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Know Your Enemy: Firaxis On XCOM, Part 1

The origins of a reimagining

They did it. They really did it. As we unexpectedly discovered last month, Firaxis are remaking/reimagining the original X-COM, the 1993 title that is quite rightly often hailed as the greatest game ever made. Recently, I had a long, fascinating and genuinely reassuring chat with XCOM: Enemy Unknown's lead designer and evident fellow X-COM gonk Jake Solomon - in this first of three parts, he talks how, why, when, the response to the controversial XCOM shooter, Cyberdiscs, whether it's being simplified for console, 2K's infamous 'strategy games aren't contemporary' comment and missing hyphens.

RPS: Hi there, I’m Alec Meer from Rock Paper Shotgun, how’re you doing?

Jake Solomon: Alec! I was hoping it would be you.

RPS: Really?

Jake Solomon: Yes Alec, I’m a long-term reader so I know who you are. I have the advantage here. I love your stuff and I know that I’m talking to a real fan here so this’ll be an easy conversation (laughter)

RPS: Is that for better or worse I wonder…for better and worse. It makes me nervous when people say they’ve read the site because I think oh no, I’ve said that thing, and they probably thought….oh no….

Jake Solomon: (laughs) That’s ok, we make sure we send all your articles around here so we’ve all read your stuff.

RPS: That's... good and bad. Well I am very optimistic about the game, I actually heard a rumour about it two years ago and was getting worried it had been cancelled, so I was very excited when I heard the announcement.

Jake Solomon: Yeah, we got to do that little surprise. It’s funny because a lot of people, I don’t know really how, had heard the rumours. I guess I never even knew there were rumours out there.

RPS: There’s a rumour about everything

Jake Solomon: That’s true! There is a rumour about everything, you know, whether it’s true or not, there’s a rumour about everything.

RPS: I’ve got a mixture of my own questions and also I did a kind of Twitter poll because there’s people on there who are even more ferociously nerdy about this than me so I thought it would be best to take their prompts on it.

Jake Solomon: That is perfectly fine, I feel like I can go toe to toe in the ferociously nerdy category (laughter) I’m happy to field whatever questions you’ve got.

RPS: Cool, well let’s test you on that then. The most important question of all, I think you’ll agree, is why isn’t there a hyphen in the title anymore?

Jake Solomon: (laughs) We have an implied hyphen, you’ve seen our logo, right? You can kind of see it striking through the COM part.

RPS: Good stuff, I didn’t know if it was ‘No, we want to declare we are our own game’ even though it’s tied to the lineage.

Jake Solomon: No no, it’s funny because without the hyphen, I remember when my wife saw that she was saying it looked like ‘TROM’, she thought it was the name of an actual alien, like it was the alien overlord. I was like ‘Ok, we’ve got to fix a hyphen in there somehow.’

RPS: (laughs) How long have you been doing it for?

Jake Solomon: This project, we’ve been doing it for three and a half years at this point. I mean, some guys, some of the early art staff have been on it for four years at this point, so we’ve been in development for a really long time.

RPS: How does that compare to the Firaxis standard for stuff like this, do you normally take that long?

Jake Solomon: No, this one was a little bit longer because we knew that we were sort of starting a whole new process, right, a lot of times with Firaxis we have Sid in house, we have that sort of institutional knowledge of a lot of the games that we make - so let’s say we’re making a Civ, so many of the guys on the Civ teams have already made another Civ so it’s a lot easier to get into it. Even when we made Pirates! of course, that was something that Sid was leading up and of course Sid was in-house so that stuff’s a lot easier. So we knew that when we were making this game - first of all everybody who knows XCOM knows that the game is going to actually require you to be criminally insane to undertake the project as a developer because of all the wonderful but very difficult elements from a development standpoint. Y’know, you’ve got all the destructible terrain, and the 3D fog of war, and you’ve got the two games, it’s not just the combat game, it’s the two games and how they come on together, and so 2K was very accommodating because we said ‘Look, we’re going to need to take some time with this, this is something completely new for us, we’re not re-making one of our old earlier titles.'

To sidetrack for a second, the way we started, the art team rolled on to it first, and they were working on tone and imagery and I would give them some pointers about how the game would actually function, and we wanted to say, ok, if we take exactly what the original game is and then we want to see what we can do with that artistically. The first prototype I wrote was basically a recreation of the original game, so we started with everything: time units, which I know you’re going to ask me about [laughs], time units, ammo, everything, a recreation of the original game. So what we wanted to do was start from that point and say ‘ok, we don’t take anything out unless we can improve it.' That was a good three and a half/almost four years ago at this point.

RPS: You know you could probably just release that prototype today and you’d make a fortune overnight.

