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Firaxis’ Jake Solomon Post-Mortems XCOM: Part Two

Bugged about bugs

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In this concluding part (the first one is here), we discuss boardgame influences, commercial success, what XCOM might mean for the future of strategy, the need for realism within science-fiction, and why XCOM wound up rather buggy.

RPS: XCOM launched rather buggy and there’re still a few hanging about. What happened there, and do you have a plan for how to iron all that stuff out?

Jake Solomon: Yeah, it did. I agree – it’s just a shame. It’s something that we take pretty personally and honestly most of that’s my fault because the design came together so late for the game that everybody was scrambling. We had such a last year on this project, you would not believe the hours that me and my team had put in over the last year, and a lot of that is because the design came together so late. It probably went out with a lot more bugs than anybody was happy with. But that being said, how many times have we patched? Twice or something like that? There’s actually another patch coming with the Second Wave.

RPS: This week, you mean? (Last week, by the time of publication – Timeshift Ed)

Jake Solomon: Yes, and that’s addressing, y’know, sometimes aliens can teleport into your squad, which is bad. People don’t like it when I say that that’s alien technology. I just say that’s like Ethereal magic. But yeah, that’s one of the bugs, and I don’t know exactly which bugs are being addressed but there is another patch coming, with second wave, so hopefully that addresses a lot of them. I think it’s mostly on me, mea culpa, and I take responsibility for it. That’s probably the one thing where I look back and go ‘oh man, that’s a big shame.’

RPS: There have been quite a few people who’ve been saying ‘They don’t seem to care, they’re not doing anything about this.’

Jake Solomon: No, this will be the third patch, we’ve patched three times I think. I hope that people know that Firaxis has a long commitment to our products. People shouldn’t worry on that front because we are definitely committed to our products. I guess the only thing I can point to is Civ, but to take heart that we stay involved with those products for a very, very long time after their release.

RPS: Are you restricted in terms of how many patches you can push out due to the console versions and the limitations Microsoft and Sony put on you?

Jake Solomon: Yeah, it’s definitely different because you’ve got to go through certification when you do console patching, as opposed to Steam, you can sort of throw it out there whenever you want, but console you’ve got to go through certification, and all that stuff costs money. It’s something we’re committed to and this will be our third one. We’re long-term committed to the product.

RPS: Do you have a sense of how the player base is skewed in terms of platform? From my corner of the world people only seemed to be talking about the PC version.

Jake Solomon: All I know is that it’s done really well, but in terms of what the breakdown is, I don’t actually know. I think that, and this is anecdotal, on Steam it did awesome. I think that it resonates with PC players, and that’s good, and for Firaxis that’s our bread and butter, and we’re extremely comfortable. For me, if PC players are happy, and that’s a big audience for us, then that’s certainly what we’re happy with. But I don’t actually know what the breakdown is. I think it’s done pretty well across the board.

RPS: Do you have any theories for what this means for the future of real time strategy or just strategy in the mainstream? Do you feel you’ve disproven speculation that mainstream turn-based strategy is dead?

Jake Solomon: I’ve thought about this a lot actually, but that doesn’t mean any of what I say has any authority whatsoever. I don’t know that XCOM means anything for strategy as a whole. I really don’t. I think that that’s like pointing to Civ, which is a multi-platinum game every time we put one out, but that doesn’t really mean anything for turn-based games really.

It’s almost like you can’t point to Starcraft, not that I’m making a comparison to Starcraft; nobody wants to do that, but you can’t point to Starcraft and say ‘oh RTSs are fine’, because they’re not, but it’s almost like there are some outliers and Civ is one of them. It’s incredibly successful every time we make one but that doesn’t mean that there’s a lot of room for other products like that.

RPS: Yeah, it’s kind of in its own bubble.

Jake Solomon: Right, and if I were to hazard a guess, these are the kinds of games I’d like to play to some extent, but XCOM is a game that one, was made by Firaxis and we have a lot of institutional knowledge of these types of games, and two, these are the kind of games we’re interested in making.

I don’t know how many designers and teams out there are like ‘oh right, let’s make a turn-based strategy game’, but for us we’re like ‘Fuck, yeah, let’s make a turn-based strategy game.’ And then on top of that, XCOM is basically the game of the entire career before my career, this is the game I’ve wanted to make. I love Jagged Alliance, and we have Sid [Meier] in-house, and I think that’s helped us, it seems like it’s a unique mix but maybe that’s just because I’m internal here, maybe it’s not that unique. I don’t know that because people play XCOM that means that they’re interested in playing other turn based games. I dunno, I hope people want to play more turn based games, that’s my personal favourite mechanic for strategy.

There’s also this effect that design-wise, I’m not like a hardcore strategy fan. I know that this sounds weird, I’m not sure how this is going to come off, but I’m not the most hardcore strategy fan there is. I certainly like Civ, and I actually worked on Civ Revolution with Sid. But I think that there’s a danger in genres sometimes, and I think you see this with strategy games as a whole actually, where the people who love strategy, a lot of times the design defaults to ‘well if you like this, we can give you more of that.’ What you need is more in-depth and what you need is more ‘we can simulate more of this’ instead of trying to pull back and say, try to make a game that I think operates on simpler principles.

It’s not because I have some deeper understanding of design or anything, I think I honestly benefit from the fact that I’m typically not the smartest guy in the room, I’m pretty much a lowest common denominator-type guy. And so for me I love Sid Meier type games. Sid’s brilliant, but his brilliance is that he tends to focus on simpler systems that then hopefully create complex behaviour.

