Two XCOM: Enemy Unknown interviews in (across four huge posts), I'm afraid I'm still nowhere near out of questions. And people are still saying 'why didn't you ask about thing x?' Well, let's do it all over again. Once more, Firaxis' Jake Solomon fields my endless queries about his reboot/remake/reimainging of precious, precious X-COM - and in this first of two parts, we talk about the new look, newly not-stupid Floater, the length of the game, approximately how many fatalities you can expect to suffer, coming up with prototypical names for the soldiers, squad sizes and modding. Oh, and please click on the first three screenshots for larger versions.
Jake Solomon: This is like our third interview
RPS: I know, it’s getting silly.
Jake Solomon: I was worried they were going to bring someone else in like good cop/bad cop. I’m not sure which one you’d be. Then somebody comes in and starts asking about rumours or something. ‘Where’s Alec? I want to talk to Alec!’
RPS: We’re going to send in a guy who’s just going to ask about DLC release dates and try to make you say something rude about Bobby Kotick.
Jake Solomon: Uh-oh!
RPS: I’ll kick off with the Floater, as that’s the new news I guess. So you’ve made him not a complete pushover this time around?
Jake Solomon: Yeah, if you remember the Floater from the original, he was about on par with the Sectoids and he could actually fly but he had that big steel ball down in his belly and he had the crimson cape, and he would float around and take shots at you. We wanted to take him and push him further, without forgetting who he is. We wanted someone who could fly but he comes a little later in progression and he’s aggressive, and we thought ‘this is a good guy to have operating in groups’.
Sort of the tack that we’ve taken with all of the aliens from the originals, we look at the original and then we want to push a little more and come up with something that’s characteristic of the original aliens. And so we thought, well he should be able to fly to anywhere in the battlefield, so he can, if you’re leaving stragglers behind, or just to get around you you’ll encounter a group of them, and then one of them will take off, and then land entirely behind you, and so tactically they’re a lot of fun.
RPS: I’ve got this image when you talk about moving in packs like a sort of herd of winged monkeys, Wizard of Oz style.
Jake Solomon: It’s true, they actually do kind of give off that vibe, I hadn’t thought about that. That wasn’t intentional. I believe MGM is very litigious, so…
RPS: Alright, definitely not winged monkeys. They are going to be a pretty hardcore threat throughout, they’re not going to become the stupid fodder that the old caped ones were at any point?
Jake Solomon: That’s actually the big secret to the game. When you get to the end, then all of a sudden the old aliens will come out with a cape on, only this time he’s four storeys tall, and a giant cape. No, they’re hardcore. They’re earlier in the progression, but they still pack quite a punch.
RPS: It seems to be quite thematically in keeping with the Muton and the Beserker? Are we supposed to intuit that these guys are related in some way?
Jake Solomon: You mean the Floater and them?
RPS: The Floater and the Mutons and the Beserker, they look as though they’ve been cut from the same cloth.
Jake Solomon: Yeah, a little bit, yes. That’s an intuitive observation. The Floater looks like a much more tortured version of the Muton, so that’s an interesting observation I’ll say.
RPS: I noticed in the GameTrailers piece that apparently the Floater ‘lives a life of pain and rage’. Is that something to do with him having no legs?
Jake Solomon: I thought that was pretty poetic. ‘He lives a life of pain and rage’. Actually when I saw that I was like ‘boy, I look like an asshole’. I felt a little pretentious after I actually watched myself saying it. That was sort of the idea, that he’s tortured. He is this creature who wasn’t good enough in just the flesh form, and so he was enhanced or augmented with these additional mechanical apparatus, and that actually does come out of the original game as well, because the autopsy in the original game, they basically replaced his organs with this anti-grav system, and he always struck me as a sad character. Now, in the original he did seem kind of sad because he floated around and was kind of slow, but we wanted to reflect that in the sense that he’s a horrible mixed amalgam of flesh and metal, so that the idea was that he is a beserk-like rage built creature, so that’s what makes him sort of aggressive.
RPS: So what does he do to unwind?
Jake Solomon: He has a cup of tea and watches PBS. Where do they keep all these guys? That’s always the question, right? You don’t want to dig too deeply, right? Where were the cages for all of these bizarre alien menagerie. It’s kind of awkward isn’t it, when you’re on the battlefield it’s cool but at some point they have to turn off and be like ‘Alright Fred, we’re done.’
RPS: They’ve got like the Projects for Mutons somewhere where they all just hang out and watch TV.
