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Chat: Xenonauts Dev On Firaxis And Outdoing X-COM

The enemy of my Enemy

Up until January 5, 2012, the mega-ambitious Xenonauts, Goldhawk Interactive's Cold War-set tale of alien invasion, was our number one hope for a modernised X-COM. Then, on January 5, 2012, 2K and Firaxis announced they were making an official modernised X-COM. We've already chatted to Firaxis about XCOM: Enemy Unknown at length, but what did that shock news mean to Goldhawk lead Chris England? Here, I chat to Chris about his initial reaction, why it doesn't spell horror for his project, where he's at with Xenonauts at the moment, what's planned for the future, how he believes Xenonauts will be better than X-COM and whether spending his life savings on making the game has paid off.

Also, IKEA UFOs and drinking eight pints.

You join us just after I've been apologising profusely for being rubbish at replying to emails, and Chris has been discussing how the game's AI is currently being overhauled.

RPS: What’s going on with Xenonauts generally, apart from the AI stuff you’ve mentioned that you’ve gone to redo, was it the art, a little bit?

Chris England: Yeah, you last saw it back in October? And the game looked ok at the time, it was nothing spectacular, it got the job done. Recently we’ve hired a new artist to re-do all the ground tiles because the big problem with a lot of the maps was there’s relatively large expanses of open terrain, and under the previous system we had tiles that repeated. Which meant you can’t have much detail in them because, if you have a lot of detail in them and you put several of them next to each other it’s really obvious, so we’ve hired a guy to do the ground tiles as a bigger block - say like 10 by 10 tiles - and then we’ll slice that up.

We’ve got some program to do that, some tools which slice up automatically, and we can stick it in the game that way. It took us a bit of time to set up the workflow and get all the tools coded to do that, but the guy’s done a really good job with that, so what you’ll be seeing in upcoming screenshots that we’ll send through is the ground looks a lot more attractive, and because of that the maps look quite a lot more appealing, there’s a lot more variation there.

We’ve also been putting in more than one tile set, when you were playing it there was only the industrial tile set there, and we’ve re-done the ground tiles for that. We’ve also put in the ground tiles, the farmyard tile set, we’re working on some of the other ones. We’ve re-done the tiles for the drop ships, and we’re currently working on doing the tiles for the UFOs, because you know in X-COM, obviously if you shoot down a UFO it basically just sits there on the ground. We’re trying to make it look as if they’ve hit the ground and the UFO’s taken some damage, so it looks a bit more realistic. We’re playing around with some of the settings for that but it’s looking good. That’s hopefully what we’ll be able to show off in the next big update because that was always a bit of a bugbear of mine, you’d turn up and it would look like…

RPS: A pristine, IKEA UFO.

Chris England: Exactly. So that’s what we’ve been doing on the ground combat, behind the scenes there’s been a lot going on in terms of getting all systems set up. One of the big problems we’ve always had has been the fact that this is such a huge game, and a lot of the work is invisible. In order to have a preview copy of Xenonaut to send to people, we’ve got to have all the different parts of the game running independently, so there is the geoscape, the air combat and the ground combat, but also linked together. We’ve been doing quite a lot of work in terms of making them slot together properly, so the UFOs now spawn with crews and now if you shoot them down the crews are then reflected as the aliens you face on the ground combat. Before it we always had a preset map with a preset list of enemies whatever UFOs you shot down, now we’re actually starting to connect it all together and sort of do all the connections there.

It’s coming along quite well but it’s a lot of effort. It’s a bit of an issue in some ways when a lot of the announcements you make aren’t really big headline announcements, like ‘we introduced a new feature and it’s really awesome’, it’s kind of like, ‘no, we’ve implanted a load of features and now they work properly’.

RPS: And some people probably won’t notice the difference if they don’t pay close attention.

Chris England: Yeah. But the community have got behind us and the pre-orders are going well so it’s all coming along quite well really. It’s so long since I last chatted to you, the list of changes is huge. If you go on our forums we’ve got a different thread for each time we announce new build and there’s been, a good twelve or so [over the last] four months. Sso quite a lot has changed, but off the top of my head it’s quite difficult to remember what it all is.

RPS: Were there any builds or features that was a real Eureka moment for you, where you were like ‘wow yes, we’ve got this, this is it now, I’m extra excited.’

Chris England: Well the latest one’s been good because the latest one, as I said, we’ve got more than one tile set. Up until the release we had about a week ago it was just the same mission every single time we loaded it up, so having more than one possible tile set in the game with more than one possible map for each tile set, and having more than one alien race in the game has been a big one for us. It’s still missing the AI as I said but that’s been quite a big step forward for us. I’m trying to think back to the older ones and think what the other major advances have been. It’s mostly been incremental really.

