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"
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.
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!