XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a re-imagining of the 1993 PC classic XCOM: UFO Defence (or UFO: Enemy Unknown, depending on where you live), is set for release on October 12 in Australia. We sat down with Lead Designer Jake Solomon to chat about accessibility, multiculturalism, and toy boxes.
GON: Could you talk about, say, areas in the game where you’ve dealt with the balance between accessibility and the satisfying complexity of the original?
Jake: Accessibility is kind of a dirty word, and I think it’s the sort of thing where accessibility is taken as a byword for simplifying or dumbing something down, which was never anything close to our intention with this game. I always believed that the magic that existed in the original game would still work today without any kind of modification to how complex it was, or the ways that the systems interacted. But I knew that obviously, 20 years on, it had to be made more accessible in the sense that people have to be fully introduced to all these new concepts. I mean, as games go, this is right up there in terms of complexity.
In order to do that, then, you really have to look at your design and say: ‘how can we introduce this to the player in such a way that they’re not overwhelmed, so that they don’t say “I don’t know what I’m doing”… I mean, did you play the original game?
GON: Yeah, yeah. I played it quite a bit…
Jake: Right, right. So you remember, when you play the original game, it kind of just drops you into space and says “ALRIGHT! GO SAVE THE WORLD”. And that was very, very rewarding because you had to work very hard to succeed at that game. But that’s not, as a designer… that’s not really part of the enjoyment of the game.
We don’t want there to be some kind of hump that the player has to get over in terms of learning the game. So we have, like, an hour and a half tutorial mode where we’re sort of guiding the player through the experience, and then we’ve got so much more in terms of audio, and UFOpedia for the player… You just have to be vigilant, and we do a lot of focus testing, and we were committed to not making the game any simpler, or dumbing it down from the original; but of course the flipside to that is that you really have to add a lot of help for the user as well.
GON: I’m guessing that experienced players can skip straight into the sandbox without having to play the tutorial mode every time?
Jake: Well, yeah, they don’t have to. The thing is, though, that the tutorial mode is – we’ve added so many new things, even on the strategy level. If an experienced player skipped they would know what they were doing, they’d be fine. But if it was up to me I would recommend that people play what we call the controlled experience first, then it dumps you out into the XCOM sandbox and then you can do whatever you want.
GON: I sort of mean, like, players who are coming back again – who have maybe gone through one runthrough of the controlled experience…
Jake: Oh, yeah. Goodness, you – well, in fact, [the tutorial] will turn itself off. Once you make it past it once, it’ll turn itself off and you would have to actually go in and find the option to turn it back on. We would never expect people to play that more than once to get the narrative intro and the sort of gameplay intro… once you go to play the game again (which I expect people will do), it will just be sandbox from the very, very beginning.
GON: I just wanted to ask about the team’s approach to internationalism, or multiculturalism – I notice you’ve got the flags on the back of soldiers, there was a fair amount of accents, names, and even smaller stuff like German billboards or Chinese construction signs. Could you talk about the emphasis that you’ve set there?
Jake: I’ve always said over and over: obviously we’re an American developer, but this isn’t an American game. This game is – it’s one of those funny things where, I am actually excited to see – not from a sales perspective, but I’m excited to see how many we sell in Europe as opposed to domestically, because XCOM is a global game. On top of that, certainly the narrative and the gameplay is meant to be like, ‘you are saving the world’, and we don’t want it to feel North American-centric. We really don’t want it to feel like a game made about America by American developers.
So from the very beginning, we’ve always said: this is multicultural, the characters should be multicultural, they should be from different countries. Your soldiers can come from over 20 different countries, and we have the flags for them, and they all have unique names – even very detailed, where if they came from South Africa, typically many of the soldiers would be of African ethnicity but you can get some Dutch ethnicity, you can get some English ethnicity – and that was the sort of things I had a blast doing.
Certainly you can build your base in any continent and all of them have unique and valuable benefits, and so yeah, that’s certainly part of it, making sure that the game is a global experience; and then part of it is regionalising the maps as well, as you saw. Certainly the first map is in Germany, that’s a very, very localised map. We do have a lot of regionalised maps, too. Now we can’t do that with every single map, what with variety and randomisation, but – if you go to Asia, or North America, or Europe, we have the regionalised versions of the maps that have this European flavour, or North American flavour, or Asian flavour, and – well, it’s something that is very rewarding, you know, you put in all that work and we’re glad to see that people appreciate that.
GON: You mentioned randomisation – I had heard that maps were not randomised in the style of the original XCOM, where they were tilesets sort of randomly placed against one another.
Jake: Yeah, that’s true; they’re not – the maps themselves are handcrafted. But we have over 80 base maps, just 80 handcrafted maps, and then over the top we have – with variations – like, a hundred and something. I forget. So we’ve made a massive amount of maps for the player to experience and then on top of that we randomise things like – where the player starts on a map, where the aliens spawn on a map, their behaviours – they’re not just sitting there waiting for you to walk into them, they’re running patrols, walking all over the map – so it really is a different experience every time you play it; when you encounter these maps, what aliens are on the maps, it’s all randomised. And so we’ve randomised as much as we could without randomising the actual layout of the map themselves. Those are actually handcrafted.
GON: With multiplayer, I noticed that everything is unlocked straight from the start – was that something just for the demo build? Was there a worry about multiplayer spoiling aspects of the singleplayer?
Jake: Yeah, I mean, that’s actually a very insightful point. We did think about that, we did agonise over that a little bit. In fact, the build that we showed doesn’t have all the aliens in it because there’s some aliens we haven’t really talked about – we locked them out of the build. But yeah, if somebody were to buy the game, and then immediately go into multiplayer, they will in fact see a list of all the aliens. And it is a spoiler, it’s the sort of thing where a player does that before they complete a singleplayer playthrough they will spoil some of those aliens and some of their abilities.
But it was one of those tradeoffs where I didn’t want to lock anything multiplayer-wise because I didn’t want to control how the player experiences the game. Either they wanted to player multiplayer first, or they install it on multiple machines… maybe they have two copies, or can install it on two machines, and… I just didn’t see a strong enough reason to lock them out of multiplayer play based on singleplayer. But right, it’s something that we did kind of agonize about. And we even thought about, and I suppose we might still, put in a sort of screen, sort of saying – if you haven’t beaten the singleplayer game yet, which I suppose we can detect, well – look here, you might be spoiled going into multiplayer.
GON: Multiplayer kind of demands you treat your soldiers differently in comparison to singleplayer – they’re more disposable, they don’t play into the metagame – was this intentional? Is this a kind of skirmish game setting to experiment in XCOM, where you can play around with field units that you’d have to work towards in singleplayer?
Jake: Yes, that’s very true. There are two things at work there – one is that we didn’t want to pull away from the singleplayer experience. A real focus with this game was the singleplayer experience; multiplayer was meant to be a solid mode, but we didn’t want to overshadow the singleplayer experience. So XCOM multiplayer is like – opening up the toy chest. We give the player these action figures and we want to let them make whatever crazy combinations they can.
We thought about putting in some kind of multiplayer metagame where you level up and advance squad members but we just decided against it for this mode and decided instead to let them play it like a big toy chest where they can play it however they want.