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Jake Solomon uncut: here's our post-Firaxis GDC interview in full

The full Q&A transcript of our hour-long chat

A collage of screenshots from Marvel's Midnight Suns and XCOM Enemy Unknown and a photograph of designer Jake Solomon
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

Over the last week and a bit, we've been steadily releasing a bunch of stories from our big, hour-long chat with XCOM and Marvel's Midnight Suns director Jake Solomon that took place at this year's GDC. It was a wide-ranging interview, looking at what Solomon plans to do next now that he's left Firaxis, and how he feels about his 20+ year career there. You can read the condensed version of that interview here, but as a treat for RPS supporters, I thought you might like to read our chat in full. There's still a lot I couldn't quite squeeze into separate news stories here, and I think (and hope) you'll find it interesting to read as a whole. So here it is. All 8760-odd words of it. Enjoy.

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As mentioned in the original feature, my chat with Solomon took place the day after he revealed he wanted to leave turn-based tactics games behind and focus on trying to make a life sim game. That news was revealed on Simon Parkin's My Perfect Console podcast, and I'd recommend giving that a listen if you haven't already, as it's a) a great episode in its own right, and b) is handy background reading (listening?) for a lot of the questions I ask below.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

RPS: So you've left Firaxis! How does that feel?

Jake Solomon: I left on Friday, so this is my third work day unemployed. Yeah, it's surreal, right? It's surreal. Obviously, I'd been there a long time. They were awesome. Everybody was really nice. Sid got up and said some nice things. So it was tough. It was tough to leave. It's such a great... I mean, I still love it. For the next, probably 10 years, I'll refer to it as 'we' when we talk about Firaxis, and it's sad to think that it's not the right pronoun anymore. It's exciting, but, you know, a little terrifying.

You didn't fancy becoming like another Sid-type figure, passing that knowledge down to the next generation?

Obviously I owe Sid so much. We reminisced a bunch. We reminisced in front of the company once when he was saying goodbye, we got up, we talked about all the things we've done together over the course of my career there. But it is nice, because then there are people there at Firaxis - awesome, awesome designers who I've worked with for a long time. So they'll carry on the torch. They'll do a great job.

What have you mainly been doing since the launch of Midnight Suns? Were you involved in the DLC?

Yeah, I did. Joe Weinhoffer is the other designer on Midnight Suns, and so I designed a hero, and he designed a hero, and then he would take the point on one, I'd take point on the other. Then I'd do small things like designing their Abbey outfits, the clothes they wear. That's just like a personal hobby of mine! [laughs] I haven't been working nearly as hard as I did on the base game. But yeah, I've been involved in the DLC. I was doing play tests and things like that. And then the work ramps down towards the end of DLC, and it was surreal to see my Outlook calendar going from like meetings, meetings, meetings, and then like it started being like, you see multiple free days on your calendar and towards the last week, you have no meetings for the next seven days. I was like, 'Oh!'. It felt very strange.

Do you enjoy meetings?

No! I hate meetings. I hate them. But it just seems so final.

The Midnight Suns and Avengers gather around the Mirror Table in Marvel's Midnight Suns
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

At what point did you realise that it was time to move on?

I think around the launch of Midnight Suns, maybe a little before the launch of Midnight Suns, I'd say, that I felt, 'Okay…' You know? I really, really enjoyed working with the team on that, I was really proud of the game that the team made, and my contribution to it. But I started to think about what's next, and thinking about a turn-based game, there's obviously a lot about that that appeals to me. But for the first time, it didn't appeal to me as much, and my brain just started lighting up with different ideas. What if I did this, what if I did that? And I started to realise that's no way to go into another big project. I just started to feel like it was time for me to actually take a risk, I guess. So a little bit before Midnight Suns' launch, I started thinking about this actually might be time, it's probably gonna be my last project here.

Your new ideas weren't something you could have pitched to Firaxis?

Yeah, I could, I suppose I could. But I just felt like what I wanted to do, it's not in the vein of what I've done at Firaxis. I felt like it would have been a really big left turn, and at that point, Firaxis has so many great opportunities - there are so many great, historic franchises there, and I have no insight into what they want to do next - but they have the people to do it. They have the designers to do it. They could do all of those things.

And so for me to then try and throw another wrench in there and say, 'Hey, how about this other new thing?' [There's] XCOM, we did Midnight Suns, obviously Civ is amazing, there's a lot of things, I mean, even back to [Sid Meier's] Pirates… I've no idea what they want to do, but there's so many things they could do, and the idea of me then saying like, and how about this new thing? I think it just wouldn't have been fair to everybody.

I was intrigued that when you were talking to journalist Simon Parkin on his My Perfect Console podcast, you mentioned that you were quite excited by the idea of a life sim game. What life sims have you played over the years? What is it about them that you enjoy?

