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Firaxis' Jake Solomon Post-Mortems XCOM: Part One

On accents, bases, guns and surprises

With Firaxis' de-hyphenated, largely very well-received remake of the legendary, incomparable, enormous-haircutted X-COM now out there saving the Earth from the worst scum of the universe for several months, now seems the time to sit down with its enthusiastic main man Jake Solomon. What went right, what went wrong and what comes next? As per recent tradition, we had a very long chat.

Covered in this first part - the base, the skills, the missing element of surprise and what they've learned if they ever do this again. Edited out to spare you the horror: his Punch & Judy-style impersonation of an Englishman.

RPS: I went back and played the original recently, even did a retrospective on Eurogamer about it, and it really was so different. They felt like companion products rather than replacements because yours is... Look at all the skills and tools you’ve got, you can basically calculate what all the potential outcomes are, whereas XCOM is more about throwing all this meat at the grinder and just hope you survive whatever you encounter.

Jake Solomon: Yeah, I’m very very glad that it’s worked out that way. The original remains this masterpiece, nobody’s going to make a game that’s going to overshadow the original, but I’m just glad that it still stands there as its own completely separate game. I would never tell somebody ‘oh yeah, play our XCOM, you don’t have to play the original’. It’s not at all the case. It’s ‘look, they are two completely different games that you need to play, if you’re a gamer you need to play the original and have that completely unpredictable experience. It’s very fuzzy, but it also feels really authentic because you know that the UFOs are out there, whether or not you can detect them, they don’t care. They’re out there flying. I love that game.

RPS: Yeah, they’re doing their thing, secretly, and maybe you can catch some of them…

Jake Solomon: It’s awesome.

RPS: What’s your general feeling about XCOM now, now that it’s out in the world? How much does it match what you’d expected and intended it to be?

Jake Solomon: It’s such a strange position to be in. Making a modern XCOM, that’s been the goal, that has always been my dream job. It’s very weird to be on the other side of your dream job and still only be 35. And it’s weird because our team, we worked on it for a very long time, about five years, we put in crazy, crazy hours, and for the bulk of that nobody even knew the game existed.

I think it was almost exactly a year ago that we even went public with it, so there was this long period of time when we had no idea what the reception was going to be. For four years we were just working on this thing, and the reception was great, and the previews were great, and then the actual critical reception was awesome, and fans loved it. I was just very, very happy for the team and it was nice to have that occur, but it’s a very weird transition to then all of a sudden be done with it.

I was so thrilled when we were done with the game because I was so tired of it in some ways, but then you know, everybody likes it, and it’s human nature I suppose, then you start forgetting about all the long, long nights and the terrible prototypes and the year-long stretches when the game wasn’t any fun at all and you were terrified that you were a failure and you were going to ruin everybody’s lives.

Then you look back and you’re like ‘I almost don’t want to let it go’ which is why the Second Wave’s been kinda fun, to go back to it and still work with the code. I’m happy, it’s strange to transition from that point where the XCOM that we all worked on is actually at this point kind of history.

It’s almost like ‘Oh, that’s a game I worked on’, as opposed to, for the longest time personally for me that was my life, for the longest, longest time, and a lot of guys on the team, that was their lives. It’s strange to be like ‘Ok, that was just a game we worked on, and now we’re moving on.’ That being said, it’s not like it’s a bad thing, it’s just very strange to still come to terms with that. Last week was my first week back at work in almost three months, so…

RPS: You’ve just been lounging on your luxury yacht made of gold…

Jake Solomon: Yes, also taking care of a newborn. It’s the most rewarding vacation, not the most relaxing one. Now, looking at the future, and looking at everything that’s to come, it’s just very different. When we were working on XCOM, nobody even knew it existed, the game we were trying to re-make was twenty years old, so in some sense design-wise and everything, every development aspect of the game, we could do whatever we wanted. There was nobody to tell us, there’s no data telling us whether that’s right or wrong, and so…

I don’t know if that was actually a good thing, it made for a lot of the terrifying nature of the development process where we made a lot of mistakes, and me personally, I made a lot of very un-fun decisions, and the game wasn’t very fun for very long. But then going forward you miss the freedom of saying ‘Well, now we can just do whatever we want’, because you find that you actually can’t do that if you want to think about XCOM's future or whatever, you find yourself saying ‘well, we actually have hard data saying “people want this, people don’t want that”’ and it’s just a much different perspective. It’s been really awesome, but it’s just been such a change, such a shift over the last couple of months.

