XCOM: Enemy Unknown - Jake Solomon Interview

Adam Barnes


The longest interview ever done as Jake Solomon guides NowGamer through what made XCOM: Enemy Unknown so special…

Published on Dec 21, 2012

So, we’ve calculated it: you owe us three weeks of our lives back...

Jake Soloman: Ha ha, we do not offer refunds on life, okay? I’m sorry. In some weird way we’re like some sort of weird succubae or something. You know, we make a living my sucking the life out of other people by taking their time.

Well that’s actually the point most relevant to this interview. XCOM does what Firaxis does; that addictive ‘one-more-turn’ and you just can’t stop it. Simply put: how do you do it?

You know, it’s funny cause I wish I knew. It’s a good question, because I was talking to someone the other day and I said it’s weird.

Our games typically have very long – even though the actual games themselves maybe don’t last, let’s say Civ lasts 10 hours and a game of XCOM, if you win, maybe lasts 20 hours – but people who play our games still have over 100 hours or 200 hours in these games and it’s interesting because it’s really one of the few single-player games that does that.

You get that a lot with multiplayer games where the time people spend on the games are very long with many, many multiples of the game experience. And for some reason that happens with Firaxis single-player games.

But to the question of how we achieve that effect, no one’s ever asked me that and that’s kind of a good question. A lot of it comes from – I mean, I worked for Sid forever, and this was my first project when I was the lead designer, the guy making a lot of the design decisions, and every other game before this – and you know I’ve been here almost 13 years now – all those years I worked for Sid.

He typically gives the player more things than they can do, so what happens when you’re playing the game you have more things than you can possibly do and all of them have fun rewards at the end of them. We try to stay away from penalties and we try to pile things up on the player – I know that doesn’t necessarily sound fun – but the idea being that there are rewards for doing each one of those things.

Some of those we try to mix up those tasks that we give the player so there’s a lot of short-term things, there’s a lot of medium-term and of course a lot of long-term things.

And all those things have rewards and so the players find themselves, let’s say it’s XCOM ‘oh okay, now I’m in combat’ – and this was a very distinct choice was to make combat missions average 15-20 minutes because what happens then is that the player almost finishes the mission and thinks ‘well, that was almost too short’.

Like, you don’t finish a mission and think ‘oh, thank God’. Instead, you’re like ‘oh, well that was kinda fun’ and you’ve got enough energy to get back to the strategy layer. And all of a sudden when you’re back on the strategy layer you’ve got ten things that you could do that are fun and have rewards for you but you’ve only got the money for three of those things and you’ve only got enough time for two of those things.

And so you kind of go ‘well, I really want the Foundry upgrade, and I think research is gonna finish’ and then when research finishes you’ve got to pick a new research – which won’t be done for a couple of days but it gives you a laser rifle – and so you go and build a laser rifle and you say ‘oh boy, I want to build that new armour, but I won’t be able to do that until I get a bit more money, which would be in this next combat mission which would then let me use my laser rifle’ and then you’re like ‘well those things only take 15-20 minutes, I’ll just jump into this next mission’.

And that’s kind of unique to XCOM, not entirely, but this sort of symbiotic relationship between the two. The tactical mission that will then benefit the strategy layer which then gives you something – like a new tactical mission – or gives you the opportunity to gain more resources.

So you get in this weird loop where you sort of are doing different things but you can’t ever do everything you want. And it’s the same thing in Civ – and Pirates even – where there are so many things to do that are fun and have rewards, but you just didn’t have the time to do them all.

Even if you think on a longer scope, the games are built in such a way that you can’t even do everything you want in one game and so you sort of finish a game and you go ‘well, I didn’t do X, Y and X’ or because there are enough random elements you’re like ‘I know there’s another game there, I’m gonna do this this time or man I wish I really fixed this last time, or I wish that hadn’t happened and so I’m going to have another game’.

I don’t think XCOM is to the extent of Civ, I mean Civ is almost a perpetual gaming machine. I mean, you could play Civ and you could almost never gonna feel like ‘alright, that’s it, I’m done, I’ve seen it’. And Civ is pretty amazing like that, but I gotta be honest I never intended XCOM to be a game like that.

