Features & News

Interview: Garth DeAngelis and Jake Solomon (XCOM: Enemy Unknown)

October 8, 2012, Author: Ray Willmott

As much as we all want to see our favourite vintage games brought back from the dead, there’s always a great sense of trepidation that someone is going to do it wrong. X-Com, for example, was a massive hit back in 1994, and still has an incredibly hardcore following to this day.

However, after sampling the spiritual successor at Gamescom and chatting with Garth DeAngelis (producer/designer) and Jake Solomon (Lead Designer), I can safely say the franchise couldn’t be in better hands.

Q. It’s great to see XCOM in the making. Has this been a long-term ambition to bring it back?

JS: “It has been my dream to make this game. When it first came out in ’94, I played it constantly through my senior years. Eventually, I ended up at Firaxis, and in the whole 12 years I’ve been there, I’ve been begging to make this the whole time.”

Q. Have you played the whole franchise?

JS: “I have, yes, but Apocalypse and Enemy Unknown are my favourites by far.”

Q. Can you explain the appeal, why is it so great?

GDA: “The overall narrative is familiar; we’re dealing with an alien-invasion, but the setting works in a modern-day earth. However, XCOM resonates, and this makes it stranger. Like, we see these big aliens and they’re just standing next to a fast food restaurant. XCOM takes things you recognize and twists them.

The idea is that when the player is playing, they make every decision, whether it’s a shot they fire or they redirect research for an organisation. This is a new experience, and there’s nothing like it out there right now. A very different type of game, for sure. It’s cool to direct war from an intimate level.”

JS: “Perhaps the closest thing out there are the Total War games?”

GDA: “Sure, maybe. I mean, playing on the Xbox build, we can say that this is different. We’re excited to make a fun game. We’re searching to provide gamers with a new experience. It’s always a risk trying to do something different, but this can be the new magical experience for consoles.”

Q. An FPS XCOM is also in development. Are you happy now you’re able to provide some background for that and introduce players to the franchise?

GDA: “We’re excited about working with the XCOM FPS guys. We have narrative links between our two games, and it’s nice to provide something unique for fans of both genres. The real goal is to make something that appeals to all people, and we hope that shines through.”

Q. Do you feel going the strategic route with the first title will make things confusing for the FPS release next year? 

GDA: “Nah, we’re not concerned about that. It’ll be a good thing. 2K had high-level foresight. They gave us all we needed to make a spiritual successor. However, this is a wide universe, so why not add something more? Why not add something good? We have our mechanics, and they have theirs. We are very different, but we think that’ll work out. Players will ultimately have the best of both worlds.”

Q. How do you feel old school PC gamers will react to the game?

JS: “If you’d asked me this a year back I’d say, ‘What the fuck?! How do you know about this game?’ *laugh*

Seriously, if you’d asked me then, I would have said I wasn’t sure. I’m a hardcore fan, but I’m also a designer so perhaps not a good audience. We now have the game pretty much finished. It is easily as deep as the original and we have the exact same memories and same things we talk about. We have familiar weapons and we even have soldiers that die. We’re very faithful.”

GDA: “Jake had an original list of what embodied XCOM for him. Fog of War, Permadeath, Turn based combat, strategy layer, and that’s what drove everything. Art, prototyping, gameplay design. Some mechanics are different but the key components are all there. Things change and some fans are worried about this and that. It’s okay to be worried, but I can say that confidently as they’ll play the game and love it. I’m not as worried about it as I was before. God, those who are worried, I wish I could just give them the game.”

Q. Multiplayer is a brand new feature. How comfortable was it embedding that? How do you feel that has worked?

GDA: “Our design had to fit around the single-player game. We had to nail that. That was absolutely our focus and it’s huge and long. That said, we always knew we were going to do multiplayer, and when we designed single-player, that’s where the MP rose out.  The idea was that multiplayer had to model single-player matches; it’s fully turn-based, all the aliens have full abilities, and soldiers do too, so there are no secondary versions of anyone. We don’t have to nerf design, and therefore it allows us to have a synergy between the two. You know, it’s fun to do this, how about we show this? How about we play that? It’s fun.”

JS: “We wanted to make small, turn-based rounds. It ratchets up tension and is totally different from anything else out there. When it’s your turn, you know you need to make decisions very quickly. It’s very tactical with added pressure, especially when you’re down to one or two units. It worked out well and we love it internally.”

Q. Now that this experiment has worked, would you look at other modes?

GDA: “It’s certainly ripe for it. Sure, this is a base mode. We wanted to keep it simple to start. The SP is the bulk of the experience for XCOM. We’re going to keep it simple for now and get that right. However, it’s totally ripe for variations. It could go so many different directions. It doesn’t feel faked to put design into tactical games.”

Q. What would you say to people who are considering buying it?

GDA: “I’m a big believer in beating a game multiple times. This game gave me feeling, which is something I haven’t felt in a game for a while. If you’re a gamer, if you’re in love with a certain genre, you’re looking for a different experience. I’ve never controlled or played a game on a high level that can change the tide of war. XCOM has real, dynamic action elements. You know, it gives me similar feelings like when I first played Super Mario. This is new and unique and I think the console gaming crowd have been looking for something like this for a long time.”

JS: “With XCOM, I think you’ll feel genuine emotion. Not ‘I’m fucking on my knees crying,’ but genuine feelings like, ‘how the fuck did you miss that shot?’, and then when guys die you feel just… fuck, man. Yet, when you nail a shot or beat a map, you’re so happy. It’s rare to feel that emotion outside of MP. It puts real emotion into single-player and emotion is hard to capture in single-player. This is a great story experience, but it’s rare to feel this way about a game. There’s real high and low emotion and because there are real consequences, your emotions are stronger in this game.”

GDA: “I think what Jake is trying to say is… this is a brand new experience and there’s nothing else like it.”

XCOM: Enemy Unknown launches this week!