Interview: Firaxis’ Jake Solomon On What Went Right And Wrong With XCOM 2

In which Adam and I sit down with XCOM 2 lead designer Jake Solomon to dissect the strategy sequel. We discuss what it does well and some of the complaints levelled at it, hear about ideas tried and discarded during development, why story had more of a focus this time around and the continued importance of the original X-COM games.

Alec: Important things first. How come you have the United Kingdom and Scotland as soldier nationalities, but not a separate Wales, England, Ireland or Northern Ireland?

Jake Solomon: That’s a very good question. If you’re asking me if I’m some sort of Scottish Independence sympathiser, I will first have to ask how you feel about that. I don’t know why. You’re right, I need to add Wales and separately England in there, I have to. But at that point I think the voice actors would kill me, because we’d need a Welsh accent. We’ve got English, Irish, Scottish and Australian already, which I’m very excited about.

Alec: How are you feeling about the game now it’s out?

Jake Solomon: I think it is very nice when you work on something for a very, very long time and the relationship with the audience changes from showing you things and we can’t show you everything that you want to see but when it’s finally in people’s hands and they are enjoying it… Not much beats that feeling, when people can start playing and they can share their stories with you. This is gonna sound corny, but I do think that you get to put a little happiness into the world, and when you see evidence of that it’s something that I personally take really seriously. You get older and you think about what is it that you’re doing, what you have committed to, and I always do get a particular pleasure that we get to put happiness into people’s lives. When you first release a game and you get to hear some of the happy stories then I think that’s very, very gratifying and humbling. That’s definitely the best part of the job, for sure.

Alec: When I was reading about it in the run-up I was confused by all this new stuff – concealment and the aliens having won. This isn’t XCOM, I don’t know what this is! Then just a few hours in it’s ‘this is my old friend, it’s nice that they’re back.’ What’s the line between making the game everyone wants and making the same thing all over again?

Jake Solomon: It’s certainly a very difficult balance. You make a sequel, then you have to ask yourself the question ‘why?’ Why am I making this?’ In terms of am I doing right by people? If you go out there in front of people as a developer and you say ‘hey, we have something new that we’d like you to pay money for.’ You do have to ask yourself the question from their perspective, why a sequel? If people are still playing Enemy Unknown then what’s the point of making an XCOM 2. You have to add in features that then change it.

Obviously, we don’t make perfect games and so there’s always, always room to improve. You get the itch to say that these are things that, as a team, we think would make the game better. So you add these changes and then of course the balance is you want people to say ‘this is new’ but you don’t want people to say ‘what the hell is this, this isn’t XCOM?’

Alec: The change I hear protested about the most – though by the way I don’t feel like that myself – is that some people are concerned that it’s too hard, too unforgiving.

Jake Solomon: The difficulty is actually one of those things that can be traced to a particular conversation pretty late – very late, actually – in development. I had been pushing the mantra for a long time that we need to make Normal or Veteran difficulty basically an ‘I want to see the cinematics’ mode, an ‘I want to see the story’ mode, and the player can get through it and it shouldn’t be that difficult. But very, very late in development everybody was playing the game, all the team was playing the game and they were coming back saying “yeah… it’s fun. But it’s pretty easy.” And I started to get kinda worried. On the one hand you’ve got all these developers who are super-hardcore XCOM players, but then on the other hand I was ‘if we don’t make the game hard, a lot of the design systems don’t engage.’ If the player isn’t put under pressure, then on the strategy layer a lot of things don’t kick in. The player just doesn’t have to engage with the systems.

Let’s say the cost of recruits – that’s a very small example, but there are a lot of things where the player was just breezing through the game. A lot of things just don’t work, they don’t engage. So I remember thinking ‘wow, actually this game would be improved if everybody had a much more challenging time of things.’ I remember having the conversation – we have a pretty small design group and we meet every morning in my office, and I remember saying ‘you know what, we’re going to make the game a lot harder. We’re going to go back and rebalance and make the game a lot harder on every level, because this game is not engaging people the way it should.’

That happened fairly late in development, and then of course it triggered a fairly mad rush to balance things out.

It definitely happened by late, but I think when the game got more difficult then you started to see people engaging, you felt that spark of life. ‘Ok, I do want to try again.’

I think XCOM 2 is definitely more difficult than XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but it’s interesting because there are multiple ways that people approach XCOM. Some of them think that the right way to play is to beat the mission without losing anybody. That’s fine, it’s certainly fine to think that’s the way you want to play the game, but that I think has led to some frustration in people. If they view XCOM as a puzzle, that missions are a puzzle and there is an optimal path so that if you do things right nobody dies. XCOM is not actually a puzzle, it has all these much more unpredictable elements to it. There are cases where it’s difficult to imagine getting through a mission without somebody dying. Some players can get frustrated by that, and that’s something that we’ve been thinking about quite a bit later. Obviously some people respond really positively to the difficulty and others say ‘it’s too much’, and that’s something we’re thinking about. How do we please both players, basically?

Alec: I read some particular complaints that you can’t have everything all the time in base mode, you always have to spend more than you can earn. I don’t agree, but the concern was that there wasn’t enough pay-off for your struggles.

Jake Solomon: Personally as a designer my experience is that all feedback is factual, so when you do hear feedback like that my instinct is not to say ‘you are incorrect.’ My reaction is always to say ‘ok, does that have to be at odds with the other people who are enjoying the difficulty, and if not, how do we find a way to make both people happy?’

It’s interesting, because obviously if you’re not spending more than you’re bringing in… it’s a standard strategy design, it’s in XCOM particularly but Sid [Meier] does this too. You give the player five all options, all of which seem viable and seem cool and seem necessary, but you only let them pick one. Then by the time they buy that one, we’ve added two more which are ‘these are also cool.’ You’re trying to offer the player things that are all beneficial things that the player wants, they just can’t afford all of them at once.

Alec: how do you communicate that a difficulty setting is harder than it might be in other games without making player feel like a wimp for not picking it?

