At this year’s Rezzed gaming convention, one of the games that really caught my attention was a behind-the-scenes look at Firaxis’s forthcoming update to the Mythos Games developed XCom game that was originally released in the 90’s. Not knowing what to expect from a studio who are more renowned for their Civilisation titles, but still respecting the studio’s heritage, I sat down with Ananda Gupta (Lead Designer at Firaxis Games) and managed to probe him on why contemporary audiences should care about XCom: Enemy Unknown, an update to a long dormant and recently neglected gaming franchise.
Hello, now you’ve just previewed a demo of XCom: Enemy Unknown – a much hyped and (some would say) eagerly anticipated update to the old PC classic that was originally developed by the Gollop brothers. What sort of pressure have you been under to ensure that your update lives up to the expectations set by its predecessor?
Well, since we were such great fans of the original, the pressure first came from within our own studio. We had to identify the elements which made the original such a classic, and we sat down and figured out what those things were – such as destructible terrain. We wanted to ensure that the player had a lot of control over the levels and how to approach tactical problems. We wanted to ensure that the scale of decision-making was the same, and we wanted it to be challenging – it’s not an easy game to win.
Why did you decide to make another entry in the XCom universe when the other 2K XCOM game hasn’t been finished and released yet?
They’re making a different game, a first-person shooter. 2K Marin is making a shooter, and we are making a strategy game. That’s because they’re a shooter studio, whilst we’re a strategy studio. There’s definitely room in the market for both, and we’re hoping with our theme (the theme of XCom) that we can appeal to a broad audience.
How much of an input have the Gollop Brothers had with regards to Firaxis’s update?
I know that we have talked to them a little bit, but I am not familiar with the discussions though.
How hard was it for Firaxis to acquire the license to develop the latest version of the XCom: Enemy Unknown game?
That is a question you will have to ask 2K as I wasn’t with Firaxis when 2K acquired the rights to make the games.
Now, your version of XCom: Enemy Unknown looks particularly good, but what artistic liberties have you taken to ensure that the latest XCom game appeals to a modern gaming audience?
Well, we focused really heavily on the soldiers as we wanted to make sure that they were properly represented. They’re a little bit like action figures (visually), and once we were able to settle on an art vision for them, that really helped us build art assets for all the rest of the soldiers around that. And of course, we also took a lot of inspiration from the original – looking at the aliens in particular, where we would ask ourselves: “here is what was in the original game, but how can we update that whilst retaining the spirit of it”? Some of the aliens look really similar to their counterparts in the original game, whilst others are loosely inspired, but there is still a clear heritage in the alien designs. We also felt that the environments were really important so we spent a lot of time and effort on making sure that we had a lot of unique environments to fight in.
Is XCom: Enemy Unknown coming out for PC as well as consoles?
How hard was it for you to be able to translate the control scheme to consoles?
We did the user-interface at the same time, so it was definitely a parallel development. The PC definitely has some UI elements that are stronger on the PC as the mouse is a precise input device – the player has more freedom in selection and movement – but we’re very happy with how the console UI turned out, and we’re very happy that we were able to do all three (PC, XBox 360, PS3) without any of them being an afterthought.
Now you’ve mentioned that the UI is slightly better on PC…
It’s more flexible. Some players won’t notice, but some power-users may notice when they can do a few little things here and there.
What’s the lead platform?
There isn’t one. All three are equal.
When is the game out?
We release 9th October in USA, and 12th October everywhere else.
Considering the October is quite close to the jam-packed Christmas release season, do you think releasing the game in October will hamper its commercial success? What I am trying to get at here is whether the game could have done with a little bit more development time or a different release window…
It’s true that there are a lot of games coming out near Christmas and the end-of-year, but I don’t think there are any like ours. I think our game is unique. I really feel that we are introducing turn-based strategy, with a theme that appeals to an action game – which to some extent resembles a shooter – even though it is an unambiguously turn-based strategy game. Because of the uniqueness of the product, as well as because we are reviving this very well beloved setting and title, I think we’ll do well.
I know that the other XCom game which is being developed by 2K Marin is a first person shooter. And if you look at another beloved isometric game by the name of Syndicate, you’ll realise that that game also received an update in the form of a first person shooter. Now, some would argue that there is a reason as to why those games have been updated and brought to market in the form of a first person shooter, and not in their original isometric genre forms. And judging by the financial success of Rayman Origins – a game which rigidly stuck to its 2D side scrolling origins – one could argue that the commercial viability of these old genres is non-existent now. With that being said, what sort of confidence do you have that your isometric XCom: Enemy Unknown game is going to do well in the marketplace?
I think it will do really well. Something cool and inspiring for us was that when we announced our update, 2K decided to re-release the original game from 1994 on Steam for a few dollars. They were not expecting a huge number of sales, but they got a huge number of sales. 2K then realised very quickly that the level of interest in XCom is very high. I am very confident that the game will find both the old audience who remember the original title and who bought it when it became available on Steam, and a new audience who will appreciate it for how good it looks and how smoothly it plays, and because it is available on PC and consoles. I think together, those things will make us pretty competitive.
How have you gone about placating the needs and interests of this new audience, whilst ensuring that the game also placates those who remember the game from yesteryear?
One of the things about the original game was that not only was it difficult in general, but it also threw you into the deep end in that not very much was explained to the player. For our update, we have a tutorial that will really serve to explain the basic concepts and the UI etc. The tutorial itself is optional, but I hope that even veterans of the old game will play the tutorial as they will find it useful to see the differences, but they don’t have to. And so we’ve put a lot of effort into making sure that new players will have a way to learn the game.