Watch the skies: XCOM: Enemy Unknown interview

While in London the other week we had a chance to speak to Pete Murray, associate producer at Firaxis Games, about their upcoming XCOM game (yes, the old-school remake one). You can pick up a copy of the April 2012 issue of NAG magazine ( or on newsstands) if you want more detailed information on the game itself – this interview was a bit too long to fit in that issue. Anyway, XCOM is a turn-based strategy game that tasks players with saving the world from an impending alien invasion by putting them in charge of the Extraterrestrial Combat Unit. Around about now someone should say, “Hoorah!”

Note: XCOM is how we write the new game’s title and X-Com is how we write the original game’s title. Gaming journalism is more art than science really.

NAG: What was the most important thing you wanted to bring across from the original games?

PM: If you ask five X-Com fans what the ten most important things are in the game you get a list of about 600 items. A lot of the commonality you hear about is: it’s got to be turn-based combat, it’s got to have a strategy layer where you can reverse engineer the alien’s stuff so you can use it against them and you need to have soldiers you can rename after your friends so that they can die (laughs). After that the field opens up considerably. What we spent time focusing on was that feeling that you get from the original game, the dread of “I’m going into a situation where I don’t know whether I’ve got the gear, or the skills or the right people for this.” Or “oh my God this invasion is happening faster than I expected it to.” Remember that really great pace the original game had? You’d be in the Geosphere advancing time and a research project would finish so you go back to the lab and choose something else, then you move time forward and the engineer would come back; so for somebody who’s experienced X-Com it’s immediately going to have that familiarity… you know, “yes, I recognise this game.” So that’s a good way to answer not exactly what you asked (laughs). XCOM is a game about the feeling it evokes for you and how you respond to that and your ability to generate plans and force your will out there.

The original UFO: Enemy Unknown (called X-Com: UFO Defense in some territories).

NAG: Were you inspired by or did you research any wild theories about aliens at all?

PM: Yeah, Jake [Solomon, lead designer] has an extensive collection of ufology but it begins and to some degree ends around X-Com. People would be really upset if we didn’t put Sectoids in the game for example. But even those aliens in the original X-Com were to some extend based on existing alien tropes. The developers kind of made up their own little world and you could read tech reports on the aliens and a lot of that was a product of the popularity of The X-Files [at the time]. Some of that does change over time so maybe our aliens have a little bit more of a 2010 feel to them than a 1990 feel to them. I can’t give any specific examples because the Men in Black have a file about “that” thick on me and we’re not allowed to reference specific aliens.

We asked Pete to stand next to some ‘appropriate’ books for this photo.

NAG: Is the emphasis on your XCOM game fan service then?

PM: Yes and no. Jake is the biggest fan of the game I’ve ever met. I thought I was a pretty big fan of the game and then one day I had a discussion with him about [how] you don’t build fusion ball launchers for your fighters ever and the necessity of establishing laser cannon economy at the first opportunity and I realised I knew nothing and I realised I was in the presence of a master. So as a huge fan of it, Jake is putting a lot of things that were important to him in the game. I think people are fans of X-Com because of the unique experiences [they have] in that game. You know, you’ve got one soldier that’s useless and on one mission he panics and he shoots and hits the Imperial leader and that’s the moment you remember; that’s what people loved about the game is that all of these [random] things happen [good and bad]. Having a game that can do that, you know that people will go to each other and say this happened in my game last night. That’s what we’ve got lined up for people.

This was bleeding-edge gaming in 1993/4.

NAG: So, for someone who isn’t familiar with X-Com, character involvement would be one of the key hooks?