I intended for XCOM to be a game that people would replay, of course, and I don’t think it’s quite at the Civ level maybe where people just play Civ for years and years and years.

Maybe that’s how XCOM will be – I hope it will – but I was actually very surprised when the average user hours were just climbing and climbing and climbing – over 100 hours, over 200 hours – and I was surprised by that. It sort of opens your eyes.

It’s funny because we were touting how many levels we made – we did make many levels, as many levels as any game I’m sure – there’s 80-something tactical maps and people were worried about how they were pre-built.

But I was out there doing press and saying ‘oh, look, don’t worry – you can play through the game twice, more than twice, and you won’t see the same map – and that’s true but I didn’t expect people to play the game 6 or 7 times. And that’s interesting, it really opens your eyes as a designer. Like, ‘okay, we really need to be thinking about content now’ in a way that we were sort of just blindsided by.

It’s not a bad problem to have, obviously, you know like ‘oh god people are playing our game too much’, but it is the sort of thing where as a designer you’re a little surprised. I made us options that didn’t turn out to be true and that’s good, but still it sort of makes you think going forward that you’ve really got to think about things from a different perspective.

Jesus, what an answer! To be honest, it’s kind of weird that XCOM has been so widely accepted – even by console gamers – because strategy games seem to be in decline, and they’re certainly not as popular with publishers. Just how did you manage to convince the powers that be to publish an XCOM reboot?

Yeah, that’s interesting. I mean if you look around the industry there aren’t a lot of big strategy houses. There’s Paradox, are they a developer or are they a publisher?

They’re a bit of both, actually.

Oh okay, yeah. But to the Firaxis level, Firaxis is kind of unique. Well, maybe you could make case that there’s StarCraft, but Blizzard is Blizzard – it doesn’t really fall into any rules, Blizzard is on their own mountain and god bless ‘em – but even though StarCraft is a strategy game it’s kinda hard to say it is a strategy game, StarCraft is just StarCraft you know.

But RTS games used to be huge – and I’m only talking 5-10 years ago – but it used to be there are shooters and there are RTSs and they were almost an equivalent genre. But you know RTSs have almost vanished, although they’ve sort of been replaced by MOBAs.

But it’s true, strategy – the sort of crunchy, thoughtful, the types of games that Firaxis make – you’re absolutely right, it used to be a much bigger genre than it is now. I don’t know if we’re the exception. Civ, again, is not really indicative of anything. Civ is sort of just Civ.

We have the benefit being Firaxis that we do have Civ and Civ sells millions of copies every time it comes out, but I don’t know that means anything other than Civ is a really good, unique game. You could almost make the case that Civ is kind of like StarCraft in its own way.

You can’t really draw anything from the success of Civ really, but we did that benefit when we were talking about XCOM. You know 2K, which is, like, the greatest publisher ever and I say that truly. I’ve worked with a lot of publishers over the years and I have a hard time believing XCOM could’ve got made anywhere else.

Obviously they publish Civ too, and they know that maybe it’s not common – I don’t know, unfortunately the closest parallel people can draw to XCOM is Civ. We can at least say ‘look, hey there’s this real value here. You know this is a great franchise, it’s got really long legs and we’ve been making it for 20 years at Firaxis and Microprose.

It’s been consistent for 20 years and every time it’s this multi-platinum game’. So I think 2K didn’t have a problem when we said ‘oh, we’re really excited about this other game XCOM’. But that being said, it’s kind of a rare situation. I’m very, very hardcore about XCOM.

I don’t know that I could’ve done this with something else. We have all this internal knowledge – like working for Sid – about what it takes to make a popular big strategy game. We sort of have that cred already. And then we’re making XCOM, which I was fortunate enough to be lead design on.

I’m really fanatical about that original game, and I’ve worked for Sid for a really long time. It was just a nice situation. We’re really gratified and blessed by the success of it, but I don’t know what it means for rest of the industry. I would be so thrilled, I mean I really would, because these are the kind of games I like: I play everything, I play Borderlands, I play almost every RPG out there and I do play strategy. But do you know what’s funny?