It’s trite to point out things like flight simulators, but I think RTSs are the exact same way, they become so distilled because the people making them are so fucking hardcore that they become distilled, and distilled again/ Like I used to love Age of Kings, it’s one of my favourite games of all time, but RTSs for me became harder and harder to play…

RPS: Same here, I guess. I need to prepare myself for vast amounts of learning rather than just sitting down to play.

Jake Solomon: Flight sims went through this period when it just became this really complicated thing, and it was just a turn off because unless they’re your number one favourite thing to do, to play RTSs towards the end, it felt like RTSs had to be your favourite type of game. To play flight sims, flight sims had to be your favourite type of game, because you had to really invest a lot of time to understand all these concepts.

I think a lot of times you get strategy games that just really become harder and harder to get into because they’re complicated. You go through these tutorials and think ‘my god, for some people this may be second nature but for me it’s very difficult.’ But you see some are great like Unity of Command, which is a brilliant game. I’m excited by games like that, but I don’t know what kind of parallels you can draw between XCOM and other games. Maybe tactics games…

I hope that doesn’t come off pompous, I’m not trying to say that we did something that other people can’t do, I just don’t know what something like XCOM means for the rest of the industry. I hope it means more turn based strategy.

RPS: I guess it hinges on why it did well. Was it because it was called XCOM, was it because it was turn based strategy, was it because it was mostly a really good game and the right word of mouth got out? What has motivated people to get it, and what is it that they then want more of?

Jake Solomon: It probably requires a smarter man than me to evaluate it, because Civ always does incredibly well, and there have been some Civ- like type games but they just don’t… it’s hard to find that recipe. Civ is a deep, deep complex game, but Civ starts very simple so it’s very easy to play, and I think that that has a lot to do with it. And also, the other side of it too is that when people joke about Terror from the Deep and stuff like that and say ‘Oh, you should make Terror from the Deep’, I think that’s also part of it too.

A lot of times, for whatever reason, when you talk strategy games for some reason things like science fiction and fantasy start creeping in there, and I know that a lot of people like that stuff but I actually believe that that stuff is a major hindrance to games. I think that it becomes harder to find that type of resonance and find meaning in fantasy worlds. The science fiction can get a little too hardcore in strategy games, but you get some war games.

I think Civ always benefited from the fact that it’s based in history and so people can automatically be like ‘Oh the wheel, I know about the wheel,’ or gunpowder. XCOM has a little of that, where the maps are gas stations. I think that stuff matters quite a bit, that you’re on Earth and you’re fighting in gas stations. Terror from the Deep to me always felt very weird, I didn’t feel as strong an emotional connection to things like the underwater levels, it all really looked alien, so the aliens didn’t seem all that out of place to me.

RPS: I don’t know, there’s something about the weirdness of TFTD that lodges in the memory almost more than X-COM does. But you do get so many fantasy settings where you have a load of lore forced down your throat before you begin to play – you chose to avoid that in XCOM?

Jake Solomon: Right, I’m never going to care about some fantasy world the way I care about Earth, and things like science fiction it’s harder to bring intuitive knowledge to. Even if we’re talking lasers, whatever it is, we talk about classes like snipers, at least I have some sort of emotional back story that I can bring to it. But the farther out you get, and you start inventing things… It’s ok, there’s nothing wrong with it. There’s a lot of fantasy in the world, but I think that it does make it harder for strategy games because then it’s harder to make choices and make value choices when you don’t know what the hell things are. ‘Oh, do I want to build a reducing flux capacitor over a…whatever…’

RPS: Were any specific board games that had influenced XCOM? The missions really have that feel to them, which is perhaps another reason it doesn’t seem like X-COM.

Jake Solomon: Well let’s see, there are probably two that stick out. It’s funny because I couldn’t call myself a table-top gamer, but we did play at the start of design when we were first starting on XCOM, we did play a couple of table-top games, and that actually had quite an influence. Games like Necromunda and War Machines and things like that, where obviously I think if people go back and look at it now they’ll say ‘oh yeah.’

A lot of those things had a pretty strong influence on the direction that the tactical game went. And then on the strategy side, oddly enough we’d played a lot of Pandemic. I don’t know how that factored in, but it was certainly something that I think I always tried to find a way to make that work, that sense of global rising panic around the world. Those would probably be the two primary games that had an influence.

We played a lot of Fantasy Flight stuff too, like Arkham Horror, but I don’t know how much that actually had an influence on XCOM. I think table-top games had as much of an influence as anything else really.

RPS: The Necromunda influence definitely shows in multiplayer.

Jake Solomon: That for sure I think had a pretty big impact. We should make an XCOM tabletop game.

RPS: Definitely, and we could write about it on RPS legitimately because we have a board game following. Guaranteed coverage then, so you have to do it.

Jake Solomon: We can talk in another year then if so.

RPS: Presuming it remains possible to interview you now that you’re famous internet celebrity Jake Solomon.

Jake Solomon: You betcha, that’s me for sure. [laughs] I’ll be the next Ken Levine. Ken is actually a massive fan of the game, he’s an XCOM nerd. I went up to Boston to work with him on Bioshock: Infinite and give him feedback, and he blindsided me and got into depth on XCOM. He’s serious about XCOM so that was kind of fun.

RPS: You should do an official mod, with Bioshock units in XCOM.

Jake Solomon: That’d be awesome, that’s a good idea. Next time you talk to him, suggest that to him.

RPS: Will do. Thanks for your time.

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