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Solomon Vows: Firaxis on XCOM's Second Wave Add-On

The Infinite Interview Continues

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Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. By which I mean, just when you thought I couldn’t possibly muster another marathon interview with XCOM: Enemy Unknown lead Jake Solomon, I did. Later this week he post-mortems the largely brillo remake of the 90s ultra-classic, but firstly we chat about the impending free Second Wave add-on. Skeletal remnants of this set of balance-tweaking toggles were found by modders at launch, but now the full-fat version is ready to go. Here, Solomon talks about why Second Wave was made, how it in some ways makes XCOM more like X-COM and why the add-on’s very existence might just be down to you lot.
RPS: Is this the same Second Wave options that modders found or something different?

Jake Solomon: Modders are amazing. They say water will find a crack – modders will find anything. Anything you foolishly put in there four years ago or whatever… But yeah, the Second Wave, they unlocked it and actually that was really helpful. Second Wave is free add-on content, it’s a free pack that’s going to go live I think [today]. It’s the stuff that the modders found and it’s a bunch of basically gameplay options.

It’s sort of like the Iron Man option, but there are sixteen options in total and they just sort of change the way that the game plays. When it goes live, you’ll automatically get four new options to play the game and there are 12 other options that unlock if you beat the game on normal, classic and impossible. And it’s retroactive, so if you’ve already beaten the game it will recognise that and unlock all the other options as well.

RPS: So you need to have beaten all three difficulty settings to get all the new options? I’m not sure I can ever finish it on Impossible.

Jake Solomon: Right, and I’m typically not a big fan of unlocks, but the reason why we decided to do that is that the ones that are behind Classic and especially Impossible are really, really punishing. The idea with the unlocks behind Impossible are… Well, I said this about Impossible and it turned out not to be true. People have beaten impossible Iron Man, but this time, I’m telling you, it really won’t be about beating the game but rather it’s supposed to be like a roguelike. It’s a little more like Dwarf Fortress, like how long you can survive not that you can beat the game. I say that knowing full well somebody will beat the game with those options unlocked.

RPS: Yeah, I give it 72 hours before they do.

Jake Solomon: I’m in awe of people who’ve already beaten it on Impossible, that’s awesome, but this time I’ll be a little sceptical if people tell me they’ve beaten it with these options on. It’s things like the overall funding levels around the world drop inexorably with every month, so money is just automatically going to get tighter and tighter. And Elerium now has a half-life, so the minute it goes into storage it starts degrading. Obstacles like that create a sort of race condition and make it tough on the player. Man, it doesn’t even sound fun when I say it, but for some people that’s what counts for fun.

RPS: How close is it to what the modders dug up?

Jake Solomon: It is the stuff that the modders dug up, in fact. That was actually very helpful. I’m thrilled by that kind of stuff, it doesn’t bother me at all. We were all kind of laughing about it, they found it so quickly. I had to go back, because I hadn’t balanced them, some of them were broken and didn’t work. So before we even got QA on the Second Wave stuff I was able to go to the Nexus mods website and they had already posted a functionality list and said ‘this one doesn’t work, this one’s bugged…’ So I basically used the mod to [fix this]. There were even a couple of ideas they had to improve them where I was like ‘oh yeah, that’s better.’ So I used their ideas to improve some of the modes, like Marathon mode.

Some of these came from different places. Some are design ideas I had that didn’t make it into the final game for whatever reason, like there’s one called Diminishing Returns and what that does is, with every satellite you build the next satellite is much more expensive. So it creates this really escalating cost. I wanted that in the game because I think that’s a great, solid design mechanic, but the thematics are terrible. It doesn’t make any fucking sense. Why would all of a sudden satellites get more expensive? I probably could have handwaved to make it work, but that seemed very punishing. But I thought the mechanic worked well, because there’s no way to build all the satellites that you need.

So that’s an option that went in because that’s what I wanted, and some other options are meant to mimic the original game. The idea for Second Wave came about really, really late in the project – well past alpha, well past beta probably. The way it works on the team is that for the vast majority of the project I’m the team lead, but once you’re in alpha and beta and actually trying to skip a game, our producer, Garth([DeAngelis), becomes the team lead. We were past that point and I was having trouble dealing with that, y’know? He was actually putting the brakes on some of the stuff I was doing – rightfully so, I would not be good at shipping a game.

So we were right at the end and I was sort of running out of things to do, so I was reading comments, and honestly it was probably RPS, but people were worried about how the original did something and it doesn’t sound like this game would. I started thinking, ‘well, this stuff’s not actually that hard to give to people.’ So I started working on this Second Wave thing really, really late in the project, and the idea was never to release it with the core game, but to release it later.

