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How XCOM's Designer Went From "Marvel Dating Sim" To A Gilmore Girls-Inspired Life Sim

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GameSpot had the opportunity to chat with Midsummer Studios co-founder and XCOM designer Jake Solomon about the studio and its upcoming Gilmore Girls inspired life sim.

Jake Solomon is no stranger to creating complex games; his credits on XCOM, Marvel's Midnight Suns, and numerous other strategy games over his 23-year career at Firaxis prove that much. And yet, Solomon's next venture presents the veteran game designer with a challenge he's never before encountered.

"With this game, I don't even get hit points," Solomon laughed.

On May 14, Solomon announced that, alongside Firaxis teammate Will Miller and former The Sims' director Grant Rodiek, he was creating a new, independent studio: Midsummer Studios. With less than a dozen developers and a whopping $6 million already invested into the studio by a number of different production companies (including Trevor Noah's Day Zero Productions), Midsummer offered Solomon a different approach to game development that feels "more stable." However, this doesn't mean things have been simple--and it's not just because the studio's upcoming game doesn't have hit points.

"I was pretty naive about funding when I left," Solomon said. "I left Firaxis on good terms and because this game [we're working on] feels like something that you almost need to build a studio around because it's so different. But then I left, and I think in my head, and honestly with me being an idiot, I thought I'd step out and the world would fight over funding me. And then I was like, "Oh sh*t. There's actually hardly any funding.

"It's a really rough [time for the industry]. Very few things got funded last year and then of course all these horrific layoffs and studio closures. I didn't [leave Firaxis] as a result of it, but I think I definitely felt it."

Fortunately, Solomon and his team had an idea that was ultimately a large part of why the studio got funded, according to the game director: creating an "emergent-story life sim." Billed as a competitor to Maxis' The Sims, the studio's currently untitled debut game is a life sim that focuses slightly less on cosmetic design in favor of deep storytelling. Solomon said he brought up The Sims series' lack of competitors to investors, as it feels like an oversight in the gaming industry that leaves a large demographic of gamers "underserved."

"I think part of the reason we got funded was our ability to say, 'Hey look, in the industry, if there was a game that was 25 years old, and was still this successful--I mean, they just announced in their earnings report yesterday that there are over 85 million players--but if it was this successful and their audience is this loyal, any other game in our industry would have a hundred competitors."

Solomon admits it might be weird to fans of his work to see him take up this cause, as he is primarily known as "the XCOM guy." However, this pivot actually makes a lot of sense. On top of being a longtime fan of life sims and learning under Sid Meier, a pioneer of the simulation genre, Solomon has been dabbling with life-sim elements for some time.

"On the surface, I'm sure it will seem like a weird jump to some people… I totally understand if people are like, 'Oh the XCOM guy?'" Solomon laughed. "Yet even on the last XCOM I designed, there was something called Soldier Bonds, where your soldiers formed relationships. And that was just dipping my pinky toe in it.

"Then with Midnight Suns, I probably lavished way too much attention on my--let's face it--Marvel dating simulator. Which I always wanted to make, so I think that was a manifestation of mine.

"But I've always thought that if you make system-based games, which I do, you can apply systems to almost everything… And this may be trite, but I have thought that conversation is basically turn-based combat."

An emergent-story life sim

Midsummer Studios' debut game is more of a "choose-your-own adventure" life sim than a traditional sandbox title, Solomon told me--though he was also quick to assure me that the game will feature a creative mode that emulates a more-traditional life sim, and allows players to exert more control over their town and its inhabitants. But as for its base game, Solomon said that rather than players creating several multi-character families, they will instead focus on creating a single character and living out their day-to-day life as them while a branching narrative takes them on a journey they help write.

"So Grant [Rodiek] is our executive producer and he was a director on The Sims for a long time. And he told me that most players play with a single Sim," Solomon explained. "So we have a main character that you are starting the story of.

"Then we do two things: We choose what storylines make sense and will be interesting to inject in your character's life, and then we also generate characters to cast around your main character and pre-seed them with relationships that make the story interesting. In that way, we're very different from something like The Sims. So if you were like, 'Hey, I'm trying to tell a story where I find my soulmate,' we would be like, 'Okay, well then here's your ex-lover and also they're your co-worker. Here's your high school boyfriend who is your neighbor, and here is your secret crush who is also your business rival.' ...And of course, you can edit those when we generate them. You can say, 'No, I don't want that or no, they don't look like that,' and edit whatever you want. But we want the player to step into a very story-rich environment even when they start the game."

From there, the game will ask players "leading questions" that allow players to author the story they want to tell, according to Solomon. One example he gave was a scenario in which a neighbor mentions to the player character that they saw their father in town. The player can then respond to this in a variety of ways, including telling the neighbor "I never want to see him again" or "Yeah, we're having a hard time getting over the loss of my mom so I'm trying to spend quality time with him." This then informs the game of what the player wants their relationship to look like, and kicks off a particular chain of events.