There's a number of things that appeal. Without talking specifically about what it is I want to do, I think that the appeal of life sims is kind of manifold, but I think that, one, it's just life in miniature, right? From model train sets to doll houses to army men, there's something about life in miniature that I think is just naturally appealing. And I think the power of having the life that you want? You think like, 'Oh my gosh, simulating life, like, I already have a life and that feels like enough work!' But being able to have a different life and a life you want, I think it's really, really appealing.

And then obviously, being able to experiment - like a playful… like a toy almost. Those games are basically a toy that you can experiment with and be delighted by. You can be surprised by the outcome of things you do, or the simulation itself can surprise you. And that's true for any sort of simulation-based game. I even think of the original X-COM that Julian Gollop made, it was way more of a simulation than a strategy [game]. Simulations can really delight you, because they're following these rules that sometimes are hidden from you. And they can surprise you, and it just feels more authentic. Even Dwarf Fortress, that's a simulation that just delights you because you're like, 'Oh, this feels authentic.' It feels like it's following rules, but it feels like it can transport you in that way. So that's why simulation really appeals.

Soldiers walk across a gangway in front of a blue globe in the HQ of XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Image credit: 2K Games

Is it those stories that emerge from within the simulation that get you fired up?

Yeah, I think that everything feels original, there's a lot of procedural-ness to it, right? And then everything feels original to you because it's procedural. And when it feels original, it feels authentic. And it feels shareable. Even if it's just turning to your partner and saying, 'You're never going to believe what just happened!' Whether it's Dwarf Fortress, or whether it's The Sims or whatever it is, simulation can create some really fun experiences.

Do you feel like that your own gaming tastes - the stuff that you play for fun - do you feel that's changed over time to become more simulation based?

That's a good question. I mean, it is interesting. For me, the challenge is that I think because of my training under Sid, I tend to veer away from simulation and into like, 'Let's have some clear cut rules that are almost board game-like in terms of if you do this, you get that.' That is typically the way that I like to approach design. The player knows what's going to happen, and if you do this, you get that. And I think that was even more evident in Midnight Suns. We just tried to put as much information out there in front of the player as possible. So I think maybe that'll be the biggest challenge for me.

But in terms of gaming tastes, I've always liked simulation. And I've always kind of viewed it as like, I do not know how they design this stuff. Because for me, I always tend to veer backwards. I like the safety of putting the rules front and centre.

If you feel like that when you play other people's games, does that frighten you in terms of making your own?

Oh yes, and I had the same experience with Midnight Suns, because I always loved card game design, always, always. I had no experience with it, and so, as a team, as designers, when we first started approaching that challenge, it was all so scary because there are so, so many good iterations on card mechanics. I've always loved them and viewed other people's designs as being so elegant and clever, and I didn't understand how to do it. But it was very, very rewarding. And so, I at least have that experience to say, 'Okay, I can learn some new design skills'. I love that part of Midnight Suns, and so that is actually really exciting to me.

A soldier closes in on an alien in XCOM 2
Image credit: 2K Games

I think that there is a throughline there, because with XCOM you still get those emerging stories coming out of what happens, and then with Midnight Suns you've got the life sim stuff back at the Abbey. It feels like you have been naturally progressing towards that end of the spectrum all along - would you agree with that?

Yeah, I think the best moments are the stories that are created. I love the scripted narrative, but the best stories by far are the stories where they're created just by the systems that are in there. Another thing is that I really do love system design as a designer, and so simulations are all driven by system design as well. It's a number of systems interacting in ways that are surprising. And that can happen in our game as you said before. XCOM is a great example of a bunch of systems - there's so many systems that it would be hard to track them all as a player - so you will get surprised and say, 'Oh man, I did not expect that to happen, that was a really dramatic moment.' That's as dramatic as any scripted narrative anybody can write.

Now that you're looking more towards the live sim genre, has there been a lot of iteration in it in from your point of view, or is there still room to do something new?

Well, Paradox and Ron Humble just did a really neat [thing]. I mean, I thought that that take on that straight up life sim was unique. It's interesting to look at. There's a lot of village simulations, right? So I don't know if it's pejorative yet but cosy games, right? There's a sim-ish nature to that even down to Stardew and things like that. And then to see something like Dwarf Fortress go from ASCII to actual graphics and then seeing how popular that is, I think that there's been iteration. But definitely to me, I see an opportunity. As a designer, I see a lot of ways that I'd love to jump in and have my own take on this.

On Simon's podcast, you picked Minecraft as one of your five games.

Oh, yeah. What a cheap, cheap pick.

I don't think it's cheap at all.

I should have should have clowned him and sent him a list of five and it's like okay, like Fortnite, Minecraft, Roblox, Genshin Impact.

All the forever games.

It would be a very profitable console.