RPS: That’s got to be the nature of this type of game really, that it’s about getting all the small features in the jigsaw of how they work together. You don’t really want to be announcing dramatic things, you just want to say ‘yes we’re getting closer to it being thing X’.

Chris England: I agree: what we’ve always been trying to do with Xenonauts I guess is keep the core mechanics from the original game, and then go through every single system with a fine toothcomb and think ‘how can we make this more functional and more intuitive?’ without changing the fundamentals. I guess when the game’s done our challenge to reviewers is always going to be, play Xenonauts, and then go back and play X-COM, and if you don’t find the experience of playing X-COM so dated and frustrating that you want to close it down and start playing Xenonauts instead then I guess we’ve failed. A lot of the features we add in or things we change aren’t going to be a big headline because they are basically incremental improvements, but I think that’s the way we have to do it. Nobody’s really done a proper remake of XCOM without changing the fundamentals, I don’t think even Firaxis are doing it.

RPS: No, time units are on their way out and there’s some big changes, classes and all that stuff.

Chris England: Well there’s a lot of changes, I don’t think any of them by themselves are particularly bad, I think quite a lot of them sound quite interesting, I just, the only concern I have is that they seem to be changing so much that whether at the end of the day it will still feel like an XCOM game. I mean I’m sure it will be a good game, because they’re Firaxis, they know what they’re doing don’t they? And I hope it’s good because I’m not going to be able to play Xenonauts when it’s finished so…(laughs) it’d be nice if I could play that game and enjoy it. It’s quite good from our point of view, they’re not treading on our territory too much with that, they’re making a much more progressive remake of XCOM and we’re making a much more faithful remake.

RPS: Yeah, they call theirs a reimagining rather than I remake, so I suppose…

Chris England: Yeah we’ve been calling ours a reimagining too.

RPS: Ah (laughs).

Chris England: (laughs) the word ‘clone’ is somewhat a loaded term so we’ve always gone for reimagining. But yeah, I think the game’s going to play quite differently, it’s quite nice from our point of view that that’s happened, I think if they’d announced they’re literally going to remake the original XCOM I think we’d be in a bit more trouble.

RPS: It’s good for fans in theory to have the choice of two fairly significantly different games, it’s better than two similar ones, definitely.

Chris England: Yeah, and from our point of view it’s been good for the project as well for two reasons. One is that it’s made us up our game a bit. I wouldn’t say we’re complacent but it’s always going to focus the mind when an established studio comes along and says ‘we’re going to remake the same game as you with the official licence and a multimillion dollar budget’. I did have a second reason but I’ve forgotten it…

RPS: What was your reaction when you saw that announcement?

Chris England: (indescribable groan)

RPS: (laughs) that noise says it all, but I don’t know how I’m going to transcribe it.

Chris England: It was a tough one. The worst of it was I was actually drunk at the time, I’d had about 8 pints, got back, loaded up RPS, front page and I was like ‘oh, brilliant’. It’s not been too bad really, because all the discussion and coverage of their game has also led to a lot of coverage of us, and our pre-order sales have gone through the roof since they were announced. So anyone saying XCOM has come out and Xenonauts is dead in the water - far from it, we’ve done really well out of it.

RPS: I guess there’s something to be said for people being able to get something right away, like if they’re jonesing for some X-COM you’re ‘well, we can give you this early build right away if you pre-order.’

Chris England: Yeah, I mean all the people who haven’t necessarily heard of the genre, because X-COM’s a great game and it’s quite famous, but a lot of people won’t have played it because it’s nearly twenty years old now, and not all the changes that Firaxis are making have necessarily gone down really well with all of the fans. I mean a lot of people will be really excited about the games but a lot of people will be a bit turned off by some of the stuff, and it’s very difficult to speculate on how the game will play because I haven’t played it, and nor has anyone else yet. But it’s nice that we can be the counterpoint to them and there can be a debate about whether people want to go for more the old style mechanics or the new ones. So, yeah, we’re established enough a project that we get mentioned when they are mentioned, and that’s driven a lot of traffic our way.

RPS: Do you feel any pressure to try and get your game out as soon as possible to try and head them off at the pass?

Chris England: We’d like to have the game out slightly before their game comes out, ideally, whether or not it happens is to be seen yet. But the reason for that is not that we don’t think we can compete with them, but that we’d like to piggyback off their coverage as we have over the last month or so. When all the reviews of XCOM appear and say ‘this is a great game’, if we are mentioned in the comment thread then we’ll get a lot of attention off the back of that. It’s not the end of the world if we can’t release before them or at a similar time, as long as we do a bit of marketing at the same time, so we are in the discussion.

The problem we have is that we’re an indie team and our timelines are relatively fluid, because so many people on the team are part time, we don’t have the money to have everyone on the team full time. So there’s always little bottlenecks that you wouldn’t have in a big studio that slow us down.

