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.