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.
ALL HIS WORKING LIFE, JAKE SOLOMON HAD WANTED TO REMAKE X-COM: UFO DEFENSE. 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