PM: Yeah, that was for me one of the coolest parts of the original X-Com games, you start with this group of soldiers and at the beginning of the game your casualties are horrific; you don’t have any armour; you have inferior weapons. You’re eating plasma at every possible opportunity and at some point in the game it occurs to you that you’re putting the same group of soldiers on the dropship for more and more missions and their names start to become familiar to you. Anatoly Yaakov [for example] has lived for four or five missions now, I’m actually beginning to get attached to her and at that point because of the experiences you’ve had with them those otherwise faceless soldiers take on personalities. Now with the skill system and the classes the longer you have these soldiers the more effective they become at their job [so] when someone dies it makes a huge difference. Somebody can be a key part of your entire strategy for how you go after missions and you lose them and suddenly you’re down a key piece of your arsenal. You get invested in them and talk about them as your heavy or your sniper. It’s a function of spending time with them and what [also] helps is seeing them in the base. [In the ant farm, for example] when you have somebody who for whatever reason is perpetually playing pool and then they die and they don’t show up playing pool anymore. It’s weird but it works and was one thing that really surprised me when looking at the ant farm (the base). Jake is a huge proponent of ironman mode, where you don’t reload saves, you just play the hand you were dealt with. Everyone on the team plays ironman as a point of honour and there are days where I’m like who cares about honour, I don’t share an office; nobody will know (laughs).

NAG: How does the ant farm work?

PM: As you build modules for your base they’ll appear in the ant farm view. There’s a bunch of stuff, there are some satellite uplinks, a couple of different power plants, and an alien containment unit. There is a base schematic where you can plan where you’re going to build things. There is actually a strategy to how you build in that view as well, so certain kinds of power plants are more effective when they’re built next to each other. The thermal power plant only works if you build it over a steam vent so there’s a whole art and science to how you build your base.

NAG: Can you tell us a little more about the researching of alien technology?

PM: It’s a huge part of the game and you need the stuff you collect from them, so when an alien dies its weapon falls apart into weapon fragments. You need those fragments not only for researching new classes of weapons but frequently for production for your own stuff as well. One of the elements from the original X-Com was salvaging as much as you could from the alien ships and the missions you went on because that was the raw material you turned into your own weapons and materials and things like that and that’s still there [and very important to the whole game].

NAG: Is the development team built from people who worked on the Civilization games or did you get new people in?

PM: Yeah, there are a lot of people who did work on the Civilization games and we also hired some people because we were looking at areas that were new to us and need people [who] had skill sets that fit really well with what we wanted for our team. Jake held weekly play sessions (beer Friday) where he’d bring people into a room and he’d watch them play the original X-Com and talk to them about what they were doing. One of our concept artists actually never played X-Com before and turned into a huge fan of the original game. That really helps because everybody is on the same page.

NAG: Could you tell us about the random nature of each game?

PM: The alien invasion proceeds on its own timetable so they’re going to be invading Earth as they do. The maps you’re going to experience are different as you play through; there are a ton of maps in the game, and they’re all hand-designed to be awesome. [For example] you’ll play through twice and not ever see the same map twice. All the different mission variants also increase the playability of those levels considerably. So the game will have a different feel every time you play, you can vary the continent where you start your base on too and that will give you different advantages or disadvantages. Again, because of the game design you’re never going to be able to explore the entire tech tree in a single game, so you can always go back and say “well last time I researched weapon fragments first maybe this time I’ll research alien materials or xenobiology first and see where that goes” and “do I get things that are more useful or affect my play style better or worse?”

NAG: Games are a much more intricate storytelling medium today than they were when X-Com was released. How much emphasis is there on storytelling?

PM: There’s a little more structure then there might have been back in 1994. It was very easy to be unaware in the original X-Com of whether or not you’re making good progress towards an end state in the game. With this [new game] we want to let players know that there are things they can do in order to progress. That said the alien invasion occurs on its own timetable and new forces are going to show up as and when they do and if you’re not ready for them you’re going to be completely screwed.

NAG: What is the key hook for players who don’t have any reference to X-Com at all and perhaps don’t play many strategy games but are keen on sci-fi?

PM: It’s a really cool game about saving the world and you’re saving the world not just because you’re in a base saying “research this, build that,” but you are going into the field with your troops and you are making a plan and you are imposing your will on the enemy. There are also some elements that will appeal to RPG fans, especially as you have soldiers who have skills that level up, and you must also think about how the different classes work together. The individual elements aren’t particularly complicated but they combine in a real cool way. The combat system starts out as a really simple thing but when you add abilities and equipment slots that give you different new abilities and the inventory system that then ties into that and that’s tied into your manufacturing and that’s tied into your research which is based on the things you bring back from missions, you get this really great meaty mix of things happening in the game in regular cycles.

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