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XCOM: Enemy Unknown interview - fear and reinvention

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 f**k, 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!'

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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 s**t, 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 motherf**ker can weave a rug.'

When I watch guys play DotA or League of Legends or something like that, and you think 'how the f**k 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?


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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