Jake Solomon: (laughs) I don’t know, I suppose it would have interest, maybe that’s something we should put in the collector’s edition or something.

RPS: Yeah, or a least a ‘making of’ thing that showed off what it looked like and what was going on there.

Jake Solomon: Yeah, that’s something that we really really want to do. The fun thing about a development process that’s this long, the idea was when we started developing was that since we were starting from the original game we had that core there, we wanted to work fearlessly where everything had to hold its own weight, so when we made decisions we weren’t afraid, we weren’t making our decisions based on, y’know, ‘is this going to make the game harder to play or simpler to play?. And I know people aren’t going to believe me when I say that but it really is true, we’ve never lost sleep over ‘how can we simplify the game?’, it was really more a question of ‘Ok, here we have this game, what’s the more fun mechanic?’, and I’m telling you, with this game, I cannot wait some day to have a discussion, maybe we can do that with you guys after we ship.

RPS: Oh, we’d love to.

Jake Solomon: I can show you all these old screen shots, and all these old prototypes, and I’m telling you, we have taken this game left, right, up, down, whatever: we’ve done all kinds of crazy things with it. I guess that’s why we’re happy and comfortable where we are because we’ve honestly tried almost everything from a design standpoint.

RPS: Did you have a fixed point in your mind between being a recreation of the original and being something new that you could say is definitely ‘my’ game rather than someone else’s with bells on?

Jake Solomon: Right, exactly, and so that’s why it was important to start with the original as a base. Narratively we occupy the same starting point, we have a lot of the same aliens, and we use the original game as the inspiration for a lot of the things we do, and it’s never out of our minds, I don’t want to say that we design and we just say ‘oh, who cares what was in the original’. We view it more from a design perspective and say look, and the original is still absolutely my favourite game, and the favourite game of a lot of guys on this team, so we view the original not as holy and sacred and we can’t change it because that’s how Julian did it, it’s more that those things worked, they were mechanically fantastic, and they worked very very well, so as a designer, we keep that in mind when we are thinking about making changes, we say ‘look, we have thousands of hours of experience with this other design system and it works very well’, so, we took any changes we made very seriously. But because of that, because we made our changes based on play and prototypes, the only things that stuck were the things that when across the board it was like ‘this is an improvement to the game’.

RPS: Do you feel like people are, when they get this, going to feel that they’ve got it instead of X-COM, or do you think it’s going to be more of a companion almost?

Jake Solomon: Yeah, I think it’s very personal…if you got ten of us in a room, say it’s you, me and eight other guys just like us, right, and you said ‘ok, I want your number one feature that cannot be changed or it’s not XCOM’, somehow we would walk out of that room with twenty five features, because when you ask people, what is XCOM, they’ll say ‘it’s this’, or ‘it’s that’, and a lot of times you’ll find yourself agreeing and you’re like ‘Yes, that is core to the experience’, and so I have to interpret that and my team has to interpret that for ourselves and say ‘It’s these elements which we think make the core experience of XCOM’, but obviously things are going to change. I think it is more of a companion, it’s certainly not something that you’d play and say ‘this is completely different’. I guess it would be another game in the series, that narratively occupies the same space. They did all kinds of interesting things with, maybe not Terror From The Deep, except made it brutally harder and made the cruise ships four times longer than any human could realistically make, but they did awesome stuff with Apocalypse and that’s the funny thing, I don’t even think we’re as far away as Apocalypse is. I think we’re just taking the original, and it’s variations on a theme.

RPS: Was there anything that particularly came from that, or from Terror of the Deep, or did you pretty much put them aside for this one and concentrate on getting the spirit of the original right?

Jake Solomon: It was more the spirit of the original, I mean that’s where my heart is and that’s where we have our memories of the original. I think the reason for that is that the original resonates so much is because the setting is Earth and it’s a setting that you can recognise. I mean, Terror From the Deep was awesome but the setting was underwater and you had these cruise ship missions, and Apoc was the futuristic city... those were things that were very interesting concepts but they’re harder to relate to, but Enemy Unknown was very spooky and very affecting because you recognized the setting, you could translate what you saw into looking out your window. So I think that that’s why the original has such a strong draw on me and I think on other people as well. So when we made our XCOM we definitely started with that and took almost all of our inspiration from the original.

RPS: Yeah, it’s really got that moral imperative of the greater good, because you’ve got civilians around, and you become quite fascinatingly cavalier about their lives because you’ve got this greater goal in your head.

