Before we get to our interview, here’s a look at the new XCOM game.
I saw a hands-off demo, which was basically an extended version of the trailer. It began with William Carter, the protagonist, in a secret base designed to combat the Outsiders, aliens made of living technology. These invaders want to terraform Earth and take over the planet.
XCOM is set in the ’60s, but the agents have advanced weaponry thanks to a device created by Dr. Weir, which lets them capture alien technology. The mission 2K Marin demoed was to find him, but that wasn’t the only choice. Angela who heads up the operation board pulled down a map with side-missions too. Players who choose other routes may get additional resources, like technology or find extra agents. XCOM has set story missions, though. You can take two agents onto the field and each agent has their own abilities, something some one from 2K Mario compared to Final Fantasy Tactics.
While XCOM is a first person shooter, you control agents by triggering tactical mode. This pulls the camera out and slows time while Carter takes out a gigantic cell phone and gives his teammates orders. Commands like activating a defensive barrier and a move to disrupt alien technology utilize time units, a nod to the original X-COM. At least in the demo, time units were restored almost instantly with only seconds to wait between ordering another command.
I watched as Carter, in the middle of an enemy assault, sent one agent to disrupt a bulletproof barrier. Another alien quickly shield, so Carter sent a different agent as a decoy and walked around university ruins to flank the aliens from the other side. Carter picked up a turret here by ordering an agent to capture it. Later in the level, Carter dropped the turret smack in the middle of a group of Outsiders. The turret only lasted for a few seconds, but managed to take out the aliens. Alternatively, Carter could have pocked the technology and used it to research more powerful weapons.
Moving forward, the team met the Titan, a giant saucer-like shop terraforming what remained of the university. The Titan attacked by firing a laser, which picked off one of the agents. Carter ordered a defensive barrier to cover him while he resuscitated the injured agent. The squad attacked the Titan and eventually captured the technology. When another group of aliens showed up, Carter summoned the Titan, which its former allies with the same force. The demo ended after a snake-like blue alien threw Dr. Weir into a vortex. Carter jumped in and found himself inside the Outsider’s world.
What makes the ‘60s so interesting as a setting for XCOM?
Drew Smith, Producer: Specifically, with this game, the ’60s provides a really interesting backdrop. It’s just past the ’50s. The ’50s, in a lot of people’s minds, it’s ideal America. You have nuclear families and the white picket fences, and we call kind of think of that.
When you get to the ’60s, you have dissonance. People are coming up and their voice is not heard, so with the minorities this is going to happen and then the women’s liberation. There were all these kinds of things going on at that time, and that pushes a transition, so it really fits well with the whole backdrop of xenophobia that the game is about.
The main character said he has some kind of personal investment in this whole XCOM mission, but what more can you tell us about him?
Narratively, there are some things that are stringing the whole thing together. You see Angela, right, who’s met at the operations board, and you’re William Carter and she references your father, so there is some piece of this that involves the founding of XCOM, and that being a family, kind of a family affair. We’re not going too much there; we’ll spoil things for people.
Will the story have choices or be open-ended to some degree?
You know, our goal is to make… I don’t know how open-ended it’ll be right now. Our goal is to, yes to have choices in there, not necessarily of the moral kind. More just player choice and how can the player grow themselves. Not like the same things we had in Bioshock where you have this “harvest or save Little Sister” kind of choice.
So, it’s not going to be something like, the aliens are actually not bad, right?
[Laughs] Well, I mean…I don’t know. Obviously, that’ll be like be a longer term talking point and I don’t think that will be the case. I don’t think that would be the case, but there’s no specific black and white moral choices that I’ve seen yet.
How do you balance the mythology of the XCOM franchise into your re-imagining? Of course, you’re inspired by the original game, but what other elements outside of XCOM did you draw inspiration from?
One of the big things is RPGs. We’re all huge RPG nerds. Tabletop or non-tabletop RPGs, video games — and, I think there’s certainly some inspiration from games, like there’s some Mass Effect in there. I think that would be a thing we looked at. Or there’s Rainbow Six or something. You know, some kind of tactical element or how do we accomplish individual things; how do we build the story. When I say that, we know how to do that, but where we looked for reference, if you’re saying, those are the things we drew on to make this thing.
During the demo one of the members from 2K Marin mentioned Final Fantasy Tactics in the way you pick your agents?
