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

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.

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Photo: masseffect.com

Crystal Ball: What’s the Future of Mobile?

We are computing in the past. Every chipset and microprocessor we use today is the product of five to 10 years of development and design. For a technology company to be successful, it must be able to not only deliver cutting-edge products, but also tailor those products for a marketplace and consumer demand that doesn’t yet necessarily exist. It’s enough to make you want to break out the crystal ball.

That’s where Brian David Johnson comes in.

Johnson’s job is to look 10 to 15 years into the future and develop a plan to create the technology we’ll want tomorrow. Developing such a vision is a complicated mix of sociology and research into how people interact with computation today, with the goal of anticipating how that will evolve over time. Here, Johnson talks about forecasting future technology trends, the human component of technology design and the new ultrabook form factor.

Can you tell us about your history in the industry?

B.D.J.: My first job ever, at age 10, was at the computer lab at the local university in Virginia. That was back when you had a printer room that had one printer in it, and that printer was in a soundproof box. And you then had an entire room of Wang word processing machines and a room full of mainframe terminals. I was there when they carted in the first personal computer. The joke was that it was called a personal computer because you could lift it by yourself.

So we have come a long way, then.

B.D.J.: Oh, yeah! I always laugh because the computers that I learned to program on --today we carry around more computational power in our pockets.

As a futurist, how do you go about projecting 10 to 15 years in the future?

B.D.J.: It starts with social science. We have, in our lab, ethnographers and anthropologists who go all over the world to study people and give us insight into human behavior -- how humans communicate with each other, how humans live, how people interact with their governments, how they buy things, what their cars are like.

You name it, they are looking at it.

That sort of gives us a basis. We have to remember that we are building this stuff for us, for people. Then, from there, I look at the computer science side of things: the people who are doing the hardware development, the software development and the really, really crazy innovative stuff that goes on.

Then we ask, “What is possible with technology?” We look back at those human insights and ask, “How do we make people’s lives better?”

Then I like to look at trends -- what I call the math of the future. That is where most people start, with gross domestic product. Most people start with population growth and the projections of where we are going. Although those are important to me, they aren’t as important as the first two steps -- social science and computer science -- because, again, we have to understand the people we are building for and then we have to understand the technology that we are building.

What kind of effect do you see smaller screens and portable form factors having on the industry going forward?

B.D.J.: Computation power has spread out. It has found its way into our living rooms and pockets, and it’s finding its way into our cars, our walls and our hospitals. For the longest time people asked, “Will the PC kill the TV?” Now you hear them ask, “Will the smartphone kill the laptop?” or “Will the tablet kill the laptop?”

What we have learned is it really isn’t one device that will rule them all; it’s whatever device people have handy. People really like choice. People will watch Inception, a big blockbuster movie, on their big-screen TV at home, but if they happen to be stuck in an airport or on a bus, they will watch it on their smartphone. If you’ve got that type of power on those small screens, it allows computation to fit much more elegantly into people’s lives.

So where do you see the new ultrabook device fitting in?

B.D.J.: You need to touch an ultrabook. It is a rush of innovation when you touch the form factor. Consumers love them, and what consumers begin to see them as is another really viable screen that lives in the device ecosystem, or this constellation of devices that consumers have in their lives. You have a smartphone, a tablet, an ultrabook, a television -- all these devices begin to fit quite nicely together. Then it becomes more about the consumer and their choice about the kind of screen they would like to interact with.

How do you see people outside of the tech and gaming industry using ultrabooks in their daily lives?

B.D.J.: People say that small business is the engine of our economy. The ultrabook device as a tool for work and a tool for small- and medium-size businesses begins to make a lot of sense. People need to be mobile -- they work at home, at cafes and in their offices. In that way, I think the form factor fits into how people live their lives; it’s not the people changing their lives.

The other side is the maker in us. I think you can look at a smartphone or tablet as a way of connecting, finding your way and being entertained. But I also think there is something very specific around the ultrabook device where people are using it to create. In that way, it allows for not only an incredible amount of processing power and that really cool technology inside, but it is also giving people the freedom to make things wherever they want to.

Photo: Getty Images

Strategic Insight: The Rise of Paradox Interactive

It seems unbelievable that a company that specializes in hardcore, complex turn-based historical strategy games with titles like Crusader Kings, Victoria and Hearts of Iron can be successful in this day and age -- let alone be an industry innovator -- but that is exactly what Paradox Interactive is. Ahead of the curve in digital distribution, niche marketing and fan collaboration, the company is set to continue to grow on their own terms.

We had the opportunity to talk to producer Shams Jorjani about the company, its history, its philosophy and its bright future.

DIG: Can you give me a brief history of Paradox Interactive?

