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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: is there still more stuff to take from the original?

Jake Solomon: I wrote something for PC Gamer about the original X-COM. I had to stop and think about it, ‘what is it about the original X-COM?’ And it think it was the fact that it was so obviously uncaring about you as a player, that it felt like, and it still feels like, a little world through your monitor. Certainly more than the games we make, which do have more crafted elements to them, it feels like a little terrarium. Because it doesn’t care if you’re doing well, it doesn’t care if you’re doing poorly, it doesn’t communicate it to you if you are, you’re just existing in its little world.

Alec Even narratively you start somewhere in the middle, not the beginning of the tale.

Jake Solomon: And the music doesn’t change, you don’t get different graphics – there’s no hint about how you’re doing or if you should restart. It’s “I guess they’re leaving the Council and I don’t know why but…” Because of that it manages to generate more of an atmosphere. It has this very cold and lonely atmosphere that works so, so well with the subject matter. I think that magic is probably impossible to recreate.

Adam: X-COM Apocalypse to me is the forgotten masterpiece of the X-COM series. It has so many problems which are well-documented by Julian, but I adore it.

Jake Solomon: If you’re a major, major player of the X-COM series, as all of us are, I feel like I can get some sense of you if you say that Apocalypse is this forgotten masterpiece. I’m not saying I disagree, I’m just saying it’s telling me something about you.

Adam: well, the word forgotten is important there, because the other ones are remembered. I don’t think it’s the greatest X-COM game but I want to play what that game was supposed to be. I’m still in awe of some of the ideas in it: the simulated city. I don’t think anyone’s made that game yet. What does admiring it say about me?

Jake Solomon: Well, I feel the same way, in the sense of what it was striving for. When I played it, and I haven’t played it in a long time, it worked because to me at least the simulation seemed to be working in terms of the factions, and you go in and you blow all kinds of stuff up and it just felt so big. I mean, talk about moving parts. Apocalypse had so many moving parts that frankly even the parts I didn’t understand I could tell were part of some sort of grander design.

Syndicate’s great, but to me Apocalypse is the ideal – if I could have a Syndicate that goes as far as Apocalypse does in terms of the simulation, or feeling like my decisions have that much meaning to the game world. I loved it. I didn’t care for the real-time stuff or the massive squad that you had to use, but I loved the factions and you could read into them based on the things they did and the ideas they were based around. Apocalypse I remember as being overwhelming in both a good and a bad way.

Alec: It’s the only time another X-COM game was made with the spirit of the original, which was to throw everything in and see what works as opposed to having a fixed commercial plan.

Jake Solomon: Yeah, that’s right. I suppose that’s the only two that Julian and his brother were involved in, right? Just Apocalypse and Enemy Unknown. Alec, you like Terror From The Deep, don’t you?

Alec: Yeah, it’s kind of my favourite even though it’s basically the same as the first and it’s not as good in many ways. I just love the atmosphere of it, the loneliness and the dread and the strangeness. X-COM has all these amazing memorable scenes like the corn-field it can be quite disconnected mission to mission, whereas TFTD always feels like you’re in the same place fighting this huge and endless war.

Jake Solomon: For me it’s the juxtaposition that’s terrifying in X-COM Enemy Unknown, and that’s why Terror From The Deep had far less impact on me. It was just straight horror and straight weird all the time. By the way, in XCOM 2 that was something was a thematic struggle. Again it’s a Firaxis thing, but I love things that are sort of rooted. Whether it’s Pirates! or Civ or XCOM: Enemy Unknown being modern day, it was interesting to then go into the future and not have as strange of a juxtaposition when you’re fighting in these environments that aren’t always as recognisable as modern earth. That was a little strange to find ways to make that still have some sort of emotional meaning for players. One of the core tenets of XCOM/X-COM, established in the original game, is that it’s scary because it’s juxtaposed with things that are familiar.

I tried to make a phrase about the original X-COM: ‘it’s like a shark in your living room’. That’s what’s scary about it. But that phrase never caught on.

Adam: The biggest difference in XCOM 2 is the classes, the soldiers feel much more like a toolset in themselves. You said early that XCOM isn’t a puzzle, and I agree, it almost feels more like an RPG as well as a strategy and tactical. There are some many points where I look at the situation and I’ve got so many options, whereas in the original it was which guy isn’t going to shoot now? It’s a more intricate strategy game.

Jake Solomon: That is definitely a distinct thing. Making all of the soldier abilities do something not big, but obvious, so that the player can mentally map them out, so you can look at your soldiers and their abilities, and they always do something that is simple and the tactical benefit of it is obvious. It’s not like +15% to something, it’s you get a free move when this happens or the ability Untouchable – if you kill someone, the next attack against you is guaranteed to miss. People were like “even explosives?” and I said “yes, just make it simple because that’s the only way that as a player you can manage all these different characters and their abilities.”

