Firaxis Goes Back to the Future With XCOM: Enemy Unknown

It’s been 18 years since PC gamers took on an invading alien force in the original XCOM. A lot has changed since then. But 2K Games has enlisted Firaxis to update the classic strategy game using Unreal Engine 3 technology and designing it for today’s powerful PCs. In this exclusive interview, Jake Solomon -- lead designer of XCOM: Enemy Unknown -- talks about what’s in store for PC gamers in this new take on a classic.

How close do you stick to the original game?

XCOM is pretty heavily inspired by the original one, so the heart of that game is that transition between taking your soldiers into combat, fighting it out and then the additional strategy layer over the top of that. After combat, you return to base, where you make a bunch of interesting decisions and control the entire war. I think that’s the unique thing about XCOM.

What’s the PC gaming experience going to be like for those who turn up all the sliders and see the full visual fidelity?

I actually work on a 30-inch monitor when I play; I max it out and it’s just amazing. There’s the additional resolution that PC gamers will get. But we also have a completely separate UI for PC gamers and a different way to interact with the experience because it’s more tactical. We have different zoom levels designed for PC gamers.

How are you scaling the game for PC players who don’t have the most high-end laptops?

That’s one of the great things about Unreal Engine 3. The minimum specs are decent enough that gamers don’t need a dedicated gaming laptop to play XCOM. Obviously, we have the ability to scale down for that experience as well. There are a lot of things the game does -- with destruction and things like that -- that are pretty high-end. But it runs pretty well on some of our lower-spec machines.

What are the challenges of developing this game for a new generation of gamers while also remaining faithful to XCOM fans?

That’s definitely been the challenge: to take something that is sacred to a lot of people, myself included, but also introduce this game to a new audience. The industry has changed. Plus, we’re not remaking the original; we’re reimagining it for ourselves. I really am one of the biggest fans of the original game, so I know what things are important there and certainly want to stay true to that.

There’s still no game like XCOM, where you’re making all these epic decisions on the strategy layer. Then you’re going and making all these intimate decisions, turn by turn, with these individual soldiers on a combat layer. The hope is that if we make it accessible and add these new design elements, then that magic that was in the original game can translate to a modern audience. We don’t want to get rid of the core tenants of the original game, because we think that’s what made it special.

What’s something that today’s technology has opened up for your team?

One of the hallmarks of the original game is destructible environments. And we’ve been able to push that forward with Unreal Engine 3. Our environments are completely destructible: More than just being visually appealing, when an alien breaks through a wall, that changes the very dynamic of the gameplay. Shoot out the front wall and part of the roof of the diner and the dynamic fire will spread. Your strategy will evolve based on how the environments change.

This also ties into another key component to the game in that once your soldiers die, they are gone forever. There are real consequences for actions in this game. We’ve been able to add another layer of depth to the game through today’s technology.

What role will XCOM HQ play in this new game?

We’ve completely redone headquarters; it’s now a detailed 3D building that’s completely expandable and customizable. There’s a barracks, where your soldiers hang out. XCOM is a combat game, but it’s very open-ended, so the player can choose what to research in the lab. There are only three research options at the beginning of the game, but many more open up as the game progresses. Engineering is where all the theories from the labs become practice. This is where the player can now build any new items they’ve researched. And there are the hangars, where the jets await orders to go on strikes.

Photo: XCOM.com

Epic Games’ Cliff Bleszinski Gets Unreal

Epic Games put on quite a show at this year’s Game Developers Conference. Every day, designers and publishers checked out the technology behind the new Unreal Engine 4 game development framework. Meanwhile, journalists watched demos of games powered by Unreal Engine 3, including the new Infinity Blade: Dungeons and the pumped-up version of Mortal Kombat. Not to mention that some of the most popular games at GDC 2012 were running on Unreal Engine 3, including Hawken, the free-to-play PC shooter, and TERA, the massively multiplayer online action fantasy game.

Cliff Bleszinski, the company’s design director, is at the heart of Epic’s new game development. DIG caught up with him before he went on to host the 2012 Game Developers Choice Awards.

Can you explain what it is that you are doing now that you’re involved in so many different projects at Epic?

Cliff Bleszinski: I’m trying to maintain productivity while having my fingers in many different pies. As a person who’s slightly ADD, that can be tricky at times. Thankfully, I have a good management staff to help keep me focused.

What I do the majority of the time is I bust out work on Fortnite. I have a lot of meetings, but I also try and make time for free play. So if Donald Mustard -- the co-founder and creative director at ChAIR Entertainment, Epic Games’ award-winning studio -- comes to town with a new Infinity Blade idea or proposal, I can make time to see his stuff as well. And hopefully sprinkle a little bit of that fun magic on top of it.

What excites you about the game industry today?