RPS: I guess you changed from being a black ops outfit to doing it all in the public eye. People know your name now, which I guess they didn’t before - the internet knows who you are and wants to know what you’re doing, which is bound to be a big shift.

Jake Solomon: Yeah it is, it’s the sort of thing where in some ways, thinking about things, debates are certainly easier. We used to have the ability to debate between, let’s say, engineering and design, or art and engineering, whatever it is, you sort of had to make your case of what you thought people would find value in. I would say ‘No, no, no, we have to have this, people are going to really want that’, or ‘No, that stuff doesn’t matter, people aren’t really going to give a shit’.

Like the accents on soldiers (all soldiers in XCOM speak with American voices regardless of their country of origin - International Ed). That was me, I was kinda like ‘People aren’t going to give a shit that everybody sounds the same’, and obviously I was completely wrong, but it’s one of those things.

RPS: A lot of readers on our site were annoyed about that, yeah.

Jake Solomon: (laughs) I’ve heard that Yahtzee, from Zero Punctuation, has offered to spearhead a mod in which they actually do real accents. It’s one of those things where before you sort of had this freedom to have these debates, but now there’s a lot less freedom in those debates because we can say ‘Well, there are a lot of people playing the game, we have a lot of feedback now." So we can say "this is what people find value in, this is what they did not like, or did not find any value in that we spent all this effort on” or “look, we need to really think about this going forward because people found a lot of value in this and we didn’t expect that”’.

It’s not like that’s a bad thing. Good lord, the alternative is that nobody gives a shit about your game and you primarily are making a sequel. It’s the sort of thing where going forward, when you think about the game and think about design, it’s just interesting to view things from a perspective where you have a lot of feedback. It really makes people who are fans of the game, they become a major part of the development process where that just didn’t even exist before.

RPS: Presumably there’s a fine line to walk between making sure you’re responding to what people want and not being this sort of bland, made by committee thing like a Farmville, where it’s just about the hotspots where people click and what the behaviours are.

Jake Solomon: Oh yeah, we are definitely not metrics-driven. Metrics don’t have a lot of value for us, it’s more interpreting, but it is interpreting what you hear and saying ‘ok…’ Like the maps thing is very, very interesting, I went out there before release and I was very confident in saying ‘two full playthroughs and you won’t see the same map.', Butt that’s not as much value as I thought that was, that actually doesn’t work out to be as much value as you would hope because people have played for hundreds of hours, people have played 100 hours, and 200 hours, and it’s shocking to them, it really is shocking.

So you really have to say ‘ok, we need to reinterpret what is actually going to give the most value to people, how they really want to play the game’. It’s interesting. The danger too is to sit there and say ‘Well, people really liked this so we should give them more of that.’ The danger is that then you don’t come up with anything new and interesting, and instead you are just polishing edges or not innovating in any interesting way, that’s dangerous too.

RPS: Yeah, or you could end up with a sort of ‘Revenge of the Sith’ situation where it’s just a parade of fanservice and no real heart. Is there anything you personally regret or wish you’d done differently, anything you look at and think ‘oh God, why?’

Jake Solomon: I don’t have any major regrets, it’s just more that now that the game is a finished product and I’ve played it enough, and to hear feedback, to really evaluate it, I think that the weapons, I think they’re interesting, but not as interesting as I'd like. The classes are certainly interesting, but then the weapons... Like, Laser weapons are not much more than more powerful conventional weapons. Then the Plasma weapons are not much more than more powerful Laser weapons, so it’s kind of a lost opportunity there.

We’ve got some really cool stuff, like in the armour, the Ghost stuff and the jet packs, but the weapons didn’t do that, and I think that that’s sort of a missed opportunity. Anything that doesn’t add to replay value, where it’s like the game objectives are the same every time, and so you have to do the same hard gate to beat the game...

That’s fine, but it’s one of those things where I wish I’d found a way to maybe make that a little more random or at least have an option where you have to do different things to beat the game, or multiple victory conditions, or something that would allow the game to feel much more organic. Things like that, anything where it sort of feels like the game doesn’t feel as organic, those are the things that you kind of give a hard look to, and say ‘people are playing the game a lot, and these are the sort of things that maybe wear thin after a while.’ I was playing Borderlands 2, and their weapons system, which is straightforward but they do such a good job of it, and I just think that that kind of stuff is really interesting, and it makes a lot of sense for games, even like XCOM.

RPS: Yeah I guess even on harder difficulty settings you're following the same route up the tech tree and once you've done it once there aren't any surprises.

