XCOM: Enemy Unknown is facing a daunting task; reboot a series that has been dormant for years while not upsetting the longtime fans that have been waiting patiently for a new release. Firaxis Games' Lead Designer, Jake Solomon, is well aware of the potential pitfalls of bringing back a beloved series while making it appeal to both fans of the original and new gamers who may not even know the original exists. He's abundantly aware of the dilemma because he is one of those fans of the original XCOM, yet he is working on a game that he hopes will demand the attention of a larger audience. In his own words, one of the goals behind the deign of Enemy Unknown was to "be respectful, and then be fearless."
If you've ever listened to someone talk about something they're passionate about, then you know that that usually comes with a little something extra, whether it's a twinkle in their eye or a fire in their heart. For Jake Solomon, one of those passions is XCOM.
"The original XCOM is my favorite game. I played it the senior year before I went to college. The original XCOM is the reason I got a degree in computer science, and it's basically the reason why I'm in gaming… This isn't marketing speak, for me this is truly the job of my dreams, because this is my favorite game and to make another one is just an awesome and incredible experience."
If you're an XCOM fan, that's the guy you want making your game. From the very beginning of the project, he has wanted to remain as true as possible to Julian Gollop's original creation, going so far that his original prototype "was almost a straight-up recreation of the original game." From there, he and his team got to work.
"We're big, big iterators at Firaxis. In the model of Sid [Meier], I'm also a programmer, so I do both design and a fair amount of the gameplay programming. We iterate very quickly on ideas, and so we're not afraid to try anything. A game like XCOM, is special for a reason. What happens a lot of times is that you do change things, but a lot of those core elements are going to stay because they're good. They're very solid mechanics, and they've earned their place. You try things, you play with things, bit a lot of those core mechanics are going to stay… At Firaxis there's no paper designs, its only worthwhile if its in the game, and we've played it."
The changes that the latest XCOM have undergone have all had a lot of thought put into them before they were implemented. Each one had to offer some level of improvement in the minds of the developers in order to not end up on the cutting room floor.
"If something was better, made the game better, deeper, a better experience the we had no problem saying we were going keep it. You sort of have to be respectful, and then be fearless. Once you have a good starting point, you're sort of fearless and we have to make sure that if we make a change, it has to be an improvement, but we also can't be afraid of the changes we're making. "
Two of the new additions to the series are classes and abilities, both of which deepen the gameplay. Solomon had this to say about how they came to be, and why they mad the final cut in the game;
"One of the things I wanted to add to the game were these classes and abilities, because that's something I think that over the last 18 years have become more common place; the idea of giving guys more specialized roles, and using the ability system to let them do really cool things. Its not just shooting a gun any more, now they have these really cool abilities. Because of this, you can't just bolt this over the top of the original XCOM which was already a really big and complex design. We tried that, and we said it we're going to make this work, the play has got to be able to assess all of his soldiers and all of their abilities. What happened was that we found out that the time unit system from the original game was hindering the ability system. The player wouldn't think of the squad as a whole, they would think about every unit as an individual unit, and we were tying to get them to see the squad as one big organic unit."
To go along with the shift in the gaming landscape, one thing that had to be improved upon was the controls. The original XCOM games were all developed for the PC, and while UFO Defense was ported to the PS1, they weren't ever designed for controllers, but even that was mouse compatible. Mr. Solomon helped put any fears at ease by going back and looking at the most important controller mechanics and porting only those over to the consoles.
"The actual interaction with units in the original game wasn’t that complicated. It was a lot of; move, I want to fire at this unit, or use this inventory item. When we stripped away for the UI, and decided we were going to make this work for a gamepad, we found there's not that many points of input because you're controlling an individual soldier at any one time. We actually haven't even used all the buttons on the gamepad, that's how straightforward the input mapping is. There's no real tension there. When we put it on the gamepad, it worked really, really well."
One additional anecdote worth noting is that Jake has one of the former members of Microprose, the company that published the original XCOM games, working on his team. This team member has relayed stories about how whenever a new build of the original would come in, basically the whole office would stop what they were doing, download the build and play it through. That's a level of dedication that can hopefully be matched by the group at Firaxis, which consists of "a lot of people that are passionate about the original that understand what made the original so special." Statements like that should help put fans that are concerned about the reboot at ease with the knowledge that beloved game is in caring hands.
"Sid always says, 'make a good game first.' Because you can drive yourself crazy worrying about, do I need to change this game to appeal to a certain type of person, or a wider audience that we think may exist out there. But instead, if we make a good game, that’s the strongest selling point we have. A game like xcom isn't a straight strategy game; it has the rpg elements, the action and combat, and over the top of it it all, it's got this strategic layer. It's nice to be in that position where we can say, 'We have a game, it's an experience, and it's not like anything other game that out there.' If we make that, a good game, that's something that will appeal to a lot of people."
Longtime fans and newcomers to the series will get a chance to see just how good of a game XCOM: Enemy Unknown is when it lands on consoles and PCs later this year.