Vipers that can rip you out of cover, the promise of an easier modding system, the knowledge that XCOM failed that first time around... There was a lot I wanted to know more about having watched the XCOM 2 [official site] trailer at E3, so I took my questions to the game's lead producer Garth DeAngelis and art director Greg Foertsch.
So tell me about how XCOM 2 starts, because the premise is that the XCOM organisation has failed, isn't it?
Update - we initially mistook Garth DeAngelis for Jake Solomon. That's been fixed now.
Garth DeAngelis, lead producer: It is. I'm really excited about how this premise came to be with XCOM failing because it's a bit of a twist. The game starts twenty years after the events of Enemy Unknown except the event is that you lost about a third of the way through the game so you didn't get past conventional weapons, you didn't get deep into new armour types. XCOM lost really quickly and the council turned on them quickly and was overrun by the aliens.
The aliens didn't annihilate earth, what they did was they occupied it. Since the underpinnings of XCOM was all about consequence and overcoming odds stacked against you we love the stage that sets for XCOM 2 which is that XCOM is disbanded, it's the player's job to bring it back together. It's also pretty cool because a lot of our players lost XCOM. The first time they played they legit lost. A lot of our developers lost the first time too. We're in a very interactive medium and I think it's very neat to say we partnered with the community on structuring what the inspiration for this world was based on your actual experiences.
Are there any other ways that's reflected in XCOM 2?
GD: One of the other design pillars is procedural levels and we wanted to do that with Enemy Unknown. We actually explored some bits of procedural levels but it was always a high design goal; it's a tough nut to crack. We heard that a lot from the fans. they loved our maps - our handcrafted maps - and they actually said we want more of them so we're trying to over-deliver on that.
Greg Foertsch, art director: I think with [XCOM] it's hard to figure out what the game is because there's not another game like XCOM. We were trying to figure that out, at the same time we were trying to figure out how the game played. But after [the first XCOM] we could sit there and go, let's re-evaluate. I completely knew how I would do it. It led us to options that are really - they can be as static or procedural as you want. In our case we can make them entirely procedural. It means a really robust system that's super flexible and that liberated the mod community. Those were the two biggest things. procedural levels and I want to be able to mod it. Those were the top comments we saw. By making it procedural it also allows flexibility for the mod community and we built it so if they want to make a linear playthrough of a tactical map they can. In our case the approach is extremely procedural.
Is that also useful because XCOM can be pretty unforgiving so perhaps redoing sections doesn't feel grindy? Is it that it will generate different experiences each time you do a thing?
GD: Oh yeah, it's definitely going to generate new experiences and we're already feeling that now. I think it actually goes hand in hand with this new world that we're building too which is an alien-occupied world., It's a very soft element but mechanically, what Greg was saying, there's different pockets of the maps that are different every time you play. There's a gas station here on this playthrough next to a park. The next time you load up that external portion it could be a gene therapy clinic next to an Advent checkpoint. So these things plug in but it's pretty cool in this world because the aliens have sort of reconstructed earth in their image so it gives you this eerie feel as you're playing through the game. It's crystal clear, you're like, I may have seen this before but not in this exact way, things are changing a little bit and that really fits into the lore. The aliens are literally rebuilding these cities and it feels very, very strange as you're mechanically playing through maps.
The modding aspect is a huge point of interest - what have you done to make the game accessible and what tools will people will have at their disposal?
GD: We're built on the Unreal Engine, we have a modified version of Unreal Engine 3 and that allows for a lot of flexibility for the community. We're creating this SDK that we'll release at launch and modders can then take this package which will have an Unreal editor, it'll have gameplay source, it'll allow them to do total conversions...
GF: The asset library...
GD: The asset library, so it will allow them to take that library and modify what we have so if they just want to do partial modifications and change stats or change the material on an alien to make them look a bit different, or they can do total conversions if they have the skillset to do that. If they want to try and create new worlds like a world war 2 setting or something like that. That obviously takes a lot of work but it's possible to do that if you have a team and if you have the skillset to do it. That's what we're really excited about.