Jake Solomon: It’s a balance between balance basically and endless play. The original game had a little bit more of that endless play, because it’s very hard to strike that balance between well balanced gameplay and then gameplay that goes on forever. I think Civ does a really, really good job of that. You never really beat a game of Civ and think ‘alright, that’s it then’. You always feel like there’s another way to do that.

RPS: But then that’s the game where you get a fold out wall chart because there are so many skills in it.

Jake Solomon: Right, exactly. And you always set out to do one thing. You sort of set out to do one thing in Civ, and typically you end up doing something else. That’s always what makes it interesting for me. XCOM’s more of a game of struggle but you know what you’re trying to do, and you’re struggling against odds but you’re never, from my angle on the strategy layer, surprised enough. That’s something I think about a lot now, post-launch.

RPS: But it’s also a strength to some degree. It’s quite like a board game, you have a hand of cards in any given situation, you learn gradually what they all do, you try and calculate what to do with your hand, and that suits the strategy as well as helping it stand apart from the original.

Jake Solomon: That’s true, the idea of using the hand you’re dealt and dealing with mounting losses and unexpected losses. From a post mortem angle, the Iron Man mode was never something that we considered to be a big deal internally, and it has become a very very big deal now that the game is out. That was something that went in post-alpha, and I don’t know that we considered it to be that big of a deal, it was just sort of like ‘oh yeah, this is a feature we think we should offer people.’

It’s become a lot of people’s de facto way to play the game, which was again surprising, and if you think of Iron Man as the de facto way to play the game then I think you can do a lot more interesting stuff too. You could have something where... you know in Torchlight where you can enchant weapons, and I love that, it’s this sort of random ‘oh fuck, you just cursed the weapon’, every time you’re like ‘well, I’ll have one more enchantment’, and then it’s like ‘oh, it’s ruined, it’s ruined?'

RPS: Yeah, or you put four valuable items into the blender hoping to get something better, but you wind up with something worse.

Jake Solomon: It really is fascinating. Before the game comes out you’re just guessing, you’re just guessing at what you think people are going to like, and certainly you know to some extent, but you really don’t know until people have played it. ‘Oh, so that’s what people need more of, that’s what they really enjoy,’ and so it’s just funny to do something without any of that input. Now we can look back and say ‘ok, these are the things.’

RPS: How do you feel about how the base turned out> It seemed to me as though it, and Interception, was not entirely fleshed out. It seemed to be purely a way of serving the battles rather than serving its own function if you see what I mean.

Jake Solomon: Yeah, I think that’s true. I think that to a certain extent, functionally, I think there’s something to be desired there. There’s still a lot of potential there, because personally I love the base, I love, love, love the way it looks, I love having it and seeing the little people.

I don’t know, maybe it’s my GI Joe nature coming out. It feels really cool and adds to that sense of ‘I am a commander’. Seeing that always reinforces that sense of ‘I’m the bossnder.’ But, that being said, I think we all have had these really long lists of things that we would like to do to it, but I think that functionally there could be more that could be done. Obviously the base attacks weren’t in there/ I think that that probably reduces some of the impact of it, because in the original game you had your base and you didn’t really feel a strong connection to it until all of a sudden you had a base assault, and then you were down in the actual base that you constructed and fighting for it.

RPS: That’s the thing, it doesn’t feel like much more than a graphic or a really nice looking menu backdrop, because it doesn’t come into play itself.

Jake Solomon: Right, and the fact that when you go to build we show a blueprint instead of showing the actual facility, so there’re some things. I think there’s still a lot of potential there. Personally though I still love going in there and zooming around, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a lot of potential there to be fulfilled, and I think you’re right.

Functionally there’s still a lot of stuff that it could do, base assaults probably being the primary thing that you think of in terms of building a stronger connection between what the player does with their base and making that pretty thing into something that’s a little more…like everything in XCOM seems to matter, except maybe the base doesn’t matter as much. The layout does, but the actual 3D base doesn’t matter as much and so that’s certainly something that I agree with.

RPS: I guess you’ve probably looked at it as a proud father, ‘Look at what I have wrought’, but to the rest of us it’s kind of ‘What does this do? How does this help me?’

Jake Solomon: (laughs) I suppose in that sense everything does seem to have meaning in the rest of the game, everything does have meaning, so maybe that has less, I think that’s probably fair.

In part two, we talk bugs, patches, console vs PC reception, attachment to soldiers, what XCOM may mean for the future of strategy and the potential perils of fantastical settings.

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