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Time For A Change: Firaxis On XCOM, Part 3

Time units, modding, Iron Man Mode and failure

In the third and final (for now) part of my enormo-chat with Firaxis' Jake Solomon, head brain on XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the official remake of the legendary X-COM, we get into the nitty-gritty. To whit: why throw out time units, how the replacement system works, modding support, difficulty, soldier classes, country funding, Julian Gollop, 'ZCOM' and why he feels this new game has to bear the X-COM name.

RPS: OK, well let’s do time units. Go on, explain yourself about why time units have been removed…

Jake Solomon: (laughs) Ok, so I guess what I’d say is that we had time units, our prototype had time units and time units are a great mechanic – sorry, I even hear it in my own voice, I’m switching into defensive mode here – time units are a great mechanic, there are still plenty of games that use time units. The reason was, and this was one that actually quite surprised me, we had time units, and when we studied players, everybody was getting really frustrated because what people wanted to do in the game was they wanted to make a plan, right, that’s a lot of the joy of a tactical game like this - you look at the battlefield, you see the aliens, you see your XCOM squad and you’re going to start saying, in your head ‘Ok, right, I’m going to sneak around for the flank here, I’m going to pin this guy down there, I’m going to flush this guy out of cover, and the same time my other guy’s going to be an overwatch so I get a reaction fire shot on him’ right? So that’s how you think, looking at the battlefield.

But making and executing that plan, that’s one of the joys of a tactical game, of a strategic game, of games that reward thinking. So the problem was that people were getting frustrated, they were never planning past their first unit because time units don’t really map towhat you see, they’re not a direct map to what you see and how you think about your soldiers, and so people would basically break down and they would basically only plan for their one active unit, because they actually were never quite sure what they were going to be able to do. I think any player of the original would acknowledge that it had the sort of great experience of like, ok, snapshot, snapshot, back behind cover, oh look at that, kneel, snapshot.

That’s not a bad thing, but what that prevented was for people planning their squad as a squad and instead they planned individual units basically as it happened. Because you could have a rough idea, but the problem was that people couldn’t map time units to the way that they thought about the battlefield, and so it became a real frustration for people - because on top of that, we’ve added so much stuff, I mean we really have added so, so much stuff, in terms of abilities that your soldiers can do, weapons, classes, the cover system, the abilities that the aliens can do, new item, new armours… All these things, and we’ve designed these abilities to be combo-d together from different soldiers, and then they can interact in interesting ways.

We thought about a lot of these mechanics as like you have to use multiple soldiers to be successful at them, and time units just basically broke that system, because people just weren’t able to think like that with time units. They would say like ‘I have no idea what I can do’, they thought they knew what they could do but they weren’t sure, and so because of that, time units just didn’t work, I guess. I know some people are not going to believe me and I think that’s fine, but I would say that I’m speaking completely honestly. This was not some sort of thing where we said ‘Oh, time units are too tough, this’ll make it easier to play’ because everybody intellectually understands time units once you explain it to them, it’s easy to intellectually understand. The problem was that it just didn’t map to the experience well. With all these new abilities and things, it just created this barrier between ‘I know what I want to do and I know how I’m going to do it’ and instead it became this sort of thing where you were like ‘I’m not quite sure what I can do, and so I’m just going to let it sort of play out’. So in this case when we had time units, they ended up making the game more shallow, because all these different abilities and combos, all these interesting things, were never getting used because people couldn’t think about them that way.

Once we put in a system where the player could think about their abilities as discrete events, then it became much much easier for people to say ‘ok, I’m going to play in my turn, then the aliens are going to do something and they’re going to mess with my plan, but ultimately I’m going to execute my plan’. And that’s what’s most satisfying, is understanding that you have a superior plan, and then forcing the execution of that plan on to your enemy - that is what’s so thrilling.

RPS: Some of the thrill for me, though, is like that thing we were talking about earlier - the difference between almost min/maxing it and making it up as you go along. The horrifying moment where you realize you’ve overspent by one point so you can’t actually kneel behind that wall, so you’re thinking ‘oh god, what am I going to do, I’ve got to try and work out a plan B…’

Jake Solomon: That’s certainly true, there’s that risk/reward mechanic of ‘ok, I thought I could do this and then I find out that I’ve basically overspent or something like that’, and so I agree with that, and we’ve tried to do things where risk/reward is still a part of it. It’s not just ‘move and take an action’, there’s certainly other things you can do in terms of sprinting, and then when the class system unfolds, then you can do all kinds of things, plenty of your soldiers have abilities to do multiple things beyond just ‘move and take an action’ or ‘move’ and anything like that. It becomes deeper and we are very conscious of that whole basically risk/reward mechanic where you walk into a bad situation - that’s a classic XCOM moment, when you sort of like turn the corner and you’re like ‘Uuuuh, I’m fucked’.

