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The making of XCOM Enemy Unknown: How Firaxis revived a classic

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown Screenshot

© 2K Games


The return of XCOM is something that, for many years, most ardent fans thought would have been impossible. But just like buses, news of two new games arrived almost at once.

The first, simply titled XCOM, was a first-person shooter first revealed in 2010, a project still yet to see the light of day, and is recently rumoured to have undergone a number of significant changes since its controversial reveal.

The other, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, was released last week on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. A remake of the 1994 smash UFO: Enemy Unknown, it sees the return of one of the most revered turn-based strategy franchises of all time.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown puts players in charge of a task force resisting an alien invasion. Not only must they lead soldiers into battle against an army vastly more powerful than their own, but they also must make careful decisions over where they must place their finite number resources, from research to weapons and alien interrogations, through to deciding which nations should be saved over others.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Screenshot

© 2K Games

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Screenshot

© 2K Games



What made XCOM so special?

Jake Soloman, lead designer on the Firaxis-developed remake and self described "hardcore fan" of the original, explained that what made the series "special" is that it's a game that involves "real consequences".

"It boils down to the game and the simulation and the world don't care about the player. The player feels that the game is authentic," he told Digital Spy.

"These are the rules, if you don't play by the rules, you'll suffer consequences. You may lose soldiers that you care about, you may lose missions, you may lose resources, you may lose the game itself - and that's not very common in games."

Even with a designer at the helm that understands the game's core strengths - and that fact that the project is set out to be a remake of that first entry - the process of reviving it for modern systems wasn't a straightforward one.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Screenshot

© 2K Games



The ill-fated first 18 months of development

XCOM: Enemy Unknown has had a longer development cycle than most games. Whereas the average project takes between two and two and a half years, XCOM: Enemy Unknown took four and a half, a period that consisted of various prototypes and even a reboot 18 months into development.

Soloman explained that this first take was very similar to the 1994 original UFO: Enemy Unknown, but with an added class system and various new features laid over it.

"I'm a very, very hardcore fan of the original XCOM, so my first design was basically the original game with a whole lot of extra s**t thrown over the top of it," he said. "Which, fancy that, didn't actually work."

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

© 2K Games

He continued that, as a designer he's generally "very open" with criticism towards his creations.

"If [something's] not good, I don't care. If there's one thing that I am good at as a designer, it's that I have absolutely no ego.

"But when it came to the original game, it was weird. It wasn't my design so I stuck up for it more than I should have.

"I reimplemented the original game and people were like, 'Ugh, it's kind of slow at points,' and I said, 'You don't know what you're talking about!'"

His love for the original game clouded his objectivity from a design perspective, and it took the team "a long time" to realise they needed to "rethink" its approach. "We were pretty naive in that first year," Soloman admitted.

Lead programmer Casey O'Toole added: "I really liked what we created in that first year and a half. But we were fans of XCOM, we knew how that played, so we understood all this stuff.

"It was very, very hardcore. If you stuck people in front of it who weren't familiar with the original, it was very confusing for those people."

It wasn't until when they sat it in front of people unfamiliar with the original games that alarm bells starting ringing. The project managed to make it as far as a vertical slice, and while it was "such a shame" to scrap their efforts, the team knew it was best to throw it away and start over.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Screenshot

© 2K Games

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

© 2K Games



The throwaway approach to game development

While scrapping 18 months of development may seem dramatic, such an iterative and throwaway approach to game creation isn't usual for Firaxis.

"In order to work [here], you have to be willing to work on something, throw it out, work on something else knowing you may throw that out," said O'Toole.

Soloman added that when new hires are added to the team, he makes it clear that they must be prepared to discard hard work in short notice.

"[I will say to them] you'll work on something, I'm going to tell you this is the most important thing in the world and I'm going to put a lot of pressure on you," he said.

"Then I'm going to come back to you in two weeks and tell you to get rid of the whole thing. For some people it's the process, it's making a game."


Firaxis on XCOM's devoted fanbase

Starting over resulted in a stronger, more refined and modern design that also did better justice to the original UFO: Enemy Unknown.

When it came to that first reveal earlier this year, Soloman wasn't too worried about those initial reactions - especially from hardcore XCOM fans - because he too was one of them.

"The thing about the hardcore fans is, you're not as close with them as you'd like.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown
"But the good part is that I'm so hardcore about the original game that at least I was able to have an honest conversation with them," he explained.

"None of them are as hardcore as I am. They could say, 'Why did you change this?' Then I didn't have to resort to bulls**t."