In playing Minecraft with your kids, has that contributed to giving you the life sim itch?

100%, and less the sim side, [and more] as the idea of games as a platform for creativity. I know that sounds, god, I know that sounds like blowhard, office designer-y, but I really do believe the best experiences that I've had in the last, I don't know, five years are games that are platforms for being able to create. I think simulation-style games are great at that. And I think that Minecraft is a great example. Just by playing the game, you end up with something that you've created. And so my experience with my daughters is always like, we play and then when we end they are four or five really cool, meaningful creations for each of us. We're like, Yeah, I made a statue here. I made a house here, whatever it is. Just by playing a game, you end up with creation. And then it's such a powerful feeling. People do like to express themselves. Being able to do that through games, I think it's like almost limitless potential. Games like that, they never end, so it doesn't surprise me where games where you can express yourself creatively, people play those for years and years and years.

Do you aspire to create a game that never ends?

I do, I do. It'd be nice, because then I could, maybe I… Although I probably would go crazy. Like, yeah, I'm just still working on the same game 15 years later. I don't know if I could do that. But I'd be willing to try because that probably means that it was successful.

The Hunter plays a video game with Peter Parker in Marvel's Midnight Suns

I was also very interested to hear about Dusk, which you described on the podcast as your 'big idea' when you were working on XCOM. Where did that idea come from?

It did come from playing Minecraft and saying like, 'Oh man, there's so much more I wish I could do as a player,' and thinking about it as a designer. The game is in its own way perfect, but if you were gonna take a stab at that... Again, it was already me thinking about how can you find a way to make a game where creativity and expression is part of just playing the game? And so I've always loved the idea of really rotating it around this kernel of an idea of being able to evolve life or being able to customise life and creatures, even plant life, and the ability to then have these ecosystems and visit different worlds. Kind of like No Man's Sky, but if you were the one creating the world, as opposed to visiting it. That's all very high-minded. It sounds great - and it was - but we only got like 9-10 months into it. And it was really, really difficult. Just like the tech, to even get that coming close to that idea was pretty overwhelming.

Do you feel like the tech is in a better place to do that now?

I think so. Yeah, I really do. I think tech makes leaps and bounds, and so to do something like Dusk, which is not, that's not what I plan to do, but to do something like Dusk... I mean, still, I'm talking about it, that's the problem - designers have like 40 ideas. And I'm like, 'I guess I'll never get to make Dusk properly!' But even talking about it gets me excited about it. Like, 'Oh, can you imagine if all you need is a few… the fidelity shouldn't be too high, so it doesn't look crazy when you stick wings on the back of a bobcat or whatever it is…' But it just would be really, really fun. If it was essential to evolve new creatures, and then just by playing the game, you end up with like a lot of different creations that you feel like are unique to you and are worth sharing with other people... But yeah, I think the tech is probably in a much better place now.

Were there any other challenges that you found in realising that idea aside from the tech?

Yeah, I think the design - coming up with the reason. You can have a creative mode where you can do all that stuff, and that's fun. But I do believe in being game-led where there's game objectives sitting over the top of the toy, as I would call it. So people eventually will say, 'All right, I don't care about the game objectives.' Just like Minecraft, you have survival. But then you realise you're sitting on top of this giant toy, and I would assume creative is maybe 50:50, maybe it's more, right? Even Fortnite, with its creative mode. I think that first you play the game, and you understand the rules. Then you start to see the toy peek out, and you're like, 'Actually, I want to create. I just want to create.' That's a human instinct, so finding the reason, the game reason, for why am I sticking horns on a rabbit? That was giving me a trouble.

Iron Man carries the Hunter across the skies of New York in Marvel's Midnight Suns

Do you feel that those thoughts have still been ticking away at the back of your mind? Would you have a better idea now of how to make that game than you did back then?

That is a good question. Somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind, some part of it is spinning on. I think that you always feel like you know more over time. Yeah… I don't know. I think it is a tough challenge. You really have to have a really strong conceit that you can build around, and this is going to be the reason that I'm going in there and I'm gonna give a bear a hippo's ass, or whatever it is you need. I think you could come up with a reason, and then you need to come up with mechanics that support that. But I do think for a game like that, you have to have a pretty strong theme. And then you have to have pretty strong mechanics that resonate with that theme. The player starts playing the game, and then they go, 'Okay'. Now the community can support itself because you start seeing other people's creations and they're amazing.

But again, I don't know. Evolving animals, even now, I think how many unique creations can that be, as opposed to something like Minecraft where it's almost endless what you can do? How many variations of animals can you create where you feel this is completely unique and authentic to me? It's not as powerful, when I think about it, as like building in Minecraft.

Looking back on Midnight Suns for a moment, how did leading that project differ from your work on XCOM?

