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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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    Elite: Dangerous was announced for Xbox One at GDC 2015 yesterday, and those disappointed over the lack of a PlayStation 4 announcement will be pleased to know it’s in the cards. According to Frontier boss David Braben the space-sim will head to PS4 at some point, once the console exclusivity deal with Microsoft has expired. […]

  • Here’s two new The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt screenshots to salivate over

    Two new screenshots from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt have been released, and they are gorgeous as always. The screenshots follow the two released over the weekend. You can look at the new images in full HD glory over on Only Single Player. CD Projekt Red is at PAX East this weekend showing off the latest […]

  • Microsoft looking into streaming PC games to Xbox One

    With Windows 10, Xbox One users will soon be able to stream their games to PC. Microsoft is also looking into streaming PC games to Xbox One, according to news out of GDC. Speaking with Polygon at GDC 2015, Xbox program director Mike Ybarra said the company is also looking into the ability to stream […]

  • Free! Vindictus Lann Revamp codes worth €25

    We have 400 Lann Revamp codes worth €25 to giveaway for free to VG247 readers. All you need to do is enter your details in the box below and you’ll be given a code to redeem in game. The codes are for warrior character Lann and offer a 7 day unlimited Inner Armour pass, battle […]

  • US eShop update: Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Tipping Stars, OlliOlli, more

    Nintendo has updated the North American end of the eShop with Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Tipping Stars, OlliOlli and a demo version of Azure Striker GUNVOL. Your full update is below. eShop Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Tipping Stars – Wii U, 3DS – Cross Buy OlliOlli – Wii U, 3DS – Cross-Buy Proun+ – Proun+ […]

  • Rock Band 4 confirmed for Xbox One and PS4: supports old instruments and 2,168 songs

    Harmonix has lifted the lid on the long-rumoured Rock Band 4, stating it will support 2,168 previously released tracks and last-gen instruments on PS4 and Xbox One. The game will be out this year. Harmonix has yet to reveal specific features for the game, but it has been built with a completely new engine. As […]

  • First run of Rodea the Sky Soldier copies on Wii U come with Wii version

    The first print run of Rodea the Sky Soldier on Wii U will come with the Wii version packed in, NIS America has confirmed. The publisher confirmed today in a press release that anyone who buys the first run of the retail version of Rodea the Sky Soldier on Wii U will find the Wii […]

  • Unreal Tournament 4 lets modders sell cosmetic items to players

    Unreal Tournament 4 is a game built with the help of the modding community. So it’s only natural that it will feature a marketplace where all cosmetic items can be sold. Epic Games has confirmed that it will allow modders from the community to sell the cosmetics items they’ve created on the game’s marketplace. The […]

  • D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die is coming to PC – rumour

    SWERY 65 has shown off D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die running on PC at GDC this week, teasing that a possible port may be on the way. D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die is SWERY 65′s latest project. An episodic detective affair, D4 came out on Xbox One last September and utilised Kinect as its main […]

  • Valve’s Lighthouse, VR controllers and more explained

    Valve’s less-talked about prototype VR controllers and its Lighthouse technology have been shown in more detail. When HTC announced Vive, the VR headset it’s working on with Valve, it mentioned “base stations” and ergonomic controllers. Now we know what they meant by that. The controllers are still in prototype phase, and will look better when […]

  • Listen to two professional Counter-Strike players explain why Dust2 is so popular

    Hear what makes iconic Counter-Strike map Dust2 one of the most popular maps in shooter history from two former eSports players. Sal “Volcano” Garozzo and Shawn “FMPONE” Snelling are both retired professional Counter-Strike players who are currently working as designers. At GDC this year, the pair hosted a panel titled “Community Level Design for Competitive […]

  • Core Morpheus hardware locked in, no plans for wireless version

    Sony has finalised the core hardware for its VR headset Project Morpheus, and does not currently plan on releasing a wireless version. SCE Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida spoke to Gamespot at GDC and confirmed that the core hardware of Morpheus is “pretty much done” but that “lots of tweaks and improvements” are still being […]

  • Watch the full Phil Spencer keynote from GDC 2015

    The full GDC 2015 keynote of Xbox boss Phil Spencer is now available to watch. In case you missed last nights’s Phil Spencer keynote at GDC 2015, the whole thing has been made available to watch on YouTube. The address is titled “The Future of Gaming Across the Microsoft Ecosytem,” and it’s where Spencer announced […]