He continued: "I would say to them, look, this is why I changed this.

"I understand this whole mechanic, here's a very honest answer about why this doesn't work. At least it helps the dialogue there."

At the same time, the team were never "arrogant" with their position on the project, and were aware that fans had just as much an "ownership" of the franchise as they did.

Not only were Firaxis not the creators of the beloved original, but without the continued devotion to the brand over the years, the team wouldn't have had the opportunity to bring it back in the first place.

Why XCOM was so well suited for a controller

XCOM: Enemy Unknown features a number of new mechanics over the original, including 3D visuals, destructible environments and the addition of fog of war. However, two of the most divisive were the introduction of game pad support and multiplayer.

Solmon explained that from day one XCOM: Enemy Unknown was always intended for consoles, and that it would be well suited for a controller interface.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Screenshot

© 2K Games

Civilization - the best-selling turn-based strategy game that Firaxis also develops - had to have a console-specific version that was better suited for a controller interface. XCOM's lower unit count - between four and six as opposed to dozens at once - made battlefields far more manageable than Sid Meier's best-selling franchise.

Regardless of their certainty that it would work well on a controller, the team had to make sure it felt right from the get-go, and, alongside the user interface, was something that saw the most prototyping during development.

"It had to be perfect. A game like this, it's already different to what people are used to on console, so you can't have any barriers," said O'Toole. "It has to be, people can pick up the game pad and they can play right away."

Press previews of the game - even those running on PC - had journalists play the game with a controller to discover how well it worked themselves. The move ensured that skeptics would move past the issue very early on.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

© 2K Games



Why multiplayer made sense for XCOM

Meanwhile, while Multiplayer was also something that the team wanted to offer from day one, Firaxis wasn't initially exactly sure "what it was going to be".

O'Tool explained that a tactics game should reward you for feeling "clever", and the best way to deliver that is to face off against a human opponent.

"It's important in our games that the player feels clever, that's the reward, it's like yes, I'm a brilliant tactician," he said.

"It's natural that the greatest enemy [would be a person]. We could never write an AI, nor would we want to write one that's as good as a human player – but being able to play against a human, being able to take your time [and be] strategic, we knew there had to be multiplayer for a tactics game."

The way multiplayer was ultimately implemented stemmed from playing table top games, and the way they handled balancing available units by letting players spend a limited amount of points.

The end result was easy to implement from a design perspective - there was no need for rigorous balancing, and if they did need to change the cost of a unit it could be done dynamically - and provided a system with almost countless possibilities that would engage players for a long time.


Why XCOM would appeal to a modern audience

With the lengthy development cycle at a close and the game now on store shelves, the question remains whether a 'hardcore' product - one from the less common strategy genre that offered a strong level of challenge - could appeal to a broad audience today.

Soloman believes that player tastes are 'swinging back the other way' when it comes to familiarity and difficulty, with the skyrocketing popularity in Kickstarter and Steam proving that they want new experiences that games like XCOM can provide.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

© 2K Games

"[Turn-based strategy] is incredibly rare on consoles. Even on PC it's just rare nowadays," he said.

"In some ways it's scary, in some ways we're way out there on a limb, but in some ways it's worked in our favour quite a bit.

"Few people thought it was a good idea early - thank God some people did - but now it seemed to have worked in our favour, because that uniqueness to the gameplay has allowed us to get more coverage and appeal at more people."

Both Soloman and O'Toole praised publisher 2K Games for having faith in the project, and that it was willing to risk releasing a turn-based strategy game in today's market.

"I'd have to give 2K a lot of credit for giving us the opportunity to do it, the amount of time and the budget we were given to make a turn-based strategy game," said O'Toole.

"I think that's the biggest thing that allowed us to do this, that someone was willing to take that chance on us to make a strategy game, and believe we could make it appeal to a broader audience."

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Screenshot

© 2K Games

"We're incredibly lucky to have them as a publisher," added Soloman.

"The fact that they've let us do this, I can't actually imagine this game getting made by any other publisher."

Despite its lengthy development and initial reservations by some, XCOM: Enemy Unknown has been universally praised, with many critics labelling it as one of the strongest releases of 2012.

While it's too early to say that such critical acclaim will translate into a sales success for 2K, Firaxis has appeared to have done the impossible.

Not only has it brought a seemingly extinct franchise back from the dead, but it's created something that lives up to the original XCOM, and possibly even surpassed it.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is available to buy now on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.

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