C.B.: The fact that if you’re a 17-year-old kid right now and you have an Internet connection and you’re somewhat dev-savvy, you can go get something like Unreal Development Kit and you could be the next overnight sensation if you are smart and play your cards right. Now, with a fully connected Internet and developers checking out indie games and the Independent Games Festival going on next door, the chance for visibility is higher than ever. I always say the brass ring is there, and it’s up to you as a young gamer to seize it.

Speaking of the Independent Games Festival, what opportunities does it offer to developers?

C.B.: There’s actually a real-world instance where a game, which years ago was called Narbacular Drop, got picked up by Valve. I think Kim Swift, now chief creative officer at Airtight Games, was one of the developers. That game ultimately evolved into Portal, which of course is now the beloved global sensation that we all adore.

I’m going to be there Tweeting about games that I think are cool. I’m going to be spreading the word to my 150,000 followers, and maybe somebody else who’s a developer is over there talking to his followers. This is such an organic world where the good stuff can rise up more than ever and the bad stuff sinks away. It wasn’t like that 20 years ago. You had to really fight, kick and claw your way to the top of the heap back then.

What role does the Unreal Development Kit play in this new gaming ecosystem?

C.B.: Well, UDK is the toolset for a young developer to really get cracking. I’ve told many people before that if I could go back in time and have UDK when I was 17, I would have killed for it. One thing Tim Sweeney (the founder of Epic Games) realized very, very early on is that by empowering creatives who may not necessarily be that tech-savvy, he can get a lot of great results and also have developers be more efficient. That’s something that’s carried out through Unreal technology all the way through Unreal Engine 4.

Photo: @Getty.com/Mark Davis

GDC 2012: Plenty Developed Among a Record Number of Attendees

Record crowds converged on the Game Developers Conference 2012 at San Francisco’s Moscone Center earlier this month. About 22,500 attendees came to share techniques, troll for jobs and hunt for the best new tools of the trade. The conference -- now in its 26th year -- hosted hundreds of panels, workshops and talks that were aimed at educating, inspiring and inflaming video game developers. Here were my highlights:

During an earnest “fireside chat,” SpyParty designer Chris Hecker grilled Mojang’s Markus “Notch” Persson, the creator of Minecraft. Persson took an evenhanded stance on piracy, rejecting the notion that the illegal downloading of games leads to significant losses in sales. “It’s wrong,” he said, “but it’s such a minor thing. It’s ridiculously small.”

Microsoft veterans Matt Whiting and Ted Woolsey explained the lengths to which their company goes to bring games like Disney Adventures to hundreds of markets. Talk highlights included moments when Woolsey, who helped import many Final Fantasy classics, told of all the death threats and late-night phone calls he received for tweaking the beloved role-playing games.

 

Renaud Bedard, the programmer behind the forthcoming indie game Fez, sketched out the technical tricks he used to render the game’s colorful and complex game world. He also described the tools he created to help designer Phil Fish craft the game’s ornate levels.

During the “Localization Microtalk” discussion, developers outlined the technical and marketing difficulties of importing games from one region to another. Particularly interesting was the tale of Knight Online, an MMO that flopped in the states but found massive success in Turkey.

On March 8, designers filled a Moscone Center ballroom for an evening of awards ceremonies. First came The 14th Annual Independent Games Festival. The event, hosted by Monaco designer Andy Schatz, celebrated homegrown video games crafted by small teams. Fez took home the Seumas McNally grand prize as well as $30,000. The Nuovo Award for experimental games went to Daniel Benmergui for Storyteller, a puzzle game that asks players to create their own comic strips.

Later that night, Cliff Bleszinski of Epic Games hosted the Game Developers Choice Awards, chosen by the votes of the winners’ peers. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim took the coveted Game of the Year award, while Valve’s Portal 2 won for Best Audio, Best Narrative and Best Game Design. Atari veteran Dave Theurer was recognized with the 2012 Pioneer Award for creating Missile Command, Tempest and I, Robot. Warren Spector, the creator of Deus Ex and System Shock, inspired the crowd after receiving a lifetime achievement award: “We can do things no other medium in human history has been able to do,” Spector told his fellow game-makers.

The closing of the convention hall doors cued the start of a wild array of parties, press events and meet-ups. Electronic Arts threw two different events as coming-out parties for The Sims 5 and Medal of Honor Warfighter. In Firaxis Games hotel suite, developers offered intimate glimpses of new games, including the expansion of Civilization V: Gods and Kings.

Indies plied their wares just as eagerly. Independent designer Jonathan Blow offered a close look of his ambitious and immersive puzzler The Witness, while Klei Entertainment designer Nels Anderson lugged a laptop around the convention center to give lucky attendees hands-on time with the Mark of the Ninja.

