Having gone hands-on with XCOM: Enemy Unknown beforehand, we sat down with Garth DeAngelis a few weeks back to talk about the upcoming turn-based strategy title from Firaxis, and chatted about how you combine reimagining a hardcore PC classic into a modern-day titles suitable for all-comers.
Matt Gardner (Dealspwn): What did it mean to Firaxis to take on a series with such a rich heritage?
Garth DeAngelis (Lead Producer, XCOM: Enemy Unknown): I's almost like an aligning of the stars. It really made a lot of sense for this company, with such a deep history in terms of turn-based strategy gaming, to help usher this series into the modern day. I know the company is very excited.
Matt Gardner: Of course, much of the core game has been retained, but there are some elements that have been discarded. How have you gone about deciding which bits should stay, and which should go?
Garth DeAngelis: We have a dartboard in the office, and we put all of the mechanics on there and just threw... [Laughs] I wish I could say that it was a science, but it wasn't really. There were certain gameplay pillars that our design team wanted right from the beginning, they took that original game apart and said “Ok, this is what made UFO Defense so special”. Things like having a high level strategy with research and engineering; we have to have a turn-based combat model with destructible environments, fog of war, permanent death; we need the classic aliens. There was a laundry list of those classic features we had to have. But as we moved through the development process and began prototyping, we began to realise that we wanted to reimagine it rather than remake it, and some of the mechanics lying underneath each of those things have changed.
So game design, game narrative, these are things that have evolved over time, and we felt it was important to incorporate some features that have been pushed to the forefront over the last few years, and perhaps do things that might not have been possible all of those years ago. You can still buy the original game, so making a carbon copy would have been pointless, and why not use the collective knowledge and experience gained in that time to really push for something special?
So we brought a few things that we thought were pretty cool, and that might maybe even increase the content package on offer. So we have soldier abilities, and being able to level them up in an RPG-lite system. But when that happens, sometimes there a trickle-on effect. We're doing this, we want this feel, we want group combinations in combat, but that will affect all of those other pillars as well. But that was our lead designer's job – to keep all of those feature in line with the original concept, so that even if we were making these slight mechanical changes, it still felt like classic XCOM. So it doesn't matter if you don't have time units, or if the number of squad units is slightly different, what's crucial is that you feel like you're part of this squad that has to overcome immense odds against an unknown enemy, with that music, and the creepy fog of war, and the cerebral gameplay where you're having to think two steps ahead at all times.
Matt Gardner: Enemy Unknown has quite a striking art style. How did you guys go about coming up with the look for the game, and how much was taken from the original games.
Garth DeAngelis: The artists did a phenomenal job. They did use the original game as inspiration. Take the aliens for example. They looked at the little 2D sprites and said to the design team“What makes a Muton a Muton? What are those characteristics?” Because obviously just turning those sprites into 3D would have been crazy. No-one wants to come face-to-face with a hulking dude in a green leotard beating you down. So we wanted to make them more menacing, give them some armour, but they still look like Mutons.
I love the idea of action figures, moving these animated figurines around a battlefield, and that harks back to playing around with toys as a child, and I think you really get a little sense of that with the view we have and the turn-based system. The characters are all a little stylised, but it works really well.
Matt Gardner: It almost has a tabletop feel to it...
Garth DeAngelis: You see, I like that you say that. All of these games kind of have their roots in things like chess, or even things like Warhammer, and I think the artists did a really good job of making your units feel almost tangible.
Matt Gardner: Why consoles? The original game did release on PSOne, but as a series it's always been something of a PC jewel. Strategy games haven't always had the best time off it away from a mouse and keyboard, so how did you go about optimising the game for analogue sticks too?
Garth DeAngelis: You're right, UFO Defense was more of a classic PC title than anything else, but we sat down at the beginning of the project and said “We want to make the best game possible regardless of platform, and basically we love this franchise so much that we want as many people playing this game as possible too.” That means we can't just release it on PC. There are millions of gamers who we feel are waiting for something special on console, for a breath of fresh air unlike anything they've played on those systems before.
There are a lot of shooters and action titles on the market, and we take certain cinematic elements from those games, like the over-the-shoulder viewpoint, and the cameras sweeping down onto the battlefield, but the depth in terms of gameplay, we wanted more than just super-hardcore PC fans to play that. It's a very deep game, it's a big game, and we think that there's an audience for a game of this magnitude. We looked at games like Skyrim and Dead Souls, and these are games that have sold really well on consoles, and we think we can provide another large experience to that demographic. So we approached it holistically, not just on mouse and keyboard, and split up the team, and the UI guys did a fantastic job of mapping the controls to the gamepad, and it feels natural whatever you're playing it on.
Matt Gardner: “Cinematic” can be something of a Marmite buzzword...
Garth DeAngelis: [Laughs] Haha...that's a great expression...
Matt Gardner: ...why go in all guns plazing on the framed shots and the sweeping camera?
Garth DeAngelis: Well the game looks great. The art guys did a great job of making the game look really good up close as well as in your normal, top-down sort of view, everything is really finely detailed and a lot of work went into that, so why not show it off a bit? Additionally, this is a turn-based game, why not bring the camera down after you make a decision? It gives the player some sense of satisfaction, too. If you get the jump on an alien, and your flanking manoeuvre comes off, we'll pull the camera in for an over-the-shoulder shot so you see your sniper get ready, take the shot, and blast that alien in the ass. It's just a really cool, impactful moment that never really gets old, and delivers a little visual payoff for making an awesome tactical decision.
