Matt Gardner (Dealspwn): I saw the first incarnation of this game back at E3 2011, what's changed for the team in that time. Obviously everything went rather quiet for a while, now it's back it's a third-person game rather than a first-person game, the name has changed. Can you tell us about the journey this game has taken up to this point?
Nico Bihary (Producer, 2K Games): Sure, so back in 2011 we gave this presentation for a game with a first-person perspective. But it's funny, we always talk about what's changed, but I'd like to start with what's remained constant: a focus on squad-based, tactical combat, which was evident even in 2011.
As you'd go around in this first-person perspective, which was to serve an exploration and research need, every time you ran into an enemy, or a combat situation, you'd pull back into a third-person perspective, and UI would pop-up that was kind of like a less elegant version of the Battle Focus wheel we have in place now. There were similar mechanics between the two versions. But as we evaluated that mechanics, and really started developing those battle encounters, it really started to emerge as the “bullseye” of the gaming experience. So we looked at it and said that if third-person allows for a greater tactical-perspective, if it augments and enhances Battle Focus and makes using it intuitive, then the first-person perspective really became unnecessary.
As you're in development, there are times when a game will speak to you, and it'll become clear and tell you what's good about and what's perhaps not. And that was one of those moments: we realised that the first-person perspective was almost completely superfluous, and we came away with a more refined game, and something really good because of it.
Dealspwn: Can you talk a little bit about the game's rebranding. Before it was big, bold, and brazen – XCOM – and now it seems as though that's kind of been shuffled to one side now with The Bureau: XCOM Declassified.
Nico Bihary: Well everyone knows what XCOM is. It's this global organisation there to ward off alien threats. But there wasn't a “Big Bang moment” where the service just came into being, so we really wanted to tell an origin story, and we really liked the idea of setting the game in 1962, just after the Bay of Pigs incident. So you have this global atmosphere of paranoia, it's the start of the Cold War, and set against that backdrop we have this really believable story about how XCOM could be formed.
So we have this clandestine organisation, constructed to defend against enemy threats and covering them up, but it takes time. So we wanted to zero in on the Bureau as this organisation that really hasn't matured yet technologically or organisationally to fight off a massive alien threat, but was really established early on to be a counter-intelligence group.
So the Bureau is really the heart and the soul of our story, and so we just wanted to focus on that, even as part of the name. It's still very much a game built upon XCOM's guiding principles, but our starting point comes a little earlier, hence the name change.
Dealspwn: Of course, one of the big things that happened in the interim, between 2011 and now, has been the release and reception of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. How did the development of that game, with its rather cinematic, action-strategy experience feed into The Bureau if at all? What did you take from Firaxis' success to help make this game better?
Nico Bihary: For one, we're incredibly pleased at the success of that title. It put XCOM back on the map. It satisfied the desire for that type of game, and provided us with some rich tools that we could repurpose or borrow from, such as the visual language of taking cover, with the glowing shield and that immediate indication of how strong your cover position might be, to creatures from Sectoids to Mutons, as well as the consumer desire for Permadeath. Enemy Unknown made clear that there is a real appetite for seriousness and intelligence when it comes to design. That was invigorating for us, and it gave us some awesome tools to work with as we were building The Bureau.
Dealspwn: How important was it that Firaxis' game came out first?
Nico Bihary: It was extremely beneficial. It reinvigorated the franchise and it satisfied the consumer desire for that particular type of game. Not only that, but it contextualises our origin story in a great way.
Dealspwn: You talked about satisfying consumer demand, and indeed it seems that the vocal minority of hardcore fans who engage with gaming dialogues across the internet are becoming louder. How do you deal with managing consumer expectation when it comes to approaching a classic franchise in a new way?
Nico Bihary: I think that when you have strong desire for a product, combined with a lack of information simply because it's not appropriate based on where we are and what our plan is, you're going to get speculation and you have to be prepared for that. I worked on Bioshock Infinite as well, and there was a period of time where people were very sceptical, but then we held a hands-on presentation in Deccember and everyone came back saying 'I'm a believer, this game's going to be awesome'. So I hope that the same thing happens here, that why we want to get the game into the hands of people such as yourself and get people playing. Hopefully, when people do play it, they'll forget the noise.
Dealspwn: We've spoken at length on our site on the subject of names and brand identities in relation to franchises like Syndicate and Resident Evil. You said that the rebranding was to do with The Bureau really being the heart of the game, but are there considerations in terms of perception too? How much does taking on the moniker of a classic franchise help and hinder a game?