Some of those options are meant to mimic the original game in that they’re more unpredictable. Things like weapons have a wider range of damage, rookies have random starting stats, their stats will increase randomly. Marathon mode at least doubles the length of the game, if not triples. So things that can give you a little bit more of the feel of the original game.

RPS: Is there anything that alters the fixed hit chance thing? The way the game seems to pre-determine some outcomes and keep them even if you reload?

Jake Solomon: Oh, that’s a good point. I probably should have done that, actually. Sorry. I think Civ includes an option, don’t they, where basically you can either have things be synchronised where every single time, even if you reload, the same thing happens, or it’s random. I could probably have made an option where the results weren’t synchronised. [Sighs]. That’s a good idea. I didn’t do that. I’m sorry.

RPS: And it’s free, right? Why do that in this age of ubiquitous DLC?

Jake Solomon: Yeah, it’s free. It’s not something we wanted to charge for because a lot of people are playing the game and actually playing it a lot more than we expected, to be honest. It’s funny because, when I was doing press before the game came out, it was this big thing that the maps were pre-made, but don’t worry, you can play through the game twice and you probably won’t see the same map. But in hindsight that’s not very helpful, because we didn’t realise people were going to play the game that much. A lot of people have played it four times, or five times, or they’ll start it over and over because they’re playing Iron Man. What we want to do is add to the replayability of the game, so there’s a way to help those people find more value for their dollar, or Euro, or whatever.

One of Firaxis’ core values, in addition to trying to make addictive gameplay obviously, is value for your money. We want people to feel like if you buy a game from us – because games are really expensive, right? – that at the end of the day it’s the cheapest entertainment in terms of hours spent, and this really feeds into that.

RPS: When the Slingshot DLC came out and I needed to start a new Campaign just to see three new missions I just didn’t want to, but it’s a better prospect if I’m going to have quite a different experience throughout.

Jake Solomon: Yeah, I’m excited to see how it works out. The hope is that there’s still people playing it in a couple of years. Obviously a smaller subset, but you always hope, and by then maybe they’ll have the perfect gameplay toggles and they’ll say ‘oh, the only true way to play is with this option and that option.’ I’m kind of excited to see how people take these and go with them.

The original game has a lot of neat things that it allows it to stand completely different from our modern remagining, and it was much more of a simulation. We call it a strategy game, but I wouldn’t call it a strategy. I’d call it more of a simulation. That allowed it to be much more unpredictable, and maybe there are some uneven moments because of that, but it also allows it to have really, really high highs. Higher highs than we’re able to recreate in our reimagining, because our game is much more a game, with pretty explicit choices and the balance is a little tighter. Because of that we can eliminate some of the unevenness, but I think that you also chop off some of the highs that you get when systems are completely open.

I’ve actually been playing the original again, and that game remains unparalleled as far as I’m concerned. Both games don’t fill the same role, it’s not like the modern one replaces the original at all. They feel very different to me, so as I was replaying the original I was like ‘man, it’s actually much more of simulation’ and I think that’s where a lot of the fun stuff comes from. The Second Wave is meant to allow a little bit more of that sort of completely unpredictable gameplay that hopefully can add some really interesting stuff.

Later this week, we talk about XCOM itself – what went right, what went wrong, bugs, bases and what, if anything, its commerical success might mean for the future of turn-based strategy.

Here are those details of the Second Wave DLC, that should have patched into your Steam version by now.

  • Damage Roulette: Weapons have a wider range of damage.
  • New Economy: Randomized council member funding.
  • Not Created Equally: Rookies will have random starting stats.
  • Hidden Potential: As a soldier is promoted, stats increase randomly.
  • Red Fog: Combat wounds will degrade the soldier’s mission stats.
  • Absolutely Critical: A flanking shot guarantees a critical hit.
  • The Greater Good: Psionics can only be learned from interrogating a psionic alien.
  • Marathon: The game takes considerably longer to complete.
  • Results Driven: A country offers less funding as its panic level increases.
  • High Stakes: Random rewards for stopping alien abductions.
  • Diminishing Returns: Increased cost of satellite construction.
  • More Than Human: The psionic gift is extremely rare.
  • And once you’ve completed the game on Impossible difficulty (which seems something of a contradiction):

  • War Weariness: Funding goes down over time.
  • E-115: Elerium degrades over time.
  • Total Loss: Lose all soldier gear upon death.
  • Alternate Sources: The power source cost to build facilities increases dramatically.

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Alec Meer

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

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