Jake Solomon: You’re absolutely right. That’s a conversation that we had once the game was taking shape. I made a mistake, I think, by calling the lowest difficulty ‘Rookie’. I don’t know how you get around that. I should probably have put in a fake difficulty below the lowest difficulty. As I get older I give less of a shit about my ego as I play games, but there is something about clicking on the bottom difficulty in a game that purportedly is about challenge. I think that maybe that is a hard pill for people to swallow. ‘I’m not going to take the easy way out’, but then I called it ‘Rookie’ which is, y’know. All these other difficulties have awesome names, and then you’ve got that…

But the challenge too was… and you don’t want to overthink this stuff but we had a very big audience for Enemy Unknown, and it’s a strategy game. And you’ve got to assume that a really big portion of your audience is gonna come back and they’re going to be familiar with Enemy Unknown. What does that mean for difficulty? You couldn’t possibly just give people the same difficulty as Enemy Unknown if they’re experienced with the product, but at the same time how do you cater to people who have never played an XCOM game?

I remember I was talking to Ed Beach, who’s one of our designers, he works on the Civ franchise. He was playing the game and he was saying ‘y’know, it’s pretty tough, I don’t know. I like it, I like it but it feels really, really difficult.’ And I was like ‘jeez.’ That was my first moment of ‘uh-oh, what if we have rebalanced this thing in such a way that most of the reactions will be that it’s actually painfully difficult?’

I think there’s a wide spectrum there, but there were definitely moments of ‘is this too much?’ and how do we cater people that maybe don’t want that experience?

Actually after that I realised that why on Earth did we do four difficulty levels? Civ have six or something like that. We just need more difficulty levels, that’s what it is.

There’s nothing like coming up with the answers after you ship. Genius at work here, people!

On page two, the development of XCOM 2’s story and what series creator Julian Gollop thinks of the sequel.

Or for other articles on XCOM 2, skip to our XCOM 2 guide hub.

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122 Comments

  1. Hanban says:

    Excellent interview!

    • Kestrel says:

      I’m always impressed by Solomon taking ownership of problems, and his way of not dismissing trivial complaints about the game. Seems like a humble dude, and a great game designer too. I hope he breaks free of XCOM and works on original franchises.

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        Cross says:

        He’s definitely a very humble person, both in relation to his players, and his boss. The guy reveres Sid Meier, and rightly so!

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        caff says:

        I totally agree. Well done Jake, and everyone around him, for taking ownership of the performance gripes. I think XCOM2 is a wonderful, beautiful game, and I hope they can make a few tweaks that will improve the experience for everyone, making it the classic it deserves to be.

      • LexW1 says:

        I think that, unlike some designers, and a lot of players, he’s wise enough to realize that one person’s “trivial complaint” is another person’s “constant annoyance” or “serious frustration”, and certainly vice-versa too. I mean, for me, the timers are great, but I understand how for other people they’re fun-crushing.

    • Eagleeye695 says:

      The only time this game can even be considered slightly challenging is when you first start to play it, and only if you are playing at the highest difficulty as a beginner. Oh and this last bit is for Rock Paper, Shotgun. I don’t know what got you to being this way, as far as the comments section goes. But if i were you i would get off my high horse more than once a century, and read the laws a bit more often. “We do not have a freedom of speech policy here” where exactly do you think you live now? Germany 1942 side by side with the Fuhrer? Freedom of speech is protected by law in pretty much any developed country by now. If you would like a demonstration, i have nothing but time here in Canada. I could help educate you in the laws involved with freedom of speech in a court of law. If you would like feel free to reach out to me with a comment on it and we can take it from there. My information is accurate and in your system by now.

      • dglenny says:

        My goodness, you must be fun at parties.

      • Aluschaaf says:

        RE free speech on websites: I’ll let xkcd explain that to you.
        link to xkcd.com

      • Josh W says:

        Well, the creator of x-com has trouble with it, and that’s good enough for me!

        Also, the freedom of speech policy thing could be:

        “We reserve the right to moderate the comments on this blog”

        But they put it on there in those terms because of people making freedom of speech defences.

        There is actually a problem of assuming that freedom of speech only protects you from the government though, the logic of rights is that you demand them of the government not because they are “the government”, but because they are powerful. If you have someone like Gadaffi who runs around claiming not to be in charge of things, you don’t say “Oh well, he’s not the government, just someone with substantial influence over the military, so I suppose it’s fine if he stops you being able to speak.”.

        Similarly, the right to freedom of speech and protest should exist even within privately owned spaces,so someone can’t just buy up all the public squares and turf off protesters they don’t like.

        This could easily apply to websites or communication companies too, if they have a broad enough influence on the methods of communication, for example, google are apparently already able to swing elections by emphasis of information alone, without using “censorship”, just pushing one source above another. When intentional censorship is involved, the effect could be far more significant. The fact that they are a private company is irrelevant, what is important is their capacity to, if they choose to, shut down lines of communication they disagree with.

        In the case of RPS, this kind of thinking is a bit overkill though!

  2. AshEnke says:

    When he says that when he plays Shadow of Mordor he plays it in easy for the powertrip he should try turning the diffulty up sometimes.
    The fact that orcs power up everytime they kill you or you die make is truly the heart of the game : when consequences are that high, you try to prevent dying as much as you can, fleeing to fight another day. It creates extremely powerful captains that you truly fear and avoid.

    But that’s unrelated to the interview.

    • aircool says:

      First time I played that game I was going mental at all the Orcs getting promoted whenever I died. Some of the scumbag nobodies that put you away in the first hour or so end up getting quite powerful and it’s a great feeling when you take them down.

      • Aetylus says:

        Those one-time scumbag nobodies were great. To this day Pushkrimp Dwarf-Killer is the greatest enemy I have faced in a game.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      You can’t turn up the difficulty. Do you mean you should die a few times on purpose?

    • Oasx says:

      Either i am awful at games or i am missing something obvious because i found that game to super hard. I played it for 20 minuts or so before giving up.

  3. photoheathen says:

    Now I desperately want to see one of my soldiers pop up with the Socks nickname.

    • Merlin the tuna says:

      Socks was definitely an assault nickname in EU. I remember getting her up to max rank, then losing her when one of my heavies misfired a rocket into a wall instead of through a window. Goodbye HP, goodbye cover, hello panicking, goodbye Socks. :(

    • Sorbicol says:

      My favourite randomly generate soldier name in XCOM:EU was ‘Nic Kok’.

