XCOM: Enemy Unknown has been covered a number of times on SPOnG for a few reasons. One reason is that it is a bona fide re-imagination of a PC and Amiga classic that we've all loved since its original 1990 release. Another is that Firaxis, the talented team behind Civilization, is the studio working on the update.
At Gamescom I was able to chat with lead producer Garth DeAngelis to follow up on the multiplayer modes, and how challenging it is to cater to long-time fans of the franchise.
SPOnG: What were the challenges in realising multiplayer in a game like this - one that has had to consider both console and PC approaches to design and UI? Was there a difference in the way you approached design or coding?
, There have been certain technical hurdles to overcome between the two, but design-wise weíve been building the entirety of the game concurrently, between PC and console. Itís all been designed holistically - weíre trying to be platform-agnostic in that respect. UI and input, of course, have to be specially accounted for on each platform.
But we wanted the game to be fun regardless of if youíre holding a game pad or if youíre holding a mouse and keyboard. That goes for single-player and multiplayer. And certainly, thereís some technical challenges and UI challenges to overcome there, but I think the teams involved did a fantastic job of doing that.
Our goal for multiplayer was just to create a fun, simple, elegant mode that was built on the foundations of single-player combat. And we just wanted to blow the door off on it, so players could use any unit they wanted, and just play against each other.
SPOnG: This update is naturally being developed by a different team to the one that created the original. Many of you are massive fans though. How daunting was it to try and replicate the classic whilst still putting your own stamp on it?
Thatís arguably the biggest challenge, because we are big fans and we wanted to recreate the magic of the original one. It is a magical game to all of us, but at the same time weíre not doing a straight-up remake. Weíre not doing the same exact systems and the same exact mechanics. A lot of things have evolved in game design and narrative over the last 15 years, and we knew we had to update the design of the game as well.
But as long as we were upholding those core pillars from the original game - things like turn-based combat, the strategy layer, researching and building things, fog of war, classic aliens, destructible environments, permadeath - we made a laundry list of concepts that we had to have in the re-imagination that the original had.
Now, the mechanics underneath those could change. We could update them, add what we felt were improvements, and even could add more to it. For instance, we added an RPG-like system where you level up your soldiers, that wasnít in the original game. Now you can choose how they actually play, not just how they look, by giving them unique abilities. And all that is new to this game. So weíre balancing the two... yes, itís a big challenge. We wanted to uphold those tenets that I spoke about, but at the same time make sure itís not so daunting that only a small, contingent hardcore base will like it.
And a lot of that has to do with the learning curve, the accessibility. The learning curve of the original game, in my opinion, was very steep. To get into it, and understand those systems. We wanted to keep the depth of those systems intact, but also allow anyone to be able to enjoy them. Teach them the ropes at a little bit of a slower pace. And thatís what we did with the single-player experience at the beginning - that scripted first mission that teaches you how to control the game. Eventually, though, youíre completely off the rails and youíre in classic XCOM
. You can do anything you want.
SPOnG: Itís a difficult balance. Many studios have tried to revive franchises and havenít quite succeeded - such as Syndicate - but you guys have stuck to the main core of what the original XCOM was, an RTS, instead of changing the genre. Do you think doing that is key to respecting the original?
Yeah. For us, I mean itís very important to uphold those core tenets. If youíre going to re-establish a franchise, you need to keep the things that made it special in the first place, but also allow a team to do their modern take on it. Itís important to respect the design of the original. You can alter it a bit and re-imagine it, but you want to respect it.
Now with that said, I think valuable things can come out of different takes of a universe altogether. 2Kís giving us the best of both worlds - weíre doing the strategy version of XCOM
- which is honouring the original closely - but Marin is also working on a shooter experience, which is very exciting because theyíre experts at the genre. For them to work on the XCOM
universe and try to offer something something a little different - similar to what Bethesda did with Fallout 3
- is pretty exciting.
SPOnG: There seems to be a movement towards a browser-based future for PC games. Does Firaxis believe in that movement?
I think a browser-based future is very interesting. Eventually it will be an exciting possibility, to be able to play AAA-style games straight up in your browser. Very exciting. Weíre not there yet, with respect to developing for it, but it seems like an enticing possibility.
SPOnG: Do you see the Mac as a rising platform at all? Given that there are a few high-profile companies like EA now making the move to publish on Apple computers. Is the Mac something that you would consider in the future?
Yeah, I think itís good to consider all platforms, and the Mac is certainly viable. Iím very glad we support it, and like you said, when you see big publishers making those announcements - like Origin, which is a big thing for EA - that is very favourable sign. I think it should continue to be, and will be, supported by developers.
SPOnG: Do you see a platform shift of sorts within the PC industry? Thereís been a lot of noise against Windows 8 recently, more support for Mac, and Gabe Newellís mention of a heavier emphasis on Linux... Do you see that the PC industry is transforming?
I donít know, weíll have to see. Whenever someoneís on top, in any industry, youíre always going to have the competitors nipping at their heels and coming up with new ways to innovate, new ways to distribute and new ways to offer gamers different experiences.
I think the PC has a pretty firm grasp on the market right now, but it doesnít mean that there arenít these other alternative methods that could also be a threat to them. I donít want to comment on that too directly because I donít know, but it certainly seems that they could be.
SPOnG: In updating a classic for modern audiences, youíve probably had your fair share of negative comments on the Internet from those who donít like change...
SPOnG: Whatís your response to that? And do you feel that the RTS genre is transforming to become more accessible to a modern audience?
Well, I have a few responses to that. Itís difficult, because first off I would say that to those passionate fans that are doing the keyboard-smashing... I would like to say Ďgive our game a shotí. I wish I could just put a build into your hands right now, because I think if you gave it a shot, you might like it. You might like a little bit of change, and it would still give you the magic that you felt from the original - just in a slightly different way.
Additionally, those passionate fans - we love hearing from them. Weíre big believers that this game might not have been green-lit without such a strong movement for XCOM
. Those guys have kept it alive for over 15 years. It shows that it was such a magical design, and allows us to have a shot at relaunching and re-imagining it. So we really take what they say to heart.
We canít do everything that every single person wants. Thatís just impossible. So some people are going to be slightly disappointed. But I think in general, most people are going to be very pleased with it. The game overall is as deep as the original, weíve added some brand new stuff that we think is going to be exciting as well.
SPOnG: Have you decided to keep Sid [Meier] in the game? I know he made a cameo in the E3 build...
Ahhhh... you will have to wait and see [Laughs]!
SPOnG: How was the response to his brief inclusion at E3?
We did. We got a lot of positive responses for that, I mean Sid is awesome. He is obviously our enlightened game designer, so it makes sense to make him a Psionic soldier. But yeah, youíll have to see. Check out the game!
SPOnG: Thank you very much for your time.