RPS: I suppose the other alternative is if the reception to the Firaxis one was terrible then you could come up after and really capitalize on it…

Chris England: I don’t imagine they’ll make a terrible game, because if they’ve been working on it for four years… Firaxis have a pretty good reputation and I think it’ll be hard to properly screw the game up, so I’m not really banking on them totally messing it up, and as I say, I think our target audience is slightly different anyway, so I’m not sure we’d necessarily get a huge boost from that. It’s not like the games would be as similar as us and the UFO Extra Terrestrials game. I don’t know what’s happened to that, but there was talk of it being out some time this year as well so…I’m trying not to worry too much about the Firaxis remake really.

RPS: Have pre-orders been able to cover the money you put into making this yourself, or is it still a long way off?

Chris England: I pretty much have on paper been able to take the money I invested out, which amounts to about 25k, which is about $40,000 I think, but that’s now gone from being a loss to working capital, because you don’t get paid immediately, you get paid 6-8 weeks in arrears, and all this kind of stuff. Sometimes you have to pay people upfront, so the money is not back in my bank account. In accounting terms I’ve made it back and I have access to it, but it’s still floating around in the business, but on the plus side it’s not a loss. The game is profitable, but that’s always a little bit misleading, because all the money that comes in is spent on development, and the development budget expands to fill the money available. If we have 10k to spend, that’ll all be spent on hiring better people, and if we have only have1k we’d still want to spend that, it just means the final product won’t be quite as good.

So the finances are a bit misleading, but it’s going quite well, to date we’ve sold 4,500 pre-orders. Interestingly, the game’s on sale at $20 base price point and $30 as premium price point, and the goodies for doing a premium pre-order have yet to be formally defined. We don’t yet know what they’ll be, at the moment you just get a shiny forum badge.

RPS: I heard you were going to personally visit the home of everyone doing it and cook them a lovely meal.

Chris England: (laughs) yeah I heard that too… There’s not really much advantage for doing a premium pre-order right now apart from the fact we get more money for it, but over two thirds of the orders we’ve done so far have been at the premium pre-order point.

RPS: I guess once someone’s already crossed the psychological barrier on spending on something they won’t get for a while, spending a bit more doesn’t matter.

Chris England: Yeah, I think it’s quite encouraging that people are willing to pay more than you’re asking them to pay for a game, because Xenonauts is a huge game. Compared to a lot of the other indie projects it’s just immense, and I don’t really understand how I didn’t notice this when I started making the game, and I bit off far more than I can chew…

RPS: Even Jake Solomon from Firaxis when I was interviewing him the other week was saying similar.

Chris England: It’s insane, if you look at the human units on the battlefield we’ve got seven different types of human armour, and there’s 30 different weapons, even if you leave aside all the grenades and all the little random pieces of equipment, there’s 30 different weapons in the game, so you have to animate seven different models each with 30 different weapons, plus all the civilians, plus all the local forces, and all this kind of stuff and you have vast amounts of models to model up and rig and animate, and that’s just for the humans. Then you’ve got the aliens, there’s about 40 different types of aliens in the game if you include the variations, and then they all have different weapons as well, and the tiles, the industrial tile set you’ve played on, in all now we’ve done the upgrade ground tiles has 1800 tiles in it. We need 8 tile sets in the game, because you can’t just play one tile set all the time. So it’s insane, it’s absolutely mad.

The good thing is we’re nearly done. All the modeling and all the animation’s been done. We’re still working on the tiles and there’s a few odds and ends there to get done, but asset wise we’re 90% of the way there, and it’s incredible, looking back on it, how we’ve managed to pull that off with such a tiny budget. There’s still quite a lot of stuff we’d like to do which we can’t really justify right now because we need to get the game finished and people are, because they’re part time, I can’t really ask them to do any more. So having more money would be good but happily we’re at the position now where we can finish the game and finish it to a good standard, assuming our pre-orders don’t just dry up overnight.

RPS: Sounds like it’s a good time to change the designation to ‘beta’ to me and see how many sites pick up on that.

Chris England: We’re hoping to launch a beta in amount 2/3 months which would be when the game is feature complete. Right now if you pre-order the game you get access to a build of the game which has only the first third of the game in it. It’s got a research tree but it’s limited to the very first tier of weapons, researchable weapons like lasers for example, and there’s two more tiers of those further on in the game. There’s some researchable personal armour but there’s only one extra one, so you only have access to three of the seven, you haven’t got access to any of the late game Interceptors or anything, and there’s only two alien races in it at the moment.

That’s intentional because we don’t want people to spoil the game. You know, you have that moment when you see a new alien race, you get your hands on a really cool new weapon, it’s not quite the same if you’re doing it in a game that’s half finished, so we’re intentionally holding everything back and in beta it’s basically going to be we’re releasing the full game. There was a lot of balancing and polishing left to do to make it more intuitive and get rid of all the bugs but everything is in the game, you can play through it from start to finish, and that’ll be the beta. We’ve got a bit more work to do before we can do that.

