We always like to see big console games make the leap to mobile platforms, especially if the entire experience can stay intact. Jake Solomon, lead designer for X-Com: Enemy Unknown, talked to us about porting the game to iOS without losing the emotional impact and deep strategy that made the game a success on consoles.
STP: For people who don’t know about X-Com, can you give us a bit of background on the series, and how this new version, Enemy Unknown, came about?
JS: I would be happy to! X-Com is a game that was originally made in the olden, olden days of 1993. I was a junior in high school. My senior year in high school, I played it, I was completely obsessed with it. It was an old PC game, a very big strategy game. And then it’s always been my lifelong dream to remake that game. So last year we remade X-Com for the consoles and PC.
Something we always wanted to do was bring it to iOS. It’s a perfect game for touch, because X-Com is a game where you’re controlling soldiers in tactical combat, so you’re steering them around the battlefield, and it’s turn-based, so you can take the time you need to set up your soldiers and take shots. And then there’s also a larger metagame, where as a player you are managing the entire X-Com organization, fighting the alien invasion around the globe, choosing where to fight, where to position your resources, you’re trying to research alien artifacts, trying to build new weapons for your troops.
It’s this big, epic strategy game, but it works really well on touch devices, because most of the time is spent in turn-based tactical combat. So last year we remade it for consoles and PC, and we always wanted to bring it to iOS devices, but it was a question of taking a full-time, triple-A experience and we said, can we actually make this work on tablets and iOS devices?
Using the Unreal Engine, which we developed X-Com in, it has this great scalability. They made Infinity Blade for touch devices, so they have this great scalability. We were able to actually take this huge triple-A game and bring the whole thing, without having to make any gameplay sacrifices, to iOS.
So that’s where we are. We have the complete X-Com experience. The same game you played on consoles is now coming to iOS. It’s actually really exciting, we’re one of the first I think– kind of scary too, I suppose– one of the first core game makers to bring the entire experience over to touch devices. It’s exciting to be in that position and see how people will respond.
STP: X-Com definitely seems like a more substantial game than a lot of what typically sells on mobile devices or on tablets.
JS: There are such great games on the tablets! Like lately I’ve been playing Ridiculous Fishing. And there are some games that are bigger, Walking Dead, which I played on tablet, Minecraft: Pocket Edition, which I played on iPad. But I think for us, we’re the first ones to bring the sort of huge, core, triple-A thing over to tablets, so it’s kind of exciting for us. Oh, I should say it’s also on phones as well!
STP: Can we talk about what makes this a hardcore game? Is it the punishing difficulty, the strategy? I understand with X-Com, if your characters die, they’re just gone forever. It’s not really easy to bring them back to life.
JS: Right, and that’s something that makes it stand apart from other big games. I think that certainly it’s a deep game, it’s very big. A typical [player] will take 20 hours to play through the entire game, so it’s a really big experience.
It’s got a strategy layer, with all the depth there, where the player’s choosing how to research things, where to expand their facilities, they’re customizing their own base that all their soldiers live in. Then there’s the tactical combat, so it’s just a really big game.
One of the elements that make it stand apart is what we call perma-death, the idea is that in X-Com, your soldiers, when they die, we don’t do any of that fake videogame stuff where they fall unconscious. In X-Com, if your soldiers die– these are soldiers that you’ve spent a long time with, and customized– those soldiers will actually be gone for good. And that creates this really emotional connection. It’s the sort of thing that we can only do because the game is turn-based, so the player has to really consider the choices they’re making on the battlefield.
Because of that, yes, there are serious consequences in X-Com. It’s even a game that you can lose, which is still sort of a rarity in games these days. I suppose that makes it a throwback, because you used to be able to lose all kinds of games. But X-Com is still the game that you can play for a while, and if things aren’t going well, you can still lose the game.
It’s unique in a lot of those ways, the difficulty comes through in the sense that there are real consequences for your actions. We have all kinds of difficulty levels, and the player can have the experience that they want, it’s just that we are a game that believes in consequences and the player living with those consequences.
