Marvel's Midnight Suns may be a turn-based tactics game first and foremost, but it also has a substantial RPG element that drives both the story and the interpersonal dramas of its superhero teams between missions. When you and your squad head back to your Abbey HQ, there are side stories and quests to investigate around the Abbey grounds, items to find, and more. It's a sizable part of the game, but at one point it was even bigger, creative director Jake Solomon tells me at GDC.
"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," he says. But during the last year of development Solomon reveals "we cut 30 conversations from the game, like 30 scenes. We cut a ton, because we realised this is just simply too much."
Solomon cites two main reasons for enacting these cuts: "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 [them] in the last year [of development]."
Of course, he's fully aware that Marvel's Midnight Suns is still a "very, very big game", even with all the cuts they made. He also says he still loves how long the final version ended up being. "I love being able to lose myself in a game like that," he says. But as creative director, he was also very aware of the effect its size would have on his wider team, and he goes on to say there was "a concerted effort" among him and his fellow developers at Firaxis to find ways of trimming the story down.
"The team needs breathing room," he tells me. "They're drowning under all this narrative we piled on them, and so we said, 'All right, any conversation, is it really necessary?' And it was like, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut."
Alas, Solomon didn't go into detail about what those 30-odd scenes would have entailed, sadly, but he does tease that he still receives messages from Midnight Suns' previous narrative director Chad Rocco about how certain scenes "would have been perfect" if they'd stayed in. "We're very close, but he still texts me angrily about it," he laughs. "But we had enough. When you ship the game, you realise, 'Oh, there's plenty.' There was so much there."
Personally, I'm just glad the storyline about Blade's book club to impress Captain Marvel made the cut. The world is honestly a better place for it, I'm not even joking.
But the size of Midnight Suns also affected the way Solomon himself was able to play through it and give his team notes on how its development was progressing - at least compared to his role as director on XCOM 2.
"I'll tell you, it was tough when I had to play through the game over and over," he says. "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.'"
When I ask him how many times he ended up playing Midnight Suns all the way through, the result is, as you might expect, vastly different to what he managed for XCOM. "Something like XCOM, I would have told you over development I probably played the game hundreds [of times]," he says.
"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 ten hours 100 times. But then towards the end, you've 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."
But even when he was playing the game in such quick succession, Solomon says he resisted the urge to make any further big changes to the game during the last year of development. "I tried to be very responsible as a creative director," he replies when I ask him if playing the game back-to-back ended up generating more design ideas along the way. But it was around October 2021, just over a year before it launched that Solomon said to his team, "'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 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."
He praises Midnight Suns' production team here, explaining that "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 during that last year of development, "it's a case of there is no 'but'," he says. "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. […] If I let it get that long in the game, it's not fair for me to then say, '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."
For more Midnight Suns chat and what Solomon is doing next now that he's left Firaxis, you can read our extensive GDC interview right here.
Update: this article previously stated that Zach Bush was the narrative director on Marvel's Midnight Suns, but the correct credit should have gone to Chad Rocco.