’m strangely sad otherwise – it’s been fascinating, and no matter how the finished game actually turns out, one thing I have no doubt of is that Solomon is yer bona fide X-COM superfan with only the best of intentions for the remake he’s heading up at Firaxis.

In this last part, we talk about the Guile haircut, how the alien AI works, which obscure aspects of the game he’s most proud of, soldier/armour customisation and bagpipes.

RPS: It’s a shame games don’t have the equivalent of a Criterion Collection, that you could include early prototypes and that kind of thing on.

Jake Solomon: It is part of the process. The biggest thing I’ve learned as a designer is that the only way to be a good a designer is to stop worrying about credit, and are people going to think that I’m good at my job, are people going to think that this is dumb – because 90% of the time your first idea is a dumb idea. You just make so many mistakes that eventually you stop caring about whether people are going to think it’s a good idea or not. At some point you realise that it’s more about trying to fight through all the mistakes you’ve made to find the right answer.

RPS: So this interview isn’t a complete downer, what about the other side of the coin – stuff you’re proud of in the game that people might never notice. Recently I was interviewing Randy Pitchford, and he started enthusing about how he’d created the physics of the moon in Borderlands 2, but that’s something most players will never be aware of. Is there anything like that in XCOM?

Jake Solomon: For me personally, there are two things that I get a major kick of, that I spent way too much time on but mattered to me. One is the random mission names. Whenever you go on a mission in XCOM, I have this mission name generator. I’m a fan of 80s metal and early Metallica, Celtic Frost, really hardcore early metal stuff, so the missions basically generate the names of early death metal albums. So there’s this mish-mash of metal terms, and you get stuff like ‘Operation Crimson Sceptre’ and ‘Operation Bloody Thorn’. When I’m watching people play the game, I always, always get a kick out of getting to see what the mission name is.

And along those lines, very similar, I also did the name generator for soldiers, and the country generator. So I wanted names that were not stereotypical, but people would look at it and think ‘ah, that’s a Scottish soldier – Aidan Southerland, that makes sense.’ All these very recognisable national names. We have 20 countries or something like that, so I did all this research to look into like the most popular Korean names. Or if you’re a South African soldier, most of the time you’re going to be of African ethnicity and African-based names, but a very a small percentage of the time you’re going to be a Caucasian soldier with a Dutch name, sometimes a Caucasian with an English name, even rarer.

It’s one of those things that I put into the game and I don’t think that many people except for maybe the people from that country are going to care or even notice, but I get an unending kick out of seeing the names that the game spits out.

RPS: I’ll be watching the English names very carefully then…

Jake Solomon: It’ll be like ‘James James.’ I did have one thing where was a bug from QA, you could get a Lewis Lewis, so I had to change it up a little bit. Lewis Lewis from England.

RPS: You could always explain it away as that soldier having sadistic parents rather than there being a bug in the procedural generation system.

Jake Solomon: Right, and that’s the kind of guy that the player’s going to build a story around. ‘Lewis Lewis, what the hell’s wrong with this guy?’

RPS: You seem to have a bit of a Scottish thing going in this game actually – I notice you’ve got bagpipes playing in the memorial room for fallen soldiers. Bagpipes?

Jake Solomon: Yes, bagpipes. So the guy who composes the music for most of the game is Mike McCann, the guy who composed for Deus Ex: Human Revolution. And in that livestream you can hear a lot of that music, so some people have actually recognised that it’s him. He’s an incredible, incredible composer. To me, the original game’s music, that sort of Tangerine Dream, early 80s synth sound, that dark synth sound, I really wanted something representative of that, so when I heard Mike McCann’s work on Human Revolution I thought ‘man, that guy is perfect’, so we called him up and he was excited about it too. But it was it funny, because at one point he said ‘well, I was kind of trying to get away from the dark synth stuff’ and we said ‘yay, you should totally do that, but, er, after this game.’

The bagpipes music, though, was done by our internal audio engineer. I think it was stand-in music for a while, but I didn’t want to give it up. I just loved the bagpipes. Just drums and bagpipes, I thought that was so perfect for a soldier memorial wall. So we had to keep the bagpipes in there. Maybe it’s a little heavy-handed, but I’ve never been a subtle guy.

RPS: Now I have some reader questions for you. Someone asks what happens if you blow out all of a building’s walls – will the structure stay standing or will the floors fall in?

Jake Solomon: Right now you can blow the walls out to kingdom come, but the floors won’t come crumbling down – we don’t have the whole physics model system. It’s not a bad idea – Silent Storm, that was always kind of crazy when you did there – but for us it was the sort of thing where taking that into account was probably a bridge to far for… ‘for this version.’ [Laughs]

RPS: At least that’s one point where people can’t moan that you’re doing it differently to the original.