I think the main difference would be that I'm a really, really, like, super Marvel Comics nerd. So it was just a different experience because the game was very narrative [driven], and I had this view of these characters that was really strong, and a lot of people in the team had really strong views about these characters as opposed to purely thinking about them as mechanics. Like XCOM is almost entirely mechanics, right? The story is there, it's great and serves a purpose. But a lot of times with the story, the purpose it serves is to get you from this mechanic to that mechanic. In Midnight Suns, that wasn't the case. The narrative had a much stronger role. And so it was different in the way that I thought about the characters. In XCOM, you could just think about them as a series of systems, and with a strong theme of soldiers fighting aliens, but Marvel is much much different. And for me, it was really, really enjoyable just because I'm such a passionate fan of Marvel. It was personally very, very enjoyable for me to play in that toolbox.

Do you think because it was a big game and that you were working with an external IP, that there were extra responsibilities that you had in making it?

Yeah, the team was larger, for sure. The production team was great. I focused on very specific areas, and so I didn't feel the pressure of a larger team necessarily. And thank goodness, like, the Marvel Games team was unbelievably great to work with. They're also passionate 'What if?' type people so they're always up for whatever crazy ideas the team would come up with. But I think that adding that much narrative was the biggest change, I think that was definitely the biggest thing that I had to adjust to creatively, and learn to do my best to work with as a designer. But yeah, the external partner, luckily, was positive. They're were definitely an add to our team in a big way.

The Hunter works out with Captain Marvel in Marvel's Midnight Suns

Even though you describe XCOM as mainly just systems, a lot of people still do cling to those emergent stories. How did having that extra narrative on top for Midnight Sun, affect the way those emergent stories are able to present themselves?

I do think there are less emergent stories that came out of Midnight Suns because you don't get to say like, 'Oh, yeah, this is Frankie, and he's this terrible sniper, and I swear to God, he misses like every shot.' But then one time he does something great, and you're like, 'I love this guy'. And I think that those stories are more impactful, because you have ownership of them as a player. You own that character, you own that story. And there's a lot of ways you can then go in and have more freedom, editing the way that character looks and the way they behave, and in your head, because they never talk outside of some soldier barks, I as a player would picture all kinds of things. These two are best friends, and these two are lovers, and these two hate each other. Those are the stories that are powerful and feel unique. Because they're original to you, it just feels, I think, in many ways more powerful than scripted narrative.

But what a scripted narrative brings, is that you then get to bring all this emotional backstory with you. You can say it's more resonant to me that I'm talking to Iron Man than if it was just some random smarmy science guy. You'd be like, 'I don't know that this has much meaning for me.' You'd also have these moments in Midnight Suns where it's really cool seeing The Hulk fighting, or all these demonic creatures fighting against Ghost Rider. Like all those moments, for me, as a fan of Marvel, were special in their own way. We're like, 'Oh, this is really cool.'

You also mentioned on the podcast that you did quite enjoy working with that larger team. What was it about working with more people that you found appealing?

Well, I think that you get to make the game you really believe like, you can make the game that you dream of. A bigger team like that, you're obviously able to achieve more. And so I think as a team we set out some pretty ambitious goals for Midnight Suns, and we were able to do them. It was a very, very big game. And again, there's value in small games. There's value in all different kinds of games. I really, really love the game the team made, because I love how long it was. I love being able to lose myself.

I'll tell you, it was tough when I had to play through the game over and over. Oh my god. I used to be able to play through XCOM in a weekend. I'd play XCOM every weekend, and then work on notes and stuff like that for the week. Then I was like, Okay, I'm gonna take the next six weeks to play through Midnight Suns, and then the next six weeks to work on notes. But I did love being able to lose myself in a game like that. So the team being able to create something that big, and with that much… It's crazy, if you go online, you can see all the Midnight Suns cutscenes and they're three hours long. That's as long as a movie. Again, not to sound self-indulgent, like those all serve a purpose, but it was really neat to be able to take part in creating something like that.

A Sectoid crouches behind a wall as their prepare to fire on another alien in XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Image credit: 2K Games

How many times do you think you have played it all the way through?

Oh my god. I mean, so something like XCOM, I would have told you over development I probably played the game hundreds [of times]. XCOM and XCOM 2, I probably played the game a hundred times more, because the most important job that I can do is playing the game, and making sure that the holistic vision and everything is coming together. For Midnight Suns, maybe I played through maybe six to eight times all the way through. I probably played the first 10 hours 100 times. But then towards the end, you got to play through everything. So maybe six to eight times if I'm being honest, that I played through the entire game and tried to finish all the mysteries and all that stuff. That took me… probably took me a year, year and a half to do.

When you do kind of play the game in quick succession like that, and when it's such a big game as well, how does that feed into the way that you are actually making it right then at that moment? Does it generate more ideas when you play it?