Nico Bihary: I don't think the name plays into it that much, at least in terms of defining whether or not it's an XCOM game. That'll be defined by teams, tools, and technology, right? I'll give you an example using an American sports reference. In Enemy Unknown, you're playing from the coach's perspective. In The Bureau, you're the quarterback or the point guard. It's the same sport, but you're like a combat quarterback, calling plays for your squad mates in real-time, adapting your tactics to counteract the movements, strengths and weaknesses of the units on the other team. Those gameplay approaches defines what an XCOM game is, not what you name it.
Dealspwn: You brought up permadeath earlier, which is one of my favourite features in strategically-minded games like these, and I was chatting to one of the guys earlier who said that it's present throughout the game regardless of difficulty.
Nico Bihary: That's right. There's no Fire Emblem casual mode.
Dealspwn: Exactly. So what does permadeath mean to this game, and why is it so important from your perspective?
Nico Bihary: Well, the main purpose that permadeath serves in most games is that it illicits a sense of seriousness, and places responsibility upon the player to use their resources and units effectively, or at least not recklessly. You know that you can't just run in and start firing away without there being consequences. And it makes attachment to your characters so much more real, when you know that you can lose them.
So we want players to respect the rules and systems we've set up; we want them to think about how they approach problems, and use their tools effectively; we want them thinking strategically; and we want them to also feel empowered with the suite of moves that their agents will have on the battlefield should you train them up. At the same time, we have a responsibility as designers to ensure we're being respectful of the battle areas, to make sure that the balancing is right, that the game is compelling and engrossing and challenging without ever cheating the player or making things unfair.
So if a death occurs in the game, it should be purely because the player did not action appropriately or respond to an ever-changing landscape.
Dealspwn: When you're playing a game for the first time, you naturally end up drawing certain comparisons with games that have come before, and Mass Effect popped into my head playing this because, well, it's a squad-based, third-person action title with character progressions and unique abilities for your sidekicks. But whereas I found that I could kick back in Mass Effect, let the AI do its thing, or occasionally if it was being awfully incompetent, I could play the hero. But here, the game seems to teach you rather quickly that emerging from cover and trying to play the game as you might a normal shooter just won't work...
Nico Bihary: I'm really glad you picked up on that, because that's exactly what we're aiming for. Good games should teach players those sorts of thing, and we really wanted to communicate to players that there are these rulesets in this game, that this isn't just another third-person shooter. So player autonomy in this game isn't about going off and playing a solo hero thanks to twitch mechanics, it's about playing to your strengths in terms of the agents you choose to join you on the battlefield, how you personalise your character and those around you, and make the most of the skills that these agents can learn to make you more effective. Using these agents should not be optional.
I mean playing today, we'd helped you out a little by giving you slightly buffed up agents who could take a little more damage and we're in the process of slowly turning the needle to make it a little more difficult, so if you couldn't do it now, you certainly won't be able to do it in the final game.
Dealspwn: Let's talk about customisation and progression for a moment, and that sense of a player stamping their identity onto the game, which has always been a key art of the XCOM experience. How do things differ between Carter [the player character] and the AI agents, and how much scope is there for customisation within classes?
Nico Bihary: Well, this is a game where obviously each enemy downed, each battle won will give you experience points that feed into your progression bar, and as you level up you'll unlock new offensive or defensive capabilities. Certain classes can specialise in certain areas, for example the Recon agent can specialise in markmanship and become incredibly proficient at taking down targets from long-range with a sniper rifle. The Engineer with combat drones and deployable turrets could become a useful tool for when you need heavier ordinance and distraction tactics.
Progression is very important to me, and having these agents on the field, it's important that their suite of abilities grows and becomes more tactically effective or at least gives you more options to work with as you become more proficient and comfortable within the game's ruleset. And then you have aesthetic customisation options, swappable backpacks for passive buffs, changeable loadouts, there are plenty of options in there for players to fiddle with.
Dealspwn: Firaxis ended up including a very basic multiplayer component into Enemy Unknown, essentially opening up the toolset for players to engage in really simple PvP, with the existing system providing ample depth. Is that something you've considered for The Bureau, and will there be a multiplayer component to the game.
Nico Bihary: Multiplayer has never been in a bullseye for this series. When you design a game you always think, “What's the most important thing?” and that's the bullseye, and then you have the next ring, and the next, and so on. Multiplayer's never been close to the bullseye at all. This game has always been about focusing in on a narrative-driven, singleplayer experience, and we've put all of our chips in there.
Dealspwn: So no multiplayer aspect at all, then?