And I think Sid’s a little bit like me too, in the sense that, I wouldn’t really call myself a hardcore strategy guy. I mean, I love Civ, but it’s funny because a lot of people talk about Civ and the vocal people say that it’s dumbed down – though I don’t know how you could say that about Civ – I like games like Unity Of Command.

Games that benefit from being simple, almost in the sense that I’m not the smartest guy in the room – I’m not, I never am – and that’s actually a huge benefit for designers. Sid’s not the same way, Sid is brilliant, but Sid appreciates simple systems that produce complex results and that’s really hard to do.

I think I benefit from not being all that smart, I mean I’m not a particularly brilliant guy, so I don’t go in for the really hardcore strategy, that kind of stuff goes right over my head. I get a lot of fatigue. When I start playing a hardcore strategy game, I get as overwhelmed as probably anybody.

I don’t like particularly complex board games either. I’m a simpleton, I’m like the lowest common denominator and I think that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because I tend to shy away from the more hardcore design.

It’s one of those weird things. If we look at genres, it’s very dangerous for the people who love something – who really, really love something – the most hardcore people. If they’re steering the ship, sometimes you worry because what that’s going to get you is more and more hardcore iterations.

And so if you look at flight sims, that’s a very good example of this, even RTSs, things start to get distilled. The better you are at a particular genre the more you think ‘the better version of this is an even more distilled version of this’.

You’re so used to stuff. To make a very indelicate analogy, it’s like drugs – you need harder and harder shit to get off. So if the wrong people are driving the visions for these things what you’re in danger of is getting things that appeal to maybe the vocal, but it’s a smaller and smaller slice every time.

That’s interesting because while you say the wrong person could make something needlessly complex, but that kind of ties into XCOM’s difficulty – which actually hasn’t seemed to put anyone off. In fact, it’s probably one of its selling points.

That’s true, but I would argue that difficulty is not necessarily off-putting. I think it can be off-putting if I suppose if there’s a possibility that difficulty is off-putting, but it’s not difficulty that you worry about so much as complexity.

If you can grasp the reasons why you did not succeed on a tactical mission or if you can grasp the reasons you lost the game on the strategy layer then I think – as long as the systems are fair to you – then you’re more likely to accept difficulty.

But if you have a hard time even understanding what the rules of a system are, then that’s difficulty through complexity where you’re sort of ‘okay, this game is hard because I didn’t know that you had to do X, Y or Z and I didn’t know how to use this system over here’. The danger is making a game that’s hard to understand not a game that’s hard to beat.

How do you get that balance between difficulties for an already difficult game, then? I mean, I’ve tried Impossible and I just cannot get through it.

I think Impossible is too hard to be honest with you, and I say that as the guy who balanced that. It’s too hard. My idea was that it would work out sort of like a Dwarf Fortress where you just play until you lose and that’s fun.

And I think Ironman Classic ended up filling that role, because maybe you’re gonna play and maybe you’re gonna win and most likely you’re gonna lose a couple of times. Impossible’s just too hard, it’s so hard that I particularly don’t find it that enjoyable.

I just think it’s too hard. It’s funny because I do have people who tweet me and say ‘I just beat Impossible Ironman!’ and I’m like ‘what the hell is wrong with you? What kind of bad things happened to you in your life that this passes for enjoyment? I’m sorry I even designed a difficulty level like that’.

So finding the balance is tough. I think we benefited from having – and I’m not going to sit here and say this was intended, this was one of those happy design accidents – but we knew we wanted Ironman, and I think that gives you one extra knob on the difficulty which sort of gives you multiple steps on the difficulty curve.

So you can play normal – which is still hard – but then you can add Ironman and that’s one step up but it’s in-between normal and Classic, and then there’s Classic and then there’s Classic Ironman which is really hard. And so I think the Ironman mode sort of adds that extra lever to difficulty that allows people to sort of find that balance that works for them.