      He didn’t need a nickname

      • Phytic says:

        Had a randomly generated “Long Wang” from China in EU. Still makes me giggle.

    • Mr Ogs says:

      I have a Grenadier from New Zealand called Zoe Brown. She was gifted the nickname ‘Big Nasty’ very early on and the only time I reload is if she dies on a mission.
      I love that the nicknames are so random and yet strangely fitting every time.

  4. noodlecake says:

    For me I found Shadow of Mordor much more fun when there was a risk of actually dying. Towards the end it was much less fun.

  5. mpk says:

    I don’t think Jake Solomon did anywhere near enough pandering to the incoherent rage of Angry Internet Man, or explain in nearly enough detail how quickly he is personally going to deliver the panacea for all the first-world-performance related woes that are being experienced by XCOM2 players.

    Seriously, though, I’ve had a great time with XCOM2. It is frustrating and it has made me ragequit on occasions already too numerous to count, but a large proportion of those occasions have come because I’m trying to play it like EU/EW; most of the rest have been RNG-hell.

    Are there improvements to be made? Mechanically, probably. I’m not one to arbitrarily mod the balance flaws in a game (although I’ll definitely take more hats, and value-add mods like Evac All) so I’ve been grinding my teeth while learning to play Commander. Technically, yeah, I’ve had issues. But when you think about the recent history of clusterfuck online-only releases, or last years Bat-astrophe, I think a few system freezes and random pauses can be lived with.

    • Tigg_Fedora says:

      Yeah, he shouldn’t beat himself up about it. For every vocal internet rage monster, there are thousands of Commanders happily sending E.T. to Tygan’s slab. I passed the 100 hour mark in XCOM2 some days ago (only my Wife’s annoyance at my all consuming play time has limited that). With official Mod support this game represents the best value for money game I’ve bought in a long time.

      Oh and +1 for more hats!

    • Joshua Northey says:

      Yeah the game is not perfect, but as a long term fan of the series it is a success. It delivers on a lot of levels even if there are some hiccups. Not every game can be an all time classic.

    • JFS says:

      I do wonder, though, why you feel the need to attack the criticism regarding XCOM 2. It’s valid. Why can’t you let it be? You are still allowed to like the game as-is.

      • mpk says:

        Some of the criticism is valid, I agree, and I thought I’d made it very clear that I enjoyed the game and continue to do so.

        But the levels of vitriol aimed at the game, Firaxis and Jake Solomon has been – as ever with internet – completely out of proportion, especially when compared to game releases such as the last Batman.

  6. Matt Thrower says:

    Is that the same Ed Beach who designed the marathon political tabletop games Here I Stand and Virgin Queen? All hail!

  7. aircool says:

    I think XCOM 2 is excellent. Technical issues aside, it was just perfect for me on the normal difficulty. I have no problem with the timed missions either, I think they perhaps suit my playstyle. Whilst overwatch turtling was the way to go in XCOM, I never really enjoyed it that much (relatively speaking of course).

    I’ve spend ages filling up my soldier list with made up soldiers. I’ve got seasoned military pro’s all the way to some guy with two mortgages, three ex-wives and five children bleeding him dry. He’s middle aged, balding and his only recognisable feature is his blond moustache. He’s a real nobody until he becomes an absolute badass, then he slips on the aviators, sticks a tab in his mouth and kicks arse out of god damned principle!

  8. braven5 says:

    I think commander ironman is good difficulty setting, that said I still would of like something above Legendary.

    Tho overall difficulty is bit out, timers can be too harsh on ‘Rookie’ troops but become insignificant late game, and the late game in general gets way too easy.

    Think they should relaxed early game timers, and upped late game difficulty in some way.

    • ooshp says:

      That’s a good idea: more variation on timers would be good, too, change it up for different mission types and scale the time limit with the number of pods & size of map.

      But yeah, the timers in the first 2 months effectively ended 2 of my ironman attempts.

    • LexW1 says:

      EU/EW had similar problems, and yeah, it really seems like the first two-three months of the game (even not on Ironman – though moreso there) disproportionately influence the entire rest of the game, and by the end difficulty has decreased massively.

      I think you could fix most of it with mods – eliminating Rookies and have everyone starting as Squaddies would mean higher HP and more skills, and by the early-mid game you’ve got rid of Rookies effectively anyway due to training (could add in “psionic candidates” – rookie equivalents once you researched psionics). Make it so healing times scale with HP lost, not % of HP lost, too, and then you’ve got a scenario where someone getting maimed at endgame matters more and early-game less.

    • Josh W says:

      That’s a good idea, especially as one of the ways that you will increase in effectiveness over time is in understanding how to use your troops efficiently. It makes sense that early on you would be making less efficient use of movement actions, as you get used to your troops abilities and the priorities of different mission types.

      As the game starts to get routine, that’s when you should be pulling in the timers a bit to encourage more exact play.

      I wonder how you’d mod that, maybe use the same variables it uses to decide the progression of enemy types? Just tracking elapsed game time might work quite well.

  9. Christo4 says:

    The problem with xcom 2 are timed missions and not enough moe aliens

    • Josh W says:

      Yeah, if the aliens want a relatable face, where did all the baby faced sectoids go?

  10. snugglez says:

    For me, the ideal mix for XCOM is very tough/unforgiving tactical battles, with a slightly easier strategic layer. Basically, I want to be able to lose tactical battles, but to struggle on to eventually finish and win the game. I don’t want the game to completely end *unless* they create some system around totally losing eg Rogue legacy/dwarf fortress, where losing adds to the detritus of the world and your new game is influenced by the stuff you did in the previous game.

    • snugglez says:

      Note that having the game world reflect previous losing efforts matches neatly with the “story” of the game. If your rebellion lost, it’s not like a new rebellion would not rise up eventually, and it would have an opportunity to learn something from your mistakes. Like the location of the previous lost battles would be discoverable on subsequent play-throughs, and you could go there to find old items and maybe pick up some free research or something.

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        aleander says:

        Unfortunately the stake is, in fact, total annihilation of humanity (which is super important, y’know, and universe is worth nothing without humanity, because of things and stuff). It’s because in 21st century story that doesn’t involve apocalypse isn’t epic enough.