Nico Bihary: Correct. And especially, when you have something like permadeath, when you have something like that feature that you've built your game around, it's really hard to turn it off.
Dealspwn: I suppose one of the difficulties, and it might explain some of the more negative reactions to XCOM back in 2011 when it was unveiled, is that you absolutely don't get the full picture of the game from a screenshot. A still image makes the game look like a period cover shooter, when it seems fundamentally rooted in strategy games once you have controller in hand.
Nico Bihary: Absolutely, that's one of the great reasons that we're glad to finally be able to put the game into the hands of the press, because it's much easier to explain and convey that XCOM connection with the controller in hand. If you just see a screenshot or a clip with Battle Focus, it's not quite clear how this game plays.
Dealspwn: In the presentation earlier we heard about how player choice can affect the narrative. Can you tell us a little bit more about how that'll feature in the game? Will it just be conversation choices, or will player action determine some bits and pieces too, and how impactful might those changes be?
Nico Bihary: Well 2K has always been very good at telling stories and doing that in interesting ways, it's a key focus for us whether that be through Spec Ops or Bioshock or XCOM, it's important. There is an opportunity for the player to affect the story, and understand their impact through the course of dialogue, and we'll be going into greater detail on that at a later stage.
Dealspwn: Will those mechanisms be entirely dialogue-based, or will things changed depending on the way in which you complete an objective, or the missions you choose, that sort of thing?
Nico Bihary: There'll be elements of that. You'll come across people under duress and how you react will determine some small story points. And the optional missions will feed into it a little as well, but you'll have to wait and see.
Dealspwn: And where does the Bureau base, that kind of operations hub come into play? It formed a key art of that early build we saw back in 2011 if I remember rightly...
Nico Bihary: Well, given that the narrative really is at the core of the experience, the base provides a level of context for the development off the Bureau, for the missions you go out on, and it also gives us the chance to organically work in new research and new tech elements that can then be given over to you before you go out on a mission.
Our game isn't about pace management, it's about battlefield management, but I liken the base to something in The Legend of Zelda, it's like when you come across a new town or city, and you talk to people in there and they help to contextualise the conflict going on outside, or give slightly more life to the world you're inhabiting. There's a human element you get when talking to people outside of combat.
Dealspwn: You mentioned missions before, and that there'll be several different types. How will the supplementary missions feed into the story and the gameplay experience?
Nico Bihary: Well the main missions are self-explanatory, but then, yeah, we have optional additional missions. You might want a break from the main narrative to go off and just blast some aliens; if you're like me, you might use them to grind for more XP for you and your squad; there are little moments on some of them that add more context to the story, and maybe provide you with the opportunity for a new weapon or schematics for your backpack.
We also have dispatch mission that are a pretty clever way of helping support the player in the event of permadeath. So instead of having to grind with your reserve squad, you can send backup agents out on missions, and when you come back to the base yourself, they'll have returned and possibly ranked up. It means that, if you're thorough, you can have yourself a good squad of reserve agents at your disposal. They won't necessarily be quite as highly ranked as your main squad, but it lessens the impact a little if permadeath occurs if you can have a moderately levelled guy come off of your roster and deliver rather than starting from scratch.
Dealspwn: Is there a limit to the number of agents you can have on your roster?
Nico Bihary: Well, you can only take two with you onto the battlefield, and I think we've got the roster capped at eight at the moment. That might change, but we wanted to give players the chance to have a few agents in reserve, and to be able to play with the upgrade trees and embrace the diverse channels of progression you can get into.
Dealspwn: Finally, our signature signing-off question: what is, in your opinion, the most awesome, kickass, wonderful thing, the aspect you're most proud of, when it comes to The Bureau?
Nico Bihary: Well there are a number of things. I'm proud of the fact that we're doing something pretty unique; there aren't many developers out there who are trying to do what we are doing, not just from a narrative perspective, but from a gameplay perspective. You just don't see this kind of strategic combat packaged this way. I love the rewards that this game brings. I love that it can be punishing, but really rewarding when you pull through.
It's one of those games that I feel is really more than the sum of its parts: William Carter is a really interesting character once we expose you to more and more off his backstory, the tone and setting are evocative. We want people to go off and research things about this time in the same way that people have done about 1912 when it came to Bioshock Infinite. There's something about that game that made people go beyond the game and instilled this thirst for wider knowledge, and I hope that The Bureau will do the same for 1962.
Thanks to Nico for taking the time to chat with us. Be sure to check out our The Bureau: XCOM Declassified hands-on preview.