Monday 19 November 2012

Game Design Interview: Original XCOM

Speaking of XCOM, here is an interview where the designers of the new XCOM Enemy Unknown discuss the things that made the original XCOM UFO Defense great.  I found this video really entertaining and it has a number of good game design points.



Some interesting quotes from the interview:
  • "the Original game was, like, unforgiving...those kinds of games have a renaissance right now"
  • "succeeding in XCOM was like really succeeding"
One of the designers describes his introduction to the game.  He's all excited after hiring and equipping a squad of soldiers.  He even goes and renames them after his family members.  And then on the first mission four of them get killed in his first turn, walking out of the transport!

This reminded me of criticisms I've heard of later DnD products where enemies are carefully measured to be beatable by the party, as opposed to earlier products where character death lurked around every corner.

Meat Shields

They also describe the common XCOM tactic of bringing a few rookies along to act as 'scouts'.  They scout around, get shot by the aliens, and then your more valuable troops can pick-off the aliens now that you've located them.  In this way you can slowly build-up a team of hardened veterans, despite them generally being killable in one-shot.  (Of course, there are always those missions where you run out of rookies, or where you get flanked and your best guy gets killed!)

This struck me as similar to classic DnD where you hire Shield-Bearers as your front-line troops so that your valuable PCs are less-likely to die.


They also describe going on a night mission as a new XCOM player.  It's dark, you can't see much.  Plasma shots come out of the darkness.  And when you finally see the alien, it's strange looking and you can barely see it in the darkness.  And they expressed surprise that you could have such tension and horror in a strategy game.

I've written about this before, but for RPGs I think that Horror really comes down to DM-style.  How does the DM describe the encounter?  Does he present it with a sterile description: "you see 6 kobolds." Or does he build up the horror: first the party hears noises and a spear flying out of the darkness.  Then you can make out just the glowing eyes in the dark.  When you approach with a torch, you see a hunched creature, all teeth and claws, holding a bunch of primitive but razor-sharp javelins.  Creating an air of mystery/intrigue is much the same, giving clues the characters don't yet fully understand, etc.

Updating a Classic

They discuss a bit how they wanted to simplify the UI without sacrificing too much control.  And my opinion is that they succeeded in remaking a classic.  Their strategy in doing so was to assemble a design team of people with a lot of passion for and a good understanding of the original.  Then they could go and discuss what changes to make.

And it only took XCOM 8 sequels to get it right, so I can understand a little better what happened with DnD 4th Edition!


  1. I've been playing a little of the new X-Com. It is fairly easy at standard difficulty (not that I've completed it), but maybe I'm just a better strategist than I ever was when playing the orginals. Those games where full of TPKs for me, with whole squads splattered by aliens before my base would be invaded.

    My impression is that the new game has smaller maps, allowing you to play to the edges of the map for protection. The old games always seemed to put by transport down in the middle of the map, leaving me worried that I could even disembark safely!

    1. Ah, so you're saying that the original was still less forgiving. Could be--I haven't played it except the demo.

      On the other hand, the player vs. player looks incredible. Forget Star Trek's 3D chess. And I liked some of the UI changes--simplify without sacrificing too much control.

      Overall, how do you rate the new one compared to the original?

    2. I've probably lost the patience to spend hours hunched over a PC or laptop. I like the original games greater depth, at least in theory, but it demanded time and commitment - at least in my experience it was pretty easy to put yourself in hopeless situations at both the strategic and tactical levels. Unforgiving, and rewarding. If I was younger, and had no kids etc., I'd probably put in the time and enjoy myself immensely. As it is, it is great to be able to fire up the Xbox and play for half an hour or so. That said, I'm going to up the difficultly level and switch on Ironman mode next time.