The response to the news that 2K Games is working with Firaxis to ‘re-imagine’ the classic XCOM: Enemy Unknown was almost universal. It was a mix of nostalgia-powered ‘hell-yeahs!’ with a certain trepidation that if you’re going to re-do one of the greats, you’re going to want to do it well.
Very well, in fact.
2K Games is certainly aware that the game’s in an interesting spot, so it recently spared no expense to get a mess of journalists to New York to view a special hands-off preview, and chat to the designers and developers behind this epic of alien paranoia. Atomic was there, and before we dive in deep, let’s just calm all you fans down right now...
It’s looking pretty damn neat.
Even better, the Firaxis guys are very aware of the burden they’ve taken on, working on such a beloved title. “It’s a double-edged sword,” Greg Foertsch, lead artist, told us. “You’re remaking one of the best games ever; it can be really daunting or absolutely inspiring. But we’re a little bit used to that now,” he added, and with a lot of Sid Meier classics under Firaxis’ belt, it’s a fair claim. “You don’t get chances like this every day.”
In fact, it’s worth exploring up front how the whole idea came up, from Greg’s perspective. Is there a bit of paper that developers have pinned to a wall somewhere, like a giant, geeky to-do list?
“Yeah, it’s pretty much that,” he said, laughing. “We had kinda finished some things, and Jake [Jacob Solomon, lead designer, who we also spoke to] and I were sitting around, and I started talking, and we had some lead time in between projects. I’d come off of Railroads, and was helping out with CivRev until the next thing came up, and it was only a couple of months until we thought... Let’s make XCOM."
“It’s one of Sid’s favourite games of all time, and it’s certainly one of mine. And so I was all in; it’s got aliens and dudes with guns... so let’s do it. We started talking and started pre-visualising what it would be, and we realised we had something pretty cool.”
Jacob was much more sanguine. “I was even more behind the idea of making the game,” he admitted. “It was one of the main things that got me into the business, because I played it in High School, and I knew it was what I wanted to do. I’d worked on lots of Sid’s games, but the idea of making this game, making it with Firaxis, that’s my dream job.”
But that passion doesn’t come without a price, as we got Jake to admit. “When I started this project I it did it with stars in my eyes,” he said, wistfully. “I had this real fan-boy perspective that *this* is how XCOM works. People would raise some reasonable objections and I’d tell them they just didn’t understand.” But that’s the problem you really believe that you get the game on so many more levels than everyone else in the room.
“I was resistant to a lot of things early in the process. But it’s different being a fan of the game, and being the designer of the game; with one you appreciate the systems, but in the other case you’re responsible for the systems.” Until Jake started to feel fully responsible for the game’s mechanics, he would find himself justifying why the original did something one way rather than looking to innovate. “Eventually, though, you kick into designer mode; you have to evaluate everything fairly, and when I started my first prototype of the game it was very, very true to the original. Then one of the things I wanted to do was add more RPG elements; it seems like a minor thing but when you put systems on top of this already existing game it just... you can’t just clamp stuff on like that. XCOM was never built to have all these extra abilities, these extra things that you’re doing. You start to have UI issues, design system issues... as we realised that we knew we had to start re-evaluating *everything*. It just wasn’t working as well as we liked.”
In effect, the team had to start again from scratch, from first principles, to develop the game they ultimately had in mind. “If we wanted to have a turn-based, tactical game, with all these soldier abilities, what’s the best way to do that?”