Jake Solomon: Exactly, and the phrase that we use is the feeling of XCOM is almost like a shark in your living room, it’s something completely out of context but in a place that you take for granted and feel comfortable in, but then you’ve got this horrifying thing sitting right in the middle of it and it’s completely jarring. That’s what was so fun, you’d be on these missions, you’d be looking around these suburban neighbourhoods, and then you’d see horrible things: Chrysalids, or Snakemen, or Sectoids just peeking out of the fog there. That was one of the neatest things that XCOM did, it just sort of takes that feeling of something you recognize and it twists it, and again, I think that’s why I think the original did so well.

RPS: It’s a really iconic image, the classic grey alien sitting in the middle of a cornfield, and you think ‘wait, something’s wrong here’…

Jake Solomon: Right, the orchard, or the cabbage, or the wheat field… You get that when they’re half in, half out of the fog, and their eyes are just glinting…and you know you’re moving your guy and he stops, and you see the little red box and you just see the glints in the Sectoids’ eyes out in the darkness, that’s the classic X-COM moment.

RPS: Yeah, waving the cursor around thinking it’s going to turn red in a moment, and you think ‘Yeah, there he is, I can get him’. So have you been able to play up that juxtaposition in yours even more between the recognisable Earthly scenes and the aliens, have you been able to flesh that side out at all?

Jake Solomon: Yes, and that’s artistically a lot of what we wanted to do, we wanted to create scenes that the player would recognize so they would have some sort of emotional resonance with the things that they see, and then you get the very bizarre, in the middle of a convenience store or something, you’ve got that great XCOM moment of like this giant Muton in there, or Sectoids, so that’s something visually we worked very hard to do, to create scenes that the player could recognise.

RPS:In the initial screenshots that came out, I was worried that you were making the aliens quite humanoid, but stuff I’ve found out since, it seems more like you’re going for the ‘this is an alien and so it’s going to look weird’ in the middle of that domestic context.

Jake Solomon: Right, it was funny because the first screenshot that came out it was a surprise because it was the Thin Man out in the woods, which is probably a very unique situation. So then I was happy when the other screenshots came out and you could see the Cyberdisc and the Mutons and the Sectoids, and of course for the majority of our first screenshots we chose the gas station because I was like ‘We have to have a Cyberdisc near the gas station’, we must because the fans of the original will recognize that as a tip of the hat.

RPS: Yeah, and you know the explosion that happens if you shoot it in just the right place.

Jake Solomon: That’s right. The chain of the Cyberdisc exploding next to the gas pump and all your guys are idiots for taking cover there.

RPS: (laughs) Something I wanted to ask about before I forget, there’s that infamous comment that 2K's Christoph Hartmann made the other month about how strategy games are dead, and then this comes out... Was he just trolling, or was it just confusion?

Jake Solomon: I’m positive it was simply just an out of context thing because obviously I work with him a lot, and I would say that he has proven with what matters, which is, you know, money where your mouth is. He runs one of the largest studios in the world and I know that he has always been deeply supportive. and I said earlier, and this is my experience, we said at the very beginning when we wanted to do this game, the problem with a strategy XCOM, if you’re going to recreate the original, and the reason why it’s never happened before, and we’ve always seen those articles about why has nobody done this before, and I used to think that myself until it was like, ‘Ok, let’s get serious, what will it take to do this.’, and I think development-wise it’s insane. The amount of things that you have to do technically and design-wise, the amount of design systems is overwhelming and it’s not just one game, it’s two games, and so it’s a crazy, crazy game, and it’s wonderful, but it requires a huge investment of design time and technical time.

So when we went to 2K and said we really want to do this they didn’t say ‘well, what game is it like?’ or ‘well, that’s not like the other games that you’ve done’; they were intrigued by the idea of the fact that X-COM is unlike any other game and so they were very very supportive of us, our development time has been long, they’ve always given me anything that I’ve needed, the time I needed, the people I needed, so yeah, I think it was simply a miscommunication, out of context thing as I know him personally. People are going to think I’m blowing smoke here, but I’m not, they’re absolutely the forgotten side of the equation here, because a lot of times if you hear about a publisher it’s not a positive thing, but I’m telling you, with us, we absolutely love 2K because they’re so creatively brave. Ken makes the Bioshocks and things like that and that was a very big departure…

RPS: I’m speaking to him tomorrow actually. [Which we already posted here].

Jake Solomon: Say hi from me! I know that [Hartmann] appreciates that, and we make Civ and you know, Civ is a bit of an oddball, it’s nice that it sells of course but I think that the fact that they make these games, a lot of times I work with them from a creative standpoint, it’s never a question of like ‘Well, what’s the numbers, what’s this and that’. I’ve had a lot of other publishers over the years but with 2K, the conversation is almost always creative, like ‘How are you going to make this work, how is this unique to players, and how are we going to do this and that’. I guess what I’d say is I have absolutely loved working with them, so I felt bad when I saw that because that’s not representative of how they are with us as developers.