By that time, I tried to be very responsible as a creative director. I think it was about October of the year before we shipped that I felt like I could play through the whole thing and experience the game as a holistic thing. And that's when I really kicked off like, 'Okay, from now on, all I'm doing is playing and giving notes.' At that point, really what I'm doing is saying the only options you really have at that point are: let's change the numbers, or let's cut this thing. Because otherwise you're just dumping work on people who were already overworked. Production was great about that too. Typically the relationship is, if I say 'Hey, I really feel like we need to change this', it's always a 'Yes, but…' conversation, and production has the right to say that. That work doesn't come out of nowhere. We're gonna have to give up this other thing.

But in that last year, it's a case of there is no 'but'. If I say, we have to change this, even I understand the option is we either need to remove this, or we can tweak numbers, we can tweak text, [but] we're not adding VO, we're not adding new story, or new systems to paper over anything. We can maybe add like one tiny piece if you want it, but it's my responsibility, and if I let it get that long in the game, it's not fair for me to then say like, 'Eh, I guess we should change this whole system.' That's why you work maniacally as a designer before that last year, so you can be like, 'Okay, I don't think there's any like snakes in the grass in this thing.' I really feel like anything from this point on we know the option is you just got to fucking cut it.

Was there anything that you did cut that you wished you could have kept in?

Oh my gosh, I'm sure, let me think. I mean, I think that there were certainly abilities that we had to trim down or turn them into a version of another hero's ability because we weren't going to come up with a new ability that late in the process. In terms of cutting, I'll tell you actually, one thing I did over the course of the last year was I cut [the] narrative. We cut like 30 conversations from the game, like 30 scenes. I mean, we cut a ton because we realised this is just simply too much. Number one, it's too much for the team. They already had so much that they were working on. And two, for the player. There a lot of these things that were not necessary conversations.

And so we ended up cutting, and this was in the last year [of development]. There was this concerted effort to say 'What do we think can go?' because the team needs breathing room. They're drowning under all this narrative we piled on them. And so we said, 'All right, any conversation, is it really necessary?' It was like, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. The narrative director, we're very close, but he still texts me angrily about it. He played through the game after launch, and he was like, 'This scene would have been perfect!' We had enough. When you ship the game, you realise, 'Oh, there's plenty'. There was so much there.

Blade prepares to throw a stack of Daily Bugle newspapers at a Hydra soldier in Marvel's Midnight Suns

Now that you're starting your own studio, you'll have gone from quite a big team to building one from scratch.

Yeah, tiny, it's like start-up size.

How are you going to approach doing something much smaller?

It's interesting, right? Sometimes when you work at a publisher, and I'm saying this a little facetiously, but you can get into a situation where you're working at an established studio, or working with an established publisher, and you can get into a situation where you're like, 'Where does the money come from? I don't know! I'm just focusing on making the biggest best version of this game that we can.' And you do it responsibly. You don't add features just for the sake of it, but you're like, 'We really believe we need to make the biggest best game that we can that provides the most value for the players,' and that if you make a great game, everything will work out.

When you're founding a studio, or you're basically in a start-up environment, it's like, where does the money come from? Oh, I'll tell you where the money comes from. I can tell you the person the money comes from. I can name them off, and there's not nearly as much as a giant studio and established publisher would have, which is, of course, how it should be. So you think to yourself, what is truly essential to make a great game? And I'm not even in that space yet. I haven't formed anything. But already, I understand that to establish something you're going to need funding and that funding is going to come from people, and it's not going to be an endless amount of funding, and so there's a whole new vector to think about. How much do dates matter? Well, they always matter when you're at the publisher. How do dates matter when you're a startup? It really, really, really matters. You don't get a case of being like, I feel like we just need another three months on this feature. It's like, 'No, I don't think so!' So it's a challenging environment, I think. But again, I haven't actually started that, that's the way I'm seeing it.

Yeah, you said at the start that you're just three days out of having just stopped working. Do you feel like you need a little bit of a break first before you enter that 'starting a studio' mode?

I mean, I'm at GDC, so I would tell you, 'Yes, probably.' I mean, my challenge is that I'm not great at not working. Like it really is a thing where I love design. I love thinking about design systems, I love thinking about any idea. I'm gonna chew on it and chew on it and chew on it. I just, I can't not have that in my head. It doesn't mean that it wouldn't be nice to spend some time with my kids and my wife and take some time off. On the flipside, I am unemployed. It's difficult to do that when you know there is no money coming in at this point. But boo hoo, right? I'm the one who made the choice.