        • Joshua Northey says:

          This writing trope absolutely drives me nuts in movies and games. Can’t it just be some resistance movement? Does there have to be a counter? It is such cheap drama.

  11. AceJohnny says:

    Yeah, they’re basically like medals for resistance groups: scars and tattoos.

    OK, now I want a mod that automatically adds scars and tattoos to your squaddies as they get wounded or kill certain enemy types.

    Get on it community!

    • Dezztroy says:

      That’s already in the game. Soldiers automatically get scars if they’re wounded often enough.

  12. Tigg_Fedora says:

    I do not have a problem with the difficulty levels of XCOM2. I played the lowest level first to experience the story, which is very well written and acted, before moving on to difficulty levels which better suited my experience. (I’ve clocked up around 300 hours on XCOM and played UFO Enemy Unknown to death for years)

    While timed missions don’t bother me, I felt there were just too many of them in XCOM2. What made timed missions interesting in XCOM is that they were rare and they created tension. They are so common in XCOM2 that they create no tension or excitement, they are simply a nuisance. So I wish the mechanic had been used sparingly.

    As it is, by the time I was playing Commander+ I just got the mod that turned the timers off entirely, even though I would have enjoyed timers if they were used less frequently. UFO capture missions are where I feel the timer works really well for instance, as it only starts ticking once you’ve alerted the enemies to your presence.

    For the problems Jake has addressed, and there are only a few minor ones, XCOM2 is in my opinion overwhelmingly better than XCOM. I say this as someone who loved the reboot. Firaxis have not let us down, timer concerns aside, XCOM2 is every bit the game I wanted to play. It is an incredible game and I would like to give extra praise to the story writers. Seeing how relieved Central Officer Bradford was to have his old Commander back is truly special moment in the game.

    “It’s good to be back, Central. Round up the troops and let’s kick some E.T. butt!”

  13. Rizlar says:

    Adam: Where do you go from here?

    Jake Solomon: I have no idea. Up! Up! Onward.

    Confirmed: next XCOM game sees you go into space. And then onward.

    • Horg says:

      Bradford did say that when this is all over, we should take the Avenger and invade one of their planets. ”XCOM3: Are we the bad guys now?”.

      • Tigg_Fedora says:

        The “Are we the bad guys now?” moment came for me when I started carving up soldiers in XCOM and fitting them into mechs. I don’t mind giving them mad Psi skills or sending them to their likely death armed with inadequate weaponry, but when I start amputating limbs and hear soulless robotic voices my moral compass starts to spin. I should have listened to Shen.

        • Coming Second says:

          No, it is fine to turn soldiers into ubermechs, Commander. What is not ok is to use explosives on the aliens.

    • Leucine says:

      Oh God… they’re not going to remake Interceptor, are they? No matter what we’ve done, we don’t deserve that!

    • wr0ng1 says:

      The end of game teaser very much suggests otherwise.

  14. nottorp says:

    I think the experience is better for turn-timers
    Well I think timers are the mark of the incompetent game designer still. To give a specific example, I never thought the bomb defusal missions in the first xcom were a challenge, i thought they were boring and annoying.
    You being so proud of them only pushes me further from ever buying xcom 2 :)

    • Papewaio says:

      The missions that you are most pressed in time aren’t timed missions.

      It’s the retribution missions and even more so the ones where you need to stop the enemy from destroying a device.

      Turn timers would make more sense if they meant the train you want to ransack will leave or the public execution of a VIP will happen. Some of them do make sense that you only have a limited window of time to hack the objective before it is secured, and those ones you generally hack the objective in x turns and then the timer stops and you have unlimited time to wipe out the remaining aliens.

      Timers in general do match the hit and run tension of a resistance group.

    • jalf says:

      … oookay. Thanks for letting us know you’re not interested in playing this game and that you think the designer is incompetent.

      Truly, my life has been enriched by this knowledge.

  15. Horg says:

    I feel like Firaxis should have allowed players to use concealment for proper stealth, if for no other reason than the game seems to imply it’s possible until the player finds out that various hidden mechanics are working against them. The big three being that Aliens don’t just follow a patrol route, they move towards your concealed squad to force fights, camp around the objective once you get close enough, and many missions require you to kill every alien on the map when it often seems pointless to stick around.

    It’s unintuitive that the AI does not behave as you would expect it to when it shouldn’t know your squad is on the map. That seems fairly contradictory to Firaxis design goals for the game in general. Personally, I never like to hear a developer come out with the phrase ”we didn’t want you to play like that”. Providing the players with an objective is enough, let the players decide how best to approach that task.

    The ability to properly attack maps by stealth would have been thematically consistent with the guerrilla resistance approach and reasonably self balancing without any further input from the developers. The fewer aliens you kill, the less experience your troops get, the less bodies you collect and the fewer loot drops you get. There is already an incentive to fight. Often it’s just safer to clear a path, but sometimes it’s preferable not to, such as being down to your last batch of rookies and needing to face down overwhelming odds to keep the campaign alive. It can feel good to outmaneuver the aliens, just using enough force in the last few turns of a mission to blow up a key wall, extract the VIP and evac without firing shot. If nothing else, it could break up the monotony of approaching every mission in the same way.

    • carewolf says:

      Yeah, the “hack computer” mission.. Why would I stick around and kill all hostiles after hacking the computer?

      In one mission, I actually managed to sneak in, only getting concealment blown after a successfull hack, and then evacuatating the same or next turn.

      That gave me the screen: FAILURE – Objective completed!
      And a mismatch of cutscenes about having successfully completed the mission, and how terrible a job I had done, and I had to do better.

      There was no reason for that.. It should have been a extreme mission success by any measure, and killing all aliens should only be necessary for getting loot and research speciments.

      • onionman says:

        +1

        I was making exactly this point in an earlier thread. Having to kill all the aliens only makes sense for retaliation and defense missions. Hacking objectives or destroying uplinks or whatever, I should be able to evac as soon as I’m done.

      • LexW1 says:

        There are definitely too many missions with “Oh and kill all the aliens!” as an extra goal – in many of them it makes zero sense, as per your example.

