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XCOM: Enemy Unknown interview – fear and reinvention

Tuesday, 25 September 2012 11:03 GMT By Dave Cook

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is looking to redefine turn-based strategy for the masses. VG247′s Dave Cook speaks with Firaxis about why we should all think two steps ahead.

“When your favourite soldier dies, that’s a really emotional moment. You take a look and say, ‘Wow, that totally fucked me’.”

Turn-based strategy games still exist. In fact, they never really went away, but their numbers are dwindling. Even Final Fantasy gave up the backbone of its battle system a long time ago in favour of real-time speed. That simply wasn’t an option for XCOM: Enemy Unknown, according to lead designer at Firaxis Jake Solomon, and would have only spit on the legacy of the original.

VG247 caught up with the developer recently to learn more about what it is to make a solid turn-based strategy game at a time where fluidity and cinematic set-pieces are king. There’s also the little matter of XCOM’s multiplayer mode, which could prove to be one of the most stressful yet rewarding experiences this year. The demo released on Steam yesterday.

Turn-based strategy games are still out there, but real-time action is now at the forefront of the industry. Was there ever any doubt in your mind that a turn-based game like XCOM: Enemy Unknown would catch on again in this changed lanscape?

At different points my doubts were stronger I suppose, but yeah it’s interesting because as a designer you need to have a fair amount of confidence at the beginning, as you’re saying a bunch of things and you have no idea if they’re going to work.

But then you also need to be very open to saying ‘that thing we just did… that was terrible, we should change that’, and so you’re always treading that line. The one thing I never, ever doubted was that the game had to be turned based.

Like, I truly have made a lot of prototypes of this game and all of its game systems. We have messed with everything – every single system in there, I guarantee we’ve messed with – except for the fact that it had to be turn-based.

The reason is just because you have to have perma-death in this game. You just have to have it. The fact that your soldiers can die creates these real consequences in the game, and these really emotional highs and lows. Some games move in a different spectrum where you know that if you lost, you’d be OK with it and you’d just restart.

That’s fine because those games are fixated on telling a story, but then in XCOM because you know you can lose, your emotional highs ad lows are much bigger. That’s because when you succeed you feel great, especially if all your team has survived too, or say you survive with just one guy left.

But then when your favourite soldier dies, that’s a really emotional moment. You take a look at the game and say emotionally, ‘Wow, that totally fucked me’. The one other place you do get that same kind of high is in multiplayer games, and that’s why I think they’re so popular.

In other multiplayer games you have those highs because those consequences feel so real. Man that was a long answer [laughs].

That’s quite alright.

Well so for me, I had to have perma-death, because nobody’s going to accept a soldier dying if it’s real-time and you’re moving the soldier at that moment and he gets shot. ‘That’s an AI problem’ they’d say, and they’d feel cheated by the game.

But with turn-based, it’s a fair game. When the player turns a corner or does anything, then they take damage or get their soldier killed, the player can say, ‘I did that’, and ‘I could have done something differently.’

Can you tell us at what point you wanted multiplayer to be a part of the overall package, or was it always a consideration?

From the beginning I always wanted it because I like tactical and strategy games. It’s just something that – when we were trying to design the game – we actually played a lot of table-top games, which I had never actually done before XCOM.

But it makes a lot of sense, because XCOM is like a digital table-top game. So I started playing these games, like you know, Warhammer and stuff like that, and when we were doing that we looked at the points system they used that dictated how many units you could have on the board.

That was something that we saw at the start, and like this notion of taking your team and not playing against the AI, because the AI is not really trying to beat you at the same game – it’s just responding to you moving around the map.

But it’s very different when there’s another player out there saying ‘I’m going to kill every one of your team. My goal is to send everything I have at you and wipe you out.’ It’s just playing into the real tension of playing against friends, talking about strategies and putting them to work.

i think at the beginning I wasn’t so sure what multiplayer would be like, but I knew we were always going to have some form of multiplayer.