Jake Solomon: That’s right, I had many floating floors in the original. Actually, let me rephrase my answer. “It was to stay true to the original X-COM.” Ok, how about that?

RPS: Someone asks ‘for us roleplaying fans who like to indulge in some strategy, is there any choice and consequences, branching plots stuff, or is it basically win or lose?’

Jake Solomon: It’s basically win or lose. It’s not the type of forced morality, I think that certainly you have moments of moral choices, but the game doesn’t really frame it as the good choice and the bad choice. I think X-COM itself is always a game where there are casualties and you do what it takes to the save the world. That’s actually the spirit of the game, the endorsed playstyle of this one and the original, where it’s like ‘well, I don’t really want to go out and try to stun a Muton with a veteran.’ So you send the rookie, because he’s probably gonna die.

And the idea of civilians on Terror Maps – those are moral choices if you want to frame them that way, but I think the game takes a very utilitarian tack of For The Greater Good. I think that’s the spirit which we’ve kept.

Certainly there are lots of choices in terms of countries you help, people you help, but it’s never really framed as any sort of moral choice. I do think that there is a very interesting middle ground between strategy games and roleplaying games, and that’s that they actually do align along the axis of choice. I think roleplaying games, they have choice but the consequences are either scripted or they don’t matter matter as much as in strategy games. The whole definition of strategy to me is making choies with consequences, so I think there is a natural alignment but I don’t think we’ve taken advantange of it yet. But XCOM doesn’t really care about your playstyle, it’s not trying to enforce anything. It’s more of a system, whereas in an RPG it’s more a comment on you or your morality or your choices.

RPS: RPGs often involve someone turning to you and directly asking you something, whereas a strategy game you might be making those same choices but no-one else poses a question to prompt them.

Jake Solomon: Right, and in fact along those lines, when things happen in the story we have characters in the base and we always wanted to be very careful that they never commented negatively about something that you’ve done. The idea is you’re the boss, you’re the commander, you get a lot of stress, I can only imagine the sleepless nights you have as the commander of the only force tasked with saving the Earth. So we never wanted the characters in the game to say ‘oh my god, you lost the entire squad’, or ‘you aborted and left two guys on the map’, or ‘you didn’t go to China and they left the Council…’ We didn’t want there to be any sort of commentary where the player second-guesses themselves and thinks ‘oh, was I supposed to do something different?’ because there is no supposed to. We always were really careful when the writers came up with lines that was in any way pusing the player in one direction or the other, we had to cut it because we wanted it to be the player is the king. The player makes the call, and the organisation is the extension of the player. We sort of went anti-RPG there.

RPS: You could have gone even further and it had it so characters do stay that kind of stuff to you, but then you just fire them on the spot, like Mr Burns.

Jake Solomon: [Laughs] ‘Bring in the next guy.’

RPS: Someone else asks ‘with the classic X-COM haircut [the flat-top] on the way as a pre-order bonus, do you plan to get any sillier with the soldier customisation?’ Or is that Guile haircut the outer limit of it, I guess?

Jake Solomon: The Guile hair is definitely… oh, wait, I’m not supposed to call it Guile hair, it’s, uh, a flat-top. I’m just kidding – I think at some point somebody told me not to call it Guile hair because it’s somebody else’s game. So, yeah, the Guile hair. That is definitely the silliest, and it looks pretty silly on the guys but man, you should see it on the girl soldiers. It’s even more bizarre. But we’re not arguing with using it, somebody’s paid money for it, it’s their game. But we also have all kinds of hair cuts and hair colours. You can give your soldiers pink hair, green hair, and the armour customisation, you can make Hello Kitty pink and white armour, or you can make all sorts of really noxious colour combinations.

RPS: I like the idea that because you’re the commander you’re basically forcing your soldiers to wear these horrible things. It’s not their choice to wear hot pink and lime green, it’s just that you’re an evil boss.

Jake Solomon: That’s right, you sadistic bastard. Actually the rule when we play internally is don’t customise the armour until they’ve reached a certain rank because they’ve earned it then and they’ve earned an nickname. And the way I play it actually is everybody earns a helment until they’ve earned a nickname, because to me they’re just faceless. I pick a colour per playthrough – so I’ll be ‘now the XCOM standard colour is yellow, let’s say – and all rookies wear that colour armour and they put on a helmet. So they’re faceless rookies, fodder troops. Then when they go veteran I go ‘alright, this female sniper is Irish, so she’s gonna wear green head-to-toe and I’ll give her red hair.’ So you can get fairly silly with them.

RPS: Another reader is asking about biomes, so how many different types of the level templates there are and is it procedural within that?

