XCOM: Enemy Unknown's lead designer talks candidly about how the game pushed him to his limits.
By Patrick Stafford on January 10, 2013 at 3:51 pm
Things haven’t been the same for Jake Solomon since XCOM: Enemy Unknown was released last year, to generally positive feedback and some great critical acclaim. In this candid interview with Patrick Stafford, Jake discusses how it feels to spearhead a remake of a game so dear to your own heart, how working long hours affected him personally, and what to do once it’s all finished.
GON: Since the release, I noticed you took a few weeks off. What’s it been like for you? Having gone through the rollercoaster of seeing how it would sell, and the response, I’d imagine it’d be an emotional ride.
Jake: Yeah, it’s a unique experience. I’m sure there are other mediums where it’s similar. It’s a strange thing, you work on this thing, and no one knows it exists. You’re working on it, and you’re very excited about it, and you work for years and years. And then, just about the same time as you announce the game, the project kicks into overdrive. You work incredibly long hours, you’re stressed out, and it just doesn’t feel like there’s enough time.
You’re dealing with elation, and then some criticism, and the hardest part is the long hours. You start to doubt the things you thought were good ideas.
You work, work, work, and then you get to this point, and with us, reviews came out, and I remember that morning very clearly. I knew they came out at 8AM, but I woke up at 5AM. I looked at the clock, I was like, “well, sh*t”. I told my wife, “I’m leaving”. I went into work. But when the reviews came out, man, it was the first time I’ve been through the experience where I was that emotionally tied to it. We had a difficult year, it was a hard crunch. And the guys on the team worked so, so hard. So you have all these emotions. I can’t imagine being in a position where it doesn’t turn out to be successful. It all happened so fast.
It’s just this weird moment where it could have gone either way. The launch was just afterwards, and then right after that I took about a month off. So yeah, it’s a very strange thing.
GON: Is there a type of depression — maybe that’s too strong a word — but is there a low that comes with finding you have time to breathe?
Jake: Yeah. I think so. This was a passion project for me for sure, being a fan of the original and being blessed to be the lead designer and this was the game that, it’s something I said in pre-release marketing, but it’s true – the original was my favorite game. It’s the reason I went to college and did computer science, it’s the reason I started at Firaxis. And you can ask anyone, any time a new project came up, I kept saying we should make XCOM. Then I was blessed to get the opportunity – to go ahead and make this dream game.
I worked very long hours. I’m not a particularly — as a designer — I’m not particularly talented in that I’m not like Sid who’s brilliant and sees things quickly. I’m not the smartest guy in the room, but I’m like a dumb workhorse. Nobody will outwork me, and I put in long hours for a long time, and it just became the thing that defined me, obviously for the large part of my life. Besides my family, my f***ing hobbies and my job are the same thing – which is making XCOM.
Then when we got to the end, my team and I worked hard that it really became defining for a lot of us. This is what we do — we spend all our time working on this game. But now, it becomes the fans’ game — as it should be.
My wife was very worried after we stopped, actually. I’d have a beer, and she came home when I was on my break after I drunk a few, and she looked at me sideways like, “this isn’t going to be a problem, right?” and I had to say no, no, no. I just had nothing to do! My mind very quickly was grasping and saying, what’s the next thing? Because if I didn’t have something to do, I’d go crazy.
So it’s hard to adjust to going back to just being quiet for a while.
GON: I’ve seen people refer to this game as “Jake Solomon’s XCOM”. They’d focus attention on you, and that leads me to believe you recognised that. That video where you’re trying to sell the game, not very many studios would do something like that. Did you guys recognise it and play with it?
Jake: I don’t know that we recognise it, I think if you ask the guys that I work with, in some sense that’s kind of my personality, It wasn’t like I had a different personality. I tend to just crack jokes, I’m sort of loud and obnoxious and it’s very funny because if you were to see – people always talk about the relationship between Sid and I, because he’s my mentor and I’ve been working with him for a long time. He’s quiet, and reserved, and I can be loud and silly.
I think it was the sort of thing where… one thing we talk about is the importance of being honest and I think that’s something people respond to. Our panel at PAX this year, it was titled 1,000 Stupid Decisions, and it was the idea of just being honest. Really, we’re happy to be honest and let people in and say, look at how we f***ed up the first prototype of the game. I’ve never had a problem getting out there and saying this was a huge mistake. I can say, I messed up, or I’m not good at this. I guess I’m naturally in a position of being out there and talking about the game all the time. You feel a little guilty because it’s not representative of what we… I mean, geez, the hours these guys and girls put in on this game.