There has always been that tension in XCOM games, but ere you ever concerned that it would be watered down when playing against another human player?

Yeah, it’s really hard to match the tension of the original game, but the original game wasn’t as tactical as this game. I mean, it was tactical in its own way, but we have things like abilities an explicit cover system, bonuses for elevation, perks, passive perks and we just put a big tactical layer over the experience.

The original game would do things like having enemies being able to see further than you, so they would just shoot you from behind the fog of war. These were things that, at first you might not have understood, but in our game everything is very clear.

With the original game – I know how it works – but people typically didn’t understand why they were getting shot. That created huge amounts of tension in the original game, and put you in the dark – literally in the dark. You could take a step, get shot and be like ‘who the f**k was that?’

With our game we said, ‘it has to be tactical, but it also has to be fair’, as tactical games that aren’t fair, just aren’t tactical. We started moving our XCOM game toward fairness and that got us worried and thinking , ‘well hold on, is this still tense?’

It was a big struggle throughout development to give a sense of risk and tension. Because in the original you could run around a corner and be like, ‘Aw fuck, there’s some guy standing there and now he’s going to shoot me.’ We wanted to make sure the game was tactical but that there was still a chance to gamble.

Thee’s still room to make you walk into a situation and say, ‘Oh boy…I have messed up’, and the dread is part of that experience. Or like say I take a shot and I don’t kill the enemy with it, you think, ‘Man, this next turn he’s going to kill my guy, he’s going to kill my guy!’

And when playing with a human person?

Well we had to be sure that we still had those moments, and like I guess another human player replaces that tension with a new tension of like, you really don’t want to lose to that person. You also cant predict what humans will do or what they’re going to bring on to the battlefield in multiplayer.

You start to look and think, ‘is that all of their units?’ and you start doing math in your head like, ‘can he afford anyone else? Am I forgetting someone?’ You always see like two units and you’re like, ‘what’s he doing with just a Chrysalid and a Cyberdisc?’ The tension like that is always pretty strong.

Although you use a point system in multiplayer to keep things balanced, how difficult was it to ensure that there was no one, unstoppable cocktail of units that could win easily every time?

Yeah it is difficult, and that’s where the points do come in, because to be honest with you, I’m not naive, and I know that when we we put this game out – within about a week maybe – someone’s going to be like, ‘yeah…double Muton berzerker and a Cyberdisc is like, unbeatable’ Then we’ll be like, ‘holy shit, that is pretty unbeatable.’

But we haven’t found that yet. I will say there is one thing – I’m not going to say what it is – but there’s already one we know we’re going to adjust the points for. It worked fine with before QA, but those guys find things, and we’re always like, ‘what the f**k?’ as they find an unbeatable strategy.

They are like water through stone, if you leave one stone they will find it. So the idea is that this is sort of a crowd-sourced design because we all found certain things that needed fixed or were overpowered. We’re tracking the stats of every multiplayer match played so we can see if people are winning most often with a particular squad make-up.

We can then take a look at that, and if we see everyone winning with X/Y/Z unit types, then we’d bump the unit cost up a little. If we can prove why that’s tactical and fair, we can adjust that. We can even do it without a patch too, and change things dynamically when we want.

That’s the nice thing, because we don’t want to mess with the units. First, we want them to be the same as the single player units, and second, when people learn how to use a unit well, we don’t want to be like, ‘oh here, that ability does something else now.’

Instead we want to be like, ‘yeah, we know you liked that unit, but now he’s just more expensive. You can’t afford two now. Now you can only afford one and a bunch of other units.’ The point system makes it nice, it allows us to balance easily, and allows people to go crazy with slot strategies.

Strategy games are becoming even bigger on the tournament circuit going forward. Could you ever see XCOM hitting that scene?

I would love to see XCOM tournaments. Like when I watch DotA, I love watching tournament play just to see the skill of some of these gamers. It’s like watching someone who is a master rug weaver, and you’re like ‘I don’t know anything about weaving but that motherfucker can weave a rug.’