RPS: Bing, bing, bing, and there’s three of them just watching you.

Jake Solomon: Right, exactly! (laughs)

RPS: So can you try and describe your system as best you can, because I think most of our readers won’t have read the American magazine with the big preview in, and I only partly understand it at this point to be honest?

Jake Solomon: Right. Well, I think that the starting point is familiar to people who are familiar with either tabletop or something like this. The idea is that each rookie soldier at the very beginning is capable of doing two things; the idea is that your soldier can move and then perform an ability, whether that’s going to overwatch, which allows reaction fire, whether that’s to use a special ability like obviously to fire a weapon, to throw a grenade, to hunker down. Hunker down is, any unit once they’re in cover can basically give up the rest of their turn and double their defence, so they can get behind cover and hunker down, and they’ll get a big defensive boost but they also, their site radius drops drastically. They almost can’t see anything, and so that of course has all kinds of interesting ramifications, because your scout out in front is going to walk in, maybe he blunders in to a bunch of aliens and you’re like ‘oh shit’, he goes to hunker down but now he can’t see what the aliens are doing..

So the system is move, and you can either move again, or you can take an action, and of course you can bypass your action entirely by dashing, what we call taking a dash, and that is moving extremely far in one turn, but there are all these little system ramifications. If you’re dashing, you’ll actually do much better against reaction fire. If you’re sprinting, if you’ve given up your entire turn to move far then you’re actually harder to hit if somebody’s in overwatch, but of course you’ve given up your turn, you’re not going to return any fire that turn, so there’s all these little elements that play off of each other. And of course as abilities are added, and abilities can be added through the inventory, so what items you’re carrying, what armour you’re wearing… Armour is completely unclassed, so anybody can wear any armour, and different suits of armour give you different, interesting battlefield abilities, but you can get abilities from your class obviously, from your weapons, from your inventory and from your armour, and so you’ve got all these different abilities. Some of them work really well together, some of them are solo moves, different things like that.

RPS: So I guess you can’t do something like walk a bit, shoot then crouch? You need to make your decision upfront about how you’re going to do your play, basically.

Jake Solomon: Yeah, it’s hard to classify because there’re so many different ways you can customize your soldiers as they level. There are cases when you can fire and then walk, and so it’s the sort of thing where it’s hard to classify but certainly for rookies, when the rookies start they can do very basic things. Walk, and then shoot, or they could dash, or they could hunker down, or they could go into overwatch to do reaction fire, but then yeah, it becomes a game more about planning your squad’s turn as a whole as opposed to sort of running an individual unit and then letting it play out.

RPS: Ok, I’ve got a better sense of it. The purist in me is still going ‘hmmm’ but until I’ve played it I just can’t sensibly comment.

Jake Solomon: (laughs) I understand.

RPS: I notice, by the way, that you keep calling Mr Gollop Julian, which suggests you’ve had some contact with him, is that true?

Jake Solomon: I have had some contact with him, I’m afraid that’s all I can say at this point.

RPS: Bah! Are you considering any form of mod support, even just indirect stuff like not locking away the textures? I don’t know if you guys have much choice in that.

Jake Solomon: Yeah, and I can’t commit to anything specific obviously because my lead engineer would tear my head off, but that’s something that we benefit from. I mean there’s two sides to that. We’re Firaxis obviously, so we obviously believe in that, we’ve done that for our Civ games extensively, and the benefit of using the Unreal engine is that’s a pretty well-defined modding system. So we’re not committing to exactly what it is we’re doing, but I’m very interested in making sure that’s something that we’re definitely looking very closely at, it’s something that we’d want to do for players.

RPS: You just know the second that’s announced the first thing that will happen is someone will declare they’re making a Terror From the Deep total conversion.

