Interviews// Declassifying XCOM: The Bureau

Posted 13 May 2013 17:43 by
Since 2010, a lot has been written of 2K Marin?s action-heavy XCOM reboot. Largely based on unanswered questions - such as the challenge to offer a bold new experience whilst still maintaining its strategic roots. Or whether the game will have strategic elements at all. Such questions were intensified as the studio decided to ?re-imagine? the project as a third-person squad-based title.

Although such questions were legitimate - we can hear you yelling ?development hell? at the back of the room there - we needn?t have worried. The developer behind BioShock 2 showed off The Bureau: XCOM Declassified last week, and it?s looking incredibly interesting - and yet faithful at the same time.

Still set in the 1960s, the player steps into the shoes of William Carter, an agency man who works for the newly-formed XCOM organisation. Whereas Firaxis? Enemy Unknown sat you above the action and let you play with your squad in a strategy sim fashion, here you get to directly control Carter on the front lines. Pressing the B button will slow down the TPS action and allow you to command two squaddies - be it directing them to cover, launching special equipment to offer cover to yourself and others, or simply mowing down aliens.

I sat down with 2K Marin?s VP of production and development, Alyssa Finley, to declassify the story behind the game?s development - including the long silence between 2010?s announcement and its recent re-imagination.

SPOnG: The Bureau is quite a re-imagining of the FPS that was first announced in 2010. Can you tell us about the development process and events that led to that decision?

Alyssa Finley: Well, the game has always been an origins story. It?s always been set before any other XCOM, and it?s always been a story about William Carter. Those things have been consistent in every version of the game we?ve shown. What we have been trying to do over the course of time, when we showed it originally back in 2010, was to try to make sure that the game we put on the screen and the game we were building really lived up to the promise of the XCOM franchise.

That means things like tactics, tools, teamwork, tech as well as terror and tension. One of the things that the game in 2010 did, was that it did a great job of hitting that terror and tension beat - that idea of going round the corner and having no idea what was going to be there and how to deal with it... but we hadn?t really found that teamwork element that?s so critical to an XCOM game. The feeling of being a commander, where you?re responsible for your team and everything that happens to them.

We didn?t really have that decision making in the FPS version, so over the course of the next year, before we showed the game in 2011, we were trying to find ways to bring that up in the gameplay. The idea is to make the player feel like a field commander that?s also intimately involved in the action. In 2011 we showed a version of the game where we had the beginnings of the tech mode and battle focus mode that?s present here. Back then, that mode let you fully stop time, and take a step back into third person mode.

But we decided to heavily tweak it because it ended up being a bit too safe. By adding a team, and zooming out of the action when commanding them, we broke the tension. So we kept evolving it and tried to find a version that hit all those things at once. I hope that is where we are now.

SPOnG: Do you think some of the reaction from fans and the gaming community helped towards this re-imagining? Or do you feel that maybe you revealed the game a little too early back in 2010?

Alyssa Finley: Well to be honest with you, our team... we?re kind of our own worst critics [laughs]. We have consistently been assessing whether the project we?re working on feels like XCOM enough. Are we living up to the principles of the franchise? If anything, we had to answer to ourselves first. Nobody wants to be the one to fuck up XCOM, after all!

SPOnG: A lot of the iconography and tactical gameplay mechanics are reminiscent of Firaxis? XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Did you guys collaborate at all, or were you inspired by them during this process?

Alyssa Finley: Yeah, our two teams did talk an awful lot. I mean, if we?re both working on the XCOM franchise, and one of us creates something like the Shield icons - UI quirks that people understand - we agreed to use them in both games. We want both games to make sense to people in that universe. We?re really lucky at 2K because we?re all sister organisations here, so we have a chance to chat with each other and get feedback. It?s not something we get to do every day obviously, but it is available to us and allows us to make our games work better together.

SPOnG: It must have been difficult to find a balance between action and tactical play. What kind of pitfalls did you see from other games or your own experiences that you took on board?

Alyssa Finley: As demonstrated by the various versions of the game we?ve shown, it has been tremendously challenging to get that balance - the ability to be in control of your team whilst still feeling like you?re in there on the battlefield, doing stuff yourself. If you want to be the commander, away from the battlefield, Enemy Unknown does a terrific job of that. We?re not going for that. So we?re expecting the player to be a full participant in the war they?re taking on here, and tuning that - getting the right timing, the balance of how hard it is without being too easy or hard - is a challenge.

SPOnG: There are other periods in American history that you guys could tap into. What was specifically appealing about the 1960s in terms of setting?

Alyssa Finley: I just think there?s something about that look. The idea that... it?s all business, right? It?s all government and suits, everybody?s there to do their job and that?s that. But then this completely chaotic influence comes in and ruins that world.

We picked that time period to get that imagination of what it would be like to see such an iconic period of history being shattered by an alien invasion. That was really inspiring to us. Of course the US was on the edge of technological discovery in the 1960s, too. Neil Armstrong had gone round the Earth 3 times in a satellite in the early 60s, and that was the furthest we had ever reached at that time. But we were looking to the stars. We wanted to get out there. Imagine our surprise, when ?out there? came to us instead.

SPOnG: Do you see this branching off into something a bit broader than what you guys originally intended? Perhaps as its own sub-series to a degree?

Alyssa Finley: I think the name does a good job of expressing that this is a story in a universe of XCOM - one that?s now been declassified. So whether there could be other stories? That would be fantastic. But yeah, I think that?s one of the things we really like about this - the idea that we can place ourselves... what we are is an origins story, and if you?re expecting a strategy game, with base management elements, there?s a game out there that?s wonderful for that. So pulling those two apart so you can understand which one we are is great for us.

SPOnG: One of the big challenges you had to bear in mind was retconning. It must have been careful not to put the wrong thing in there?

Alyssa Finley: Honestly, the XCOM universe has been so fertile for this sort of thing. We needed to figure out a way that you could have classic XCOM aliens... they never really explain it in the original game. You just know you?re at war with these aliens and you accept every new species you encounter on the battlefield. In our game we needed to figure out a narrative, a backstory for how that would make sense. And having the Zudjari slave race involved allows us to throw up a load of questions too... like maybe the Sectoids and Mutons didn?t know where Earth was, until the Zudjari brought them here...

SPOnG: Food for thought! XCOM Enemy Unknown and the original XCOM focused on a global conflict. This is more focused on the US. What kind of benefits does that give you in terms of gameplay or story?

Alyssa Finley: That?s exactly it. It allows the story to be local. About a set of people that are dealing with something that?s bigger than them - but not so big that you can?t imagine how they would overcome that threat. If you imagine the 1960s, communication was slow. You would have to trust the newspapers or evening news to tell you what was going on. It?s not like now, where there would be satellite uplinks all over the world. You wouldn?t even know if something like this was happening in other countries. That inspired us to tell this very local story, that could also plausibly be covered up until now.

SPOnG: Thank you for your time.

Alyssa Finley: Thank you!

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