When I watch guys play DotA or League of Legends or something like that, and you think ‘how the fuck are they doing that?’, it makes it fun to watch. But yeah I’d love to see XCOM tournaments because the strategy is less subtle.

Strategy in those other games aren’t as clear because they’re in realtime and continuous. You have to figure out like, ‘oh they’re going back there because they’re getting ore.’ But with XCOM the tactics are a little more forward, a lot chunkier.

So I think it would be a lot of fun to actually watch those matches because we love watching them over people’s shoulders, but it’d be fun to watch as you’d go, ‘oh my god, I never thought of that that tactic’, and so on. I’d love to see it, because it is sort of like speed chess, and it’ll be interesting to see how that develops.

And in the spirit of keeping the game fair, you will be watching online play closely to root out any exploits of bugs. Is it fair to say that – come launch day – your job will only just be beginning in that regard?

Yeah, and I’ll tell you, I cannot wait to start playing online. It’s one of those rare things like – you know who Todd Howard from Bethesda is right?

Yeah.

Well he said that whenever a game of his comes out – these guys are just down the street from us actually back home – he’ll go to some store to wait until someone buys his game for the first time.

That’s like closure for him, just watching someone in the store – that sounds creepy – picking it up and buying his game. That’s just closure for him because when he started making games, he wasn’t making them like Skyrim – you know, like seven million copies sold – he had to work hard for quite a while.

So like, I want to be there and my big closure will be going online and to have someone kick my ass at my own game. That’s what I want, and I probably won’t be able to last long until I go online and have someone just destroy me.

Then I can say, ‘OK, this is good, it’s in someone else’s hands now.’ So yeah we’ll definitely be watching from a personal and balancing standpoint, collecting stats from every game and looking at them for trends.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown launches on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 October 12 across Europe. The demo’s out now.

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3 Comments

  1. Chockster

    Great interview. And for those who haven’t tried the demo yet, can I urge you in the strongest possible manner to get it fucking downloaded.

    #1 2 years ago
  2. Puggy

    I don’t know…. still not sold on the “be fair” part of the game. I am fighting against Aliens, they do not have to be fair. It is suposed to be unfair in the beginning when you get to know the threat. And only get fair and equal during the mid-end when you start to technologically addapt to the situation.

    ah well, some more days until I can give it a try.

    #2 2 years ago
  3. Deacon

    Nice one Dave! – I can’t believe I didn’t know about the MP mode until now!

    It is literally impossible for me to be any more excited about this one.

    #3 2 years ago

Comments are now closed on this article.

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    The Longbeards Culture Pack is now available for Total War: Attila and it comes with three new playable factions. The Langobards, the Burgundians and the Alamans can be played in both single and multiplayer campaign modes as well as custom and multiplayer battles. A new feature called The Lay of Ybor is also included. It […]

  • Nvidia unveils Titan X as world’s “most advanced GPU” – video

    Nvidia revealed Titan X as “the world’s most advanced GPU” during Epic founder Tim Sweeney’s State of Unreal session a t GDC 2015 today. Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang took the stage during the panel stating it contains “8 billion transistors,” and has 12GB of RAM. Pricing wasn’t announced, but it was rumored back in January […]

  • Steam sale discounts titles announced for SteamOS

    With many of the year’s most popular games heading to SteamOS, Valve has decided to host sale in celebration. Here’s a short list of titles on sale. The full list of PC, Linux, Mac and SteamOS discounts can be found through the link. The Banner Saga Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Batman: Arkham […]

  • PayDay 2 announced for SteamOS, celebrating with franchise sale

    PayDay 2 is coming to SteamOS, Overkill has announced. Still under development, a release date will be announced at a later date. “Making sure PAYDAY 2 is available on SteamOS felt like a no-brainer,” said Bo Andersson Klint, CEO of Starbreeze in the press release. “With PAYDAY 2: Crimewave Edition coming to the next generation […]