        • wr0ng1 says:

          It makes perfect sense to kill the remaining enemies because you’re fighting a war of attrition. The aim of the mission is to hack the computer. The aim of the war is to reclaim the planet. Why send in 6 heavily armed experts just to steal a floppy disc?

    • popej says:

      They only make a bee-line for you if you rush, i.e. ‘yellow move’.

      If you only blue move or blue move first, then yellow move, the enemy will consistently wander aimlessly.

  16. Zenicetus says:

    It was encouraging to hear Solomon recognize that the complaint some people (like me) have about the turn timers isn’t that they exist at all, but that too many have a “clumsy thematic wrapper.” That’s a perfect description of the problem.

    I don’t mind a timer that feels purposeful, like defusing a bomb or saving civilians. It’s when it seems like there’s a timer just for the sake of having a timer that it’s annoying, and I feel like I’m fighting the game design and not the aliens. It’s immersion-breaking to have that clock ticking up there in so many missions, when there isn’t always a damned good reason for it.

    • Punning Pundit says:

      I think most of the time, the timers really _do_ fit the theme- it’s just not expressed well.
      Think about it this way: you’re a highly effective guerilla force that has been difficult to pin down. Basically the instant Advent knows where you are, they would be scrambling to wipe you out. They do sort of allude to this- mentions of the Skyranger being forced out of the area. But they could do a better job at this.

      Maybe a couple extra VOs about how many interceptors are headed down on you. “Now that Advent knows we’re here they will do anything they can to destroy us”.

      Maybe the odds of an Avenger Defense mission go up the less time is left on the mission timer- you simply didn’t get out fast enough.

      Every mission should feel like your small group is getting away with something. Honestly? I love this game- I’ve put about 90hrs into it so far- but I don’t feel like I’m being hunted. I should feel that way. The timers do help, but they’re not quite good enough.

      • Zenicetus says:

        I understand the rationale. A SEAL team on a covert op in hostile territory doesn’t dawdle. But there is still at least a little time to deal with unexpected setbacks, like losing one of the helicopters in the Bin Laden raid. They’re not literally staring at a clock counting down, and the mission fails *because of the clock* and not some other more organic factor.

      • Christo4 says:

        I partially agree with you, because while you make a good point about timers, it doesn’t change the fact that even if you’re concealed it still goes down, when it shouldn’t. Once you are out of concealment, then ok, but otherwise it’s weird because they haven’t been detected yet so the aliens don’t know they are there. Of course, not countingm disabling bombs or similar missions.

        • Zenicetus says:

          I think there is a plausible explanation for that, because you’re not just hidden within the local civvie population when you start a mission. That’s how a “real” insurgency would work. Instead, you arrive like a military special forces team in a big VTOL aircraft that’s probably lighting up the local defense grid.

          The local defense units don’t know exactly where you are, but they know something is going down. It still doesn’t excuse the over-use of timers where they feel forced (IMO), but at least I can buy this part.

        • Sandepande says:

          Yeah, XCOM’s arrival to the scene is anything but subtle.

          • Baranor says:

            It would be nice to have options to enter a mission like ‘ enter by foot, minus 2 turns on the timers’ or ‘enter by skyranger, plus 3 enemy troop reinforcements’ … that would really spice up the boring drops/timers. Enemy teinforcements are oft a joke on veteran level, I managed to get in a crossfire but twice. They dont pack a punch.. the enemy mevhs immedeately drop in overwatch next to each other, and the regular troops move and get shot. I’d also enjoy an ‘ambush’ mission where advent sacrifices a few troops to draw us in and then retaliates with a massive amount of forces to try and wipe us out. They are a global networked governement but their ability to work out usefull tactics is just.. meh.

            Oh and Avatars are dumb. They teleport to tactically pointless places. Same with codexes… I tend to hit em just to make em split up and weaken themselves… effectively I force their HP into a less advatageous position and then wreck em.

  17. Sin Vega says:

    I really disliked the new XCOM, for reasons that make it unlikely I’ll try the second one, but this was a really enjoyable interview. More love for Apocalypse is always welcome.

  18. noodlecake says:

    Really interesting interview. I think on this particular project he is right to say the fans have ownership but there are definitely some projects, even in the case of sequels, where artistic license needs to stay firmly in the hands of the developers and away from the entitled clutches of the cynical internet commenter.

  19. Premium User Badge

    melnificent says:

    Remove all timers mod showed up some interesting ways to keep the tension up… neverending waves of enemy spawns until you evac. It’s tense and more fun than the bankrupt timer method.

    Thematically it’s correct as the aliens would be dropping everything they could at your squad to wipe out the resistance.

    • Coming Second says:

      The thing is, unlimited enemy spawns could work as an *incentive* to let the timer expire, not a drawback. I see plenty of players using the base defence mission essentially as a free XP farm, getting their troops into a protected position and then annihilating the interminable reinforcements as soon as they appear. It’s not a straightforward problem.

      • Radiant says:

        A quick solution to that would be to only let someone be promoted once per level.

  20. C0llic says:

    A great interview about a great game. It is flawed, like every game is. I’ve often thought that if games with a long standing heritage like XCOM were released in the internet age, they would be subjected to be far greater scrutiny.

    Modern game devs have it much harder in that regard. Every AI exploit, every bug is laid bare, and that can often detract from a game, simply because you’re aware of things you may not have noticed yourself. Great game regardless, and a huge well done from this nameless, irrelevant internet person.

    • C0llic says:

      Re-read that, and i would edit the f-starred out of it if could. Hopefully the point was made.

  21. klops says:

    No questions / comments on the fucking horrible UI that has not improved a bit in 3 years? This is a game meant for PCs that ignores mouse, for Christ’s sake.

    “How do you feel changing a rifle in the UI works? This is the year 2016, you know?” Would be a really, really intereting question to see, especially after the next question: “Why it works like it does?”

    • noodlecake says:

      I assume this is because some people, and I know it’s very rare on the Internet, but some people after playing a completely excellent video game don’t sit there fuming about a few minor problems that don’t really negatively impact the gameplay at all. Some people actually just enjoy the many pros and ignore the couple of minor trivial cons.