Shedding internal values

Yet a challenge with this style of gameplay, Solomon told me, is emboldening players to take control of the story and make choices that are interesting rather than safe. However, enticing players to shed their "internal values" is not always an easy task. In choice-driven RPGs, for example, acting in more outlandish ways can, at best, make some players feel like they are deviating from the intended story. In the worst-case scenario, players can even feel punished by making these choices--such is the case with games like Fable, which alter your appearance based on your character's morality. The team is attempting to remedy this by incentivizing "high-conflict" actions with bigger rewards.

"For a story to be interesting, there has to be some element of surprise to it and it's tough when you're the author and also we need to surprise you. Since we can't inject surprises into your story, we also want the player to surprise themselves," Solomon said. "We're going to tell players, 'Hey, if you did something humorous in this situation, you're going to get a bigger reward right now. If you do something romantic, bigger reward. If you do something confrontational, bigger reward.' And it makes you as a player kind of stop and think like, 'Well, okay, fine. I will actually choose an option that's a little more humorous because the game is telling me in this case, I can be rewarded.'

"And this is a life sim, so you can do whatever you want, but we're kind of trying to entice the player to make small choices that are different than they would normally do [so] that they come back to the player in surprising ways. That way, every time you play, you get the player steered off in a direction that surprises themselves. The player is the first person that needs to be entertained by their story, so getting players to surprise themselves is something that I've really thought about in our design."

A town can be a character

Another key component of Midsummer Studios' game design is the game's town. Solomon explained that he wants players to think of it as its own character, similar to Gilmore Girls' Stars Hollow.

"What I talk about more than anything else is Stars Hollow and Gilmore Girls. Stars Hollow is one of those places with such a strong sense of place--you want to go there," Solomon said.

He added that the team also looked to Virgin River, Stephen King novels, and even British murder mysteries for inspiration--any location that is filled with characters who know one another and form strong relationships, even if they are hidden.

Discovering these hidden relationships and getting to know your neighbors is another feature that adds depth to the upcoming game. Solomon said that, while The Sims has meaningful moments, part of Midsummer Studios' goal was to elevate smaller situations that would have deep consequences in reality.

"With The Sims, you have all these moments: you have children, you get married, all those things. But then you also have [smaller scenarios] where you go to a party and you're like, 'My wife and our old neighbor are chatting so why am I seeing hearts go up? What the f*ck are you two doing?'" Solomon laughed. "We want the game to recognize that it's this elephant [in the room]."

A new wave of life sims

It was at this point I decided to address the elephant in our room. Though there has been a distinct lack of The Sims competitors in the past few decades, an influx of Sims-likes are on the horizon. Life By Solomon laughed and admitted he thought it was wild how so many studios seemingly had the same idea at once, but ultimately said he thinks it's a great thing for the genre.

"I genuinely believe that it's a good thing for there to be so many life sims. I mean, one of the special things about The Sims is it's so massive that it has multiple audiences. There are the people who do house building. There are people who go on Tumblr and post the screenshots of their characters and these stories that are so involved. They actually project a lot of story onto their characters, and those are probably the players that we're targeting. And then there's the Wicked Whims crowd… if you know, you know," Solomon joked. "But there's multiple audiences. And because they don't act like a normal core game audience, they're really underserved. It doesn't make any sense.

"I think more life sims will simply ignite interest in The Sims players who have been essentially resigned to the fact that there is only one way to fulfill this specific fantasy. The Sims players will see there are actually alternatives, and so I think it will help the community be rejuvenated. I can't see it as anything other than a net positive, and it helps us that the other life sims all have their own take on a life. We want to focus on the story you're telling. Injecting drama into a character's life that you have authorship over. We want you to feel like you are living inside of a story."

Release date

Midsummer Studios does not yet have a title or release date for its upcoming life sim. That said, Solomon confirmed the studio is "prototyping right now" with the goal of releasing a demo next year. He added that the studio is "very fortunate" to be in a position where its employees don't feel pressured to think about a release date right now.

"We're funded and venture-capital-backed, which is new for me. And the nice thing about that is that you have the money up front, so we're able to over-communicate with our team and just say, 'This is the exact amount of money we have in the bank. This is our hiring plan, which means that we're all just fine until this date, so let's just focus on what we're working on.' And luckily our team can feel safe, which is not a given in this industry lately."


Jessica Cogswell

Jess Cogswell is an editor at GameSpot and an avid fan of coffee, anime, RPGs, and repurchasing games she already owns on Switch. Prior to GameSpot, Jess has worked for Uppercut, UPROXX, and Paste Magazine.

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