Exclusive: we chat with XCOM’s Greg Foertsch

With all the excitement surrounding this year’s Gamescom, we almost forgot that just the other day, we were sitting in the offices of Firaxis, chatting to the developers of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. You can read all about the game in our upcoming September issue of NAG, but while you’re waiting, why not sit down and get to know XCOM’s art director Greg Foertsch and marketing associate Pete Murrey?

NAG: What was your main goal when you set out to craft the look of XCOM?

Greg Foertsch: We wanted to make something that was visually compelling – that could stand up against any game out there – and could provide a great experience for the user. We really focused on the user experience, to create something they’d really enjoy.

NAG: You have a responsibility to translate an iconic look – something that’s technically outdated, yet people hold it dear. How do you do so while still honouring that look?

Greg: *Looks to Pete for help* I’m starting to think I should’ve been way more afraid of this. *Laughs* It’s weird, because when we look at this, it’s a game that, because of our history, we have a lot of respect and reverence for what has been done. But also we’re pretty familiar with remaking and modernising games. So, we felt like we’re not afraid to make changes, but we’re also humble enough to understand that some of the decisions they originally made were right, and were good. You can have two things happen: you can have developers that charge in and say “we’re changing everything!” And then you have those that say “we’re not changing anything!” I think that we kind of walk more middle-of-the-road. We evaluate things and say “yeah, maybe that was a good decision, or maybe that wasn’t and what can we do to update it?”

NAG: You’ve mentioned the concept of “organic Art Deco” before; could you elaborate on that?

Greg: We really wanted to contrast the alien stuff with a lot of the human stuff which tends to be a little more geometric and blocky. So when we got to the alien stuff, it was important to simplify some of the forms for readability. We wanted to have this sort of “organic, but not organic in a bubbly, fleshy way” thing. We wanted to have flowing, repetitive lines found in Art Deco, but we wanted to make them more organic in nature and less geometric in the repetition of the lines. That was where we started going very early, and actually in a lot of ways it was kind of keyed off the Muton armour.

Pete Murray: It’s sinister Art Deco, from out of space.

Greg: Yeah. If you look at the Muton, he’s got sort of more flowing lines to his armour, it’s not squared-off. It’s very different to the carapace armour for the humans.

Pete: The cool part, is that as the humans adapt more to alien technology, you see the human styling start to blend with the alien, so that the late-game armour that the soldiers wear very-much borrow from the Muton style.

NAG: On that note, as the humans progress, how do you draw a line to prevent the humans “becoming” aliens themselves?

Greg: It’s funny; I’ve always thought of XCOM as a “try not to lose your humanity to save it” thing, and I think that’s the line we walk with the character evolution through the game.

Pete: There actually is a cool visual key with the armour: it gets lighter the higher tech it gets. So you visually become more powerful as your character becomes brighter on the screen.

Greg: Yeah, that was a very conscious choice.

NAG: But you don’t want to make the game seem too cartoon-like? Did you spend time looking at modern-day combat for inspiration?

Greg: Yeah, we definitely looked a lot at the contemporary stuff. We’re going for a slightly advanced present day, so as we were looking at that, we wanted to make XCOM’s armour look just a little more advanced than current military armour. We spent a lot of time looking at current technology and guesses at the future and trying to ground it – as with the alien lore, you have to start at a point that people can understand – with things that wouldn’t be too much of a reach for people. We didn’t want people to start with things where they’re space marines – these aren’t space marines.

Pete: There’s some clever stuff done with the Kevlar armour, where it’s just very slightly futuristic looking, and a lot of it comes down to the use of colour where it’s a high-end finish that implies this elite level of performance. And when that’s what your soldier’s start with, people are already like “alright, I already have the best equipment in the world, and it’s still not enough. Holy crap!” The game becomes more compelling when you can pull them forward with that.

NAG: The animations that I’ve seen so far are really impressive. Are they all hand-keyed, or do you use motion-capture?