I think it's a case of, I don't know - I'm always thinking. Even if I was on vacation, the back of my mind is working. It's not in a way that takes away from the others around me. It's just a kind of what my mind naturally goes to - thinking about the game systems and thinking about how to improve them all the time. Maybe I do need a vacation. Listen to me, I sound miserable! I'm not! I'm truly a generally happy guy. But yeah, maybe I should take a vacation. See what that's like. But my passion for making games isn't dimmed at all. It never was. That was never the case. Even at Firaxis, it was never a case of 'I'm burned out' or any of those things. I love that company. I love the games we made there. It's funny. It's like passion that drove me to this point, and now I'm passionate about the new thing. So I guess I'm good in that regard.

Iron Man shoots a flaming circus ring in Marvel's Midnight Suns

When you are at this stage, at the very, very start where there's no prototype or anything like that, what kind of conversations are you having, if you're able to say?

It's more just talking about potential ideas and how you think you would accomplish them, and then just gauging interest from people in terms of like, 'Oh, is that interesting? Well, then, maybe we should talk more.' Nothing happens, there's no handshake. I mean, it'd be great if there are handshake deals on this stuff. But I think it's all just a case of talking with people and sharing with them like a potential, not vague, but a potentially high-level idea and why you think that's good, and how you would accomplish something like that. Then it's, 'Okay, well, let's talk more at some point.' So, I think that part's difficult - the hurry up and wait stuff. But it's an interesting change.

Sorry to keep veering back to Midnight Suns - when you were creative director, you previously mentioned that you were still involved in the design of individual heroes and things like that. Which heroes were you personally responsible for?

Yes. So the way it works is that I'm a creative director, but then we also divided up system design tasks. And I think people will be surprised to learn that there aren't that many designers at Firaxis. For being design-centric games, we actually operate with, I would say, far fewer designers than most other studios. And so, we would be point designers. So Joe Weinhoffer, he was point designer on one hero, I was point designer on another hero. And then we had a designer Will, who was designer of all the mysteries around the Abbey. And so we divided all that stuff up. Magic was definitely my baby, as one of the heroes that I really worked on. Joe was Spider Man and Doctor Strange, and I was Magic and Iron Man. That was always really important for me, because the low-level systems are what drive the high-level in our games.

I think that the system design is really as important if not, I would argue, more important than what I do at the high-level overseeing everything. That's critical too, but to me understanding the systems and contributing to the system design is critical for me to make sure that the game, when we start talking about narrative and about all these different things, we can make sure that they are all adhering to what the systems are actually making the player feel.

Iron Man's card deck menu in Marvel's Midnight Suns

A lot of the heroes in Midnight Suns do all feel very unique, but would you say that, in the end, the ones you designed ended up encompassing a particular style of yours? Like, if you had to describe your favourite kind of tactical design in a nutshell, what would it be?

It would be bombastic. It would be that every character is overpowered. Typically my feedback would be, as I'm playing through the game over and over and over again - and every time I do a playthrough, I'd focus on different heroes of course, so I can understand how they worked - and always, the biggest concern for me as a designer was, 'This ability is underwhelming.' Because that's poison. If you're never going to take this ability, it feels like it breaks the entire hero. You really want the player to say these are all so good, I want to use this ability, I want to use that ability… So typically, it was always a case of pump it up, pump it up, make it more powerful, make it sexier, make it seem cooler, give it more effects.

That's why a game like Midnight's Suns - also XCOM - in their current iteration couldn't be like a 'play forever' [game] like Diablo for example, which is such a finely tuned game. All the stats are so finely tuned and they're brilliant at that. Destiny, too, brilliant. But they have less leeway in terms of their design. I don't care if you said somebody could matrix out all the heroes and their DPS and how powerful they are. They could score the heroes, and I guarantee they'd be way all over the place. I guarantee, there is clearly a best hero, and there's clearly a second best hero, and there's clearly worse hero, too. I get that. Because that's not our focus. We're focusing on the moment to moment of every time you get something, you go, 'Yeah, that's awesome.' I don't care how it matches up on a very, very fine level. We view it from more of a holistic level, they all feel generally equal, as opposed to something that's really finely tuned, like League of Legends design or Diablo design, where you really have to make sure that balance is so, so much more important. You can't break that. The meta isn't as important in a single player game. I think that's the thing. We sacrifice the meta sometimes to make sure that the player's first experience of the game really feels awesome.

When the delay happened, there are all those rumours swirling about how the card system was going to be completely revamped, because everyone didn't like it, supposedly.

Hah, that was wishful thinking for some people!

How did it feel to see that people were saying that about the game? Did it ever make you wobble a bit on what you were doing, or were you too far along to change anything at that point?