  • Magicka 2 has a release date and a crazy new trailer

    Magicka 2 has a release date for PC and the PlayStation 4, and Paradox Interactive has released a trailer featuring “Vlad’s latest lyrical triumph,” which is his rendition of the Game of Thrones theme. Magicka arrived on PC and PS4 May 26 and the game can be pre-ordered on PC beginning today, with PS4 pre-orders […]

  • Nintendo eShop schedule: Don’t Starve: Giant Edition, Never Alone, others

    Nintendo has sent over a list of titles heading to the eShop in 2015. The schedule contains titles such as Affordable Space Adventures, Runbow, Swords & Soldiers 2, Don’t Starve: Giant Edition, Never Alone and Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Tipping Stars. Below a preliminary list of games scheduled to launch in the Nintendo eShop on […]

  • Week 8: Can you win the weekly VG247 GTA Online playlist? Play tonight at 8pm UK time!

    We’re hotdogging tonight. I don’t even know what that means. Eight weeks of ridiculous death. Such a brave, true milestone. We’re going to celebrate two entire months of playing weekly GTA Online playlists with VG247 readers with Hotdogging, a set of six jobs I named completely at random. This one ends with a straight-up border […]

  • Puzzle platformer Four Sided Fantasy coming to PC, consoles in early 2016

    Curve Digital and developer Logan Fieth’s studio Ludo Land are bringing puzzle platformer, Four Sided Fantasy, to PC all major consoles in early 2016. Ludo Land are developing the PC version, with Curve Digital handling the console and Vita versions. Four Sided Fantasy tasks players with venturing across “dreamlike levels” by controlling and manipulating the […]

  • Tropico 5 arrives on PS4 in April – video

    A release date for Tropico 5 on PlayStation 4 has been announced. This is the franchise’s first foray onto PlayStation consoles. It arrived in Europe on April 24 and in North America on April 28. A Limited Edition has also been announced, and it includes The Big Cheese DLC and the Bayo Del Olfato sandbox […]

  • Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain Limited Edition PS4 releasing in Asia

    A limited edition Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain PlayStation 4 system will be released in Asia. The system and its DualShock controller were designed in collaboration with Konami Digital Entertainment and targeted for the Asia region, per Gematsu. It will be released as part of PS4 Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain […]

  • This video shows Sid Meier’s Starships being played on iPad

    Sid Meier’s Starships will be released on iPad alongside Mac and PC, and to give you an idea on how it plays on the tablet, a new video has been released. Watch below as Pete Murray and lead producer Stuart Zissu show off the iPad version. The 4X space-strategy releases on March 12.

  • Wolfenstein: The Old Blood announced as standalone prequel to Wolfenstein: The New Order

    Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, a standalone prequel to The New Order, will release May 5 on PC, PS4 and Xbox One. The game takes pace in 1946, and and players take on the role of B.J. Blazkowicz as he embarks on a two-part mission in Bavaria. Part one, Rudi Jäger and the Den of Wolves, […]

  • Observer Mode coming soon to Evolve as a free update

    Observer Mode will be released for Evolve as a free update for all platforms, 2K and Turtle Rock have announced. The community feature was designed to give Evolve players the ability to observe and add commentary as well as livestream, allowing a sixth user to “passively enter a custom game” with the ability to switch […]

  • Dragon Quest Heroes and PS4 top Media Create charts in Japan

    The PlayStation 3 and PS4 skus for Dragon Quest Heroes were the top sellers on the Media Create charts in Japan, moving a combined 594,749 units. Elsewhere on the chart, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D was in third place with 39,751 units moved, and last week’s top seller, God Eater 2: Rage Burst, […]

  • Watch Hideo Kojima answer lots of your burning Phantom Pain questions

    What’s better than learning the official release date of MGS5: The Phantom pain? Hideo Kojima talking more about it, of course! Hideo Kojima has decided to answer a few fan questions about Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, to help boost everyone’s hype to insane levels. He talks about the game’s story, his relief […]