Jake Solomon: Right with time units and ammunition management, I understand, I know (laughs) and I’m ok with that. And I think in some ways that’s good too, I can say like ‘well y’know, I’m perfectly happy to let people see all the code I’ve written and do what they want to do with it, so…’

RPS: There needs to be a site somewhere just documenting time from start of game announcement x to announcement of mod y that will be the ‘complete’ mod, the ‘true’ mod with all these things fixed, all these very specific little features.

Jake Solomon: And you know what, I’ll probably play it. (laughs)

RPS: How randomly generated is the campaign going to be? You’ve said about it a bit, but in terms of mission to mission, is it going to be a complete random blank slate each time?

Jake Solomon: Yeah, the idea is that there are some, very few missions, well actually the levels don’t repeat, so it’s not the sort of thing where you have to play the same map or anything like that. I mean certainly the game structure is just like the original, you’re going to be shooting down UFOs, you’re going to be going on abductions - which I guess is a new thing - and terror missions, but the idea of like what map that is and when they come up, and what day they come up; that stuff’s all procedural. That stuff is driven by procedural so there’s no laid out path for the player in terms of what map they’re going to get and where they’re going to go. I mean, you can choose your starting continent and of course different continents have different bonuses.

That’s actually something new, we have all kinds of new bonuses based on what continents you’re protecting, so based on where you start you’re going to get a different bonus based on if you’re completely protecting a continent with satellites. Internally, and this is not a good name for it, but we’re calling that ‘the collection bonus’ where if you’re protecting an entire continent with satellites then you get another bonus from that continent, which has an impact of course on how the game plays out and in addition to that they all have different funding levels and different levels of specialists, and things like that.

RPS: So there’ll be bonuses, they’re not simply more cash, there’s going to be almost a buff to your abilities?

Jake Solomon: Yeah they have that, they do have the cash bonus, they have the more scientists per month or more engineers, but there’s more than that - there’s also then gameplay bonuses where it says like ‘you will get x’. You sort of think of them as like the Civ bonuses.

RPS: Any average planned length for missions, if it’s even possible to have a consistent figure for that.?

Jake Solomon: Oh boy that’s tough, it depends on what map or what UFO you’ve shot.. I think that they can go anywhere I suppose from fifteen minutes up to, we’ve got some long ones. I’ll just say we’ve got some long ones. And it depends on what you do - some maps are going to take a much, much longer period of time.

RPS: How are you dealing with saving for that? Do you have to complete or clear your mission or do you allow a mid-mission save, cheeky save?

Jake Solomon: No, you can save however you want, but I will say that there are, we’ve got a lot of saves to help you, but I will say that I just put in this last weekend an Iron Man mode. It’s important; a lot of players, we like to play Iron Man and so it’s something we want to actually systemically enable where if you say I want to play this game in Iron Man then you’ve only got one save slot and all auto saves and all your saves go to that slot - and the only thing you can do is save and exit. Of course you get to some point where if you lose too much, I’ll give you the option, I’ll say ‘do you want to turn off Iron Man’, you know, ‘Are you done? Do you want to turn off Iron Man and continue to play normally?’ But I think it’s important that there is an Iron Man mode, I mean I saw this morning the 1999 from BioShock: Infinite, that’s awesome, I mean that’s very exciting, I think, so it’s along those lines.

RPS: Outside of Iron Man, can you still get into a real losing situation where it’s going to be difficult, maybe even impossible, to claw your way back to victory?

Jake Solomon: Yep. I think that the player can recover at any point, but it would require significant amounts of skill. It’s definitely a game you can lose, I mean that’s certainly important. X-COM is a game that you can lose on the strategic level - I mean, when you lose on the tactical level you’re not going to lose the game just because you lost a combat mission but that’s going to have repercussions of course, countries around the world are not going to be thrilled and the player has to deal with that. And certainly on the strategic level, the player is always teetering on the edge of that global war and there is absolutely ways the player can lose the global war. We don’t want a long death cycle but it is the sort of thing where a player can make choices and it can be challenging to the point where, yes, you can absolutely lose the game on the strategic level.

RPS: Good to hear, in a scary sort of way. Why, by the way, use the XCOM title? Why not take what was best from XCOM and make it into a whole new IP that you can say is entirely your own game?