I think I can be fairly criticised for being a little naive in my adherence to the philosophy that if we make the best game, that is the best we can do. Anything else is so risky. I genuinely believe that the card design was the best tactical design that we could come up with for that game, and the theme of the heroes. I played it for hundreds and hundreds of hours. Combat, forget it, I don't know how many thousands of hours I played combat, and I always found that to be rewarding. I personally found it to be as rewarding, in a different way, but equally as rewarding as XCOM combat. I personally probably enjoyed it more. So it was the kind of thing where those comments never really bothered me. I always worry more about the team having to see that stuff. Because me? I'm always like, it's fine. I don't begrudge anybody saying that. I think it's totally fair for people to say that. I knew that that was the best design, so I was like, 'That is the only thing we can do, and if we do anything other than the best design, that is such a high risk move, like, what are we doing?' So I'm always kind of naive in that regard. Like nah, we're just gonna follow what the best design is no matter what. So that stuff never bothered me.

The biggest [thing of] interest for me was people being disappointed. Before, I never had an experience where people had expressed disappointment before playing, you know. I think a lot of people were open to it, but then you sit there and you go, I don't know how to address this, except to say like - you're hopeful - if you play [the game]… and I think that that's been the case, that if people play, they go 'Oh, I get it. I love this.' As we told people from the beginning, it's not an accident, we don't share a single mechanic with XCOM. Yes, it's turn based tactics in combat, but there are no shared mechanics. And so I think when people play it, they get it, it's really fun, and you can get as addicted to this as you can to XCOM. But I also totally get it when people look at images coming out and go 'What the fuck is that? Are those… are those cards? Cards!?' So yeah, I can sympathise with people for that reason, I guess.

The Hunter and Captain Marvel lounge by the pool on a rainy evening in Marvel's Midnight Suns

If you did have the chance to work with Marvel again, would you take it? I'm sure you could pitch them a Marvel life simulator.

That would be awesome! [laughs] That would be actually great. There's got to be some version of that, right? Where it's just like the daily lives. Because as fun as combat is, it's even funnier to think of these heroes outside of combat. Just like, I don't know, are there any nuisances? I mean, you could be cynical, and you could like look at The Boys version of things and how would these people actually be in their normal lives? Would they be monsters? Or would they just have the same problems as all of us? Maybe… maybe a heroes life sim… All right, I'm taking it. That's my idea [laughs].

As a final question for Midnight Suns, what would you say is the thing that you are most proud about working on that game?

It's tough to say. There are two things. One is introducing people to characters that I grew up loving as a child. I think that was really, really fun. That a lot of people ended up loving Magic, and I'm like, Magic is my favourite character, too! So that was really fun for people to enjoy the way that the writers wrote her and the way that we designed her. I thought that was really cool.

I would say, I think the tactical system, the card based tactical system, simply as a system designer, is probably the thing I'm most proud of, for us as a design team. I think that system feels different than anything else. It's really fun when you can do that as a design team - come up with something that people are like, 'Oh, my gosh, this is awesome. This feels new.' That's a really rewarding thing to do. So that might be the thing I'm most proud of.

And what would you say you're proudest of in XCOM?

I think I am most proud of the emergent narrative. The emergent narrative stuff, specifically with the soldiers. There are three vectors, so we give them a home country, you give them a nickname once they reach a certain rank, and then you give them a specific class. And then those three vectors are always enough, that's all players need to say, 'All right, I've got a story for this.' Sometimes you randomise the customization and they come out weird wearing like a Fedora or something like that, and you're like, 'All right, this guy, I know exactly what this guy's about. He's got a ponytail and a Fedora. I know I wouldn't like this guy immediately. But he's a great ranger.' I always like that, because that always made me giggle. And then it was really fun to then see players love that stuff, too.

The Assassin in an XCOM 2: War Of The Chosen screenshot.

Thinking back to that very early XCOM prototype that you made -

Oh lord. [laughs]

The one that didn't go anywhere - if you could go back in time and tell that version of yourself anything, what would it be?

I would, very clearly, say that as a designer you have to look the scariest thing in the eye. I would never want somebody to think that I'm in any way complaining about this job, but what I'm saying is done well, this job is an extremely stressful one. Because for 90% of the game's life, it's not good, right? It doesn't play well, it doesn't look great, it's not performing well, or it's crashing. And I think that when you're in a leadership role, a creative director or director on the team, your job is to make sure you make a good game so your team is taken care of, and you make a good game so your players feel like there's value there. You respect what your team does, you respect what your company does, you're not ripping off anybody.

It's the most stressful thing where for 90% of a project's lifecycle, it's just not good, and it's very, very easy for your brain… The worst thing in human nature is wishful thinking. The idea that it's going to be okay. No, it's not going to be okay. You have to find the way to make it okay. Like as a designer, if the design isn't good, you must find the way to make it okay. It's not going to be okay when better art goes in, it's not going to be okay once this new engineering feature goes in. You must find what's going to make it okay. And the problem is that, as a designer, you did your best job! You already put your best ideas in! And then it comes back and it's like, 'This is not fun.' You're like, 'Well, that was my best idea!' And your brain will be like, this is too stressful.

