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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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Adam: The turn limits have been controversial – some people really don’t get on with them. Did you expect that?

Jake Solomon: I’ve obviously heard that too. This is the honest-to-God truth, I was very surprised. I hadn’t had an inkling of that yet. That was not something that was really on our radar as something that would irritate some people. Then when it does happen, obviously a designer can’t ever or nor should they ever, defend the decisions they’ve made. You go “OK, some people really don’t like the turn timers.” And so you think first of all, ‘why don’t they like it, what can we do to make it better, what can we do to make everybody happy.’ I think it’s blind allegiance to mechanics that probably led us to that, because I think the experience is better for turn-timers. I’m talking in a very abstract sense, because I think that the game is at its best when the player is taking risks.

Risks are what lead to loss and what lead to triumph, however the downside is that if you feel the game is just pushing you into risk, then it’s how you perceive the necessity of the risk. Some of them, maybe there’s a clumsy thematic wrapper on the turn-timer. There’s a mod right now where the turn timer doesn’t start until concealment is broken. Thematically, that’s much stronger, no question.

Definitely, definitely that was the first idea that we had, but mechanically there are number of issues with that, I would say. It can be seriously exploited, and it also leads to the player use stealth instead of using Concealment as an ambush system. That’s what we saw, is that people thought that “if a turn-timer popped up at the end of stealth, that means I just fucked up. If I get detected, I really fucked things up.” And we could not get past that mindset; “no, no, you didn’t fuck up. We don’t want you to play this as a stealth game.” We didn’t build this as a stealth game, it doesn’t work as a stealth game, but when players were Concealed and then the turn-timer didn’t start until they’d lost Concealment, then obviously it felt like falling off a cliff when you lost Concealment. It just felt like, “fuck this, I’m reloading. I didn’t want to get seen then because I don’t want the pressure of this turn-timer.”

So instead, the mechanical solution was that turn-timers start from the beginning of the match. Use Concealment however you want, don’t feel like you fell off a cliff when you lose it. Mechanically, I think it’s a much better system, however thematically maybe it sticks in some people’s craw, coupled with the fact that some people just don’t like turn-timers. They don’t want to be pushed into risk, which I certainly understand, so now the question is how to address that in a way that doesn’t lose the fact of pressure and risk, forcing the player to make suboptimal decisions, perhaps. And at the same time not just beating them over the head with a turn-timer. So I will say that one surprised me, but it doesn’t mean it’s in any way incorrect.

Alec: I like it as a dramatic system, it makes a map into an action mission rather than rinse and repeat but I agree that the countdown feels too arbitrary. Maybe it needs a big pay-off rather than just a mission fail: a big dropship full of reinforcements arrives if you’re not quick enough or something?

Jake Solomon: Now that we have the game out in the wild maybe we can make more educated guesses. I think this falls on me, because I tend to be very conservative. So what we did was the safest solution. We did think “what if it’s reinforcements?” but then we thought are people just going to think “fuck it, I’m gonna just fight through these reinforcements?” How big could these reinforcements be before players went “ohhhh, you are suddenly telling me that I do not want this happen instead of this is a scripted thing and I have to kill everything?”

So conservatively we went with the ‘design-safest’ approach, but now that it’s out in the wild I think that people are having intelligent conversations about maybe this or that is better, and maybe mechanically users do understand how this is supposed to work and they do respond well. Thank God for the mod system, because I do like being able to say “oops, sorry if you don’t like that, but hey there’s a mod already that fixes that!” Obviously we should not fall back on that, but it does at least help to some extent.

Alec: which came first, XCOM 2 or the XCOM boardgame? They share a few ideas, like the Dark Events and the Avatar countdown.

Jake Solomon: Definitely XCOM 2. It’s no secret that me personally as a systems designer, but also the team, we take a lot of inspiration from boardgames. If you look at the original X-COMs, they’re more simulation-rooted whereas we’re more boardgame mechanics-rooted. I lean on a lot of boardgame-style mechanics and our UI kind of reflects that. So it’s not a surprise that those two things exist, but there wasn’t any cross-pollination that I’m aware of.