That’s just a sliver of GDC 2012, but it’s proof enough that anyone who cares about how and why games are made may want to start making plans for 2013.

Electronic Arts Expands Medal of Honor Franchise With Warfighter

Electronic Arts used the Game Developers Conference this month to offer an initial look at its first-person shooter sequel, Medal of Honor Warfighter. Danger Close Games, its developer, is expanding the fight against terror by taking its Tier 1 Operators on a contemporary globe-trotting adventure to such exotic locales as the Philippines and the Somali coast. The game also features new vehicles on players’ new missions, like an on-rails boat ride through a monsoon-stricken city.

Here, Rich Farley, creative director at Danger Close Games, talks about what’s in store for PC gamers and gives his take on the move to modern warfare in this exclusive interview from GDC 2012.

What were your goals heading into this game?

Rich Farley: We were really happy with our transition out of World War II and into the modern arena. We wanted to take our guys out of that microcosm that was just Afghanistan and then take it to where the fight is now. We wanted to focus in more on the Tier 1 Operators and how they work around the world right now dealing with these terror networks.

How did you work with actual soldiers in the development of this sequel?

R.F.: We had a lot of guys from that community on the last game helping us out. When we shipped the game, a lot of guys went, “Wow, these guys at Danger Close really got it right.” They brought more guys that were interested in talking to us and helping us portray their community in the right way, and in a way that more accurately depicts what kind of people they are. It’s really helped us having these guys available, almost daily, to be able to come in and assist with things like mo-cap, equipment, weapons, how they talk to each other, the settings and the storylines.

Can you explain how the multiplayer combat now encompasses more than just U.S. Special Forces?

R.F.: With our multiplayer, we’re honoring the international Tier 1 groups, just as we honored the American ones in the last game. Gamers will be able to play as different groups from around the world. We have 12 units from 10 countries, including the Australia Special Air Service Regiment, the Special Air Service from the U.K., the Polish GROM (Operational Mobile Reaction Group) and the German KSK (Special Forces Command), to name a few. We’re introducing multinational “blue vs. blue” team play, where the world’s best-of-the-best warriors go head-to-head in online competition.

How are you connecting the fiction of this game’s story to the real world?

R.F.: Everything in our game has a dotted line to something that actually happened, or to some story that was told to us by one of our consultants, or a combination of those things. It really lends a feeling of authenticity, and it paints a picture of what the current fight is for these guys right now.

Can you give an example of a “ripped from the headlines” mission that players will encounter?

R.F.: If you read up on that region of the Southern Philippines, Basilan and Sulu Islands, there’s a group called Abu Sayyaf. It’s a bunch of very bad people that over time kidnapped a lot of people, aid workers and such. And in some cases, executed them or captured them for ransom to further whatever their causes are. It’s a very real thing that’s happening down there that people don’t hear a lot about, and Tier 1 guys are there helping the military from that country deal with that threat. That’s what the hostage rescue level in the game was about.

What’s new in the gameplay department for Warfighter?

R.F.: We’re rolling out a few different things. We have a new door breach mechanic whereby players can enter and breach a room, just like Tier 1 guys would. They’re going to approach a door, assess it and see what’s going on with it. Is it locked? Is it not locked? What’s behind that door? They’ll be able to choose their method of entry, whether they want to kick that door down, breach it in some other way with an explosive, or throw a flash bang in or a grenade. It’s really going to change what happens on the other side of the door when they go inside.

How are you utilizing the Frostbite 2 engine to enhance the PC experience?

R.F.: It’s been great working with that tech. Just the visual fidelity of the stuff that we’re doing has increased so much. The lighting is amazing. The ability to have the amount of destruction that we featured in the demo; it’s not that it wasn’t possible before, but it’s made it so much easier. That’s what the techs built around for us to be able to dial in to: this micro-destruction. It’s just a beautiful engine, and the scale that we can represent in that engine is really well-suited to what we’re doing.

In developing the last game, you guys worked the single-player experience in Los Angeles and the multiplayer at EA’s Digital Illusions Creative Entertainment in Sweden. What’s it like having everyone together working together in Los Angeles this time?

R.F.: It’s amazing. You create the game with a really singular vision. It’s easier for us, as developers, to really keep track of it all and make sure it’s all on point in terms of parity on features, and making sure that it feels like one game and not a bunch of disparate parts.

Read more about game development from our sponsor.

Critical Mass: The Power of Mass Effect 3

Electronic Arts’ BioWare studio has come a long way since first launching Mass Effect on the PC. What began as an epic single-player experience has expanded into a new cooperative gameplay mode with Mass Effect 3. Up to four players can engage in exclusive co-op firefights on top of the epic conclusion of the single player campaign. And speaking of Epic, that game studio’s Unreal Engine 3 technology continues to push the visuals and gameplay experience of the franchise thanks to BioWare’s many technical implementations over the years.