It’s really hard because we were really hoping to make a game that anyone can play, not just strategy fans. I think we’ve certainly had that. You worry about strategy fans being ‘oh this is too easy’ and people who don’t know strategy being ‘oh this is impossible’. Even after the fact I’m not sure I could say that I know what the right recipe is, except to offer the players just enough knobs to find the difficulty that works for them.

With Ironman, did you know you can cheat the system?

How? What?

Well, we figured this out after rage quitting one time. Basically it only saves after each turn, so if you lose someone you don’t want to during the Aliens turn you can just force quit it and try different actions.

Aww. Get out of here man! Look, it’s your game. You paid money for it, so I’m not going to tell you how to play the game, but I just want you to know that – maybe not God but – Sid Meier sees what you’re doing.

Only you and Sid know what you’re doing in the dark depths of your soul, so if you’re comfortable with the choices you’ve made then, by God, I’m not going to judge you for them. But yeah, that is definitely cheating the system.

But, you know, it’s funny because I totally did not expect Ironman to be as popular as it is either. It was just something I added because that’s how I played the original, and so I thought let’s just add an enforced mode for that.

And also, that feature went in post-alpha, pretty late. It was something we always wanted but we just didn’t get it done until pretty late; my poor programmers when I keep landing features in late. But it really was something that I was surprised that it became the de facto way to play the game.

It’s interesting because I almost never played Ironman before the game came out because I needed to test the whole game and I could not afford to get into the situation where I was like ‘oh shit, I’m losing’ and I couldn’t get to the late-game to feel how the late-game played.

So I almost never played Ironman until the game came out, but then I was like ‘oh this is an awful lot of fun’. Even if you don’t play Ironman you’re going to lose people, because just winning a mission is sometimes worth the trade-off of losing soldiers.

I still lost a lot of soldiers just not playing Ironman. I think Ironman definitely adds a little something to it, but I did not expect it to become as popular as it did.

Now the thing that did surprise us with XCOM was the unusual decision to include a story and linear and strict mission set pieces – if you will – so why did you choose to include those?

Looking back, the one part of that system that I did end up liking was the objectives system. The fact that there were objectives – there were some that you had to do to progress through the game, though that’s similar to the original game – but you weren’t forced to do any of them immediately.

You sort of had them as signposts to say like ‘here’s the next step, do this when you’re ready’, and they had story attached to them. Now the set piece missions, I don’t know if they worked out to be as successful as we hoped.

I mean, I think that in some sense, what you’re kinda realise is that any hard gates in XCOM give you trade offs.

It allows you to have a better controlled narrative and it’s not like XCOM has a ton of narrative but it does have this sort of story of the three characters and they’re sort of back and forth about figuring out what the aliens are here for, what they’re doing and so if you have these set piece missions it’s much easier to write that story because you can say ‘oh, hey, look – it’s the alien base’ but the trade-off being that when you replay you sort of know which way to go and if people replay the game a lot of times then it definitely loses its flavour.

And then it also puts light shackles on the player where it doesn’t allow them to achieve objectives from multiple angles it just says ‘here’s an objective, it’s very clear how you do this, you gotta beat this mission’ and so that doesn’t allow a player to approach a victory from multiple angles which I think Sid does really well.

It’s definitely something that – this is just me, personally – I think has mixed returns on that a little bit.

I’m happy with how it worked out and it was interesting and it was fun to have a story but I don’t know, now that I’ve played the game so many times I kinda feel that I wish I could approach these – I like having objectives, I like being clear about what I need to do – but I wish that it was sort of open-ended and how you did that was sort of open to numerous angles.

More like Civ where you’ve got multiple ways towards victory, and maybe even those objectives are procedural so every time you play it’s a little different.

Do you think, in hindsight, that’s something that’s true of the very specific map design rather than randomised?

Oh yeah. I think it’s very true. I think, again, it was just misjudging just how much people are going to wring out of this game. Again, not at all a bad problem, but you don’t want to make games based on your own values.

You really want to be careful about that, as a designer and as a developer, you don’t want to force your values of what a good game is on the players, you want the players to express what they find valuable and you say ‘okay, I’ll make a game based on that’ and it’s very hard to do the first time you make a game – even though, obviously, we’re remaking XCOM – but in a lot of ways it feels like a new IP, you just don’t know.

