X-Communicated: The Xenonauts Interview
Amidst the web-wide frenzy resulting from the announcement of 2K Marin's shooter-sequel to X-COM, those who were unwaveringly disappointed/infuriated that the series' strategy roots had been abandoned had at least one source of turn-based solace. That was Goldhawk Interactive's Xenonauts, one of more X-COM remake projects than any sane man could count - but this time determined to retain the original game's key systems and concepts rather than slavishly recreate every feature, aesthetic and plot-point. Cold War-set and going for military grit rather than early 90s comicbook scifi, it promises to be familiar yet different.
However, a great many X-COM tributes have been, gone or simply stalled midway through development - indeed RPS gets advised of a new one at least every couple of months. So how/will this one be different? Best leave that one to the developer, really - read on for project lead Chris England's thoughts on why do this, 2K's FPS, bastard Chrysalids, and what's going to be better than the original.
RPS: Why X-COM, and what does it mean to you personally?
Chris England: I guess everyone has formative games in their lives, and the original UFO: Enemy Unknown was definitely one of them for me. I bought it when I was about twelve, back in the days when I'd wander around the games section in PC World and buy games based entirely on their box art and blurb. I’d always been a sucker for strategy games, and the scope of the game blew me away.
I must have spent months playing that game in a semi-darkened room as a kid, drunk on a strange cocktail of tension, excitement and terror. I didn’t even realise that it was arguably one of the best games ever made until years afterwards, but I’ve no doubt the childhood memories of (vainly) trying to save the earth will stick with me forever.
RPS: What's the balance between being faithful to the original game and pursuing your own vision?
Chris England: The Xenonauts team is making a big effort to stay faithful to the original game mechanics. Other titles have changed part of the game's mix (for instance by adding real-time combat), and I don't think they've been entirely successful in doing so. I think the Gollop brothers hit on a fantastic formula for a grand strategy game with X-Com, and I don't see that there's much to be gained by changing it unnecessarily.
I guess our vision comes through in translating those game mechanics into the modern age. You can’t just do a straight clone with improved graphics, because times have moved on since X-Com was released. Ground combat without a cover system, in today’s world? You’d be laughed out of town if you tried it. We’re not trying to remake X-Com, we’re trying to build the game it would be if it came out today.
RPS: What's definitely in, and what's definitely out?
Chris England: What's in? All the key parts of the original (global strategy, turn based combat, destructible terrain) plus a new model for air combat, a more balanced economic model, a cover system for the ground battles, more unit/weapon/aircraft variations, friendly AI soldiers, improved alien AI, alternate mission victory conditions, flamethrowers, jump-packs and a more intuitive and expansive research tree. There are probably more features that have slipped my mind, I just pulled those off the top of my head.
What's out? Blaster bombs and psionic powers for the humans have been removed because we feel they unbalanced the game, as are all the niggles from the original game (not being able to manually arrange your soldiers in the dropship, not remembering loadouts between missions, being forced to kill every alien on the map to win a mission etc).
RPS: How has the new setting affected your design decisions? Also, why the new setting?
Chris England: It hasn't. I don't particularly think the setting was a big part of the original X-Com. It was a generic near-future B-movie style setting, and had almost zero effect on the way the game played. It has affected the vibe and aesthetic design of the project, though - we've tried to give the human technology a blocky, industrial feel that contrasts with the sleeker alien ships, vehicles and technology, and overall the vibe is a little less cheerful than before.
The Cold War setting was partially because I liked playing with elements of the Soviet style when designing the 'look' of the Xenonauts, and partially because it clearly distances us from the original game and its clones.
RPS: Who are you working with on this project?
Chris England: Xenonauts is an online collaborative project, and there's probably about ten core team members working remotely on the game on a part-time basis, and a number of freelancers who do contract work for us as and when required. Its mostly either industry or related-field experience on the team, so everyone is very capable.
RPS: How do you compare yourself to other X-COM fan projects or unofficial remakes?
Chris England: We’re radically different from the fan projects, primarily as we're in this for commercial reasons. I've ploughed my life savings into funding this game, which eliminates a lot of the leadership struggles you have with fan projects – I’m paying the bills, so I get to decide what happens. Decision making is faster, there's less feature creep and the vision is less watered down, and obviously paying for staff attracts a higher quality of personnel too.
As far as the other remakes are concerned, that will (hopefully) really come down to game balance and overall polish. The other unofficial remakes have often been poorly balanced games, frequently suffering from writing and translation issues. We plan to spend quite a lot of time getting the gameplay right, and we're hoping that will mark us out.
RPS: Do you feel confident that Xenonauts could stand alone and proud in the unlikely event we saw an official remake/turn-based sequel announced at any point?
Chris England: Difficult question – it depends on how good the official remake was. We don’t have the resources to compete with a AAA studio as far as graphics are concerned, so we’re concentrating more on the gameplay and balance. I think strategy players appreciate that more than the graphics.
RPS: What was your reaction to the 2K XCOM FPS? How does it affect your plans for Xenonauts?
Chris England: Honestly? From a personal point of view I was delighted, as we couldn't have asked for a better publicity opportunity.
From an X-Com fan's point of view, I was obviously disappointed that the license had been so blatantly plundered. However, while I’m not entirely convinced by the aliens shown so far, I'm actually quite interested in the XCOM FPS because the period setting and planned features do appeal.
It doesn't really affect our plans for Xenonauts at all, given the vast gulf between the two projects in terms of genre. I genuinely hope 2K produce a good game, because it sounds like an interesting twist on the FPS formula. It'd just have been nice if they'd picked a different name for it.
RPS: Why do you think 2K, or anyone else involved in the original games, has let the series lie fallow for so long, and isn't pursuing the mechanics now?
Chris England: I've no idea at all. People say 'Oh, a major publisher couldn't get away with just remaking an old game!', but I don't actually think that's true. I'm not saying they could advertise it as one of their flagship projects, but they could quite easily produce a turn-based X-Com sequel with a small team (essentially doing what we’re doing) and I'm sure they'd make a very handsome return on their investment.
RPS: Chrysalids. Bastard, evil Chrysalids. What's your equivalent?
Chris England: We've an equivalent in the game with all the same abilities as the original creature, but with a little twist that makes them even more awful than the original Chrysalids. I’ll let you discover for yourself what it is, though.
RPS: And finally, when can we expect to see more from Xenonauts, and get a good sense of how it looks and plays?
Chris England: We brought our new site up in the last couple of days, which provides a lot more detail on the project. The code has made great strides over the last couple of months, and a lot of the functionality is in place (you can see exactly how much on the Project Status page of our website).
We’ll start producing videos and screenshots in the next week or so (I’m just polishing a bunch of the UI elements), and continue to do so until release. If you want to see how it plays, you’ll have to pre-order. In a similar vein to the chaps at Wolfire, we’ll be giving pre-orderers early access to various parts of the game in order to seek feedback on how we can improve it before release.