It’s nice though, because it’s great when people like what you do. I’m always honest with them, I’m upfront, I’m speaking from the heart. But it’s sometimes not representative of how important the rest of the team is.
GON: Is it necessary to do that when you’re dealing with a game that’s so beloved?
Jake: There is that, too. I can certainly speak to it as being one of the strongest fans of the original game and again, that’s part of speaking honestly. There isn’t a guy out there who knows the original XCOM more than I do. I know every little in and out of that original game.
You need to be able to address the original’s references and say, “it worked there, but it doesn’t work here”. It makes people much more comfortable with the changes you’ve made. They need to know that design wise, it’s with someone who reveres the original game.
GON: How has that vibrant personality worked in your career? I mean, obviously you’ve just been the lead designer on a game, so it’s been good, but not many lead designers have loud personalities.
Jake: I think that’s true, I think that every profession has people of different personalities, but in a more technical profession, design is a discipline where you will see a lot of more reserved people. I think that’s a fair judgment. Maybe more introverts than other disciplines, and it’s been in some senses easy for me to interact. A big part of being a lead is press where you’re interacting with a wide audience or interacting with an executive level, and maybe those people have business backgrounds and there can be a clash of personalities. But in that sense, it can be a positive.
But you know what’s funny, Garth my lead producer, he’s a very personable guy, it’s funny because when I’m in the office, in this last project, I do a lot of programming, and so much of the time Garth is the face of the project internally because he’s the lead producer and works with a lot of guys on the team. I sit in my office with the door closed and am writing code!
I think it’s interesting, personality is one of the major things, when we hire, personality is very important to us.
GON: How so?
Jake: When we hire people, if somebody is particularly introverted, that’s something that we really discuss. It’s something we really discuss as a team whether or not that’s going to be the best environment for that person, which is funny because we make turn-based strategy games. You think you might come here and we’d be introverted, but we’re fairly gregarious people and personality is important to us, even to when we hire people, we’ll say, I don’t know if this particular person can fit because they may have a hard time. We expect people to be personable, they have to deal with people like me!
One of our mottos is to reject cynicism and be positive, and we have to be careful about that. At Firaxis, one of the best things about this studio is that the guys and girls I work with here are generally nice, personable people. I don’t even know what the outside perception is, but we’re a funny group of people.
GON: Do you think you’ll be the lead designer on whatever it is you do next?
Jake: If you had asked me that, halfway through the project I would have said, no f***king way! That’s just how you feel. It’s funny, I talk to other guys and it’s a real common feeling in this position, you get towards the end and you get burned out. It’s not just being the lead of a project, I think anyone on a project, you feel like you don’t want to do it again. But you have that downtime, and the personality says, you’re itching. I don’t see myself doing anything else. I love design, I love creative direction I love that sort of stuff, I think it’s something that I’m not – I don’t necessarily think I’m a natural at it, but I get a lot out of it and really enjoy it. I’m always thinking of game designs, and any designer has four or five ideas on the fire.
GON: Given your huge amount of personal involvement in this game, might we see your name on your next title ala Sid Meier?
Jake: No, no. no! That would never, ever happen. You know, someone pointed out to me, why isn’t there a Jake Solomon soldier in the game. I think it’s interesting though, if you look at guys like Ken Levine, or Cliffy B, guys who have done more than I’ve done and have established track records…you know there’s something interesting in this industry, it’s hard not to attach someone’s face to a product. You need someone’s face there, and I think being the face of something is really important. But Ken, who is a good friend, and Sid, they’re both really good at recognizing that doesn’t actually mean anything. It shouldn’t translate into visions of grandeur. The only thing I’ve done is work for one of the greatest designers in the world for a long time, and then I made XCOM. I didn’t make it out of thin air, the original XCOM is a masterpiece. I’m not saying it’s easy, but you have to keep it in perspective. So much of it is team work.
GON: You’ve said you work extremely hard – do you find it hard to turn off?
Jake: Yes, and no. I think at this stage where I’m not as involved, some of the other guys have stepped up post-launch to take more leadership roles on the team. I’m trying to be hands off and just say, if you need something, use me as just another designer and give feedback. Post-launch, this is other people’s show at this point, and that doesn’t bother me one bit.
I know things will ramp up soon – it won’t last long! Plus I’m having a daughter in a couple of days, (this interview was conducted in early December, so congratulations to Jake and his wife!), it’s easy for me to be detached from work because nothing is more important than that right now. I’m thinking about my wife and my current daughter and new daughter. But in a month or two things will ramp right back up again.