  • Elite: Dangerous won’t be “dumbed down” for Xbox One

    The Xbox One version of Elite: Dangerous will in fact be the same as the PC one. Elite: Dangerous developer Frontier came out on stage last night at GDC to announce the game making its console debut on Xbox One. Some have feared that the port would not provide the same experience as the PC […]

  • Virtual reality: by gum, it’s really happening

    Virtual reality has exited the realm of peripheral gimmick and turned into something that just might go mainstream. VR has an uphill battle ahead of it. The tech is going to be expensive, and there are a number of problems that need to be solved before it could be considered an inclusive technology (motion sickness, […]

  • Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor takes Game of the Year at GDC Awards 2015

    And the winner is: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor beat out Alien: Isolation, Bayonetta 2, Destiny, and Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft to win Game of the Year at the Game Developer’s Choice Awards 2015. Elsewhere in the awards, Ustwo’s mobile hit Monument Valley was a stand-out favourite, with wins in the Innovation, […]

  • Alien: Isolation was prototyped in third-person – video

    Alien: Isolation is one of the most effectively scary triple-A games in years, but it didn’t start off a perfect creation of pure terror. Creative Assembly prototyped Alien: Isolation in third-person perspective before they nailed down the final approach. The developer revealed this during a GDC 2015 presentation, and it’s a good reminder that games […]

  • Madden 15 added to EA Vault

    Madden 15 is now included in EA’s all-you-can-eat subscriber service. Madden 15 is the ninth game to be added to the EA Vault, a stash of games available on demand for EA Access subscribers. It's still Madden Season for EA Access members – Madden NFL 15 is now in The Vault for all members. Go […]

  • Source Engine 2 doesn’t have hidden costs or royalties – but is Steam exclusive

    Three major engines went free at GDC 2015, and each of them is monetising in a different way. There’s been a heck of a lot of discussion about development tools and the costs associated with them during GDC 2015. First Epic announced that Unreal Engine 4 would be free, bar royalities on successful releases. Then […]

  • Final Fantasy creator hates sequels

    Final Fantasy, a byword in prolific franchises, was created by a man who hates sequel. Final Fantasy games are famous for being reinvented with each core release, and it was not until series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi began to withdraw from the franchise after Final Fantasy 9 that we started seeing regular sequels and spin-offs. Speaking […]

  • Guardian complaints led to the closure of Destiny’s Loot Cave

    Destiny players are to blame for the shuttering of the much loved Loot Cave. Early in Destiny‘s history, many players got hugely excited about the “Loot Cave”. Accessible shortly after starting the game for the first time, this high-volume spawn point allowed players to stand in one place, taking out waves and waves of low-level […]

  • Xbox and PC games boss Phil Harrison to leave Microsoft – rumour

    Microsoft Interactive Entertainment Business VP and EMEA head of games Phil Harrison is rumoured to have thrown in the towel. Microsoft has not issued a statement on Harrison’s alleged departure, despite repeated questioning by press at GDC 2015. Instead, word comes via multiple sources speaking to GamesIndustry at the show. According to the rumours, Harrison […]

  • Metal Gear Online commentated trailer explains stuffed dog – but not invisibility

    Metal Gear Online developer Kojima Productions has provided significantly more insight into how the multiplayer side of The Phantom Pain works. Metal Gear Online is the online multiplayer component of Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain. Konami hasn’t shared a great deal about it yet, but we did see a very cool Metal Gear […]

  • Elite: Dangerous Xbox One trailer shows off space MMO

    If Elite: Dangerous looks this good on Xbox One we have nothing to complain about. Microsoft revealed Elite: Dangerous is coming to Xbox One this year during its GDC presentations today. We don’t know very much about the port, but I suppose we ought to have expected it; Frontier Developments has a very close relationship […]

  • Battletoads to appear in Shovel Knight Xbox One

    A Battletoads remake must be on the horizon. Right? Right?? The Battletoads will appear in the upcoming Xbox One version of Shovel Knight, Yacht Club Games revealed today. The Battletoads drop in for a fight! Shovel Knight is headed to Xbox One and meets up with @RareLtd brawling trio! pic.twitter.com/OCQIuWbH3W — Yacht Club Games (@YachtClubGames) […]

  • The Division pre-alpha footage leaks, Ubisoft says it’s well out of date

    The Division fans finally got a look at Ubisoft’s MMO this week, but the publisher has said the footage is not in any way representative. Pre-alpha footage of the The Division was leaked this week, but has since been thoroughly smacked down by takedown notices. All that remains are a few screenshots and a GIF: […]