XCOM is very much a systemic game and so you see popular games both on console and PC - things like Skyrim and GTA - they have this new life on PC because when the community gets a hold of... 'How can we manipulate the systems in these games and do brand new things that increase the longevity of the title?' That's what we're most excited about because we feel like this game, we want to maximise replayability and the player value and this is a way we can partner with the community and see what they come up with.
What were some of your favourite mods from XCOM: Enemy Unknown?
GD: There is one that gives me nightmares every night. I mean you can't go wrong with The Long War, it's pretty amazing what they did. I played it, I failed miserably. I joke around but I got a battleship as the first UFO that came after me which is like the hardest UFO you could possibly get! They just skipped right through all the scouts, the small scout, the large scout, the supply ship - let's go straight to battleship. I'm like, okay! I see what this experience is going to be like. But it's so deep and they added so many micromechanics that are very impressive. We see something like that without us providing a toolset and we can't want to see what is below that tip of the iceberg once we do give the community more tools.
GF: I don't know what items they're going to create or what they're going to change, what they're going to add, how they're going to make it different... To me that's huge.
GD: They can take our city centre assets like you saw in the demo and they can give it a new aesthetic just by changing the materials. If they want it to be a darker aesthetic rather than the sterile white and grey they can do that by modifying the textures. Greg probably wouldn't approve it on the art side but it's a modding thing so that's okay.
GF: It is. A lot of those guys are super talented. The mod community is super resourceful and silly talented.
GD: And it's a unique relationship on the PC as well. For us to create this game that we like so much and a platform and to get that really humbling feedback from the community - not only do they like the game and want to play it but they also want to do more things with it? It's this really cool reciprocal relationship.
Was XCOM 2 a very different experience? Creating the first game you have uncertainty, then the community embraces it. With the second game is it more like building a jumping-off point for all this engagement?
GD: So the experience of Enemy Unknown was very different than XCOM 2 because we had a precedent [the 1994 game of the same name] but it was really like building a new IP because the precedent was 15 years earlier and so many design and art sensibilities changed since then.
GF: And we weren't sure how it would be received. I mean, we thought it was cool but... we were so close to it. You lose perspective a little bit.
GD: Now we have a little bit of that support from the community. Now it's a different kind of pressure because we have to live up to the precedent that we set with Enemy Unknown and we want it to be better. So that's the core game. The modding aspect is a little bit external to that - it goes above and beyond the core game. We're excited to see what will happen and we just didn't provide that with Enemy Unknown and we want to rectify that with X2.
The demo shows off some of the new enemies. Tell me about the viper.
GF: I swore I would never make a snake man. I didn't say anything about a snake woman!
GD: That's like a Lord of the Rings reference, right? Remember [Eowyn]? Remember when she takes down the Witch-king?
GF: [The viper] is awesome, we've put a lot of effort into trying to separate everything and push things apart. So the viper's very new, the way she moves, her abilities, and that's our approach to all the characters, not only the aliens and the enemies but also the soldiers and the new environments. Everything is about contrast. We're trying to push everything as far away from each other and into their own spaces to really get a dramatic change where people encounter things. It's different and it's trying to get some diversity. The viper is super-fluid and she's terrifying, she can rip you out of cover, she can bind you up and then contrast that with the berserker who's big, beefy, bruising - she is terrifying.
GA: I love the collaboration where the visual inspiration meets design, like, what's trying to be accomplished on the design side. Greg mentioned that she can rip you out of cover. There was that conversation. Greg knew that he wanted to do the viper. But mechnically what is the most terrifying thing that can happen to you on an XCOM battlefield? Being removed from your safety which is cover. That conversation that happens is like okay, where can this apply and to what enemy? Let's make her snake tongue super alien and she can just reach out and yank you out around your neck from out of cover. It's cool to see the visuals and design come together.
GF: The first time we saw that I came running down the hall like, oh my god!
GD: That was one of those spine-tingling game development moments, when we saw the tongue working in-engine and actually pulling your XCOM soldiers out of cover. It's pretty cool in the demo. I got to watch one and the people doing the demo here said every time there's an audible gasp.