RPS: Because there’s going to be someone, somewhere, who reviews the game off that, which could be a bit of a gamble I guess.

Chris England: Yeah I suppose so, but there’s not a lot you can do about that. The great thing about having the community around the game is that they provide a huge amount of feedback on how we can improve the game, and what we’re looking for in the beta is mostly once we have all the systems in place, how we can make them as easy to use as possible and how we can make the game as balanced as possible… As a small indie team it’s very difficult to do that internally, it would literally be me and a couple of other guys playing the game and balancing it to our particular play styles, and having several thousand people play it and give their feedback on it would be a far better way of making an objectively better game. So there are downsides to what we’re going to do but I think it’s definitely going to be the way forward for us.

RPS: Crowdsourcing, it’s the future apparently…

Chris England: (laughs) The Kickstarter thing does look quite interesting, I’ll have to see how that goes, it’s a possibility for us but we’ll have to look into that in a bit more detail.

RPS: Has there been anything from the original game that you haven’t been able to realise?

Chris England: No, I wouldn’t say there were any features from the original game that we wanted to put in but haven’t been able to, the original game was basically our blueprint for it as I’m sure you can imagine. If there was anything in the game that we weren’t going to put in it had to be a valid design reason why it wasn’t in - such as there’s no blast bombs in the game, there’s no human psychic powers in the game either. We took them out because we thought that was, it was a balance decision, we thought they made the game less fun, because it’s basically just like cheating at the end. But there’s nothing in the game that we wanted to put in but we couldn’t, we’re getting there eventually, there’s a lot of stuff…It is quite nice in that sense, we consider ourselves having improved on the original quite a lot, or certainly will have when the game’s done.

RPS: It is a bold and dangerous statement, but it’d be great if you made good on it.

Chris England: (laughs) Yeah, it’s a difficult one. We’re not trying to make a game that’s more influential than XCOM, because I don’t think we ever will, but making a game that’s better than XCOM is something we should be able to do given how dated the game is. It’s still quite a bold thing to say because I know a lot of the continental remakes have never really succeeded in doing it, but I think we’re on our way to doing it. I think we’ll be able to produce an updated version of the game that is better than the original ,even if it’s just because it’s much more useable and much more user-friendly and has more depth because of the way technology has advanced over the last 15 years.

RPS: Just having a higher resolution and a cleaner UI would help in so many ways.

Chris England: Yeah, but it’s not just that. Sometimes we get dismissed as a project that’s just high-res XCOM, but that’s not exactly what we are. We’ve looked at every single system in the game and thought how we could make it better without changing the fundamentals. I mean, off the top of my head, one of the systems we’re working on at the moment is the soldier recruitment stuff, which in the original XCOM, if you were an experienced player you started to name your soldiers at the end to talk about their role basically - so you can look with a click what that is, and we’re adding a little role button so you can remember a default load out for your snipers and for your riflemen and everything. You can quickly un-equip and re-equip your soldiers and change their roles just by using that.

RPS: That’s a nice idea.

Chris England: Yeah, things like that, and also in the original everyone used to hire loads of soldiers, and just fire the rubbish ones, we’ve basically put in a system where if you choose to hire a soldier you can choose from a list, so you can pick the one with the stats you want. Like if you want to hire a guy to carry your machine gun around you can pick one of the high strength guys. We’ve also put in controls around to stop people from basically just buying loads of soldiers and firing them all and just picking only the super guys. So we’re trying to make the game easier to use and more fun but also less abuse-able. There’re a lot of small changes but I think at the end of it I think the sum of the parts will be a lot greater than it initially sounds.

RPS: Are the soldiers all still really unhappy looking or have you put in some happy ones too now?

Chris England: No, they’re all very unhappy, everyone in the game looks unhappy, that’s our art style. I don’t think our artist can do smiles so yeah, I’m afraid you’re stuck with those.

RPS: Is that the real reason or is it supposed to be ‘these guys are in a really shitty situation; would you be smiling?’

Chris England: Well it is that as well - the whole aesthetic of the game is quite cold and unhappy, that is intentional, but that’s how it would be. I think especially once the whole game is finished and we’ve got the new UI set up it should be a bit more immersive and it should all fit together a bit better. We’re hoping to do a big media update in a few weeks, the game looks much nicer now and will continue to look better in the future, so hopefully we’ll be moving out of the territory of the kind of low res very obviously indie remake and being able to be mentioned in the same breath as the triple A titles that are coming out in the strategy genre, which will be nice.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Xenonauts will be out later this year, but you can pre-order it today and receive immediate access to current and future early builds.

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Alec Meer


Ancient co-founder of RPS. Long gone. Now mostly writes for rather than about video games.