  • Microsoft HoloLens designer killed in hit and run accident

    Very sad news out of Redmond this week, as Mike Ey was killed in a tragic accident. Ey, 30, was one of the key project designers on Microsoft’s HoloLens AR headset. He was killed on Saturday morning in a rear-end collision. The driver of the second vehicle fled the scene but was tracked down by […]

  • AMD throws support behind VR with new low-latency anti-nausea tech

    GPU manufacturer AMD has released a new SDK compatible with “a broad set of VR devices”. Called LiquidVR, the tech is designed to “bring better content, comfort, and compatibility to VR applications” including games, simulation, entertainment, education, social media, travel, medicine, real estate and ecommerce, apparently. AMD said maintaining comfort and realism in VR environments […]

  • Danganronpa 3 in the works, but a long way off yet

    A new Danganronpa is happening. Danganronpa 3 is in the very, very early production stages, writer Kodaka Kazutaka has confirmed. Nothing about the project is “set in stone”, Kazutaka told Polygon, so there are no details to share yet; the characters and story may change several times before being finalised. The writer said he’s weighing […]

  • Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare MLG Pro League 2015 schedule announced

    Major League Gaming has announced the full schedule for the 2015 Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare MLG Pro League. The eSpots firm revealed two more seasons of Pro League, a live Relegation tournament for Season Three, and a season ending World Championship with $250,000 up for grabs You can watch all the action on MLG.tv […]

  • Happy Birthday PlayStation 2, you are almost old enough to drive

    Amidst all the GDC 2015 hoopla today, we forgot to wish PlayStation 2 a Happy Birthday. The system turned 15 years old today, going by its March 4, 2000 launch date in Japan. It was released in the west that autumn, and had shipped 100 million units in less than six years post launch. PS2 […]

  • Here’s what the final version of Valve’s Steam Controller looks like

    A look at the updated Steam Controller has surfaced via a hands-on post from Polygon. Valve said what you see in the images below is the final version of the controller. The controller has gone through numerous revisions since it was first revealed, but it seems Valve has decided on two touch pads which work […]

  • The Sims, SimCity developer closed down

    The Sims 4 developer Maxis has been shuttered, EA has confirmed. The Sims, SimCity and the rest of the Sim franchise has traditionally been helmed by Maxis, which had its flagship studio in Emeryville, California. Now EA has confirmed with Kotaku that this studio is being closed. “Today we are consolidating Maxis IP development to […]

  • Gigantic MOBA coming to Windows 10 and Xbox One with cross-play

    Today during GDC 2015, Microsoft announced that the new IP from Motiga called Gigantic will be cross-play enabled. Slated for Windows 10 and Xbox One, the five-on-five third-person battle arena game allows the player to select from an array of heroes with distinctive powers and play styles. Players will then make their way through areas […]

  • Here’s a look at Unreal Tournament DirectX 12 gameplay

    Epic Games is creating Unreal Tournament using Unreal Engine 4 running on DirectX 12, which Microsoft says “sets a new bar for visual fidelity.” DirectX 12 is a single API developers can access across Windows devices, which can result in a 20% improvement in performance over DX11 running on the same machine. The Unreal Tournament […]

  • Wireless adapter for Xbox One controllers out later this year

    Microsoft announced at GDC 2015 today it will that all wireless Xbox gaming accessories will be designed for and supported on both Xbox One consoles and Windows 10 PCs moving forward. Later this year, a wireless adapter will be released, allowing current Xbox controllers and future devices to be used wirelessly on PCs. This will […]

  • Microsoft offers up more details on Spencer’s GDC 2015 talk

    Microsoft has provided more details on Cross-Buy functionality between Windows 10 and Xbox One as well as the Xbox Live SKU and other announcements made during Phil Spencer’s talk today. During the session, the head of Xbox shared “the next step” in the company’s plans for a unified platform across all Windows 10 devices which […]

  • Wasteland 2 is coming to PlayStation 4 this summer

    Wasteland 2 is coming to PlayStation 4 as a Game of the Year Edition. inXile Entertainment announced the news on the PS Blog, noting the edition contains enhancements and improvements. The game has been ported to Unity 5, which was announced over the weekend, providing upgraded visual effects, “improved character models, upgraded environments, and Unity […]

  • Cross-Buy detailed for Windows 10 and Xbox One; Elite: Dangerous coming to Xbox One

    During Xbox boss Phil Spencer’s session at GDC 2015 today, it was announced Elite: Dangerous would release on Xbox One. Spencer also outlined cross-buy functionality across Windows 10 and Xbox One. Spencer’s talk started off with Frontier Developments announcing Elite: Dangerous for release this summer as a console debut on Xbox One, suggesting the Elite: […]