RPS: So how’s it been during the long time you’ve been doing this watching the response to the shooter which, to put it generously, was mixed? Has that coloured what you were doing at all, or scared you? Excited you?

Jake Solomon: The thing is, we were always making this game, to us we didn’t really give that a lot of thought, we always knew about the 2K Marin team, we’ve worked with those guys from the very beginning, we’ve worked back and forth and so Jordan [Thomas] and I talk regularly and we work together quite a bit and we’re both very excited about the other things that Marin are doing and how we’re connecting, which we’re not talking about yet. We’ve had great conversations, and it’s been fun because we’re doing this game and they’re doing a completely different take on things and the ideas that a fan of XCOM... and I say this as a fan myself, we’ve been wandering in the desert for quite a while. Since the original you’re looking at eighteen years now, since Apocalypse it’s probably fifteen years now or so, an incredible franchise but it just went dark for so long and so our take on it was won’t this be exciting? We’ll have everything: we’ll have the strategy version to hopefully make people happy, we’ll have the shooter which tells a story in a new way and tells a story about a different time.

So yeah, it was difficult, but it was more difficult just because I know those guys, I like those guys, and things look so differently from the other perspective. I understand that people are passionate about it, I completely do, the only thing that was difficult was that I know those guys and I know how strongly they feel and how good they are at their jobs and how strongly they feel about their title so any negative stuff I saw I felt bad for them - but I knew eventually what they’d show. I thought it did, it definitely started winning people over because what they’re doing I think is pretty cool.

RPS: So: as soon as it’s mentioned that it’s on console our threads fill with people going ‘oh god, oh no, the controls aren’t going to work and it’s going to be dumbed down, yada yada’. Do we need to worry on that front, is there going to be a bespoke PC version with different controls?

Jake Solomon: You know I’m going to say you shouldn’t worry.. But no, not at all. The way I’d say it is that input-wise, from a purely input standpoint, XCOM is not a complicated game at all, in fact it’s a very, very straightforward game from an input perspective, so whether you’re playing on a PC with mouse keyboard or whether you’re playing a gamepad, there really aren’t that many things for you to do anyway, I mean this is not at all like something like Civ, this is a much more straightforward interaction with player and experience. So we’re perfectly comfortable with putting the game to gamepad, putting the game to mouse and keyboard because we’ve do Civ in-house, which is an extremely complicated input system and so for us, XCOM is so straightforward in the inputs the player makes and how the player interacts with the game.

Being on consoles it works fantastically, being on mouse keyboard it works fantastically, there’s not even any particular tension there, I mean the tension there and what needs to be different of course is the way that the player interacts with the scene because with the mouse obviously it’s a input selection-driven input, so the player wants to click on things, he wants to click on enemies, as opposed to something like a gamepad where you want to cycle enemies, right? That’s mainly the big difference, the strategy layer is extremely straightforward, there is a lot of UI involved with it, but that’s very easy to either make those two things either work for both but we have plenty of cases where we just do whole different screens, but certainly tactical is the place where it’s the most different because of the nature of cycling into points of interest as opposed to just straight up clicking on points of interest.

So we’re totally committed to making a separate experience for PC, and in fact there are things we can do on PC obviously that we couldn’t do on something like a console, so whether you’re talking zoom level and the different ways you can view the battlefield tactically, that’s certainly much easier with PC, above and beyond the stuff that you always get on PC like better res and things like that. But really what we’re looking to do is having a more tactical view in terms of zoom level and things like that, and how the information is displayed - those are all things that we can do on PC that have to be changed for gamepad.

RPS: Yeah, that’s the main thing that occurs to me, looking at something like Skyrim when the interface just comes over wholesale from console and it’s all big giant text and missing information and categorisation.

Jake Solomon: Right, and it’s harder and we can’t do that, which is a good thing, I mean you cannot do that with a tactical game or a strategy game, you simply can’t because the interface is not the same thing, you’re not free, your inputs are not like, let’s say a real time or an action based game, where your input is continuous and you can steer the camera around. That’s not how it is in a tactics game, a strategy game, you actually have points of interest that you’re either clicking on or cycling through. Those two things are not the same and so you can’t just bring something over wholesale, which of course we’ve always known and which is actually kind of a good thing because it forces you to make a new interface.

There are two more parts of this mega-interview, to be posted over the next two days. Still to come: time units or lack thereof, Chrysalids, min-maxing, whether the response to the shooter affected decisions on this game, indivdualising your soldiers, losing men, exploring the base, psychic control, the fate of Silacoids, the Gollops, modding and much more. Stay tuned, X-men.

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