Jake Solomon: I see them just clocking in from the UFO. They just walk by, stamp their card, and ‘Alright, let’s go. Let’s rip some heads.’
RPS: ‘Terror mission again, Dave. We’re off’.
Jake Solomon: ‘Oh God, not another terror mission.’
RPS: So where are you guys at with the game at the moment, because it’s out in Fall as I believe you Americans refer to our proud season of autumn, so you must be getting close to QA and console approval stage by now?
Jake Solomon: Yeah, we are. Speaking for myself personally, actually, and this was just coincidental, but I actually just beat the game last night, late, late, late last night. I’ve beaten the game before obviously, I have played this game, this may come as a shock, but I hadn’t beaten it in quite so final a state yet. So we’re at the point where my job is balance and polish. The kind of tricky thing is that I’m also a programmer, which is kind of a nightmare for my producer, because when you get to the end of the projects you actually have more power than ever. Once you see everything working you can make these drastic sweeping changes, and if you’re just a designer your producer says ‘Oh, we don’t have anyone to work on that right now’, but since I do both I can be like ‘Ah, that’s ok, I’ll take it. No problem.’ So right now what I’m doing is basically playing through the game, balancing the different difficulty levels, balancing the aliens, having lots of regular iteration meetings with my guys to talk about ‘well, I think he should work more like this, or ‘I don’t see him using this ability much’.
So yeah, it’s kind of crazy. It really was the first time it was so final to play through the experience and a lot of the narrative is in there and there’s all these moments, and it’s a long, long game. Part of the challenge in balancing is that it’s quite a long game, I’ll say that. My next step balance-wise is probably to bring it in a little bit because it’s a serious game.
RPS: And presumably on top of that length many people are going to be branching off quite a bit to knuckle down to research, or finding side missions or stuff to extend it and do it their own way and make the kind of build they want?
Jake Solomon: That’s something I’m really interested in providing for people, and that’s something I meandered around because I’m the kind of guy who, I don’t want to go into something unless my guys are as good as they can be, so I moved a little bit slower when there were things that I knew. The game was like ‘Alright! This is the next big thing’ and I’d be like ‘Well…let’s wait until…’ My rock star spoldier was Katy Coleman, who was a sniper, and so I would always wait until I could get her the best gear to go in. But since I beat the game, it was very, very long, which was good, but just in case anyone’s worried, I was playing on normal difficulty, and I designed this game, and I still lost twenty-two soldiers over the course of the invasion. So it’s a sort of thing where I know that some people are worried with the smaller squad sizes, is it going to happen that often? At least for me it was pretty horrific.
RPS: What does that twenty-two represent of the number of soldiers you fielded throughout, the live ones plus the dead ones?
Jake Solomon: I think I probably had ten or twelve levelled up that if I needed to, somebody’s injured, somebody’s unavailable for some other reason, I field from this group of about ten or twelve, then on top of that, you’re constantly losing people over the course of the game and you’ve always got this group of ten, twelve because people are getting injured all the time, and missions are coming up unexpectedly and you’re feeding people in. You’re bringing rookies, and it’s an interesting experience because right now we’re trying to tweak the Will, which is sort of the bravery stat for our soldiers.
The downside is you can give a rookie the greatest gear in the world, but they’re the ones who, when the aliens come out and people start getting wounded, then the rookies are the ones who lose their shit and start freaking out and panicking. I’d say there’s a group of about 10-12 of your regulars, and then you’ve got 2 or 3 favourites. At least for me, I had 2 or 3 that were my absolute favourites that by the end of the game had racked up 40 or 50 kills. And then you’ve got a group of 20 fallen warriors I suppose.
RPS: I often found in the original that I’d be coming up with a ‘B’ team, guys who could step in just in case there was some terrible disaster. I’d often end up accidentally favouring them anyway. Is that something that people are likely to do?
Jake Solomon: Absolutely, because your soldiers can become unavailable for different reasons. I had this girl, her name was Zusanna or something like that. She was a Russian assault soldier. And then I had this guy, I’d two assault soldiers, one was Maximilian Hoffman, he was <em>not</em> Irish, he was a good German kid. Then I had Brad Lane, who was an American soldier... they have very prototypical names. Those were my two assault guys. But this was late, late on in the game, they were both my stud assault soldiers, they were both wounded, and so I was like ‘Alright’. This girl Zusanna, she is this Russian assault soldier but she had had like one chance and then I just never used her again. The experience from the original game when you’re kind of like ‘Alright, you’re coming to the big league, you’re getting called up Zusanna. Brad, take off your armour, you’re giving it to her, she’s going in.’ So yeah, you do have this top squad, and when you have all those guys together you feel like ‘Alright’. And then you’ve got this rotating cast of character actors and you’re like ‘Oh, this is that guy. Here you go, you get the sniper rifle this time, try not to break anything.’
