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

Tactics, Turn Timers, Difficulty, Boardgames, Bugs & Beards

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Alec: There’s always terminology like some of the Bioware games – ‘I just want the story.’

Jake Solomon: Frankly when I play let’s say shooters, there is no way I’m putting on hard because typically for me I’m not interested in reloading all the time. If the game is more experiential, if the experience is a big part of the reward, then for me challenge is… I was playing Shadow of Mordor actually, and I had a lot of fun playing and being badass and seeing where the story goes, and that’s great, but I don’t want… Then I when I play strategy games, to me it’s a challenge and I do want to reload. Once I’ve played it through once then definitely I step difficulty up. But especially at my age, I have very limited time.

Adam: I know a lot of people who are playing XCOM 2, most of whom played XCOM 1 and the original way back when. And a lot of them are playing it on rookie first time through because they want to enjoy the story. It’s odd to me, I’d never thought that I’d be playing an XCOM game where I wanted to enjoy the story, but I did get really concerned about spoilers which was not something I was expecting. Which to me makes that lower difficulty more legitimate.

Jake Solomon: There is a lot more story. We have these awesome writers and it’s funny because at Firaxis we’re always mechanics first. The shape of the world and the directions of the strategy layer, that builds a scaffolding then our writers come in and say “ok, what about this?” and I’ll be like “no, that’s impossible”. But they’ve done a really good job, and what we were surprised by with the story in XCOM 2 is you have to do a lot more. Something we like to do with Firaxis games and I think we were able to do on Enemy Unknown is you really want the player to bring their backstory with them. If you set in the modern world, and Enemy Unknown is ‘it’s modern world but aliens are invading’ then we don’t have to do a lot of work to set up the state of the world.

It’s modern world, look out your window. But if you push the story twenty years into the future and it’s ruled by aliens, then you’re like “oh shit, we need to explain this.” If we want any sort of attachment by our players to Earth and the world then we have to a lot more work to say that it’s Earth but it’s different, and these are the reasons you should care, this the way you can get it back, these are the changes that are happening. We actually had to do a lot more work simply based on the fact that players couldn’t bringing nearly as much backstory to a world that’s twenty years in the future.

Alec: Can you tell us what’s going on with tech problems – what’s wrong and when will it be fixed?

Jake Solomon: It’s the first thing we talk about about when we come in in the morning. We take it incredibly seriously. Me and all the leads, that’s what we work on all day and that’s what we’re committed to right now. Maybe it was our optimism about our new deferred renderer and MSAA – a lot of little things like that. To people who are suffering them, if they’re frustrated, I’m as frustrated and more. We will continue to update the game, and we do have some workarounds – heck, you guys even posted some workarounds – but we definitely have fixes coming soon. I can’t say dates, but I would say that we’re working very furiously. We already have a lot of those issues in our sights.”

Alec: Did you know about the problems before the game was released?

Jake Solomon: No, I can honestly say that we didn’t know it would be this way at launch. Maybe this is damning on me, but I’m sitting here talking to you now on the laptop I use to play it on and I didn’t see these issues. It’s not across the board, the issues are kind of myriad, sporadic. We didn’t catch this stuff in compatibility testing. But make no mistake, we’re fully, fully accountable for the product in people’s hands, so we certainly take responsibility for it.

Alec: What about those pauses after actions that really annoys some people, are they deliberate?

Jake Solomon: Some, particularly the Sectoid reanimate animation, take too damn long, I totally agree. And in fact we’re going to change that. I am personally looking into that stuff right now, any gameplay pauses. Camera pauses after kills and stuff like that, I am evaluating all those things to make sure that’s not egregious.

And that stuff’s on me. I do a lot of the camera rules in terms of it moving and staying and pausing and so on. Taking into account the flyovers and making sure the player has all the context they need for their actions. If things can be sped up they certainly will.”

Adam: Did you see that tweet from Julian Gollop?

Jake Solomon: No, what’s he said, Oh God…

Jake Solomon: [laughs] With XCOM 2 we felt a little freer. Obviously a big part of Enemy Unknown was being reverent to the source and making sure that people understood that we were reverent. That was a big part of what we talked about for that year when we released. A big part of that conversation was ‘what does this mean for the actual, original X-COM and what are the parallels?’ It was interesting to then make a game when that didn’t really come up any more. That stopped being a question, and people instead asked ‘what is the relationship of this to Enemy Unknown?’ That was strange, but at the same time I guess a lot of the things that we tried to bring into XCOM 2 still come from the very original game. Procedural maps, a greater sense of unpredictability in the strategy layer and not being quite as much of a railroad. We still go back to the source material of the original XCOM games. They are still the heart of the series.

We do all these things, and now we even change the narrative. We feel much more free to do that, we have our own audience, it’s not being held up against the original anymore. But at the same time we still look at it and think this is all based on the original series. I would never in a million years think that this game would come together on its own without the originals existing or that I as a designer could possibly have thought of this. This is still Julian’s idea that birthed all of this. It’s not an idea would I have come up with on my own – having this relationship with the original is still part of it.

But I’m happy that Julian likes it. A lot of the ways we improved XCOM 2 was integrating more things from the original.

On page three, more on what XCOM 2 could learn from UFO: Enemy Unknown.

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Alec Meer

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

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