  • MGS5: The Phantom Pain Day 1 and Collector’s Edition revealed

    Konami has officially revealed the release date of Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain alongside the game’s Day 1 and Collector’s Edition. Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain will release September 1, worldwide, as previously leaked. It will be available on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One. The PC Steam […]

  • EU Club Nintendo: Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds soundtrack back in stock

    Club Nintendo members in Europe can once again pick up The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds soundtrack. For 3000 Stars, members of the program will receive the double-CD soundtrack which features 89 tracks with liner notes from Ryo Nagamatsu and 12 sheet music excerpts. It also comes with 16 Milk Bar Musician pieces. […]

  • HTC apologises over “confusing” Half-Life VR comments

    HTC has misspoke when it talked about Half-Life coming to VR headset Vive. HTC chairwoman Cher Wang has apologised over the comments she made yesterday about the possibility of Half-Life coming to Vive, the VR headset it’s manufacturing with the help of Valve. Sources close to Valve, have indicated to the BBC that the developer […]

  • What do Heists and Daily Objectives tell us about the future of GTA Online?

    Daily Objectives could be more important to GTA Online than Heists. These theories and more, from a giddy Matt Martin. Yesterday Rockstar dropped a bombshell. Not only is it releasing Heists next week – the mythical 4-player missions for GTA Online – but it’s also going to be introducing daily challenges and more modes to […]

  • Breaking down Hardline Premium, is it worth it?

    Having been announced just a few days ago, the Premium service for Battlefield Hardline has been a topic of constant debate among the Battlefield community. Many look at Hardline as a Battlefield off-shoot that will just tide everyone over until Battlefront comes out in the fall. EA has other plans however, announcing a $50 Premium […]

  • Watch Dogs sold more than GTA 5 and FIFA 15 in Australia in 2014

    Watch Dogs outsold GTA 5, and FIFA 15, at retail in Australia last year. According to data obtained by the Interactive Games & Entertainment Association (IGEA) from the NPD Group Australia, last year’s year retail sales charts look a bit different in Australia. The top-selling game was Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, followed by Watch […]

  • Watch PC footage of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt from GDC 2015

    The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has a new gameplay video available that shows a bit of action from the PC version. The video below was captured from Nvidia’s GDC conference live-stream. Developer CD Projekt RED was on hand to show off The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt‘s graphical prowess running on a PC. Thanks, GamesHQMedia.

  • Dying Light: Hard Mode and Ultimate Survivor Bundle out March 10

    Dying Light’s second DLC drop, the Ultimate Survivor Bundle, and the free Hard Mode, have been given a solid release date alongside a new trailer. Dying Light developer Techland has confirmed that the Ultimate Survivor Bundle, the game’s second DLC drop, will release March 10. The DLC is part of the season pass, but will […]

  • Exploration puzzler Ether One is coming to PlayStation 4

    Ether One, the first-person exploration game that puts you in the minds of other people to help change events of their past is coming to PlayStation 4 this year. Ether One is coming to PlayStation 4 this year, developer White Paper Games announced at GDC 2015. A retail version will also be available alongside the […]

  • Larian “murdered” Divinity: Dragon Commander to focus on Original Sin

    Divinity: Original Sin developer Larian talked very candidly about the business side of development and the many unfortunate events that took place for the game to come out as it did. Larian Studios founder Swen Vincke gave a post-mortem on the troubled development of Divinity: Original Sin, and how it managed to overcome all of […]

  • Firewatch probably has the most natural dialogue of any game to date

    Firewatch developer Campo Santo has revealed the first ever gameplay footage of the upcoming exploration game. Firewatch is the first game from super indie studio Campo Santo. The game is set in the Wyoming forests where the player will be exploring the environment and act as a fire lookout. The game features extensive voice-acting as […]

  • White Night launch trailer is a noir thriller trip

    White Night is here, not long after it was revealed and with a mysterious launch trailer. White Night, the black-and-white survival horror set in 1930s Boston, has revealed its launch trailer. White Night is mix of old-school horror, exploration and puzzling solving in an eerie, noir setting. The game’s main mechanic is light. any object […]