RPS: Talking about squad sizes generally, I know this is one of the things that people have complained about on the internet, but I haven’t actually got a full sense of it myself. Is it four or something you field per mission?
Jake Solomon: It’s four when the game begins, and then there’s a facility called the Officer Training School which gives you a number of different benefits that are related to your soldiers, and then that also is how you increase your squad size up to six at the end. You start with four, and then you can go up to six. And I totally, totally, totally understand people who are experienced with the original game. There’re some guys who would get excited when they got the Avenger because they could field forty people, they could just be like ‘That’s it, the entire brigade, everyone cram in.’
RPS: Like a bus that you took to the battlefield.
Jake Solomon: There were people who weren’t even part of XCOM, you’re like ‘Who brought the engineer? How did this guy end up here?’ The guy’s like ‘Is this going to downtown? Is this not the…?’ I always found that interminable, so I played, and maybe this factored in, but I played with more than four to six in the original game, I probably played more with eight to ten, and that’s fair.
RPS: I just squeezed in as many tanks as I could generally.
Jake Solomon: Right, I know, they take up like four spots. But the thing is that with six soldiers I understand that the people’s experience is with the original game and not with this game, so it’s perfectly fair, I understand the worry about that. But I will say that after playing through at this late stage, six was plenty. Because they have the classes and they slot into these roles, and because they can do many ,many things, by the end when your guys get to Major, Colonel, they have a lot of things that they can do, so it would not be fun to manage more than that group of six. So I’m really happy with how that turned out. You get a group of six and you can sort of play with, you’ve got four classes, so then it’s like a personal choice of ‘do you like running with assaults?’ And a big part of XCOM is playing with the hand you’re dealt, that’s a big thing in strategy games in general. A lot of the fun comes not from being able to carry out exactly the strategy you want but rather having these sort of setbacks occur and you coming up with a new tactic.
Part of it is guys die…I had a mission where four out of my six soldiers died, and it was a big mission and so I wasn’t going to freeload. It was the sort of thing where, and it was about halfway through the game, where you’re just sort of like ‘well, I guess we start over’, and there are two people who survived through that and then one of them died on the next mission. But then you look at your ‘B’ team and you’re like ‘I’ve got two heavies and an assault’ so you just change the squad make up and you just start playing a different way. That’s the way that it plays out.
RPS: We talked briefly about whether there might be modding in one of the other interviews - would you be open to people tweaking for their own edification, the really hardcore who want to take thirty men to the field, or is it really an impossibility?
Jake Solomon: I don’t know that it’s an impossibility, I get in trouble with my lead programmer when I start talking about the things that I want to do. But yeah, let’s say that modding did happen, I would be thrilled to see that happen. It’s the sort of thing where I’m more than happy for people to do that, and the joy of something like modding, and I’m talking about this in the general sense. As a designer, I think all good designers completely realise that you are not the smartest guy in the room. I certainly don’t think that I know what’s best for everyone, and I think that because of the fact that some people may want different experiences, it’s fine. What you try to do is say ‘Ok, I’m going to try to make the experience that I think is going to work, that I think appeals to the most players of XCOM.’ But it’s exciting to see the stuff, and on the Civ team we see this stuff too, people make mods and you’re like ‘Wow, that is really, really impressive’.
RPS: Fall From Heaven and the like.
Jake Solomon: Right, Fall From Heaven is a great example where you could sit back and say like ‘Wow, they made that out of my game? I’m a genius!’ [Laughs] But it’s just really, really impressive. It’s sort of exciting to think about the things that people could do, and I know that a lot of people talk about ‘Well, let’s make it more like the original’; that’s fine, but I don’t know that that’s the most exciting thing. I think what’s most exciting is that someone’s going to come up with something that’s like ‘Alright, you plant flowers in this game’ or something like that. I think people can really shock you with what they come up with.
In part two, which I shall endeavour to put up tomorrow presuming time doesn't once again get the better of me, we talk about Xenonauts, lethality, the Beserker, the divisive 'glamcam' and soldier barks and capturing live aliens.