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

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.

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Under the Hood: A Look Inside the Ultrabook

Mobile devices have been transforming the world of computing. Smartphones, tablets, e-readers and netbooks have revolutionized the way people communicate and interact with each other, buy things, shoot video, make music and play games. Perhaps most important, mobile devices are changing the way people work.

Consumers’ expectations have risen with this proliferation of mobile technologies. Fast, reliable access to the Internet and location-aware services on smartphones and tablets has upped the ante: People expect instant gratification without barriers. Who wants to wait for their mobile device to turn on, or spend a lot of time learning a complex user interface? Smooth computing experiences in 2012 require always-on connectivity and application responsiveness.

Combining Mobility and Power
Recognizing this sea of change, a new line of mobile devices -- Ultrabooks -- was unveiled last year at Computex in Taiwan. According to the announcement, Ultrabooks “would operate more like smartphones -- wake up in a flash, combine responsiveness with performance, offer a seamless and compelling experience and be sleek and less than an inch thick.

Ultrabook devices extend and enhance the practical applications of smartphones and tablets by combining portability with the technology that’s typically associated with high-performance laptops -- second-generation processors and a 64-bit OS. Toss in accelerometers, a gyroscope and other sensor technologies and wrap it all in a sleek, thin, lightweight case with an equally attractive price tag, and you’ve got a recipe for what manufacturers hope is the next big thing in mobile computing.

“Developers that were strictly building PC applications will now have a platform that’s more mobile than a typical laptop and have technologies and sensors they previously could not access,” says Tom Deckowski, a developer marketing manager for Intel [disclosure: Intel’s Visual Adrenaline magazine is the sponsor of this website]. “On the flip side, mobile app developers who were focused on creating apps for small-footprint devices that didn’t take a lot of CPU performance will now have access to CPU and graphics performance they never had before, without losing access to the sensors. There’s something new in the Ultrabook device for both PC and mobile app developers alike.”

The Details

Ultrabook devices have three primary technologies that help them perform responsively:

  • Fast start-up ensures that it will take less than seven seconds to get the system up and fully functioning from hibernation, saving time and battery charge. In some Ultrabook devices, a portion of the system’s hard drive is reserved for caching information about the operating system and application state, providing users with a mobile experience that’s highly responsive.
  • Fast response using a solid-state drive (SSD) or SSD-hybrid as a cache between a hard drive and its memory without the use of an additional drive partition, makes application launch times faster.
  • Continuous updates allow applications on some models to continue receiving data updates even while the system is in hibernate or sleep mode. This can be used for all kinds of things; for game developers, they can push game updates to MMORPG players while they’re away from their Ultrabook, instead of spending time downloading updates before they can continue playing the game.

Device security is provided via new identity protection tools that are embedded in the BIOS/firmware of the devices. While no system is immune to theft or loss, these identity protection measures can detect theft or loss and disable the system. When the Ultrabook is recovered, the software can reactivate it with no loss of data.

Another crucial feature is extended battery life. Ultrabook devices are based on low-voltage processors that offer a minimum battery life of five hours, and up to eight hours or more on some systems.

The first Utrabook devices, including the Acer Aspire S3, the ASUS ZENBOOK, HP Folio, Lenovo IdeaPad U300 and Toshiba Portege Z830 Series, are hitting shelves now. They all weigh in at 3 pounds or less, are paper thin and feature air-cooled keyboards, HDMI connectors for hooking up to a TV set and USB 3.0 connectors. Storage options include SSDs and hard drives of various sizes.

Photo: Getty Images

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