      Plus he is actually talking to someone who worked on the game, and as the game is very good and the guy he is interviewing is clearly very humble and respectful towards the game’s fanbase, why would Alec decide to be rude to him?

      • klops says:

        Yeah, I actually posted about five replies down a comment on my weird behaviour towards Xcom 2. I seem to be hunting flaws from a very good game and for some reason get frustrated if every single one of them isn’t mentioned.

        Bad UI is not trivial in any way, though.

        • noodlecake says:

          Bad UI isn’t trivial, but to be honest I owned XCOM: EU, XCOM: EW, and XCOM 2 and never even noticed that that the UI wasn’t great. It always functioned well enough for me. Thinking about it it isn’t amazing. If I was designing it I would go for a big chunky Civ V style interface if I was designing it. I assume the UI is the way it is so that it translates easily to being controlled by an XBox controller too.

          But yeah. Nothing about the UI has negatively affected my overall enjoyment of the game. If the UI really is a problem for a relatively large number of people I’m sure someone will mod in a UI that appeals to those people more.

  22. MisterFurious says:

    ‘all the team was playing the game and they were coming back saying “yeah… it’s fun. But it’s pretty easy.” And I started to get kinda worried.’

    You don’t start sentences with “but” or “and”. That should be ‘all the team was playing the game and they were coming back saying “yeah… it’s fun but it’s pretty easy,” and I started to get kinda worried.’

  23. It's not me it's you says:

    Excellent interview, my favourite game of the year so far. And probably of last year, too.

    I hope the team at Firaxis doesn’t completely indulge every internet commenter’s whim when it comes to things like turn timers and such. I personally think the game is much, much better for them (the puzzle isn’t “How do I do this given infinite time” but “How do I pull this off in the time available to me”) but I haven’t been shouting this off the virtual rooftops. In general, I’ve made limited noise about XCOM2 in general as I’ve been too busy playing and enjoying it.

    • klops says:

      That ending of yours is Wisdom.
      Often the more I like (or feel I should like) something, the more I complain about the points that I don’t like, which is silly. I like Xcom2 a lot but I’ve also complained about it a lot.

      • Punning Pundit says:

        There’s a sort of uncanny valley effect, I think. The closer to perfect a game/book/movie/whatever gets, the more evident its flaws.

        I sort of feel like XCOM2 is a pancake that needed a _bit_ more time on the griddle. It’s got a perfect outside, and most of it is fully cooked. But the tiny bit in the dead center is still a bit gooey.

  24. Doctor Pandafaust says:

    Loving XCOM 2, actually really happy with most of the changes.

    I had a great time with a funny name. Had a German grennadier called “Fridge” (i presume because shes built like one?). Now my girlfriend keeps goldfish and got one a while ago who was pretty sick from the get go. We called it Fridge after the joke:

    A mother has three children. One asked her “mum why am i called Ray?” and mum replied “because when you were born a ray of sunshine came through the window and lit up your forehead”. Then another goes “Mummy why am I called rose?” and mum said “Because when you were born a rose petal drifted through the window and rested upon your forehead”. And then the third child said “AGGOOOOAGHURGH”
    “Shut Up Fridge”

    Anyway goldfish fridge passed away after a couple of weeks. Grennadier Fridge was a lovely homage and my girlfriend was very haply when she became my team’s MVP and helped win the final mission. She almost died many times and was mostly scar tissue by the end, but she made it and lived!

  25. Raoul Duke says:

    What I don’t get about this interview is that he clearly gets it about the original game (and Apocalypse) – the eeriness, the juxtaposition of the everyday and alien, the uncaring simulation within which the player must work out for themselves what to do, the city sim in Apocalypse… and then the new games go 1000km/h in the opposite direction, abandoning the spooky/eerie vibe, making everything linear and scripted, having virtually no ‘simulation’ of anything right down to enemy units not really being simulated on the battlefield until you see them. So something doesn’t add up. This interview is basically: “here’s a list of all the stuff that makes X-COM great, and now let’s talk about how we deliberately omitted all of them from the new ones.”

    This, though sums it up:

    The problem with that was you go “well, then I’ll just shoot twice.” And we don’t want you to just shoot twice every time because we never want the player to not move. We always want moving to be almost every turn.

    So here we have game designers who, instead of designing interesting and realistic systems and letting the player come up with their own way of playing around with them, have decided that players are going to play this game ‘wrongly’ if they are given too much choice. As such, choice must be removed.

    I mean, why does he care if I prefer a more ‘static’ experience? Why must I play the way he prefers to play? Why not actually figure out how to make both viable options?

    • Sandepande says:

      Because that’s not the game he and his colleagues wanted to make, or play?

      • Raoul Duke says:

        Then he and his colleagues should have come up with their own franchise.

        • noodlecake says:

          But then they would have been accused of completely ripping off XCOM, because that’s what they’ve basically made, except much more streamlined and fun to play.

          The X-COM games already exist. Nothing Firaxis have done will stop you being able to go back and play X-COM.

          The design decisions, which he explains perfectly, make sense! Being able to shoot twice would result in a game where the best strategy is to squat somewhere and not move for a very long time. It would be a game that I, and a lot of other people, would get bored of very quickly. Luckily the devs of XCOM and XCOM 2 realised this and made a much more exciting game that forces you to stay on the move, resulting in the gameplay being more fluid and dynamic and forcing you to be presented by ever changing situations.

          Stop ragging on devs for intelligent game design.

    • HuvaaKoodia says:

      Modern game design is very much player driven (what do we want the player to do) instead of world driven (what makes sense in the fictional world). This is of course how it has always been. Think of any non-digital game from the past, played driven design!

      So it’s not surprising when modern designers fall back to it as well. In the case of remaking UFO: Enemy Unknown it would have been great it they had changed their tune, but you cannot always win.

      In the end we did get Open X-Com and Xenonauts (second one in the works, exciting!). Some developers get World driven design, some don’t.

    • Coming Second says:

      It was a clear design goal in EU that combat should be decided sharply and rapidly, rather than as slow battles of attrition, as was generally the case in Hyphen. In XCom 2 they’ve doubled down on that feature by mostly removing the tedious Overwatch-crawling start to every mission and introducing a lot of enemy/mission features which force your troops to move.