So you sort of guess, and you say I think these are the things that are valuable and you say ‘here it is’ and we’re going to make a game based on that. So when the game comes out the players say ‘this is what I find valuable and this brought me no value’. And maybe something you thought was a big deal and think ‘people are going to love this’ and nobody really talks about it either way.

So you go, ‘okay, going forward you really evaluate that’ and I think the maps are a big thing. You want people to play the game forever, just like Civ, and I think that’s the kind of games we make which is why at Firaxis we take a lot of pride in the fact that, in terms of hours spent on our games, our games are the cheapest out there.

We feel like our games really, really give you big returns over time because you can play them for a long time and come back to them.

Our value is basically making sure that your hours are very cheap on our games as opposed to you buying a game, playing it for 15 hours – that’s a fair amount of money that you’ve spent for those hours – whereas with ours we want the idea to be that you spend a couple of cents for every hour of enjoyment you’ve had. It definitely makes you think that the pre-made maps, we’ve got to find a way to bring a ton of value to the players.

The last thing then, is about combat missions and base management. Because both are as compelling as each other, even though the latter is just looking at buildings and picking the ones you want. Why do you think that is, and how do you go about implementing that?

That was very, very scary. Sid always actually has something, which he says ‘two great games are worse than one good one’ because if you have two completely different games and you’re trying to sell them as one and they’re actually two unique games, you’re gonna get in trouble.

There is no way for the player to not to be ‘I like this one more’. So at some point the player will be like, ‘oh fuck, now I’ve got to do this one, because what I really want to do this other game experience’ and I think it’s very true. If you have two unique games in one game you’re going to have trouble.

I think the reason XCOM works is that – and I think there are ways to even improve this – they’re very symbiotic. They don’t exist in isolation of the other, even though to some extent a lot of the things you’re doing my seem like it, you really are always thinking about ‘okay, what benefit is this?’.

Like some buildings only have a strategy benefit, but a lot of them have, like, you need to link them to combat somehow. They rely on the resources you get from combat, or – for example – the Foundry will give you upgraded combat items and so you really try and have the Officer’s Training School and all these things that sort of really reward you.

The things that reward you in one of those games will fuel the fun of the other game and so that keeps you bouncing back and forth between them at pretty good clip. And keeping the experience pretty short, too, like you don’t want the player to spend hours on one of those games and not the other because then you’re going to come back there and be like ‘what the hell was I doing out here’.

So, that was the thing that really made me nervous. Because you can’t really test those systems until the game’s almost done, and then you need to make sure that the balance is right between the two. Luckily it seems like it worked out okay.

So, one last question which isn’t really XCOM related. Firaxis has done a fantastic job of making a strategy game work on consoles, will we ever see these lessons carried over to Civilization? Will we ever see Civ on consoles?

Ah, that’s interesting. I dunno, and I’m saying this truly. This is a hypothetical question and this is a totally hypothetical answer – I can say for sure it’s not something we’ve discussed. So, just shooting from the hip here, now I worked on Civ Rev, right?

So, and again that was a Sid project, but that was very different, right? What we set out to do with Civ Rev was to make a much faster and simpler Civ game, and boil Civ down to the very smallest essence and make a game that basically lasted three hours.

I think the tricky part – and I think this is the big difference – XCOM is a strategy game, but the real thing it has going for it, especially in terms of consoles, is that it’s not abstract.

There’s very little abstraction. The GeoScape is an abstraction, but nothing else is really an abstraction. So when you go into combat and you see your actual soldiers, and you go back to base and you building rooms in an actual base.

And when you go to build a gun, you’re building one gun. And so the fact that you don’t have any abstractions means your UI can be simpler, you don’t have to represent as much in an abstract manner. I think the challenge with Civ is that there is a fair amount of abstraction.

There has to be, there simply must be because the game is about the sweep of time, but in XCOM time actually passes in real-time, right? And so I think that allows you to get away with an awful lot, UI-wise and presentation-wise.

That would be a very big challenge to make a real full-blown Civ game on consoles.



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