XCOM: Enemy Unknown has a lot to live up to. The revival of the classic PC strategy title, which many consider the finest videogame ever made, is destined to become an extension of the hopes, dreams, and ideas of its most intense fans. At E3, I spoke with Jake Solomon, Lead Designer from Firaxis, about the challenges of developing a game with so many impassioned expectations attached.
XCOM is such a beloved game that a lot of fans feel intense personal ownership. How do you view your work on the game? Is it something you feel full ownership of as your own work or do you think of yourself as more of a stewards of a tradition on behalf of fans?
The original was made almost 20 years ago so this is a whole new group of people. I think it’s true, though–I’ve never felt complete ownership of XCOM. Sid Meier’s name is on all of our games, but it’s not on this one. He would only put his name on something that he created or an IP he came up with, but very early on he decided calling it Sid Meier’s XCOM wouldn’t make sense. I think when you make something like this that has a lot of fans, I’ve never felt like I could do what I wanted or that it would be the right to do whatever I wanted. To bring the franchise back like this and to call it Enemy Unknown–I knew that if I did that I was making a promise basically. Whether that’s explicit or not, I’m promising people, “Yes, the things you think have value, I also think have value. I’m using this name and I know what that means for you.”
That means I don’t have total ownership over it, and I’m typically that guy for the team where I insist certain things must be in the game even if the team has laid out something different because it’s fundamental to what the original game was. It happens more now that it’s public, because for a while there I was in my own little world designing the game. I didn’t know the reaction would be as strong as it was. Then we announced and there was a lot of feedback like, “Oh my god I can’t believe they didn’t do this or didn’t do that.” And I was like, “What? That really mattered?” I’m surprised about some of the things people have attached to in the game, but fans do have a sense of ownership. The reason this game exists is that there are enough people out there clamoring for it. I wouldn’t have the opportunity to make this game if there weren’t fans out there who felt they had ownership of it.
That must open a huge dilemma then, because every fan will have some personal vision of what they’d wanted for thought was right, yet you can only make one version of the game.
It’s interesting because we’ll say, “Hey, we’re making a game like this” and some fans will realize that means we’re not doing this other thing or that this mechanic changed. They love the original so much that they know certain parts of it have an inherent value and so trying to talk about a new thing that, to them, seems to have no inherent value at all, and I’m like, “No, no, trust me. This makes the game better.” A lot of times the fans are very skeptical. And I don’t mean that in a pejorative way, but they’re cynical. They’re very cynical. They’ve been burned before. They’ve seen people say we’re remaking, I don’t know, Rygar, or Karnov. We’re remaking Karnov and it’s going to be an MMO. But I swear, I’ve never lost a moment of sleep thinking that the new ideas we’ve introduced into the game are not going to be for the better. But the reaction always begins with excitement and then moves to skepticism about what we had to change in the original formula to bring in something new. In some ways it’s fair. They remember things that they know were good and if you tinker with that they get worried.
How long have you been working on the game?
It’s funny to think about the beginning because we’re so close to the ending now. [laughter] I was working on Civilization Revolution and I’d always wanted to work on an XCOM game. It’s my favorite game and I’d always been agitating to make it at Firaxis but the timing was never right. We had other products in the pipeline or didn’t have the tech to make a game like this the way it should be made. Halfway through CivRev, I guess in 2007 or so, we started to get the idea that we could really do this. The plan was for me to start with the rest of the team but I was still working with Sid on CivRev so we had a smart art group start working in December 2008.
Was there any correlation between the work you were doing on CivRev, translating a turn-based strategy game to consoles?
A little bit actually. CivRev was turn-based obviously but it was also cursor-driven so you had to move the cursor to select where you were going to go. But a lot of other things were just so different. Civ is such an abstract, way-out game and in this one you can see all your soldiers up close. There were some ties, but it sort of felt like we just started over with a lot of things.
Was there anything new you were able to do with the series’ core idea of deep consequences and branching paths by virtue of the newer hardware? Are there new ways to bring those ideas to life now that wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago?
The easy answer is something like narrative. I don’t mean narrative in some linear sense, but I mean narrative more in the ability to convey the sense of the world. Before you’d be, “Oh, somebody’s left the council” and it would be a name on a list but you would invest it with all this emotion and significance. We’re able now to drive that home a little more through cinematics. We don’t have a linear story, particularly, but we’re able to use these narrative techniques to show your soldiers in dramatic moments and show people back at base talking to help underscore the choices players make. In the original game, which was 2D and ran at a 320 by 240 screen resolution, you had soldiers that meant a ton to you. I really really wanted to amp that up, the consequences of when they die. You can completely customize them. It culminates in the barracks. There’s a memorial wall that commemorates each fallen soldier, which operation they died in, and as more of them die more of these blurry pictures fill in. They’re small touches but based on how I felt in the original game when you would lose soldiers, I felt like we should really push that.The flag of their member country is always on their back so you’ll be able to go “Oh, that’s my Brazilian sniper, and his name is this.” I went through a lot of work to make sure each country had the right kinds of names for their soldiers.
How did that work? Were you trying to make them as believable as possible or give them some kind of punning resonance?
I had these huge lists I would go through. I didn’t use the internet because I didn’t want to know what the most popular baby names were or anything like that. I wanted to know what the prototypical English name are. Like, “Ah, Henry Louis.” So I’d go through these lists for each country and look for whichever ones leapt out at me as the most prototypical. There’s like 25 different countries the soldiers can be from–Korean, South African, and some countries, like Indians, you would see the name written and not necessarily be able to say it. So I’d strip it down to names that you could quickly see and phonetically identify. I wanted them to be very prototypical but also very easy to read and say in your head.
Last question. Do you believe in aliens?
I believe that the possibility aliens exist is certainly high. Drake’s equation, you know? The problem is out of all the millions and millions of species on Earth, only one has developed intelligence. That’s not a very good track record. On top of that, you have to have the right resources on the planet to nourish life. So I believe aliens exist, but I don’t believe anyone on Earth will ever encounter alien life at any point in history. I think it’s a long shot. But I do believe in alien life somewhere.