      So why is it that Firaxis want you to be moving around a lot, rather than engaging in static six turn firefights against hidden enemies? It’s unfortunate that RPG doesn’t directly pose that question to Firaxis, but it should be fairly obvious if you give it a moment’s thought.

      Firstly it means missions don’t drag on interminably. An average XCom 2 campaign asks for a fair amount of your time, particularly for grown-up joes who don’t have all that much of it. It starts to seem unreasonable when you put in HP sponge enemies or oodles of combatants, so that sitting still and pounding stuff with your gun becomes an optimal course of action. Secondly, generally speaking dynamic battles are… well, more dynamic. Aggressive play should generally be rewarded because it moves the battle around to different arenas, is more exciting and is decisive – that is a principle that reaches right across most video game genres.

      You can complain that Firaxis’s design decisions in the two new XCom games amount to “choice removal”; the thing is, generally when a designer removes a “choice”, it’s because that choice was always the optimal choice and it made the game poorer as a result, as Solomon alludes to. They tested it, they didn’t unthinkingly remove it because they r dumb mod$rn d£v$ who hate it when people think.

      Finally, it’s not as if you’re out of luck as far as games that use XCom’s themes and retain the classic mechanics are concerned; there’s Xenonauts and LW to enjoy. However your pissy attitude below suggests you’d be happier complaining about how Firaxis co-opted and ruined XCom forever instead. Oh well.

      • fdel says:

        You want to know WHY they implemented you need to move ?
        Simple : The AI is SHIT!
        It so simple the core of it can be written less than a dozen lines.
        Thats why they force you to move soyou expose yourself. Its just a tactic to cover the poor AI.

        • Josh W says:

          That doesn’t make sense, they don’t force you to move. You can stand still and shoot if you wish. There are logical reasons you would want to move however, and those relate to taking advantages in the weaknesses of the AI, as is always true in strategic games. In a two player game, you take advantages of weaknesses in your opponents tactics in the same way.

    • PikaBot says:

      They’re setting the parameters of player choice? It’s almost as though…they’re designing a game or something!

      Casual reminder, once again, that they tried to make the game you’re fantasizing about, and it sucked.

      • fdel says:

        Totally agree Xcom fireaxis sucks. Next buy if noone step in will be garbage bin buy.(today known as sales).

  26. Tease says:

    I definitely see Xcom 2 as a Puzzle. How many opponents left by how moves I got left. There is always an optimal path. Just got to find it!

  27. Premium User Badge

    Oakreef says:

    There’s no separate Ireland from the UK? Does the game take place in 1920 suddenly?

    • MaxMcG says:

      Actually Ireland is there separately as far as the flags go. Voices – well there’s a northen accent one. You can’t have everything!

  28. MaxMcG says:

    I think they got the difficulty spot on to be honest – but then again I had just come off the back of a very long, Long War campaign before Xcom 2 released, so I was top Xcom fitness.

    I’m playing a second campaign on Commander/Ironman – definitely tough at the beginning but levels out later on.

    Great interview. Great game. Great game designer. Love Firaxis – can’t wait for Civ 6 later this year ;) Hopefully some good long War-like mods will come out over the next few months.

  29. Werthead says:

    Interesting question I haven’t seen discussed a lot yet, but XCOM 2 does end on something of a (mild) cliffhanger. There’s some space for an expansion but they seem to be hinting at a much bigger threat which suggests that an XCOM 3 is in the planning. What are people’s thoughts on that? Is this a well they can keep tapping or should they be looking at more radical changes to the gameplay?

    I quite enjoyed XCOM 2 but felt frustrated as I enjoyed the combat far more but really didn’t enjoy the strategic layer very much. Too much busywork and makework rather than feeling like I was making proper, informed tactical decisions. I get that’s part of the design with the guerrilla warfare and resistance stuff, but it felt too tedious at times. I think that’s an area they really need to look at in the next game.

    • fdel says:

      Come on the endgame has a clear reference to TFTD.
      LÇets hope fireaxis team get better than this poor game we have now.

  30. clive dunn says:

    Reading this has made me reinstall Xcomapoc just so I can fuck up the Cult of Sirius again.

    • fdel says:

      Yeah!!! This only show how weak is this game. Uable to take on decades ago ideas… unless there s a planned roadmap for milking the cow until it bleeds out and die.

  31. jayfreck says:

    A Warhammer 40k total conversion using xcom 2 would be amazing. I can just imagine gunning down hordes of tyranids with overwatch shots.

  32. Hobbes says:

    A question about the terrible “RNG” and yes, I’m holding my hands up and using air quotes about now would be great. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a terrible random implementation simply to try and stop save scumming.

    Do better Firaxis, even World of Warcraft has managed to put together a slightly better RNG than you and that was ten years ago.

    • Thants says:

      Do you have a source on that? And don’t say “it feels wrong to me”.

    • Hobbes says:

      You can run your own tests, if you prefer, but the proof is pretty easy to obtain. Take an in combat scenario with two turns run in, make sure you have the “save scum” mod downloaded (this is useful for analysing how the RNG works).

      Now, each shot can be destructively modelled by using the save scum utility which forcibly moves the RNG list “one” step forward by using a scripted command that is the equivalent of a null shot. So, run the numbers against the first shot and find out just how MUCH you need to hit by tweaking variables, then reload, hit the save scum button once, you can rinse and repeat until you’ve developed a set of numbers 5-6 deep. Those numbers WILL NOT CHANGE regardless of what you do, how those numbers INTERACT with what you do is variable (so for example a roll of 84 might translate to a damage roll of 5 on a gun with a range of 2-6 f.ex) but again, destructive testing can isolate THOSE variables (because you can shoot with the same gun from different positions and get the same damage outcome provided you’re on the same position in the RNG list).

      A good way to imagine XCOM and XCOM2’s RNG is that the seed and list are generated at the start of the level, so say you generate event numbers 200 deep (enough for protracted combats comfortably), a cross section might look like –

      6, 92, 98, 52, 44, 1, 8

      In effect each action you take that has a probability to hit isn’t being rolled against, instead it’s being checked against a number on that list, let’s say you’ve a roll for an attack on a target with a 90% chance to hit but the roll in question is 6. You’ll miss, and you’ll continue to miss REGARDLESS OF WHO YOU SHOOT WITH unless you can use a weapon that has a guaranteed hit or a higher than 94% hit chance. So if your tests show that the roll is a 6, you can elect to use a grenade (guaranteed hit) which means that the game automatically moves to the next number (92) to check the damage range, 92 in this case is likely to translate to the highest range on the grenade, so yay, full damage.

