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XCOM: Enemy Unknown Developer Interview

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a brand new installment in the XCOM series. The game, set on modern-day Earth, deals with the international response to a global alien invasion. The player assumes the role of the commander of the top secret XCOM Project, the most elite military and scientific organization in the history of mankind, activated to engage in a seemingly hopeless war against an unknown extraterrestrial enemy with overwhelming technological superiority.

With a set release date of October 9th in North America fast approaching, we asked the community for questions to be answered by the developers of XCOM: Enemy Unknown Developers. We sat down with Designer Jake Solomon and Producer Garth DeAngelis to find out just how much has changed with this exciting new installment to the beloved classic.


What do fans of the series need to know before playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown? How have the developers left their mark on the franchise?

Jake: I wanted to make a game that’s very much part of the universe of the original game. I really wanted a game that felt like the original. The mechanics have changed, but the core pillars of the design have remained the same, such as terms of destructible environments, consequences for your actions, and the tactical and strategy layers. The dark and little bit scary tone of the game is still there. We made some small mechanics changes, but internally as people are playing the game, we get a lot of the same stories as the original. That’s a good sign.


Looking at other strategy games in the market, what makes XCOM stand out from the rest?

Garth: I’m really excited about some of the visual flair in the game. We’re doing things cinematically with cameras, making the battles feel more action-oriented without distilling away from the gameplay. Cameras will sweep down whenever you kick doors down, fire sniper shots, and more.

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Jake: Along those lines, the big difference between XCOM and other strategy games is that XCOM is a much more personal experience. This typically isn’t the case in most strategy games; they are usually zoomed out quite a bit and it’s dealing more with numbers. In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, these are individuals – it’s an intimate experience. You’re playing with individual people that you really form an attachment to.


For the uninitiated and those new to the XCOM, what do you need to know?

Jake: Right before you go on a new mission, you have to take stock of everything. You have to look at your soldiers. You don’t know how your squad will be when a mission starts, so you have to respond right way. So you have to look at the squad that’s ready to go – some soldiers are wounded or not healthy.

Garth: For truly uninitiated, you’re thrown right into the fire. You’re going to learn – there are a lot of layers here. We’re going to give the player a squad right from the beginning, and we do have an optional tutorial that will help.


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What can you tell us about the new mechanics in the game?

Jake: This was the main goal as we set out to reimagine XCOM; to add more mechanics to an established system. Some of those are soldier abilities and others are how the combat operates. We wanted XCOM to be more tactical. The comment on the original was that it wasn’t as tactical in the sense, it was more terrifying.experience This XCOM the player does have recourse to compensate when the aliens have superior firepower. With suppressive fire, if you pin and alien down and they move, you get a free shot. If they stay, their visibility is greatly reduced.

There’s invisibility armor, flying armor, smoke grenades, and battle scanners that allow you to reveal fog of war in a distant area. All of these things combine in ways that with the solider classes make the game more tactical.


Different countries have different attributes. Can you talk about this?

Jake: Every country can offer a different experience. USA and Russia will start with A LOT of funding. You can’t watch out for both USA and Russia at the same time. You can launch satellites to keep in contact with other countries, but ff you’re in North America, you’re going to have to expand right away into Europe eventually and that’s expensive and hard to maintain.

Every continent has its own bonuses. As an example, if you cover multiple countries in the same continent you gain science benefits, and you get massive bonuses if you cover every country in the continent. There’s a strong benefit to staying local in one continent, but the game is going to be fighting you. Aliens are going to start attacking other countries and countries will start to panic. As a player, you’re want to focus on protecting yourself, but the game will do it’s best to throw you out of that plan. A typical strategy game fashion you have a plan you want to execute, but your opponents will keep you off balance and from really following through on your plans.

As a player, you have to branch out very quickly to stop panics in Asia and all over the world.


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Can you talk about Ant Farm view of the base?

Garth: The ant farm is our secret underground base that the player is in command of is really the aesthetic for our strategy later. Big, high level sweeping decisions can be made to alter the war. You can do so many things there: Research your technology or weapons; you can build these items later. You can go to the barracks and upgrade your shoulders, give them more perks. The hanger can be used to deploy jets across the whole world. You can expand the size and customize the look of the base.


Are the battle maps randomly generated?

Jake: Yes they are randomly generated—this forces you to come up with a new base layout every time you play.


Permadeath is becoming a trend in gaming. Was this feature in place at the beginning?

Jake: XCOM is about consequences. Your choices have serious consequences. That’s what sets them apart from other games. As a player, you have freedom, but you also have to deal with the consequences of your choices. It creates a strong bond with your shoulders. Permnadeath is one of the features that make the game for me.


XCOM can become a pretty complicated game, how do you make this accessible to everyday gamers?

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Jake: We just have a lot of faith in gamers and their ability to understand these games. We see the market maturing and the audience maturing, we believe that gamers are completely capable of dealing with these challenges.


There are plenty of games that provide an experience that’s more narrative and challenge isn’t in the forefront. For XCOM to stand out and also fill it’s own niche it needs to have that certain level of challenge. We trust that gamers will enjoy, respond, and thrive under. Though, I had many sleepless nights worrying that the game is too hard. But people tend to really enjoy the difficulty.


How many elements within the game are randomly generated?

Garth: This is one of the core pillars of the game. It’s a unique experience every time you play. There are a lot of different systems that support this. Players often have their own path to choose throughout the game. There are some choke points that help move the story along. But even the battle maps are this way. They get called up in random order.