Sure. [laughs] I’d never thought of that, but totally, yeah I could see that. I could see it being a comparison.
In XCOM, you can go out and can grab new agents from the field. How do you balance all these different classes?
Very delicate line. [laughs] Very tight rope you’re walking. Some questions have been asked, and it’s like, what makes the agents good? And it’s really about giving the player tools. Like us giving them agents in the game its saying yes to the player and letting them make the choices, through the game, based on that stuff and giving them the tools to succeed.
That’s why we have a variety of agents in there, so you’re picking and choosing and maybe switching out. Like, “I really want the Commando for this mission. For the next mission, I don’t want the Commando; I want something else.”
But, when you have so many characters, one of the classical problems with tactical games arises. Some people just tend to level one or two characters, make them super characters, and the others become useless. How do you balance that with the fact that you can only have two agents on the field at one time, so your ability set can be really limited if you specialize in a few degrees.
Yeah, so it becomes about making the tactical situation solvable in multiple ways. Like giving players, with the different agents, different abilities to solve problems.
Could you give an example?
Well, I could use the example we used in the demo, because we’re still sorting out all of our agent classes and what their specific abilities will be. One of the things we talk about is, we’re getting rid of the stuff we don’t like and creating stuff we think is better. That’s a system, you know, a process until we get a little bit further along in development.
We have the Commando and Master-in-arms for the demo. That situation with the shield, which is the first kind of tactical situation you’re in where you really have to do something separate. So you take your Commando and disrupt a guy on the left, and then you flank, and you realize that the shield has moved to block you on that side, so it’s behind the Outsiders.
And then you use your Master-in-arms to cause a diversion on the other side, which causes them to change focus again, allowing you to take down the shield. If you have you have different agents than those two, there would be a different way to solve that situation.
You know, perhaps there’s — and this is completely off-the-cuff, so I’m not saying this exists — infiltration or something like that, where someone’s able to get behind the enemy and take out the shield without being aware of their presence. We look at different ways with different powers to make sure people can get through. We don’t want anybody to get hung up and be angry or frustrated.
I think a lot of XCOM fans want to know, why did you want make an “FPS-tactics” hybrid?
We just thought what would be really interesting in an origin story is coming back and putting your boots on the ground and seeing what these guys are going through, first-hand. That’s what we really wanted to explore.
At the same time, we wanted to keep the pillars of what we believed are the most important things of the original XCOM, you know, strategy, strategic play in the base, and tactical combat in the field. Research, which is huge – going back, capturing the other technology, subverting it, using it against them, which was obviously a big part of the original game. Having your agents, making them meaningful to the player, and giving the player meaningful choices with the agents and their paths. That’s what we really wanted to focus on and bring to bear.
I know you can capture technology, use it right on the ground against the enemies or save it for later. How long does it take to research an advanced weapon like the disintegration ray I saw in the demo?
It will be balanced, as any game would, when you’re getting stronger weapons later in the game. However, you know it also depends on the player choice and what they’re doing and where they’re going, and we allow players to go back. The disintegration ray is specifically based on research of the Titan. The Titan was originally using it against you and if you managed to capture it you can use it against enemies, making it a pretty powerful weapon.
Time-wise, I don’t know how much time it’ll take; we’re still working out those specific details. What I can say is, it’ll be balanced in the game so you’re getting stuff at good times, and some of it will probably be based on the player and what they’re doing.
For all the fans of XCOM, what specific nods to the original series?
One of the big ones is Time Units. That’s a straight take from the original XCOM, in tactical mode the decisions to be made are based on the Time Units you have available. Certainly, the map and the base. We took the idea of the original XCOM base and made it a 3D environment you can walk around in, kind of explore it. We didn’t show all of that in the demo, but it’s a fully living, breathing kind of environment that you can walk around in.
And there’s a bunch of other stuff. Agents, of course. They’re not soldiers, they’re agents, but essence-wise it’s the same thing with a different name.
And what do you think 2K Marin added to the formula?
The style of game I think. We have our take on the classic XCOM battlescape. What we’ve done is, when you get down, you’re getting into tactical mode. You’re backing out from first-person and going into third, you can survey the battlescape, the whole area, and figure out specifically, tactically, what you want to do, and how you’re going to accomplish what your goal is.