XCOM: Enemy Within - Impossible Iron Man And The Only Person Who Has Conquered It
XCOM: Enemy Within is on the way and lead designer Ananda Gupta tells us about the one person at Firaxis who has managed to beat it on the hardest difficulty.
Published on Sep 2, 2013
2K Games announced XCOM: Enemy Within, an expansion pack for last year's XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Lead designer Ananda Gupta explains what the expansion pack will bring to XCOM, inside stories behind development and also talks about the one person at Firaxis who has beaten Enemy Within on Impossible Iron Man…
Was this Enemy Within expansion pack always part of the plan?
It was certainly something we always wanted to be part of the plan. At Firaxis we publish large, engaging strategy games and the best way to give more on those is to give big expansions, like we have done with CIV: Gods of Kings and with Brave New World, so to take a similar approach with XCOM made a lot of sense.
Was this expansion dependent on XCOM being the success that it was?
The whole studio was always confident that XCOM was going to do well, and 2K had high confidence as well. We did not expect that we would win 13 game of the year awards , so that was a really nice surprise. 2K was really happy with how XCOM did, so frankly this was a really easy pitch meeting.
Did you expect such a hardcore strategy game to be so widely accepted outside of the usual circles?
Firaxis are good; we’ve developed some experience with designing strategy games that get to the right spot in terms of accessibility and complexity. This is something that’s close to my heart, because on Enemy Unknown, my baby were the soldier classes and soldier abilities. I worked on many, many things on Enemy Unknown, I had the biggest hand in that.
So when I arrived at Firaxis, which would have been in July 2011, about a year and a half ahead of ship, there were all these great ideas about what soldiers can do - we want soldiers to be able to suppress, we want them to be able to do this, that and the other – and I said classes are a really good way of gradually introducing players to mechanics like that.
Because they can rank into them, they can make choices about their abilities, and while they’re puzzling out their choice – which is just, you know if you’re a heavy and you hit Sergeant you can choose whether you want suppression or shredder rocket. The player has these two things to read and picks one, and in doing so educates themselves. Then we do not have to put that in the tutorial, we do not have to dump this giant laundry list of things that soldiers have at the very start of the game, instead we will have you teach yourself because we will have this interesting progression and set of choices.
I think Firaxis is really good at identifying opportunities like that, where we are going to make the game complex, we are going to make the game interesting and full of cool decisions that matter, but we are also going to meter those in and have the game scale well so that you don’t realise that you’ve… our goal is that you’re playing and you’re like, 'oh this is a pretty easy game to learn' and six hours later you’re like 'oh this is still really easy to learn' and then you look back and you go, 'oh, that’s a lot.'
In particular, were you expecting console audiences to be so accepting of Enemy Unknown?
Oh I think so. I think the strength of the franchise, and the ideas that underlies XCOM – confronting an alien invasion, fighting it, and turning it against them using their technology - is a compelling idea that will resonate with all gamers.
Why do you think this is a genre not that well represented on console?
I think it's partly habit. Videogames can be a little bit of an imitative industry, so its tempting to say well, 'console gamers they like Madden and they like shooters so let's just make more of it'. But I think that XCOM has shown that there’s room there, there is this unsatisfied appetite for games that are a little different. As consoles continue to grow in popularity, more and more people will use them, as will more tastes for us to address.
I guess the flipside is if other developers avoid creating strategy games on console that leaves you guys free to dominate the genre.
Yeah, right! We will certainly take our chance to lead. At Firaxis we think of ourselves as leaders with strategy games. It’s pretty gratifying when, not just critics and fans, but other studios say, ‘hey, this did pretty well, maybe we should experiment along these lines’.
With Enemy Within specifically, were there any ideas that you tried out in Enemy Unknown and didn’t make it in for gameplay or time reasons, that have now made it over to the expansion?
There were a couple. We definitely had too much stuff we wanted to put into Enemy Unknown, so having another crack at it was nice. One of those things was soldier voices. We definitely didn’t want all the soldiers to sound American but they did when we shipped, so now soldier languages is a customisation option. You’ll be able to hear your soldiers speaking different languages, because now it’s just a slider and I can pick: French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian Polish, English and that kind of adds an international feel. It was something we wanted to solve coming out of XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
Will the harder difficulties be returning?
Yeah, and in fact we’ve actually goosed it up some. Right now, we’ve definitely changed the power curve of the player. On Classic and Impossible difficulty, tech research times are a little higher, we have slowed down soldier progression a little bit so it takes longer to get to the higher ranks, and also – this is a super tease – a lot of veteran players have come to recognise that defeating the alien base has this global panic reduction, and it still has one, but it is smaller.
The harder difficulties became something of a phenomenon with Enemy Unknown. Were you pleased to see the Impossible difficulty become such a big part of the hardcore gaming community?
