XCOM has built a reputation for experimentation since Firaxis took over the series. Where Enemy Unknown is about defending Earth from a rapidly escalating invasion, XCOM 2 gives you a ragtag force and asks you to get your head around guerilla warfare instead. The new expansion, War of the Chosen, almost feels like a new game again - infusing the series with the kind of character-driven narrative it has never had before.
Of course, experimentation never comes with a 100% success rate. There are plenty of ideas the devs tried that didn’t work, and in that process, Firaxis learned there are some things that simply cannot change if XCOM is still to feel like XCOM. These are those things, as described to us by creative director Jake Solomon.
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XCOM has to have permadeath
It might sometimes feel like it, but Solomon doesn’t want to kill all of your XCOM soldiers. He just wants you to believe that losing squaddies is possible.
“Success in XCOM feels very triumphant because you’re actually succeeding against real odds,” he tells us. “It’s not like the game is bullshitting you.”
XCOM, as he sees it, is more comparable to sports than to a lot of its digital peers. Where videogames are often fuzzy about their rules, XCOM’s are clearly defined. Firaxis lay out all the odds in the random number generator, and expose exactly how much damage you can expect to do to your enemies.
“And after that, the game doesn’t care about the player,” Solomon says. “That feels good, because when you succeed, it’s authentic. You think, ‘Well, I could’ve lost everybody. In the past, I have lost everybody.’ It’s a fine line to play on, but you have to have permadeath. It makes you really get attached to your soldiers.”
XCOM has to be turn-based
If XCOM has to have permadeath - which, as we have just established, it does - then it also has to be turn-based. Fans made that very clear when 2K announced an XCOM FPS seven years ago, but Solomon offers a more nuanced (and less shouty) design reason why the series cannot work in real-time.
“If you have something like permadeath, that’s fundamentally important,” he says. “Real-time would never work, because you’d always blame the AI even if it wasn’t responsible. The AI would have to do something for you, and inevitably a soldier would die when the AI says, ‘Move over here’. You’d be like, ‘Fuck you.’
“So if it’s permadeath, it has to be turn-based.”
XCOM must keep looping the loop
For two decades XCOM has been a layer cake - in which the sugary squad tactics are perfectly complemented by a spongy helping of high-level strategy. In this metaphor, the jam is the blood of your beloved squaddies. Probably. Whatever. Solomon points to a specific reward system that allows one layer to feed into the other and back again.
“The whole loop works where you have this tense combat which earns you something that you can turn into a new toy, that you can then go back into combat with,” he explains.
This is the secret sauce (erm, or jam) that keeps players XCOM-ing long into the night: an affliction equivalent to the famous ‘one more turn’ syndrome seen in Civilization addicts.
“That’s the whole, ‘Ah, I’ll just go on another mission, and another mission, and another mission’,” Solomon says. “Because I’m getting stuff from [battle], I can calm down, relax and get a new toy, and then take it into combat. That’s basically the loop.”
You have to play as the humans
Listen, nobody is saying you are not an empathetic being, capable of putting yourself in the shoes of others to better understand their issues. It is just that Solomon thinks alien shoes would be a bit of an uncomfortable fit.
“Here’s the thing I've never been able to get over when thinking about playing as the aliens. Is my emotional connection to my avatar, soldiers, and base going to be strong enough to propel me through 30 hours of gameplay when it's not recognisable as human or Earth?,” he asks.
Solomon believes you always need some way to project yourself into the game world if you are to connect with the key players in its story.
“Being an invading alien race could definitely be fun for a few hours, but more than that and sustaining emotional interest in the fantasy would get hard,” he suggests. “Not saying it can't be done - anything can be done. But I personally think it would be very, very difficult, and might require more scripted narrative than we typically like to do in order to foster some emotional investment from the player. I think that’s why I sometimes hear players yearning for the world of Enemy Unknown. Because it was set in a very recognisable world where emotional connections were easy.
“It’s got to be something that the player can emotionally connect with.”