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

What Lies Beneath the Sea: Shooting in Stereo 3D

Scott Cassell and Dave Faires are on a mission. Cassell is a wildlife filmmaker and underwater explorer. Faires is his director of photography. Together, they’re out to help marine researchers, educators, students and “citizen scientists” discover and safeguard what lies beneath the ocean. As Cassell puts it: “People are motivated to preserve and protect the things they understand and appreciate.”

To accomplish this, the duo has been documenting Cassell’s underwater adventures using cutting-edge digital video technology. So when Cassell attempted to break a world record by swimming underwater from Catalina Island to the California coast -- a dive of 30 miles -- they assembled a support crew and armed them with an array of 2D and S3D video cameras, which included Sony XDCAMs, Sony HXR-NX3D1Us, Panasonic AG-3DA1s, a Panasonic HDC-Z10000 and multiple GoPro 3D Hero rigs. In addition, they used Canon EOS 7D Digital SLRs to shoot both 2D still pictures and HD video. Their documentary, 30-Mile-Dive, is currently in production.

“We decided to complement traditional 2D video with stereoscopic 3D (S3D) footage because it has such a powerful effect on audiences,” says Faires. “We had cameras everywhere you looked. A Sony XDCAM caught the action above water from the deck of our boat. On the tow sled, we had 2D and S3D cameras covering Scott. The support divers used helmet cams.”

Underwater Shooting in S3D: The Challenges

files for digital projection in theaters with RealD S3D technology. “Our goal has always been to produce, shoot, edit and finish 30-Mile-Dive in 2D and S3D for broadcast and theatrical release using cameras and lenses characteristically not designed for the cinema,” says Faires.

“We feel we have a compelling documentary on the declining state of the ocean and how we need to pay attention to her,” he adds. “If her health goes away, so do we.”

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That’s Entertainment: 3D Leaps From Theater to Home

James Cameron propelled 3D entertainment into the mainstream by achieving extraordinary success on the big screen with Avatar, the highest-grossing movie of all time. Now he has his eye on a new frontier: home entertainment.

The next-generation technology propelling 3D films, television and video games is changing the landscape of entertainment from theater screen to laptop. One only needs to look at the global box office to see that 3D isn’t a fad like it was in the ’50s and ’70s.

Three-dimensional movies are on the exact trajectory that Cameron expected, as more 3D movie screens and more 3D movies are being released than ever before. In fact, of the 10 movies that have ever crossed the $1 billion mark at the worldwide box office, six are 3D films, and one is getting a 3D makeover. Cameron holds the No. 1 and 2 slots with Avatar ($2.8 billion) and Titanic ($1.8 billion), the latter of which will be released in 3D on April 6. The newest addition is Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which was filmed using CAMERON | PACE Group’s latest 3D camera setup and rigs.

“You’re not going to put the toothpaste back in the tube at this point; it’s just a matter of people realizing this,” says Cameron. “There are more 3D films in the market in parallel with each other, and theaters are having trouble keeping up.”

Cameron Continues to Shape 3D’s Future

Cameron is working on two Avatar sequels, which will hit theaters in December 2014 and December 2015, respectively. He’s also been busy working with longtime partner Vince Pace to help other filmmakers push 3D technology with their films. Cameron partnered with Pace in 2011 to form the CAMERON | PACE Group (CPG), the industry leader in 3D technologies and production services. The company leases the latest 3D equipment to filmmakers and broadcasters to bring 3D entertainment to the big screen and the home.

“The understanding of what constitutes 3D entertainment as opposed to

3D dimension is the difference filmmakers really need to understand to take advantage of the latest technology and tools that are out there,” says Pace.

“They have to be used properly, and I think there’s been a progression of understanding about what you need to do to create good 3D entertainment.”

Before Avatar came out, people didn’t think an audience would watch 3D for an extended period of time. But that’s not the case any longer.

“3D became a picture window into the world, and I think that both games and sports have to make that transition,” says Pace. “It becomes this viewing window for the public where these things -- whether it’s a movie, television show, sporting event, or video game -- are happening right there in front of you.”

3D Invades Homes

While much of the focus around 3D has been on the silver screen, both Cameron and Pace believe the future of 3D is in the home. According to Research and Markets, the global 3D TV market size is expected to exceed $100 billion by the end of 2014. A key driver of these sales is content, including video games for Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox 360 consoles such as Batman: Arkham City, Gears of War 3 and Resistance 3.

Hollywood is also offering more Blu-Ray 3D movies, such as Paramount Pictures’ Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, and Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment’s Cars 2, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Toy Story 3 and Tron: Legacy. But 3D programming, including sports -- such as soccer, college football and basketball -- is going to be crucial for the growth of 3D entertainment.

“What excites me is we’re taking the bookends of what we understand

3D to be contained to -- a sci-fi film or a horror film -- and removing them,” says Cameron. “When done correctly, it brings out more emotion, more character and more athleticism than any other medium out there.”

Another key area of 3D growth is the PC. A growing number of laptops and desktops support 3D movie playback and video gaming. And tablets are expected to enter the market featuring glasses-free 3D entertainment, as well as smartphones and portable gaming systems such as Nintendo 3DS.

“We’re talking about a complete revolution of the way we interact with screens,” says Cameron.