      Knowing this changes your understanding of the game radically, because at that point you understand that the RNG isn’t random, it’s effectively about matching numbers to a list. Worse, the AI knows these numbers implicitly, so it can abuse the list depending on the difficulty level. Not exactly fun times.

      • Hobbes says:

        To clarify, you won’t miss shots forever on that 6 roll, but regardless of WHO you shoot with, they’ll have to deal with the 6 roll. So in effect that 6 roll applies to your whole team. When you understand that, you can start messing with the RNG in ways to make it work for you by taking actions that force the RNG off of weak numbers and onto better ones.

  33. TwwIX says:

    Ahh! What a wonderful damage control piece, RPS!

    Lets all ignore the glaring technical issues that plague the game.

    Way to go, Gaming “Journalism”!

    • Thants says:

      They’ve written multiple articles on the performance problems and they asked him about it straight out. No one’s ignoring it, you angry weirdo.

    • noodlecake says:

      No. It’s just that not everyone is as bitter and cynical as you are. Some people play amazing games and think “Cor! That was an impressive achievment” and ask actual interesting questions.

      I mean seriously. There are bugs now and again but they really don’t have much of an impact on how well the game plays and they will disappear over time as they get patched.

      Get your head out of your arse.

    • PikaBot says:

      Let’s ignore the technical issues…by directly asking him about them?

      Like, what exactly more do you want? They asked Solomon about them, he said they done goofed and didn’t think it would be this bad, and are currently working to try and fix it. Where else do you go from there? What more is there to say?

  34. Unsheep says:

    …and the RPS marketing of XCom 2 continues.

  35. Radiant says:

    I found xcom2 the opposite.
    I found it was too easy.

    Once you’ve got the plasma weapons, better grenades and upgrades [plus mimic grenades]the game becomes really really easy.

    My usual mission team is one ranger, one sniper [ideally with serial], two heavy weapons [ideally with salvo] and either one or later on two specialists.

    Grenade as many as you can early in the turn to shred armour and then clean up with guns.
    Delay getting hit the next turn by using mimic grenades and hacking mechs.

    The only unit I have trouble with are gatekeepers and only if I don’t see them first.

    I dunno I feel like I’m missing something.

    • PikaBot says:

      What difficulty are you playing on?

      Also, while the difficulty definitely plateaus once you have top-tier gear, what’s you’re probably not noticing is that you’re benefiting from having snowballed through the early/mid game. If you do well then, your soldiers get stronger and you get higher tech faster, so the later game becomes easier.

  36. fdel says:

    Nice interview with a lot of very romantic excuses that only profile a weak team if true.
    IMHO, most of the choices simply are what they are due to a very poor AI.
    If flanked, and no hand to hand ability move and shoot.
    If not flanked and cannot flank shoot
    If not flanked and can flank move and shoot.
    Repeat with changes for melee able class.

    When you analise the game under this simple light. The lack of elaboration on the missions with turns (like missions with turns since the start and others were only when you loose concealment the clokers start), the high decrease in your soldiers aim from veteran to commander, the lack of a more elaborate concealment system, and some other features, or lack of (lack of action points instead of 2 actions) start to make sense.
    The very simple and weak AI, with no behaviors hinder the game possibilities and so the broadness it could achieve.
    I still find it a very weak game compared to the original. Many artificial hindrance and limitations just try to make a run for it, but i find it sad, that in nobody today is able to modernize decently a 20 year old game.
    Spend less time in GFX and more time in game core please.
    Now the solution is to wait for some major overhaul if that is possible.

  37. FievelKnowsBest says:

    I do not think it is too difficult. It really upsets me when games these days are too easy. And can’t you change it after starting anyway? It’s a strategy game for Christ’s sake – be challenging!

  38. Sue de Nimes says:

    I think one of the things that needs to be addressed in the future is end game difficulty.

    I’ve completed XCOM on the highest difficulty and on Ironman. I’m pretty close to doing the same on XCOM 2. The challenge is at the start of the game. Once you have broken the hump, the endgame is a walk in the park.(Comparatively)

    I’ve got friends who are new to this style of game and they say similar things when playing on lower difficulty levels. Once you get the top tier tech and have a squad of colonels, the difficulty just fades away. The difficulty is in getting to that stage.

  39. TripSin says:

    “Jake Solomon: No, I can honestly say that we didn’t know it would be this way at launch.”

    lol, yeah right. Look in the credits and just look at, for example, how many play testers they had, not to mention everyone else on the team who would’ve been playing the game. Given how many players, aka the vast majority, have performance issues I just can’t believe this. It’s like politicians – of course they will deny things.

  40. Josh W says:

    I can say what effect allowing you to shoot once in any order would have, as I misunderstood how bulletstorm worked in the last xcom for months, so I thought what it was for was being able to do controlled retreats, where a front runner fires, moves back, and is smoke grenade’d, while the others run, or fires and retreats, with the rest of the squad ready on overwatch.

    The resultant effect is that you don’t choose between “fight vs run”, but whether you are best sheltered from retaliation after firing this turn by trying to flank and take them out or trying to retreat to a safer environment. Alternating retreating and flanking can also be pretty helpful, as you can often move people around to overwatch/flanking traps. You can also focus the first shot on enemy overwatchers in order to make retreats easier.

    As to what it would do to enemies, if they had access to this toolbox as well, that’s another question, probably make them much more frustrating to deal with, as currently they will always seek a good firing position, but remain within range, usually within destructible cover.

  41. Premium User Badge

    Mungrul says:

    Your first question highlights one of my (minor) annoyances; let alone there not being enough UK accents (no West Country, Estuary, Scouse or Geordie), whoever programmed the auto-assignment of accents based on Irish or Scottish nationality got them the wrong way round. Scottish soldiers always have a Northern Irish brogue and Irish Soldiers a Scottish burr.