  • Free-to-play is “a significant part” of PlayStation’s digital future

    Free-to-play games on PlayStation 4 have seen enough growth that Sony is now considering the model a major part of its future digital business. Sarah Thompson, senior account executive for PlayStation’s free-to-play business said at a GDC panel that Sony has witnessed impressive growth in the free-to-play sector. “We’re really looking at this as a […]

  • Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter documentary releasing free on YouTube

    Broken Age making of documentary Double Fine Adventure will be made available to all. When Double Fine turned to crowdfunding, changing the industry forever, it promised to give an unprecedented look behind the scenes with a professional documentary of the whole development process of Broken Age. That documentary was initially restricted to Kickstarter backers, but […]

  • Gone Home console ports cancelled following Midnight City difficulties

    Gone Home won’t be made available to the console masses after all. Indie hit Gone Home was announced for console release almost exactly one year ago, and we’ve heard absolutely nothing since then. Turns out, that’s because it’s not happening: developer the Fullbright Company confirmed to Eurogamer that the ports have been cancelled. “Our publishing […]

  • Microsoft rang Mojang the day Notch joked about selling

    Minecraft developer Mojang was sold because founder Markus “Notch” Persson made a joke on Twitter. Ever wondered how Minecraft came to be a Microsoft property? It’s actually a pretty great story. Remember when Notch tweeted this? Anyone want to buy my share of Mojang so I can move on with my life? Getting hate for […]

  • Halo: The Master Chief Collection matchmaking update rolling out

    Halo: The Master Chief Collection has been updated to help fix its tragic matchmaking. Again. Now almost four months old, Halo: The Master Chief Collection was still pretty broken as of this morning, with rubbish matchmaking and plenty of other issues to go around. 343 Industries is still trying to fix it, and has today […]

  • Nvidia unveils Shield, an Android 4K Smart TV set top box

    Nvidia has named yet another product “Shield” in an attempt to render us all hopelessly confused. The heart of Nvidia’s GDC 2015 press conference was the Shield, a $200 Android set top box launching in May. Apparently the “world’s first 4K Android TV”, the Shield supports 4K content encoded with h.265. The box runs on […]

  • Star Wars Battlefront footage shown behind closed doors

    Star Wars Battlefront is being shown to retailers. Now we want EA to show it to us. Star Wars Battlefront is expected sometime this year, so it’s about time EA gave us a look at DICE’s latest. It turns out that while press and gamers have had to twiddle their thumbs, EA is showing it […]

  • Dragon Age lead creative moves onto mysterious new BioWare project

    Dragon Age creator David Gaider is leaving his baby behind. Dragon Age is a team effort, but Gaider was one of the key creatives behind the franchise, creating the setting of Thedas (which, I was recently amused to learn, is an acronym: “THE Dragon Age Setting”). He was lead writer on all three games and […]

  • Unity 5 available for free with “no fucking around”

    Unity 5 looks amazing, and you can download and faff about with it for free right now. “We’re not nickel-and-diming people. When we say it’s free, it’s free. We’re not charging a royalty, which I think is akin to looking for whales.” Unity Technologies announced the release of the fifth version of its popular, simple, […]

  • Five Nights at Freddy’s 3 may be the end of the series

    Five Nights at Freddy’s 3 released yesterday, and many fans theorise that it marks the end of the series. Five Nights at Freddy’s developer Scott Cawthon has released a new teaser image on his website, but rather than pointing to a new game, many fans believe the teaser signals the end of the series. The […]

  • Source 2 announced, will also be free

    Valve has formally unveiled Source Engine 2, the third major engine to go free to developers at GDC 2015. Source 2 is the successor to the engine Valve has been using since Counter-Strike: Source and Half-Life 2. Valve didn’t have much to say about the technicalities of this long-awaited release. It is apparently focused on […]