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INTERVIEW: Firaxis' Jake Solomon on XCOM: Enemy Unknown

INTERVIEW: Firaxis' Jake Solomon on XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Firaxis is acutely aware of the high expectations that have been placed on it by consumers as it nears the end of development on XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

At a media event in New York last week, MCV spoke with XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s lead designer, Jake Solomon, to ascertain how the studio views the current development landscape, and to learn how Firaxis intends to give a classic intellectual property a new lease on life.

A lot of dormant intellectual property is being revisited at the moment; it’s a general trend in gaming. Why do you think that is?

Well I think it’s because those names still have power with people. To be entirely honest, if I were to make [XCOM: Enemy Unknown] but called it “Alpha Squadron Bravo Two-Seven-Niner”, the reaction would’ve been like, “Yeah, OK, maybe. We’ll see!” But when you say, “we’re reimagining X-COM”, they say, “OK, I am intrigued.”

So I think having that, there’s no doubt that’s an asset. And luckily I think we’re coming at it from the best position to be in. We’re not cynically saying we’re making XCOM: Enemy Unknown. We’re definitely being faithful to the original game. I have a deep and abiding love for that original game. So it’s nice to be in that position and say it’s been my dream to make this game. But you’re right. It’s definitely something you see: Bionic Commando. I’m just waiting for the Karnov remake, you know!? I’m like, “It’s coming at some point!”

What other Firaxis titles have informed XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s development? What does Firaxis bring to this game?

Yeah, there are some elements that we have past experience with. Research is a part of X-COM; tech trees are a system that, on a design system level, we have a lot of experience with. We made Civilization Revolution, which was a console turn-based console game. But XCOM: Enemy Unknown is really its own beast. From the very beginning we knew this would be a new experience for us as a studio.

So we definitely took our time doing it because really the bulk of the experience is this tactical combat, you know? That’s very, very different: interacting with soldiers on an individual basis. That, for us, has been totally new. But at least we’ve had experience doing some of these things either on the consoles.

How about modding? Modding is something that Firaxis is often keen to support. Is there any discussion about modding for XCOM: Enemy Unknown?

Yeah, it’s something that we want, and I can’t guarantee anything or my lead partner kill me. But I told him I was going to say this! Modding is always something that we believe in, and we’ve got a lot of awesome benefits from that. You certainly see that with Civ, right? There’s a lot of great Civ mods out there and the fact this is on the Unreal Engine helps us too, because that’s a great modding platform. So yeah, I don’t know exactly what, and the extent of it, but certainly that’s something we’re interested in.

Are there any unique processes at Firaxis that are perhaps different to those at other studios?

Yeah. We come from Sid being the father, the glorious leader. We’re all sort of made in his image – this is starting to sound like a cult, actually! So I think the thing that’s probably unique, or certainly relatively rare, is the fact that our leads are always programmers. So I’m a designer, but I’m also a programmer, I do a fair amount of the gameplay implementation. I do a lot of the gameplay code implementation as well. That’s how Sid works too: he’s the lead designer, he does most of the system design, and he also implements most of it himself.

That’s something I’ve done, something we’ve done on all our previous titles, that’s just the way it is. I think that’s different, definitely it’s become more and more rare. It was much more common in the early days of [game development], and it’s become more and more rare. You still see it, guys like Notch [Markus Persson], he’s a programmer and a designer as well. I love guys like that, I love seeing that, but sometimes you regret doing that because it’s a lot of work.

But the benefit – and my producer would tell you it’s not a benefit at all – is that when I get an idea I can just put it into the game! It’s not like I need to vet that with anybody, I can just go, “OK, the game works this way now!”

As we get towards the end of production, that’s something my producer would definitely not cite as a benefit. I’ll just come in and say, “So: things have changed. Game works a little differently now. I need some art!” [Laughs] But yeah, it is pretty awesome to be able to come up with these ideas and then also be accountable for them to some extent. I can’t just come up with these ideas then hand them off. But the iteration is much, much faster when I come up with them and implement them right away.

What do you see as the target audience for XCOM: Enemy Unknown? I bring this up because recently EA was discussing its Syndicate reboot and saying that making it as an FPS was absolutely the right decision, that there’s only a niche audience for tactical games and they wished to bring new fans to the intellectual property rather than appease a small existing group of fans. What’s your take on that?

Well, Civilization says no, sir! We know, and I guess that’s the benefit we have, that we know there’s a big audience for strategy games, and with XCOM: Enemy Unknown, it’s [also] not a straight-up strategy game. So you span all these different genres with X-COM, we have RPG elements, we have strategy elements, we have action elements we have tactics, and then you have the strategic layer over the top of that.

Obviously our hope is to appeal to people who have an interest in all of those. We’re not blindly saying all gamers everywhere will love this, but we do thing there’s a really big, and growing, middle segment of the market.

If you look at something like, say, [The Elder Scrolls V:] Skyrim, which is deep in a different way, but still a fairly big, deep game in its own way – and the fact that those guys are just down the street from us, and they’ll be insufferable from this point on! [Laughs] No, they’re great guys – but they’ve had such huge success, and that’s exciting, that’s really exciting for us because it means there’s this middle group of gamers who enjoy depth.

It means we can offer something to that big middle group who like depth, and who are interested in elements of our game. Hopefully if we make the game good, that’s like the number one point.

It’s dangerous to, for me as a designer, it’s dangerous to worry about that kind of stuff, so I just don’t. I’m always under the impression – and this is what Sid has told me as well – just make a good game first. Everything will come from making a good game.


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