The Mak­ing Of…

For Jake Solomon, re­mak­ing the bru­tal strat­egy clas­sic was a war against the en­emy within


The story of re­mak­ing a beloved strat­egy game to cre­ate mod­ern clas­sic XCOM: En­emy Un­known

Power Gamer, an in­die gam­ing store in Glen Burnie, Mary­land, has just wel­comed a new em­ployee. The thir­tysome­thing new hire roam­ing the aisles on this late-Septem­ber day in 2012 doesn’t seem to know much about re­tail, though. Per­haps that ex­plains why his sales tech­nique is so ag­gres­sive.

“Hey, what kind of games are you into?” he asks one shelf browser, barely wait­ing for an an­swer be­fore shov­ing XCOM: En­emy

Un­known un­der their nose. “You like RPGs? Well, then, boom!” XCOM isn’t out yet, and this guy’s pitch isn’t quite ready ei­ther. “Your soldiers are out there dy­ing from de­ci­sions you’ve made,” he tells one un­cer­tain-look­ing woman, al­lud­ing to the game’s per­madeath sys­tem. “You’re cry­ing and you feel ter­ri­ble. Does that sound like a good time?”

The punch­line is that this hi­lar­i­ously pushy sales­man is re­ally the lead de­signer of XCOM:

En­emy Un­known, Jake Solomon, un­der­selling his deep, com­plex game for a jokey vi­ral mar­ket­ing video as part of the re­boot’s launch. “That thing was down to Garth [ DeAn­ge­lis, pro­ducer],” says Solomon when re­minded about his re­tail ad­ven­ture. “We were out drink­ing and he said [adopts a drunken voice], ‘I have this idea…’ When he told me, I was like, ‘Man, get the fuck out. I’m not go­ing to do that!’”

The video was in­spired by an old Ree­bok ad­vert in which then-New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots run­ning back Danny Wood­head tries to sell his own NFL jersey. Un­like Wood­head, though, Solomon isn’t shy. “People were walk­ing in and I was ac­cost­ing them, and none of them had even heard of XCOM. Af­ter 30 min­utes, I was bored of my­self, at which point I started say­ing the dumb­est shit and hop­ing it worked out.”

Solomon try­ing to hawk his game to dis­in­ter­ested shop­pers sounds gru­elling, but next to mak­ing XCOM, sell­ing it was com­par­a­tively easy. The game’s de­vel­op­ment was a pun­ish­ing ex­pe­ri­ence that took its lead de­signer from a bois­ter­ous self-as­sertive type to the depths of self­doubt. “There was one night,” DeAn­ge­lis says, “when I went to his of­fice and there was a look of to­tal de­spair on his face. That was a peek be­hind the cur­tains, as it were.”

All his work­ing life, Jake Solomon had wanted to re­make X-COM: UFO De­fense (AKA

UFO: En­emy Un­known). It was the game he played in col­lege. It was the one that con­vinced him to drop his plans to be­come a doc­tor and switch his ma­jor to com­puter sci­ence. It was the game that he was ob­sessed with. Even when he took a job with Fi­raxis, the home of Sid Meier’s turn-based Civil­i­sa­tion se­ries, Solomon re­mained en­am­oured with Mi­cro­prose’s early-’90s clas­sic. It was his Holy Grail.


“X-COM is one of the great­est games of all time,” Solomon says with the enthusiasm of a true fan. Fea­tur­ing dis­tinc­tive aliens, a pun­ish­ing learn­ing curve and deep sys­tems, the game com­bined re­al­time base man­age­ment and turn­based com­bat as you at­tempted to save the Earth from an ex­trater­res­trial threat. In­fused with the same sense of mys­tery as The X-Files, the se­ries built up a loyal fol­low­ing be­fore re­al­time strat­egy out­ings such as Blizzard’s Star­Craft made turn-based gam­ing seem dated.

Con­vinced the long-dor­mant se­ries needed an up­date, Solomon lob­bied Fi­raxis to let him han­dle a re­boot. When his bosses – in­clud­ing Mi­cro­prose co-founder Meier – agreed, he threw him­self into the project. It would be a tor­tur­ous five-year de­vel­op­ment cy­cle. X-COM was, it turned out, a tough game to re­make.