Imagine if you could do that in a tabletop game, imagine if those pieces came to life and the camera swooped down...
Matt Gardner: It reminded me a little of that game of chess in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets where the chess pieces come alive...
Garth DeAngelis: Exactly, it's pretty awesome.
Matt Gardner: As well as “cinematic”, one of the words looked upon with great suspicion these days is “accessibility”. You spoke a little bit about wanting to find a wider audience with this game, but the original X-COM was a damn tough game. How've you made sure to keep the hardcore fans happy too?
Garth DeAngelis: Ah well this is a subject I'm pretty passionate about, because accessibility is like a bad word in the games industry, to hardcore gamers at least. On the one hand, we did make the game more accessible. The learning curve of the original is very steep, extremely steep, and we wanted anyone on any system to be able to dive in and learn the systems of XCOM. But that doesn't mean it isn't challenging; there's a key difference that people tend to forget between learning the systems of a game and then solving problems based around those systems. Having a fantastic tutorial, for example, that really brings players into the game, an there's nothing wrong with explaining complex systems, in fact it's a necessity. No one's going to buy your game if they can't get into it. But then, once they understand how your game works, you can throw them in the deep end.
So in our tutorial we created a controlled experience, but then after three missions you're completely off the rails. Some of these missions are extremely difficult and permanent death is always there. Challenge is extremely important to us. We have an impossible game mode, and if you beat that then you do earn your stripes, you get that badge of honour. But then on top of that, yes, we have Iron Man Mode. The game saves for you, every single decision that you make is permanent, there's no going back. So we feel that there's something for everybody, no compromises, we want to give both newcomers and hardcore fans an amazing experience. Accessible doesn't have to mean compromised, and that's the approach we've taken with X-COM.
Matt Gardner: There is a note of finality in that Iron Man Mode, and even in the main game, I can see it reminding e a lot of Cannon Fodder just in the sense that these are soldiers, with names, and now you get to guide their progression too...
Garth DeAngelis: It's really simple, right? You're just renaming a digital model, but it adds so much emotional weight to that soldier's personal story. So he goes off on a number of missions to different countries, and he survives a few and you get to kit him out and upgrade his abilities, and you'll remember his personal journey. So with those upgrades we turn emotional investment into something slightly more practical in gameplay terms, but it hits hard when you lose a character that you've had sine the start.
The idea of an internal narrative was very important in the original too, there weren't cinematics or storyboards aside from that opening movie. The narrative plays out in the player's head, and we didn't want to let that go. So we have these cinematics that play out at certain points during the story, to deliver your net objective or update you on how the global situation is, but the way that you get to those moments, the narrative that happens in between, that's all player-driven, and a he part of that is renaming your soldiers. We didn't want to give players stock characters, written by a writer, with cheesy lines. No, you make them whoever you want them to be – your best mate, your uncle Ed, whoever. It's really simple, but it works really well.
Matt Gardner: Will we get a Cannon Fodder-style memorial for our fallen?
Garth DeAngelis: There is a memorial in the soldier barracks in the base, yes. There's a board in there, and they put the names of all of the fallen comrades on there, and they'll do a shot for them. If you suck you're going to have to scroll down that list pretty far.
Matt Gardner: Obviously, the big new thing here at Gamescom is the multiplayer, and I got utterly annihilated by Griffin yesterday, but it plays beautifully, and it's really clean.
Garth DeAngelis: Yeah, exactly. We made a concerted effort to keep the multiplayer clean, you can change a whole bunch of variables, but it's a simple PvP mode. The singleplayer part of the game is huge, it's absolutely massive, but we did have a small multiplayer team and we wanted to leverage the deep combat system that we had and open it up players. We wanted to make sure that we channelled most of our resources into that singleplayer experience, but if the gameplay has a large amount of strategic depth, you don't need much to make PvP interesting. If I lose a game I'll be pretty angry for about ten minutes or so, but then I'll start thinking “what if...” and going back I'll realise that maybe if I hadn't made that move perhaps I wouldn't have gone downhill so quickly. So there's still plenty to analyse and switch up. There's certainly more that we could do, but we wanted to keep it clean and simple for this first pass.
Matt Gardner: Is there a discerning matchmaking element to help newcomers?
Garth DeAngelis: We're looking into that for our Quick Match, but I can't say definitively on that just yet. There will be rankings and leaderboards and so on, though.
Matt Gardner: Are there unlocks or rewards for doing well in multiplayer that feed into any other parts of the game?
Garth DeAngelis: No, not at all. All of the units are available from the start. We kind of just wanted to hand players the toy chest and see what they picked out, and figured that the deep tactical combat would be sufficient in that regard.
Matt Gardner: So, final question – what is in your opinion the most brilliant, kickass, awesome thing that prospective players should be excited for in XCOM: Enemy Unknown?
Garth DeAngelis: In my opinion? Well, I've been playing games for a very long time, and I'm constantly looking for really new experiences, and they don't come around very often. Obviously genres and trends get established and then lots of others follow suit, but there are only a handful of gameplay experiences that I can point to over the last decade or two that I feel have been really personally impactful, and I think this game has the potential to do that for this generation, especially on consoles. With you being a fan of the original, there'll be some nostalgia value there of course, but even for people who've never played UFO Defense this is unlike anything else out there. It's such a non-linear game, with some really unique systems. So I'm most excited for gamers playing something brand new, even on PC.