Towards the end of the original game, things started moving really fast, with numerous alien landings and a high level of encounters/battles. This forced the gamer to make some tough decisions around resource allocation. Will this still be the case?

Jake: You’re right, That was how things were and tt doesn’t work that way in this game for a specific design reason. I AWhich is I felt that it actually slowed the game down. They start really amping up their attacks. You had to shoot down a lot of UFOs and go on a lot of missions. But, that being said, it did create an interesting ramp with things getting more hectic, We did want to keep that rising tension. We did want to maintain the tension with aliens grow stronger and have stronger ships, but we did it through different mechanics.

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How long will a normal playthrough of XCOM: Enemy Unknown take?

Garth: Anywhere from 15-20 hours on normal, and a lot longer on the higher difficulties. From day one, we did build this to be completely replayable. In this regard, it’s kind of long for a replayable game. We totally expect people to replay.

Jake: The difficulty level changes. If you play on normal, it will take 15-20. If you bump up to Classic (a higher difficulty) not only is it longer, but it’s going to be a completely different experience because you’ll need to focus on different elements to overcome the same obstacles.


What’s it like taking the reigns of a classic game or series and creating a new installment?

Jake: This is my favorite game and taking the reign of the series is is very humbling. This is the game that got me in the industry. Fan expectations play a huge role. I’m not the only guy who cared about that game. The fans of the original are the reasons why we got to create this updated game. They have as much ownership over the franchise as we do and that’s something that we believe. We make something that honors the game that people still care about twenty years later.


Firaxis is known very well for its emphasis on playtesting. How long have you had the game running in playable form?

Jake: A long time. We could show you videos of a version from June/July 2008 that doesn’t look anything like the current version. That version seemed much more like a straight remake. We moved away from that and we’re happy with where we ended up.

The only reason we know we made the right choice is because that the early version was playable. With this current version, combat has been playable for 3-4 years. Here, we don’t do paper design—we don’t debate paper design. For us, if it’s not in the game, it’s not worth talking about.

The game wasn’t fun for a long time, but in this state for the last year and a half and everything has been really working out.


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What are some of your modern influences?

Garth: We talked about the classic shows like X-Files when we were designing the game. And we also talked about more recent things like when District 9 came out. But ultimately, the original game is the key source here.


Jake: Game-wise, Final Fantasy Tactic, Fallout, and Valkryie Chronicles. We were also inspired by a lot tabletop games.


What’s your favorite type of soldier to play as?

Jake: I love the sniper—they’re my favorite in all games. My favorite characters in the game are snipers. When you pair them with certain armor and can have insane sight lines. But they have vulnerabilities too. When you’re on tighter maps, they’re a lot less useful.

Garth: My favorite are the support characters because they have an awesome perk tree. They have awesome aim and a Sprint ability. When you couple this with some of the armors, it makes for some cool possibilities. And you kind of have to have them in the game.


In multiplayer, how do aliens differ from soldiers?

Jake: Aliens have crazy, unique abilities. That fulfills this certain fantasy of the player to wield their immense power. It brings up the question of how do you wield these powers? The strongest soldier would probably be stronger than the strongest alien if you spend enough energy on it. But the aliens are more specialized, while the soldiers are more flexible.


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'W'hat was your favorite aspect of the original XCOM?

Garth: My favorite part of the game was the tone. You can fire it up now and you can get really spooked. The music and the tone to me is a masterpiece. Every time I play, I get this strong emotional feeling. My least favorite aspect was just how slow it could be to play. Not in terms of mechanics, but the interface is older. But each time you shot something down, it would take at least 45 minutes of gameplay. Often times, when I play the game now I don’t go to Sedonia because I’m having so much fun in the first ten hours when I’m building up one base. After a while, it kinda grinds on you’re a little bit.


What features did you remove from the original game while you developed XCOM: Enemy Unknown?

Jake: The original system forced you to use your squad as collections of individuals. In ours, all of the abilities and actions are meant to be used together. With the move-action system you have to use each of your individuals as a true squad. We also went down to one base initially vs. multiple in the original game. All research and engineering and solider management comes from one original base. In the original, I never enjoyed the redundancies of secondary bases.


If there’s one thing you would want gamers to know, what would it be?

Garth: This game is fun—we believe that—it seems people are enjoying it. What we really want to tell people is that it will be a new experience for you. We’re putting a game out there that puts the ‘game’ back in gaming. Jake: This is a very well-established genre, and it was made in 1994, but there’s still nothing like it.


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While playing, what was one of the zaniest names you ever gave your soldiers?

Jake: There was a Chinese sniper with the name Long Wang. [laughs] That was a totally random name generation. We also used to have the operation names used to be random. At one point there was something called…I’m not going to go into it, but it involved the word ‘jackhammer’. It sounded like it belonged on a Urban Dictionary entry.

At one point, we did a 90s action movie playthrough where we renamed the soldiers after Arnold, Jane Claude Van Damme. We also did it with sports players, which was great.


What was you guys’ most memorable playthrough moment while playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown?

Garth: I had one recently on Classic difficulty during a Terra mission at a military base. I got this random roll where every alien was a chrysalid (which turns civilians into zombies) and I couldn’t beat the mission. I had to move on because I played it five times and every mission, every soldier died.

Jake: For me, it was the action movie playthrough, I had Chuck Norris who survived an entire mission by himself for 45 minutes after all his companions died. And then right at the end, the last alien killed him.


Will you guys be releasing a demo before launch?

We have no comment on this. But stay tuned, there will be news to come.

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