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Photo: http://www.avatarmovie.com/

Video Editing Tools Bring Power to the People

Addressing the computing needs of digital content creators requires a deep understanding of the complex interdependencies between hardware components and software applications. Few systems integrators understand this better than BOXX Technologies. For more than a decade, BOXX has been designing high-performance workstations and rendering systems for creative professionals working in video, special effects, animation and design visualization. Their roster of customers includes the likes of Disney and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Realizing that aspiring pros and serious hobbyists -- “enthusiasts” -- could benefit from their hard-won expertise, BOXX teamed up with CyberLink, whose PowerDirector video editing software offers enthusiasts a powerful yet uncomplicated set of tools for editing, converting and sharing videos.

“Our customers place high demands on their hardware and software,” says Shoaib Mohammad, vice president of marketing and business development for BOXX Technologies. “And because we understand how their software and hardware needs fit into their workflow, we’re able to deliver customized solutions that are fast, innovative and reliable.”

Inside the Technology

BOXX offers digital media enthusiasts three turnkey systems designed for PowerDirector users. And for optimal performance, BOXX paired multicore processors with SSDs, which significantly outperform standard HDDs.

“BOXX is always pushing the latest and greatest technology,” says Mohammad. “SSDs have come a long way, providing increased capacity at attractive prices.”

CyberLink PowerDirector offers enthusiasts a powerful, intuitive toolset for polishing and enhancing HD video shot with consumer electronics devices, including smartphones, video and DSLR cameras, webcams and more. Running on BOXX turnkey systems with maximum-performance components, PowerDirector users can handle complex HD footage fluidly. And when their projects are complete, they can be converted to a variety of popular device-friendly formats quickly and easily.

PowerDirector 10 Ultra, billed as “the world’s fastest” video editor, offers full 64-bit OS support to utilize all the RAM on the system, reducing the time it takes for HD footage to load. PowerDirector includes CyberLink’s second-generation TrueVelocity technology, which improves previewing, effects rendering, format converting, and outputting of videos. The software also comes with OpenCL support, an enhanced HD video encoder and patented Intelligent SVRT technology to help users produce better videos in less time. Previously, that sort of power was the exclusive domain of professional video software and high-end workstations.

“Our goal with PowerDirector was to deliver the best aspects of high-end functionality, without making the software overly complicated,” says Louis Chen, director of product marketing at CyberLink.

That focus on ease of use is evident at every stage of the video workflow. For example, PowerDirector supports a “file-based” workflow that lets users handle video clips stored in the latest digital formats, for use in devices such as smartphones, camcorders, point-and-shoot cameras, Canon and Nikon DSLRs, and webcams. Bringing video clips into PowerDirector is as simple as connecting your device’s storage media to your computer, browsing to the files and choosing to import them as individual clips or a batch of clips.

Digging Deeper

Most of PowerDirector’s complexity is hidden from newbies, but easily discoverable by more advanced users. In a nod to these users, the timeline -- a ubiquitous feature in both professional and consumer video-editing apps -- supports up to 100 video tracks and key-frame animation, as well as numerous advanced editing and enhancement tools that provide added control and flexibility.

PowerDirector 10 Ultra even offers native support for stereoscopic 3D (S3D) videos and photos, as well as the conversion of 2D content to S3D, expansive editing support for S3D titles, S3D particles, S3D effects, S3D menus and more. In addition, PowerDirector lets users output and burn S3D content to disc, and even directly upload S3D videos to YouTube.

“We’re seeing up to 10 times faster video encoding, playback and conversion with the processors, thanks to deep parallelism, increased throughput and hardware-accelerated encoding,” says Chen. By combining easy-to-use software with powerful turnkey computing systems, BOXX and CyberLink are making pro-level, high-performance tools available to creative enthusiasts.

CES 2012: More Powerful PCs and New Ways to Game

It was a record year across the board for the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES). More than 150,000 people converged in Las Vegas to check out gadgets, computers and electronics from more than 3,100 exhibitors from around the globe. Plenty of new computer technology and games were spread across the 1.85 million net square feet of show floor in the Las Vegas Convention Center and neighboring hotels. And for good reason, consumer electronics are forecast to top $1 trillion in 2012 for the first time, including more than $202 billion in the U.S. alone.

Ultrabooks were everywhere during the show, opening up new gaming capabilities for those on the go. Dell debuted its XPS 13 ultrabook, an 11-inch ultrabook that’s only 6 millimeters at its thinnest and features a carbon fiber base, which means it weighs less than three pounds. Future ultrabook laptops will implement tablet features and have touch screens, voice recognition and longer battery life.

Innovation is always a key driver at CES, but this year there were plenty of leftover trends from the past few shows. 3D isn’t going away. In fact, there were more large-screen autostereoscopic (glasses-free) 3D devices than ever before from big companies like Sony, LG, Samsung and Panasonic.

Although it will still be years before price points on these devices come down for the mainstream, new laptops from Toshiba (Qosmio F755 3D) and new smartphones bring the third dimension to smaller screens at an affordable price. Stereoscopic 3D has seen price drops and larger, thinner screens. There is also continued support for 3D content, something that has been sorely lacking thus far, in the form of new Blu-ray 3D movies from Hollywood studios and new games for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

will evolve as well.

All photos: Getty Images