In that sense it is kind of like a Tetris puzzle where you can slot things together. In some senses it becomes a challenge because you only have so many knobs you can turn: you’ve got moves, you’ve got actions, you’ve got aim percentages, you’ve got cover. They all slot together in fairly interesting ways, hopefully, no matter who it is you’ve brought on your squad. In that sense it does sometimes feel puzzle-ish.

Adam: It feels like what you did design-wise was to constantly disrupt the battlefield and tactical ideas. Everything that I used to do, the gradual Overwatch creep, you meet an alien that says ‘no, you can’t do that anymore’ and have you to switch around your thinking.

Jake Solomon: That’s right. It comes out of the idea that when you design a game, you build these spaces and then when you go looking for room, a lot of the time the only place you can find room for new ideas is by breaking the rules you just established. Certainly you see that a lot in the expansion packs, but even with sequels you make these rules because you have to give the player the safety of these rules in which to operate, and then when you go looking for a way to make a new experience there’s all this room to manoeuvre.

Adam: That simplicity in Enemy Unknown in terms of throwing out time units, you’ve got just two portions you can use, and so many of the abilities in XCOM 2 basically mess with that. I’ve seen videos where people end up with like five moves by chaining the right stuff together.

Jake Solomon: There’s an objective value in simplicity, especially as it relates to time units. A simple design that achieves the same thing is objectively better. That doesn’t mean that movement/action system achieves the same thing as time units – it doesn’t. I’m just saying that, abstractly, if you had two design systems and one is simpler than the other and they achieve the same thing, then the simpler one is objectively better. With that in mind, the basic system of using abilities has to be simple. Something we actually tried and moved away from was, at the start of XCOM 2, there wasn’t move/action – there was do whatever you want twice.

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 the way we do it, and I’m still looking for maybe a more elegant solution, is you have these two actions. One of them probably is gonna be a move, it’s almost always better to move, and the AI puts a premium on moving to always jumble up the player’s shot percentages and jumble up the battle geography every turn so movement for the player seems like a better idea.

So when we had two actions at the beginning and said do whatever you want, the best thing by far often was I have four to six soldiers and they can do two things, well I’ll just shoot. There’s no way to overcome the numbers in that situation. Alright, well we’ll put in a recoil penalty, and then we started doing a bunch of stuff before we went “this is not good, this creates a very static experience.” If you don’t almost force soldiers to move, it’s a surprisingly boring, boring experience. So we back off of that, but it was fully implemented and it played that way for a while. What we found was we just kept tweaking it and tweaking it because it wasn’t right, and then finally we were “OK, nope, we’re going back to move/action” because that gets us what we want, which is the soldiers moving around the battlefield and there being a sort of dance at the start of every turn.

It gives the player an interesting decision, which is what’s my new cover spot gonna be. If the player’s not moving they’re not even making those decisions. You basically don’t have any decisions in front of you on a particular turn. That was one of those things which seemed like a good idea, but we didn’t come up with an elegant solution for it so we went back to move/action.

Alec: Did you ever try letting people take their two actions in any order – so you could shoot then move?

Jake Solomon: No, I don’t think we have that. I’m trying to think through what the ramifications of something like that would be. I think the way that the game currently works, you’d have to redesign stuff like the AI and things, because with the AI constantly moving to flank or get a better position, we’re trying to force the player to move so that they had a better shot. So if you could take a shot and then could move, you could potentially… Yeah, I don’t know how that would work exactly. [audibly thinks]

Alec: to what extent were you handicapped by what you already had in hand from XCOM 1?

Jake Solomon: When we made Enemy Unknown, obviously we wanted to be true to the spirit of UFO Defense. Boy, this must be confusing when we say Enemy Unknown, because you probably think we mean UFO Defense. So what should I call the first one? XCOM 1 is too pretentious because it’s not really X-COM 1. I’ll just call it EU.

Alec: It’s all about the hyphen. The hyphen game.

Jake Solomon: Yeah. So when we were making Enemy Unknown, we were trying to spiritually reverent to Hyphen, but mechanically we obviously took liberties. And that is probably the most ownership you have as a development team, is when you’re making a game for the first time. Because the minute you start selling, ownership transfers to the audience, in terms of what the game should be and where it should go. We don’t view what we do as an artistic statement, we’re doing it to entertain people.

When you have an audience, obviously they’re a big factor. They have more ownership over the title than I think the developers do. Then it becomes a matter of OK, we’re sort of curating this franchise owned by the audience. It’s a weird situation to be in where you have to be respectful of your own decisions that you made before. I shouldn’t speak of it in any sort of negative terms. It’s so much easier, like when you’re making an expansion pack or something, to say ‘OK, let’s build on something that we know people are happy with, for the most part?’ And the things that they’re not happy with, they actually told us very clearly about. That is such a better position to start development from then when you’re making something that nobody knows about and they can’t give you feedback on.

Yeah, man, I think we had a very clear idea of what people enjoyed and didn’t enjoy, so we definitely worked within those boxes, I suppose, when you’re making a sequel.

On page four, the decision to build more missions around turn limits.

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Alec Meer

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

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