The man responsible for guiding this bestselling space role-playing game, executive producer Casey Hudson, talks about Commander Shepard’s final confrontation with the Reapers in this exclusive interview.

John Gaudiosi: What were your goals heading into Mass Effect 3?

Casey Hudson: As the third in the trilogy, this really is the main event for us. It’s the beginning and the end of all the biggest events in the Mass Effect universe. With Mass Effect 3, we’re really focusing on improving the action experience. Delivering really intense action is a big part of the game. You’re going to see Commander Shepard doing combat roles, leaping over cover while running. We’ve got a whole bunch of things where you’re falling and climbing. There’s lots of little cinematic action moments built right into gameplay.

We also have a new melee weapon called the Omni-Blade. It really works a lot with the new agility that Shepard has where you’re able to reach over cover and around cover and do these skewering brutal finishing moves. Essentially, it’s like a switchblade version of a hologram. You can have this whole new level of brutal attacks as Commander Shepard.

J.G.: How are you evolving the franchise’s rich RPG experience?

C.H.: We really focused on providing that deep RPG experience that players remember from Mass Effect 1 and maybe thought was missing from Mass Effect 2. We want to add a lot of the customization and a lot of the decision-making as you progress through the levels.

For example, you’re now able to throw your weapon down on a workbench, take some of the weapons accessories that you found or bought, actually start plugging them in and physically see your weapon change as you’re adding these different things. We’re also doing things in terms of customizing your powers. As you start getting toward the higher power levels, they become evolved powers. From there, every time you advance one of your powers, you’re actually making a choice about which version of the power you want and what flavor. Again, you’re making decisions about how you want to play. It’s a much deeper RPG experience.

J.G.: How are you pushing the story forward with this swan song experience?

C.H.: The big thing that everyone wants to make sure we do is to really end the series on a high note. We want to make sure that we take this story and create the biggest possible ending to the series.

We’ve been talking about the coming war against the Reapers. Mass Effect 3 is the story about war. It’s a great place for new players to enter for that reason because you start out as Commander Shepard. You’re a marine on the earth. From there, the story really blows out into a full-scale galactic war. That’s the story that we’re telling here. We’re taking the most intimate relationships that you’ve developed over the course of the game and using that to really tell the biggest possible story we can.

J.G.: How have fans impacted the direction of this third game?

C.H.: We always try to listen and understand the way people have played our games, the way they get feedback. A lot of that has contributed to a focus on really enriching the role-playing aspects of the game. It also ties in with things like understanding favorite characters, how people want to see characters return and what they’re hoping to see in the story as we’re developing it throughout the course of the series.

J.G.: What role will the different choices that fans have made in previous games play in the culmination of the trilogy?

C.H.: For new players of Mass Effect 3, and even for players who’ve played previous games, we want to bring them into the story in such a way that we remind you of what’s happened in the story before. Of course, there has been a story leading into 3, but from there it becomes a self-contained story.

For those people who have played Mass Effect 1 and 2, you can start Mass Effect 3 by pulling in your saved game and the game will instantly know all the things that you’ve done before. You start out as your character. You look the way you did previously. From there, it knows who lived and died. It knows who you had friendships and romances with. Those things will actually change the way that you experience the story in Mass Effect 3.

J.G.: Do you have a favorite new enemy that players will be fighting in Mass Effect 3?

C.H.: A lot of the different enemies are going to have amazing new behaviors that really tie in with how you need to fight them as a squad. One of the cool new enemies -- one of our bigger types -- is called the Atlas Infantry Fighting Exoskeleton. These mechs are probably 20 feet tall and they’re piloted by a Cerberus trooper. If you’re able to destroy the trooper before you destroy the vehicle, you can actually get in the Atlas and control that mech as a vehicle and really dominate the battlefield. It’s one of the tactical decisions that are pretty fun for the player. As you’re fighting through a level, if there’s an Atlas, he’s pretty devastating to you and your squad as a player. If you can figure out how to get in there, then you will definitely dominate the battlefield.

J.G.: How have you evolved your technology from the first game to this one, and how has that improved the gameplay experience?

C.H.: We’ve been working on this series for quite a few years now and so much has changed. When we started, the Xbox 360 hadn’t even come out yet, but we still had to design a game for it.

Now, looking back, we’ve been working with the Unreal Engine 3 for quite a few years. Even with Mass Effect 3, we’ve been able to find huge new improvements to the performance. That’s allowed us to do everything from much better additional acting with the characters, better storytelling methods, but also just the overall ground pics, the cinematics. Those things can be better. We’re also spending some of that performance toward making the game richer in terms of more enemies onscreen, a lot more stuff going on, more people for you to fight.

Read more about game development from our sponsor.

Photo: masseffect.com