Jake Solomon: We’ve got the cityscapes, some of which are regionalised. So we’ve got European cityscapes, Asian cityscapes, American cityscapes… And then we’ve got outdoor maps, and they kind of range. You’ll encounter some that are more temperate, some which are… Oh jeez man, did you really use the word ‘biomes?’ Now I feel like I’m back in elementary school… There’s savannah, there’s plains… I don’t know what the number would be, but there’s a fair range. The outdoor maps range somewhat. It’s not that crazy, I don’t want to oversell, but they definitely look different. Some are mock rock-like, some are much more forested, some maps are actually in water or swamps.

RPS: How does water work in the game – can they wade through it, or do they have to find bridges?

Jake Solomon: No, they can wade through it. It just depends on the map, but typically it’s knee or ankle length and your guys are wading through it. I think it looks beautiful, but it’s just another type of terrain.

RPS: One guy just says ‘cow mutilations!’ No question mark, he just seems to be shouting it happily.

Jake Solomon: Exclamation point not question mark? So he’s just making a declarative sentence, he’s just saying ‘cattle mutilation.’ Well, they will see cattle mutilation not in the current state of the game, but at the PAX panel we are going to show that at one point we had cattle. It was this was horrible thing, actually, where we had livestock in the game and you could actually kill them. It sounds funny, but then it just seemed a bit sick. We had chickens and cows and they made these horrible moans, so it was one of those things were the first time you thought ‘that’s kind of funny’ but that the second time we were ‘that’s kind of sick, why are we wasting resources on this?’ So we did at one point have what you would term cattle mutilation, but that’s one thing that didn’t make the final cut. The slaying of animals, I don’t know… I was recently playing Red Dead Redemption, because I’m so behind on games, I haven’t been playing anything while I was making this, and I shot a hawk out the sky. I’m going [proud tone] ‘hey, look at that!’ but my wife would wander into the room and I’m like butchering a coyote or hunting down rabbits and she’s going ‘what the hell are you doing?’ It’s like getting a glimpse into what it’s like to be sociopath. But I just saw a number going up, I was trying to fill the counter by slaying things. I respond a little too easily to external stimuli.

RPS: Here’s one more of my own, actually. The aliens who can see some of your soldiers, do they communicate their locations to the rest of their squad, the ones that you can’t see? I.e. do they work as a team in the same way that you do?

Jake Solomon: Yes, they do. There’s a couple of different levels of AI on the tactical map. There’s the engagement level AI, which our awesome AI programmer wrote, and then I wrote a system on top of that called the Overmind – because all systems need cool names. The Overmind is sort of the alien player, he does share information among his minions.

If the aliens are looking for you, they can hunt you and they can actually hear noises. So sometimes when you’re playing you can jump through windows or kick down doors, but you also have the option to instead go around windows or open up doors silently. If you open up doors silently, obviously the aliens don’t hear that, but if you run through and kick it down the aliens will hear and communicate to other aliens as well. If for whatever reason there are other aliens nearby they can be called in to fight, or retreat back to other aliens if they’re in a bad tactical situation.

So there is a sort of strategic level on the tactical map that co-ordinates behaviour of all the different groups of aliens as well.

RPS: In general, is the AI reactive to the situation you’re in. Does it have information that it maybe shouldn’t, that you wouldn’t have about it, in order to ensure a more dramatic or even forgiving game?

Jake Solomon: It no way does the AI cheat, I can say that 100%. It doesn’t have any sort of information it shouldn’t have – it bases everything on whether or not it can see you, and where it last saw you, did it hear you. It doesn’t do anything like ‘oh, I know they’re over here now.’ It really does run like a tactical AI, but it does actually have some brakes on it. The aliens typically outnumber you, especially on some maps, so if they just said ‘hey everybody, they’re over there’ it would be this sort of beachead situation that would be very difficult. It does put the brakes on at different difficulty levels to say ‘don’t just storm him with everything.’ Some some guys will stay still and lurk in a particular area if the AI’s already got a lot of guys engaging, things like that.

Although you know, it is random in that a lot of the aliens are actually running patrols, so when they see you and even after they see some of the aliens are circling either the map or running around the UFO, running their own patrols that are random every time. You’ll be fighting somebody and then another group of aliens will just wander in during the alien turn. The AI sort of plays its own game, but if it does anything it puts the brakes on to keep it from being too punishing.

There was something in the original game, actually, where the AI would come hunting you after, I think it was 20 turns. They would cheat and know where your guys were, because at that point it was egregious, you’re wandering around every field looking for that last alien. All the tension drains out and you just get that fatigue of ‘come on, man, come on’ but this poor Sectoid’s gotten himself trapped behind the barn somehow.

RPS: Thanks for your ridiculously long amount of time.

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Alec Meer

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

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