STP: Does that apply to the multiplayer mode as well? Can other players kill your favorite characters?
JS: No, and that’s a good question. In multiplayer, you actually create your squad when you go into a match, or you have a saved squad. But when they die in multiplayer, luckily you can bring them back. God, that would be horrible, wouldn’t it, if other people could actually kill…? That’s sadistic.
STP: Well, there are freemium games like Clash of Clans or Kingdom Conquest where you can conquer other players and actually affect their games. But, maybe that’s taking it a little too far.
JS: Multiplayer in X-Com, the match is sort of only a one-off experience. So luckily they can’t affect the single-player game in multiplayer.
STP: Do you ever get angry emails from people saying, “Hey, can you bring back my character? I sent him into the wrong hallway…”
JS: It’s funny, people send me long, written-up stories– as a developer, it’s incredibly rewarding– people send you these long impassioned emails about their soldiers that they had, and how great they were, and how tragic it was when they died. You can tell, it creates a real emotional experience, and it really affects people.
It’s funny, because we’re talking about a negative emotion, loss, but the flip-side to having that real emotional sense of loss is that when you succeed in X-Com, the player gets an honest sense of success, because they know the game’s not treating them special. So what happens is, when you really succeed at X-Com, it’s a genuine success, because you know there are real consequences if you fail.
So it sort of has two sides to it. Occasionally I do get a lot of fan mail that are sort of these long eulogies for the soldiers that died in their game.
STP: I can see that really appealing to people who previously on iOS had been playing a lot of auto-running games like Temple Run. The thing that frustrates me about those games is that you can never win, you can never see your guy through to the end, he’ll never survive. At a certain point, they’re going to die. It feels kind of futile. Here, it sounds like there’s a real challenge to keeping your squad alive. Can you tell me how this fits within the story? If you keep certain members alive, does it reveal new plotlines?
JS: The idea is, at Firaxis we’re big believers that the best storyteller in games is the player. That probably sounds a bit marketing-ish, but it’s true. That’s one of our core tenets, that the player has to control the story. So they’ll build up their own stories about these soldiers, and we’ve given them all the tools to do that.
If you lose soldiers, they go on the memorial wall and you can visit them there, and you’ll see their name, and hear the sad music, and it’ll tell you when they died and how many kills they had, how many missions they went on. They earn nicknames as they level up…
STP: Oh, wow. They don’t have little virtual families at home, do they?
JS: [Laughing] No, someone suggested that, having people grieving at the wall. I don’t want you to feel too bad about yourself. There are casualties in war, but I don’t want it to be a complete downer for the player.
As you play, there’s a huge benefit obviously to having your soldiers survive longer, as they continue to rank up and you get colonels, which are the highest ranked soldiers, and they become more and more powerful. You’re always sort of rotating in new soldiers, as some beloved soldiers may die in the field, then you have to bring in new rookies and level them up as well.
But by the time you get to the end of the game, you will have this core of soldiers that you’ve been with for a very long time, that you feel very passionate about. In fact, I would urge people to name– you can rename all of these soldiers, and customize the way they look– we encourage people to name them after friends and family members. It creates this incredible emotional attachment when your brother is on the front lines, and you’re controlling them there, so it just adds this whole extra layer to the experience, emotionally. That makes it even more intense.
STP: Yeah, I used to do that with Oregon Trail, and my family members would get dysentery, or break an arm or something. It was always very sad.
JS: They don’t even make games as brutal as Oregon Trail anymore. That’s a tough one.
STP: Can you tell me when the game’s coming out, what you’re expecting it to be priced at?
JS: X-Com’s definitely going to be premium-priced. It’s not going to be the same as the box retail, but it’s definitely going to be premium priced. We’re definitely interested in seeing how people respond to that. For what it is, it’s a huge premium game, and we really want to price it appropriately. The date right now that we’re committing to is “Summer”. Very soon.