Jake Solomon: I guess because… I’d never even thought of that….we’re starting from the original game and we’re certainly using the aliens. We love the aliens from the original game, so we wouldn’t want to, at least for the first one, we wouldn’t want to start without recreating that experience with all those original aliens and if we’re going to expand them, for us it’s fun to say like ok, if a Sectoid could do more, what do we think they can do? So we use the original alien as a template and say like ‘well if he had extra combat abilities they’d be x, y, z,’ so…I think it’s because we certainly feel that we’re in the XCOM family, so it’d be hard to imagine this game being something else. I mean you certainly could call it something else, but because we’re tied so heavily to the original game, it made sense.

RPS: I think if you call it YCOM that would shut everybody up.

Jake Solomon: (laughs) I like ZCOM, if I ever make a zombie survival game, it will definitely be ZCOM.

RPS: Someone’s going to make that as a mod now, you shouldn’t have said it, I’ll have to take that bit out.

Jake Solomon: That’s fine by me. (laughs).

RPS: I’ll do one more question on a completely different tack. How would you sell this game to someone just entering the XCOM world - as opposed to all the nerdy diehards like myself, to someone who had no prior notions of the series. How would you make it appeal to them?

Jake Solomon: Well, I think that the fun thing about XCOM is that you think back to your original experience with it, XCOM is that it’s not like any other game, you can’t make an easy comparison. That’s the sort of thing that I know people like to do to classify games, but I think as a player you can make the case of like ‘you don’t know anything like this’, so if you’re playing Terraria or Minecraft, the experience is sort of like ‘What’s it like?’ and people go ‘er, that’s tough’. I don’t know how to explain it’.

So as a player, I want to play that game - and so we have elements that I think every gamer’s going to like. We have the combat, and the light RPG elements an dstrategic elements, but I don’t know if there are any games that sort of wrap them all up like XCOM does. My favourite thing about XCOM is it’s this huge vertical integration, it’s this huge vertical scope where you’re making the top, top decisions about what battles you’re going to fight, and where, and what you’re going to research, and how you’re going to equip your soldiers, and then, you’re actually going into combat with those items you’ve built, or like you’ve shot down that UFO, you’re actually going to see that actual UFO on the ground.

So as a player you don’t feel like the game’s stringing you along and saying ‘ok, well now you’re in this location and now you’re going to do this, you’ve got to do these objectives because that’s what you need to do.’ As a player you’re sort of like ‘yeah, I chose to do this, I know why I have to raid that UFO to get those resources because I need to go back and build x,y,z.’ And on the global level you’re saying ‘look, I know why those guys in combat have to succeed because I really, really need France’s support.’ I think that there’s no game that is that intimate and epic all at the same time, and I think that that’s what makes it unique - and as a player, you have elements you recognize but never stacked on top of each other like that, it makes for something really deep, and you get invested because you’re the guy making all the decisions.

RPS: I can remember when I first heard about it at school, it wasn’t ‘this is a strategy game and you have to beat the aliens’ - it was more like ‘you can do this, and this, and you can kidnap the aliens and interrogate them and you can build this, and go to Mars, and there are fast spaceships and flying suits and hoveranks. ’ The sheer ‘oh my god it has so much excitement’ of it seems like a better way of selling it than ‘It is like game x plus game y’.

Jake Solomon: Right, and those analogies always fall short anyway because you could say like ‘well, it’s kind of like this mixed with that’, but it’s not really because it’s in the mixing of those elements that you create something entirely new. I mean, it’s greater than the sum of its parts, it’s not just a tactical, turn based tactical game, it’s not just a strategic management game because each of those games individually is not nearly as rewarding as what happens when you make the bridge between them. The decisions on each are magnified by the existence of the other - so you’re always in this constant cycle of like ‘oh, now I’ve got this I want to get back to strategy and research this, and now that I’ve researched this I want to get back into combat and use this item’, so, that is what makes it unique, it’s because you can do so many of the different things.

RPS: Yeah, you’re juggling so much at once thinking ‘this is going to happen next, I just need to get through this’. Right, well I had better wrap it up there, I’ve already got basically the rest of my life to spend transcribing this now.

Jake Solomon: (laughs) That’s great, any other questions you have, please feel free. I knew it would be you talking to me - I read that manifesto on the twenty-four things that we have to do, don’t think that that didn’t make the rounds at the office…

RPS: Uh-oh. But how many did I get right?

Jake Solomon: (laughs) quite a few, that’s all I’ll say, quite a few.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is scheduled for release in the third quarter of this year.

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