With the team blinded by nos­tal­gia and rev­er­ence, the first pro­to­type was a dis­as­ter. Like the orig­i­nal, it had time units, there was no cover, and you con­trolled a large squad. Maps had a ran­dom el­e­ment to them. It was ev­ery­thing

X-COM was – apart from fun to play. “It was this check­list of shit that made X-COM spe­cial,” Solomon re­calls. “We ex­pected the magic to spring out of this check­list.” But, it seemed, X-COM was more than a list of parts. “If you recre­ated some­body atom by atom, would they still have their soul? Games are very much like that. We ba­si­cally recre­ated

X-COM atom by atom. It should have been this per­fect mag­i­cal rein­car­na­tion. In­stead, we got this au­tom­a­ton; we got this golem mon­stros­ity that felt very soul­less.”

Solomon’s de­sign wasn’t work­ing; he would have to abort and restart. It was the first of many re­boots, redi­rec­tions and changes as the de­signer grap­pled with not sim­ply re­mak­ing

X-COM, but reimag­in­ing it. Yet with each new change of di­rec­tion, swathes of de­sign, art and cod­ing had to be scrapped.

“We’re an it­er­a­tive stu­dio by na­ture,” ex­plains art di­rec­tor Greg Fo­ertsch. “It’s in our DNA to cor­rect and ad­just.” Even so, the scale of the ad­just­ments was huge, re­sult­ing in many dead ends. Large-scale en­e­mies were planned and then dropped. The cover sys­tem evolved, chang­ing the na­ture of com­bat. A Skyranger with a lift-off roof was built to ac­com­mo­date ten soldiers, then scrapped af­ter squad sizes shrank.

The game’s re­al­time strat­egy el­e­ment – in which play­ers man­age the XCOM base and re­search new tech – was a par­tic­u­lar chal­lenge. “We went in a full fuck­ing cir­cle,” says Solomon. “We started with this 3D globe, and it was real fun, and then we went to turn-based, then we went to a card-based sys­tem, and at the end we came back to this re­al­time globe sys­tem. It was a mo­ment where it was patently ob­vi­ous [we’d looped back on our­selves] and it was a ques­tion of ‘Wait a minute, we al­ready did this and you said it wasn’t the right idea… But now you’re say­ing this is def­i­nitely the right idea?’ That was the shaki­est mo­ment.”

Else­where, such frus­tra­tions might have led to mutiny. But Solomon’s tal­ented and com­mit­ted team had faith in him, even when he didn’t have faith in him­self. “Jake won’t say this,” laughs DeAn­ge­lis, “but he is a great leader. Ac­tu­ally, he prob­a­bly would say that! But I think one of the signs of a great leader is some­one who can

ad­mit their mis­takes and he’s done that a lot, [both] pub­licly and to the team.”

Ev­ery time they changed di­rec­tion, Solomon would face his troops. “I’d fuck­ing eat my hat in front of ev­ery­body and say mea culpa, beat my chest and say sorry. I think that helped, though, be­cause then I was able to say, ‘Look, this is why we did what we did. This is why we’re go­ing to do some­thing new. It’s go­ing to be bet­ter. Sorry.”

The emo­tional cost of such a strat­egy was high, how­ever, par­tic­u­larly for Solomon. “The

XCOM de­vel­op­ment changed my per­son­al­ity quite a bit,” he says. “I wasn’t su­per-suc­cess­ful, but I’d never had any kind of fail­ure in my ca­reer.” In­deed, learn­ing to ac­knowl­edge his mis­takes and em­brace the lessons they taught was the steep­est chal­lenge for the de­signer. “Fail­ure is not a bad word. It’s a nat­u­ral part of the process. That’s the thing you kind of have to get over as a cre­ative per­son, and it’s very hard. I think that was some­thing I learned.”

It had a do­mes­tic cost as well. “I re­mem­ber sit­ting with my wife out­side in front of a fire and – I never ex­pressed this to any­one on the team – I told my wife: ‘We are not go­ing to be able to stay in this house. The game is not go­ing to be a suc­cess and we are go­ing to have to move.’”

Through­out the de­vel­op­ment of XCOM, Meier was Solomon’s men­tor, a fa­ther fig­ure in the of­fice down the hall whose La-Z-Boy re­cliner be­came an er­satz shrink’s couch. But while Meier has been mak­ing games for decades and could lend his ex­pe­ri­ence, XCOM wasn’t his baby.

In truth, prob­a­bly only one per­son could un­der­stand the frus­tra­tion that Solomon and his team were go­ing through: Ju­lian Gollop, di­rec­tor of the orig­i­nal game. Gollop wasn’t in­volved in the re­make – he wouldn’t meet Solomon un­til af­ter it had shipped – but he knew how this de­sign could turn the screws on you as a de­vel­oper.