Greg: We use mocap in kind of a brute force way, like where it’s useful we use it and where it isn’t, we don’t. For game animations it’s generally not useful, because with our cameras we have to exaggerate animations to make them more readable, not to mention the speed of it. It’s funny; animators that have never made games before come and they want everything to be slow and realistic. As our lead animator has gone through his career he’s gotten more and more in tune with the speed of it, asking how can he make it faster and faster so that it still reads well and still holds up. He’s all about the speed of the tactical animations, yet he can totally turn that back when we’re doing a cinematic.

The mocap is much more useful for the narrative moments and the secondary characters. But for gameplay it’s pretty much all hand-keyed. We do use mocap as reference, like we’ll go to the mocap lab and mocap some of the game moves. Also you can just throw it into the game and have the prototype moving and then you go on top of that and start fixing it. We did that to speed up development in a couple of cases, just so that designers weren’t waiting on us to get things moving. But we have multiple cameras in the mocap studio, so that when we mocap we also have reference footage, and that stuff is super helpful.

NAG: This is fairly new territory for Firaxis, isn’t it? In Civ the view was quite far back but here, there’s nowhere to hide.

Greg: Civ has so many scales going on, and it’s an amazing challenge to work on Civ, visually, but with this it was such a nice change of pace to have everything as a one-to-one scale, and I think it just shows you how talented the animators on this team are, and the artists in general.

NAG: Looking around the office I see a lot of Warhammer and tabletop models. The Warhammer influence on the multiplayer especially is really evident.

Pete: The guys played a lot of tabletop games early in development because there are things similar, like the scale of units. There was a huge Necronomicon campaign that went on at one point. The figures are still here, and I was shocked and embarrassed that they weren’t painted, and when I get done I’m going to paint up the figures. But, there’s something very visceral and satisfying about bringing your guys to the table, putting them down and running them out against the other guys. As a tabletop player, as a guy who does a lot of tabletop, that multiplayer mode is exactly how I envision my games going. It reaches into that area and just scratches that itch so nicely. That, for me, is one of the reasons that the multiplayer is so compelling. The other one is that it’s completely open. There’s no Codex Aliens, Codex Earth. It’s all just “here you go, make the best scratch team you’ve got.” It’s a lot of fun.

We have a lot of tabletop guys here, and that teaches you a lot of valuable things about the construction of the gaming space. You know, “how can I make a space that’s not going to have a giant killzone in the middle?” That’s not going to be fun to play on. Our lead level designer actually has more miniatures in his office than I do. He actually used to work for Games Workshop as one of their studio painters, so he understands very closely what needs to be done. Those guys were taking lessons from that, and Greg’s art teams have been using miniatures and action figures as reference.

Greg: You know, it’s so easy when you’ve got an art team and you can say “these are going to look like action figures” and there’s not a guy or girl in my team that doesn’t understand what I’m talking about. It’s not a hard sell. It’s just a natural fit.

My last project was Railroads, and the idea with that was that we were doing a sort of train table. I didn’t want beat up trains that sounded rickety. That’s not cool; I buy a train I want it shiny and new like a brand-new frickin’ car, and those had that model train, polished-up, highly toy-like feel. And I think a very natural step for me was the look of XCOM.

NAG: It does almost feel like it’s your six guys against your friend’s six guys and you’re sort of going *bash bash bash* against each other.

Pete: *Laughs* Right, but the computer’s moderating it.

Greg: Yeah, and we don’t argue over who really died.

NAG: Was having this high degree of customisability of the XCOM operatives an important factor from the beginning?

Greg: Yeah, when we first started talking about it, Jake [Solomon, XCOM’s lead designer] was really adamant about it, which was good. When you start to customise them, you start to care about them more. You might not customise your rookie, but when you start to get someone who’s cool and you start changing them, like the way they look and their name and their hair…

Pete: My first female assault sergeant always gets the pink Mohawk, in all of my games.

Greg: The thing about XCOM that’s amazing, and even the original, even though you couldn’t customise them to that degree, “Ivan” mowing down Sectoids or Mutons was a memorable occasion. Now that you can change the way that they look kind of close to whomever – your dad or friend or brother – it changes the connection that the player has with that character. And for a game that has perma-death, it makes it feel even more like the stakes are higher when they die.

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