Yes, yes. So Iron Man mode. We thought it would just be this little thing – the idea you can only have one save and then all your decisions are permanent. We thought nah, it’s just gonna be a vanity thing. It’ll have its fans… but we had no idea that people would say ‘if you’re not playing on Iron Man you are not playing this game right’. We had no idea it would become this phenomenon within the community.
Same with Impossible. I mean, we thought people would be playing on Impossible, which is really hard, but the idea that somebody would be like 'I’ve got an Impossible Iron Man win'… I think the Steam stats indicate that 0.7% of the players have beaten the game on Impossible. I don’t know how many have beaten it on Impossible Iron Man, but anybody that does has my respect.
And on Enemy Within, it was important to us that the game be beatable on Impossible Iron Man, and a couple of weeks ago somebody finally did beat Enemy Within on Impossible Iron Man. So it is possible!
Was there a round of applause?
[laughs] There was widespread adulation for our systems engineer who was able to knock it out. He did come to me and say, ‘there was one change I made that made it possible to win’ - as before that he hit this brick wall every time – ‘but I changed something so at least now I can do it… barely’.
Was there anything you saw in the stats and the feedback that surprised you? You mentioned the completion rate on Impossible…
I’m not surprised by 0.7% on that one.
Was that in line with what you guys were expecting then?
I was thinking a very tiny minority would be able to finish it on Impossible, it’s a challenge. Multiplayer is very popular, I remember there was one time about a week after the release of Enemy Unknown and there was this guy who’s played 200 multiplayer matches… I mean, how do you even play 200 multiplayer matches? It’s been out for a week and it’s not like a StarCraft game that take 15 minutes to play, these multiplayer matches can run a little long… are you doing nothing but play multiplayer matches since XCOM came out? Okay, well thank you, that’s great. We love that!
With Enemy Within we tried to address some of those patterns. One of those things we noticed is that players play very conservatively in Enemy Unknown, and this goes ten-fold in the hard difficulty modes. We don’t want to punish that, but the new mechs and gene mods we are adding to XCOM: Enemy Within, they are the two new soldier types. They are paid for by this new resource called Meld.
Meld shows up in these canisters across the maps and has a self-destruct timer that ticks down as the battle goes on, and if you don’t recover the Meld before the timer expires well then you’re out of luck. You may find yourself in a situation where a canister has two turns on the timer left, and you’ll be really tempted to sprint somebody over there… but if you play in a really cautious way you’ll be a little slower to get these new soldier modifications.
Are there any stories from development of Enemy Within or even Enemy Unknown that nobody knows about?
Well I told you about Ryan’s Impossible Iron Man run playthrough. I was getting nervous nobody was going to beat it, but Ryan came through for me.
If he hadn’t done that would you have scaled the difficulty back?
Oh yeah, if Ryan can’t beat it on Impossible Iron Man, I have no confidence that anybody else in the world can.
Is he the gatekeeper of difficulty at Firaxis?
He’s not the gatekeeper, because I know better than to balance around him. He came to me once and he said, ‘I really feel that XCOM: Enemy Unknown has this tipping point where you start getting towards the finish, and that comes a little early in Enemy Within…’. And I said, that’s nice Ryan, maybe for you – but I don’t think that’s true for anyone else. He’s like the canary in the coal mine. If he’s saying he can’t beat this game, then the game’s too hard.
This is actually another Ryan story. He’s the lead system engineer - when we were designing the mech and his kinetic strike module, as lead designer I say ‘I want every single alien to have a custom movie that plays when you kill somebody [with the Kinetic strike]’. And then the animators come back to me and say I have to pick an A and a B list, so I make the list and then they say I can only have three from the A list. So then I’m a little depressed because if you kill these three aliens with the fist then you have this awesome sequence, but if you kill any others they just sort of….
So then Ryan comes to me and he says – he’s very soft spoken – and he says ‘what if we try physics?’ I ask him if we can make it look right, he says give him and animator and some help, I can make it look pretty good. So two days later he brings me into his office and shows me a video of punching a sectoid off of a building, landing on a car and blowing up. So he says, ‘how’s that?’ I said that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen; I guess we are going this way.
Then he showed me another video where he had positioned ten sectoids around to a car, and punches another sectoid into the car and all ten blow up… his montage of things you can do with the Kinetic strike module, after he adjusted the physics properly, is amazing.
So to finish up then - would you say Enemy Within is harder than Enemy Unknown?
I would say Classic and Impossible difficulty is definitely harder than Enemy Unknown. The level of new challenge and balancing that we’ve done make it noticeably harder. On normal difficulty I would go as far to say it might actually be a little easier, because on Normal we’ve made fewer adjustments as to how the player power curve goes, and of course we’ve given you these mech and gene mods which are incredibly awesome.
I feel like the difficulty on Normal though, maybe the mechs and gene mods are a little more up to the challenge than on the difficult levels. Where on the other difficulties the obstacles the players faces are a little more… players who come back on Classic or Impossible will find a new level of challenge.