“UFO: En­emy Un­known was a hard game to make,” Gollop says. “In my case, [it] was very am­bi­tious for such a small team. It was also a unique and un­usual de­sign with lots of in­ter­act­ing el­e­ments – noth­ing like the care­fully struc­tured player ex­pe­ri­ence of so many games to­day.

“There were many sig­nif­i­cant pseudo-ran­dom el­e­ments in the game: the UFO ap­pear­ances, flight paths, mis­sion en­vi­ron­ments, de­ploy­ment of aliens, com­po­si­tion of tac­ti­cal maps, and so on. Plus, you had in­ter­ac­tions be­tween the strate­gic level, such as the fund­ing of coun­tries and build­ing of bases, and what hap­pens in tac­ti­cal mis­sions. It cre­ated a cer­tain un­pre­dictabil­ity and com­plex­ity in the game. I’m sure Jake would have had prob­lems deal­ing with this, and I think he tried to cre­ate a more struc­tured and bal­anced ex­pe­ri­ence with XCOM: En­emy Un­known while still keep­ing as many of those com­plex, pseu­do­ran­dom in­ter­ac­tions as pos­si­ble. No mean feat.”

Solomon is wary of agree­ing with that, mostly out of re­spect for Gollop’s orig­i­nal game. But he does ad­mit X-COM’s deep sys­tems pre­sented dif­fi­cul­ties. “It’s very in­ter­con­nected. If you pull this level over here, you don’t re­alise that it will break some­thing ten hours into game­play. That was the re­ally dif­fi­cult part. I didn’t make the orig­i­nal game, so when I started chang­ing it, I had no idea what would hap­pen.”

One thing that was easy to nail, how­ever, was the tone. “X-COM was like find­ing a shark in your liv­ing room,” says Solomon. “It’s a very weird phrase, but if you know the orig­i­nal game, that’s what it’s like when you find these Sec­toids in the mid­dle of a wheat field. What makes it scary is the jux­ta­po­si­tion of things you feel com­fort­able with and some­thing ter­ri­fy­ing. It’s like find­ing a fuck­ing shark in the mid­dle of your liv­ing room.”

That phrase be­came one of the planks for Fo­ertsch’s art team. “It’s the same feel­ing when you’re in a gas sta­tion at night – or in a field with a flash­light – and ven­tur­ing alone into the dark­ness,” the art di­rec­tor says. “That’s a com­mon fea­ture that re­ally helped the mood and tied it into the orig­i­nal game, too.” And so, about 12 months be­fore XCOM shipped, the team was fi­nally uni­fied and the game was on tar­get.

Re­leased in Oc­to­ber 2012, XCOM: En­emy Un­known was met with a del­uge of praise. X-COM fans ral­lied around Fi­raxis’s reimag­in­ing and Gollop him­self pub­licly praised it, say­ing it re­lieved him of his long-stand­ing itch to make an up­dated ver­sion of the game (“He is in­cred­i­bly, in­cred­i­bly gen­er­ous for a guy who doesn’t have to be gen­er­ous,” says Solomon).

What did the team learn from the ex­pe­ri­ence? “If we did some­thing new, we’d say, ‘This thing is not go­ing to be fun; it’s go­ing to look like shit un­til all of a sud­den it doesn’t,’” says Solomon. “[On XCOM], we re­ally stressed about it not look­ing good, not play­ing well. It’s more im­por­tant that you’re go­ing in the right di­rec­tion, tak­ing pos­i­tive steps. Even­tu­ally, it will hap­pen.”

That it­er­a­tive ap­proach, how­ever, re­quires a costly thing: time. “Some things on this project were just luck,” says Solomon. “We were lucky 2K let us take the time we needed. They gave us al­most five years. They were smart to do that, but I don’t think I would have asked for that. If we’d had six months less, we’d have made a 70 Me­ta­critic game. I don’t say that for ef­fect. If we’d had a year less, we would have stuck with our orig­i­nal pro­to­type and made a 60 Me­ta­critic game. It would have been a peb­ble in a pond and it wouldn’t have made any dif­fer­ence. If we hadn’t had the time 2K gave us, we wouldn’t be sit­ting here hav­ing this con­ver­sa­tion.”

Where would they be? “Well, I’d be at Power Gamer, ap­ply­ing for a job.”

To save the world, you some­times have to blow it up a lit­tle. XCOM’s eerie X-Files-es­que en­vi­ron­ments are de­struc­tible, with shift­ing safe spots forc­ing both sides to stay mo­bile

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