Feature Article

XCOM Anniversary: Looking Back On 6 Years Of Reboots, Expansions, And Positive Work Environments

The road is long and strewn with aliens.

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In 2012, Firaxis Games, the studio behind strategy titles such as Civilization and Alpha Centauri, released XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Since then, the studio has released a sequel, numerous major expansions, and fostered one of the most dedicated fanbases today.

Firaxis also recently released XCOM 2's Tactical Legacy Pack as a sign of gratitude toward PC players. It bridges the gap between the events of 2013 expansion Enemy Within and XCOM 2. It also signals a departure for Firaxis, whose player-driven stories take a back seat here to more directed storytelling.

In the interview below, we sat down with series producer Garth Deangelis to talk about the Legacy Pack and the last six years-- how the studio maintained a healthy work environment, how it listened to its community, and how it built an "underdog franchise" into a pillar of Firaxis' catalog.

Editor's note: the interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mike Mahardy: I'm curious about the idea behind the Tactical Legacy Pack. I know you guys said you really wanted to thank people who played XCOM 2, and it's the 6th year of Enemy Unknown. What were the thoughts behind the Legacy pack and releasing it for free on PC?

Garth Deangelis: I've been on the franchise since Enemy Unknown, and it was an opportunity that is unique, because it is this free love letter to the community and to the fans, and we've been able to build up this underdog game, which is built more in a niche genre.

We said, "Okay, how do we celebrate the franchise from a Legacy standpoint?" We have so many devs that are still with us since Enemy Unknown, which is such a rarity in the game industry, and we have this community that we love that has communicated to us that they really enjoy the product, so we said, "How do we celebrate that, and how do we give something back to the fans?"

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There was a really compelling gap between Enemy Unknown and XCOM 2 that was really the basis for everything. So we sat down with the artist and said, "What can we do that's really cool?" Because in our lore, you lost in the events of Enemy Unknown. That narrative gap is what we wanted to fill. We felt that was a really large void, and it's a couple decades in between the events of when you lose Enemy Unknown and before XCOM 2 starts. That was the basis for everything, that's where the artists were like, "Okay, we can remake all of the armored tiers, and all of the weapons from Enemy Unknown, and hey, if you lost your resources through research because you were never able to finish these projects, but they may have existed somewhere out in the wild, or they were scrapped together prototypes of them, how can we visualize those?"

Then, my favorite part, the same thing with the maps. To be able to go back to these maps that are really a special place for someone like me, and also our Enemy Unknown players; the gas station, Newfoundland, the dam from Enemy Within, and the bar from Enemy Unknown. To be able to say, "What happened to those," about a decade or 15 years after the downfall of XCOM, what would they look like? How would they have changed? What is it like to have Advent starting to take foothold in these areas, and then pair those with XCOM 2 gameplay. We just thought it was an awesome opportunity.

You mentioned that it's pretty rare to have as many of the same Devs as you did six years ago on Enemy Unknown. Could you talk more about that?

I mean, look, we're in a volatile industry, as you know, and Firaxis is a really, really special place to work. 2K has been an incredible publisher and partner for us. To be able to say, "Hey, you guys wanna remake a niche turn-based tactics game, as a triple a strategy game? You know, here's some money, go do it." They trusted in us. We were able to deliver something that we were lucky enough to sort of turn it into a franchise after Enemy Unknown.

It is surreal. It's like hitting the game dev lottery from a community standpoint.

The lifeblood of that is the team here, Firaxis. I looked into this months ago, but we have a large percentage of devs that were on that Enemy Unknown team that are still with Firaxis. Some of them are working on [Civilization], but it's over 75% when you look at when we shipped, that are still with the company over 6 years later. The team loves this franchise, they sort of know it inside and out. They know what the community likes, what the fans like, and how to do their job better than anyone else, and that's a rarity in game development.

For me to be able to support this team and stay with them this long and help build this franchise, it's a really special, rare thing.

Has Firaxis really striven to make a happy work culture? Because like you said, it's a volatile industry, especially lately. If people are staying and being happy, I wonder what it is at Firaxis that keeps everybody staying there.

You tapped on it. The culture here is fantastic. Look, we're not perfect, we've talked about it before. We crunched on Enemy Unknown. We had periods of crunch on XCOM 2. It wasn't anything that was egregious, we never had to mandate it or anything, but the team steps up and puts in an extra effort to make sure we hit the quality bar that we know we need to hit. However, that's balanced really well with giving a lot of autonomy to the developers to come up with harmonious work-life balance, and what that means for them. That's very important to the studio. We want folks to be happy, and we want to make sure that we are continuously aware of balancing pristine quality of the product and making sure we have a sustainable work environment.

We are able to strike that cord here at Firaxis, and the proof is in the pudding with the longevity of the team.

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Thanks for going off on that tangent with me, I appreciate it.

Sure, sure.

You mentioned that you find the XCOM team to be a bit of an underdog. But it does have a very passionate fanbase.

It is. It is kind of surreal, it's kind of like hitting the game dev lottery from a community standpoint.

I think we have about 65,000 members on the [XCOM] subreddit right now. That's not huge by any means but it's solid for video game subreddits. And everyone there is so accepting - they're very courteous to each other. They're very accommodating for new players of XCOM. They're also accommodating based on what we do as developers and they're understanding and we always hear their feedback.