Alec: Were you involved in the making of the boardgame?

Jake Solomon: No, they brought it over here once it was pretty put-together mechanics-wise and I got to play it. So I played it a couple of times and I didn’t have too much feedback, they did an incredible job. It was fascinating to see how they achieved the same sort of end experience as a player but with completely different mechanics. I’m in awe of boardgame designers, because they definitely have different restrictions on them. I always read rulebooks, even if I don’t play all the games themselves I read all the rulebooks.

I want to play it with Julian Gollop sometime. We should definitely do that, we should stream ourselves playing the XCOM boardgame, and then if he yells at me I’ll probably start crying.

Adam: There is lots of little environment storytelling stuff – incidental dialogue, solar panels everywhere, it looks like a world that has been lived in. What stuff like that are you most pleased by?Adam: it’s the same with the nicknames, they’re not as weird but when a soldier gets one there’s no way I’m changing it. It makes me think about them differently, ‘why is he called Ragtime?’

Jake Solomon: That’s right. The nicknames are also something that I do. I basically just come up with them. That’s what I would use when it was super, super late at night and I’m feeling burned out, probably in the depths of despair, I would always then take 15 minutes and go add more nicknames or more operation names. I would go into that area of the codebase and start throwing them in, like today I’m going to add nicknames for female Rangers or male Rangers. Every once in a while you’d put one in and it’d be a little bit silly, but you’d go ‘ah, I’m going to keep that one’ because that’s the experience you hope for. You want someone going ‘what the hell are they named ‘Socks’ for? Who is this guy?’

Towards the end of the project I could play and shut my developer mind off, just experience it as a player, and develop these sort of back stories. ‘This guy’s a former male stripper’ or whatever. That nickname must mean X,Y,Z…

Adam: There were three things I didn’t like in XCOM 1. One was no proc-gen maps, second was the satellite system, the linearity of the campaign, it didn’t feel you were making decisions enough, and the third was that XCOM operatives all looked a certain way even though it was thematically correct that they would. Now it’s nice that they don’t have to, some of them look like soldiers and some don’t.

Jake Solomon: Towards the end of development everybody was coming in with everything chosen randomly and you had all these circus freaks coming up, and I was like “ok, let’s tone it down.” We need percentages for facial hair and percentages for helmets, because it looked insane, these people with all this shit on. But then when you tone it down, your recruits come in mostly clean but every once in a while someone will show up in a bandana and a fedora and you’ll be “who’s this fucking guy?”

Adam: Does the randomisation allow for anything that’s in there to be on a new recruit but it’s just a percentage chance of it?

Jake Solomon: Yeah. They don’t put on veteran-level gear, but most of them the numbers are low enough that they usually will stay away from facial hair and props on their face but in your starting squad maybe one or two will have some sort of prop. I had some great ones: I had a guy come in with a pencil moustache, a fedora and a ponytail. I was like “this guy!” He’s like a nightclub owner who took up arms. Everyone once in a while you’ll get a mix just right, so that you think you know what their story is.

Adam: The nerdiest thing about my XCOM 2 experience is that I refused to give them injuries scars unless they actually got wounded. That’s how I play. Burns had to come from being burned or plasma. And they’re not allowed tattoos unless they get the kill that earned them.

Jake Solomon: Yeah, they’re basically like medals for resistance groups: scars and tattoos. I’m definitely the same way. It’s funny because you’re under such pressure when you’re trying to finish developing the game and I’m playing through again and again for balance purposes, but I couldn’t’ do without doing some customisation because after ten missions I had this sniper that I fell in love with. I was “I’m not customising anybody else, but I just have to give her the appropriate badass outfit that fits her stature.” That was question, “if you customise this much, is that OK in a game where you’re going to lose all this people?” I think it worked out.

Adam: Where do you go from here?

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

RPS: Thanks for your time.

For more in-depth articles about XCOM 2, visit our XCOM 2 guide hub.

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Alec Meer

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

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