If you really look at the long-term ramifications of 'this design isn't very good', the human brain shies away from that and goes, 'It's gonna be okay, it's gonna be fine, right?' If you really look at it, and say, 'If I don't figure this out, I am going to let a lot of people down,' that kind of anxiety - I know it sounds crazy - but that kind of anxiety is like my engine.

I think when I was younger, I was just like, 'I'll work on an inventory system!' as opposed to going, like, play the fucking thing and say to yourself, 'This is obviously not fun, and it's my responsibility to make it fun, like what are you doing? Make a change, dude!' Start with the first least fun thing and change it. Even if that was your best idea, tough luck, dude! you're the one who got this awesome job of game designer - Your job is to look the scary thing in the eye and say, 'Yeah, not good, I gotta find a way to do this better.'

So that would be my advice to myself - as I finally did get to that point because things were going so poorly. I was like, 'Oh, the end result of me not doing a good job as the designer is becoming patently clear, and the deadline is coming a lot closer of those bad things happening.' So you get to a point where you don't care anymore. You almost can't sleep at night because you've got to figure this thing out. I just got into a mode of just rabidly looking at the game and being honest with myself about this isn't good, I need to make this change and I need to own up to the team and say, 'This isn't good, I'm sorry, let's change this.' Because the stakes, especially in games nowadays, the stakes are as high as they could be.

What do you feel that XCOM's legacy is now? A lot of developers I've spoken to in just the last couple of years who are making turn-based tactics games often cite it as a key inspiration, and while the term 'XCOM-like' may not be quite as prevalent as 'Soulslike', say, I do feel like it's becoming increasingly popular.

The neat thing about that is that when we made [Enemy Unknown], it was just a wacky thing. People just looked at it as a wacky idea. Not once we announced it, but even among developing and publishing it, the idea of making a turn-based tactics game like that... There are Japanese developers who have made excellent turn-based tactics games, so it's not like we invented the genre, not even close. But I think making it the way that we did, people looked at it, and said, 'That is not… that cannot be popular.' It just didn't feel like that game would be popular, with that sort of really high stakes gameplay. It just seemed really, really different. Different in a way that I think people were sceptical, and it's not like I was super confident in it. I think that was the first thing I'd done as a designer. So it's fun then to see people say, 'Oh, no, that can totally work.' And now there's every version you can think of with that. That's a really cool thing for the scrappy team that we were when we put that stuff together. It's a really… it's a nice thing.

It's also a nice thing now, when you go to GDC and when people are like, 'Oh, XCOM!' I'm surprised at how many people say, when they ask what I do and I say I was a designer on a game called XCOM - and I don't have to say 'a game called XCOM', but I feel like I have to say 'a game called XCOM' - and they'll be like, 'Oh, yeah, XCOM, that's great!' So many developers know that now. So it's neat. I think it's looking back at the team that made that game, I don't think you would have known it looking at us that we're gonna make something like that. But I guess that’s how it happens.

A large pinkish alien in power armour crouches on the ground in XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Image credit: 2K Games

Do you feel happy with the contribution that you have made to the genre?

Yeah. Oh, for sure. To some extent, I'm probably scared to ever touch it again. You know, I'd be afraid to go back to that. And I think that I'm really proud of what we did as a team. I'm really proud of what I did individually. And I also feel like it's now up to Firaxis' great designers that if they want to do that, I believe that they'll do it. And they're probably have fresher ideas and newer ideas than me and I think I'd be gun shy anyway to mess up the contributions that I did make. I'm okay for those to stand. I'm okay with that.

If there was one thing or a philosophy that you could bring to your new studio, what would that be?

It would have to be good people, making great games. If you have to go to work, to be passionate and to work on things as difficult as games and I'm not talking about hours. I just think that the challenge of making a game is that for most of its life, games are not good, right? You're working on a not good product. And nobody's there to save you. The team must save itself. In that situation, you just have to prioritise, making sure you're working with people that you like, and you feel safe in that space, and you feel respected. So good people making great games is I just think essential. And I learned that from Firaxis. There's so many good people there. Like not allowing personality conflicts, like just not allowing that, not allowing people to be cynical or being rude, even if unintentionally. You've just got to make sure that it's an environment where people feel safe and heard and enjoy coming to work every day. Otherwise, I just think long term, there's no way you can be a success. Or you're gonna be miserable, working with people who you don't like and that you feel don't listen to you.

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Marvel's Midnight Suns

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown

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About the Author
Katharine Castle avatar

Katharine Castle

Former Editor-in-chief

Katharine used to be editor-in-chief for RPS. After joining the team in 2017, she spent four years in the RPS hardware mines. Now she leads the RPS editorial team and plays pretty much anything she can get her hands on. She's very partial to JRPGs and the fetching of quests, but also loves strategy and turn-based tactics games and will never say no to a good Metroidvania.