It's so hard to make a video game succeed. But what I mean by an underdog is to, again, take a game from historically an underdog franchise and say we're building something that's sustainable from a community standpoint - from a product standpoint - it’s pretty surreal.

It's funny to see how much the video game landscape has changed just in that six years since Enemy Unknown released. Looking back, that was the year Assassin's Creed Three came out, Resident Evil Six, Borderlands Two. It's just funny because you look at how games are consumed now and so many times people are watching streamers play a game and it's curious to see the Legacy Pack with skirmishes seem like they could be really ideal for streaming, making these crazy scenarios with different units.

Yeah, the gaming landscape has changed tremendously since 2012 and it's kind of serendipitous because Firaxis has always been about gameplay and being gameplay driven and being, more specifically, driven by design systems. That fits really nicely into the gaming landscape now of live streaming, and Twitch, and putting gameplay up on there for people to watch and be surprised by because that's what XCOM's all about.

It's all about unpredictability and having those modes that you can play over and over, you can have your own head cannon, it can be a little bit different, you can narrate when you're on Twitch, what's going on with your own personal squad and maybe in your head-space these are the survivors from your Enemy Unknown campaign and now you're playing Resistance archives and they survived the alien onslaught and they're the last hope to make it to XCOM 2 and you can tell your own story there as you broadcast on stream to your audience. And Firaxis' gameplay systems are very much in service of that. I think it's helped and will help with our future, too.

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I've been saying that for a few years now. So many games are focusing on player-driven gameplay. Assassin's Creed and Far Cry and Metal Gear Solid V a few years ago. Even the newest Zelda, once of the most iconic video game franchises, is focusing on that player driven immersion. It feels like Firaxis was accidentally ahead of the curve in 2012 with [Enemy Unknown].

It's definitely interesting to see. I wish I could say we looked in the crystal ball and took credit for that. I think it just goes back to the Firaxis roots and going back to the culture. I mean this is the house that Sid [Meier] built with Civilization, which is a deeply system-driven game that you can play over and over and over and the designers that come out of this house have the same mindset. The programmers, the systems designers. And that's what drives our product, it's not narrative, it's not, "How do we make the coolest water cooler moments?" That's not to say that we don't want to do some of that I mean we clearly did some of that with XCOM 2 but the systems are what drive the games.

It is a lot of, "Okay. Immersion, gameplay, agency. How do these players get their own unique experience?" Look, I'm an enormous fan of [linear games] still. I hope they don't completely go away. I don't think they will. I think there will always be a place for them but that's just not what Firaxis does and it's been really beneficial to us to have that expertise in systems.

Now with the Legacy Pack, it's funny because it feels very much in the opposite direction - linear missions with traditional storytelling and binary upgrades at the end. Were you worried this was getting too far away from made XCOM 2 so great?

I mean, that's something we've actually wanted to go for. We wanted to have this new gameplay experience that was unlike anything that you already have with War of the Chosen or XCOM 2.

[Creative director Jake Solomon] and I talked a lot very early before the team even started working on this and there was always the idea of shorthand XCOM. We wanted the idea of, "Hey. What if I want the XCOM experience where I'm feeling the full purpose of progression and I'm rapidly encountering new aliens and my guys are leveling up." But there's not the weight of the strategy decisions that you have to go through in a standard campaign. You don't have to manage the avatar project, you don't have to make all these different research decisions and, "Who's wounded, and which one of my soldiers are fatigued?" It's more of the short-form version of XCOM.

We need our designers to hold true to a vision that they want, but understand other feedback that's coming from the community as well.

To us that was exciting because we don't have anything like that. It's interesting, we got some really cool anecdotes from some devs on the team that aren't exactly XCOM players but they're geniuses at what they do, whether that's UI or art, and they said, "Hey, I've never really gotten super late-game in XCOM, the strategy bogs me down, but I'm feeling that full arc with Legacy Ops." So it was really cool for us to hear that because in some ways this is like a cliff notes version for someone that maybe was a little intimidated by the sheer scope, and weight of the strategy layer.

You mentioned that Firaxis has grown a lot in the last six years. Can you point to any fundamentals, or pillars, of the studio’s philosophy that have changed or improved?

That's interesting. I guess I can hone in on a few things you mentioned. Certainly listening to the community, that's always actually been a staple of Firaxis’ games. Hearing the community’s ideas. How they actually get integrated into a product, that's a much more nebulous process.

It's a bit of an art though. We're never designed by forum feedback and I think that's pretty valuable. We need our designers to hold true to a vision that they want, but understand other feedback that's coming from the community as well and then they determine how that can be integrated into the product.

We've been doing that since Enemy Unknown, since I've been with the project. We aggregated everything from Reddit, the 2K forums, the steam forums and then also the top reviews, GameSpot, all the different review sites, we aggregated themes that were coming across and then that's presented to the designers. “Hey, this was said about the project and here's the weight of what was said.” You determine if this component should be rolled in and then we have a discussion about that. But again, it's not a science, it's more of an art I think. But we always nt to make sure that we're hearing our community loud and clear.

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billnye69

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Xcom 3 Please.

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ryanair80

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Would be great to see some of this story-rich content carry over into whatever Solomon & co. are working on next (assuming another XCOM or turn-based strategy game of some kind). Kind of reminds me of Bastion-light at the tactical level, with voice over providing story and updates on how you are doing in the mission.

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Chizaqui

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There hasn't been a lot this generation to celebrate, but XCOM2 was definitely up there.