Shams Jorjani: Paradox started as a small dev studio in 1999 and Europa Universalis I was our first game. We worked with other publishers but soon realized that if we wanted to grow properly, we’d need to handle a bigger part of the operation ourselves.

So when we finally had money enough to hire one more person, the choice was between a marketing person and another programmer. The developers were, of course, furious that we’d even consider anyone besides a programmer: “Good games sell themselves” was their reasoning. Paradox hired the marketing person, and from that day the company was changed forever -- for the better.

But starting a publishing business is no small feat. We had to start with signing anything we could afford just to keep moving. All those games were not, shall we say, the finest moments in PC gaming (see Stalin vs. Martians), but they allowed us to continue working and sign better titles.

Once in a while we found a diamond in the rough that took off, which in turn allowed us to sign even better games. Being small means flexibility is a key element to success. We decided early on to focus on digital sales. We’ve always been ahead of the curve there compared to other publishers who still rely on brick-and-mortar retail.

Today we’re in a situation where we only sign on games that we really believe in and think we can do something fantastic with. While our development team has grown considerably in size, the publishing side has done so tenfold in the amount of games, expansions and DLC we release annually.

DIG: Over the years, you’ve specialized in historical PC-strategy games. Was that always the goal?

S.J.: Our motto has been, “Strategy is our game.” We started off focusing on strategy games because we were good at it. As time progressed, we realized it wasn’t strategy games per se; rather, we became good at making, showing, marketing and playing games that others would shy away from. Simply put, we try to make smart games for smart gamers, so maybe “Niche is our game” is a more apt motto for us now.

DIG: Paradox strategy games are lovingly intricate, reminiscent of the old Avalon Hill board games. How has catering to that niche shaped the company? Has it been a limitation or an advantage?

S.J.: It’s mostly been an advantage. It’s definitely helped us establish a loyal fan base and allowed us to grow. It has also taught us to really get to know our audience and understand what makes them tick. Sticking close to the gamers is a very important part of how we work. But as we branch out, it’s been a challenge for us since there’s not always a huge overlap between our core game audience and other genres.

On the other hand, that also allows us to release a Hearts of Iron game on the same day as Modern Warfare -- not a luxury many other publishers enjoy. Our gamers don’t necessarily care about headshots and kill streaks compared to supply lines, diplomacy and historical accuracy.

DIG: Embracing complexity seems to fly in the face of conventional game design wisdom, which encourages increasing intuitiveness. Does that conventional wisdom play a part at all in the Paradox philosophy? Will we ever see a simple strategy game from you?

S.J.: I think it’s important to differentiate between complexity and accessibility. A game can be incredibly complex, but still be accessible. It doesn’t take long to learn chess, but mastering it takes a lifetime.

Chess, however, has a fairly simple set of rules. Our games have complex rules and a tremendous amount of depth. Furthermore, they’re fairly punishing when you make mistakes -- not exactly beginner-friendly.

We’ve made tremendous strides when it comes to improving the user interface and player feedback, but we have a long way to go still. This is our Holy Grail. I don’t think you’ll see a simple strategy game from us (say a RTS), but I think you’ll see a strategy game from us that is simple to learn.

DIG: How important is fan feedback? And how do you work with the modding community for your games?

S.J.: It is extremely important. Fans are the lifeblood of gaming companies -- getting too detached from their needs is very dangerous. On the other hand, it’s dangerous to listen too closely; you’ll run the risk of losing objectivity. As developers, we’re tasked with driving innovation and staying fresh while still appeasing the existing fan base.

Modding is also very important for us; it acts as a source of inspiration and keeps us alert. It’s also a great way to keep the community active and involved. We’ve even signed on talented modders and turned their work into full-fledged commercial products.

DIG: In terms of the current climate of change in the industry, how important is it to both publish and develop games?

S.J.: Today’s gaming climate renders the need of a publisher less relevant. More and more independent developers can release games on their own. But as more do it themselves, it becomes harder and harder to push through all the white noise. And that’s where the publishers become relevant again, if you want to achieve true success.

Paradox releases roughly 20 to 25 games every year. Of these, 15 percent are internally produced games. The lion’s share are externally developed titles that Paradox helps develop, market, distribute and sell. Paradox has increased the size of the publishing team considerably the last few years, which means that when we find a new game that we think can do well, we can put considerable resources in helping the developers hit their marks and make the great game that was once just a cool idea on a piece of paper.

We really try to work as a partnership. This means that we put a large amount of trust in each other’s work. The developer gets to make their game in peace and quiet, and they trust us to do the best marketing and sales job we can do on the publishing side. The producers are there to help developers avoid problems, offer input, remove threats and offer an outside view on the game to make it better. Our marketing/PR side focuses a lot on social media, and the sales department sells!

Sword of the Stars Screenshot: http://www.ign.com