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Putting the XCOM in XCOM

2K Marin creative director Jonathan Pelling explains how the Canberra-based core team on the XCOM reboot hopes to keep the core feeling of the original '90s strategy game while updating the franchise with new core gameplay and for a new audience.

In April, 2K announced that it intends to reboot its classic PC franchise, XCOM, as a first person shooter -- a departure from the series' strategic roots -- and with an evocative setting steeped in 1950s Americana.

The game being led by 2K Marin's Australia studio in Canberra -- the former Irrational Australia -- which most recently collaborated with 2K Marin in Novato, California on BioShock 2 and with Irrational Games on the original BioShock.

As creative director Jonathan Pelling explains, this reboot isn't a jettisoning of the strategy elements of the classic PC game -- a game that still has a passionate fan base all these years later. nstead, he explains, it's an attempt to evoke the same feelings and express the same level of depth, while changing the game fundamentally. To find out how the team hopes to undertake this ambitious design challenge, read on.

I've heard that 2K in Australia is the driving force behind XCOM, and then you're assisted by 2K's Marin location.

Jonathan Pelling: Yeah, that's right. The creative direction is coming out of Australia, so we have the art director there, we have myself there, we have the technical director there -- basically all the directors are in Australia.

But, we work extremely closely with Novato studio, and they have their own group of leads, and so on. You know, obviously all the talent from BioShock 2 is there, so it's very integral between the two studios.

How long have you guys been working with the XCOM license?

JP: We've had this project on the back burner for about five years now. So it's been a long time in the pre-production phase. And it's been in the background of -- while we've been working on BioShock 1 and 2 -- so now finally that BioShock 2's out the door, it's full steam ahead on XCOM.

How long have you been in actual production then?

JP: We've been in actual production for around a year now.

I would think with so much pre-production time, you must have gone through a lot of iteration and revision on the underlying design and the concept for the game, maybe even the setting. How do you end up with what you have now, the '50s shooter with strategic elements?

JP: I think the one thing that has stayed fairly strong through the entire process has been the drive to make this game a genuine XCOM game. Obviously there's a lot of love for the original games, and we wouldn't be doing this if we didn't feel we could do that justice.

Over the years, there have been a number of iterations, a number of ideas, but they've mostly been around the creative side of things. So it was just a process of elimination, and various other factors, which led to us ending up to where we are now.

But we feel this is the strongest and most compelling concept that we've got -- in terms of the 1950s, a very strong visual aesthetic. But ultimately, it's always been an XCOM game, and I think that's the right way to approach this.

Is it difficult at times to go online and see all the reactions like, "This isn't XCOM!"? How much do you take it into consideration? Does it weigh on you at all?

JP: Well, I mean... you know, it's never enjoyable to go and read negative comments on the internet. I think, given that we announced with fairly sparse information about what the game is all about, the reaction is understandable, I suppose.

It doesn't weigh on me that much, because I know what this game is, and it's just a matter of communicating that to people now. And I think once the fans start to realize that this is a game that adheres to the core XCOM tenets -- it may not be aesthetically the same, and of course it's not a turn based tactical game anymore, it's a first person shooter -- but it still maintains that essential vibe, that fear and tension of going up against an unknowable enemy and being in charge, and running an organization, and making all the big choices.


When you speak of "core tenets", is that what you're referring to, those principles?

JP: Yeah. You know -- it's what makes XCOM XCOM. It's more of an emotional state. When you're playing the game, this is how I'm feeling, and that's the most important thing that we're trying to capture with this game. It's not so much the nitty-gritty mechanics, but translating that into something that still feels the same to play, that still achieves the same feelings in players that [the games] used to, but now in a much more modern way.

Were you a fan of XCOM games prior to the development of this game?

JP: Yeah, I played the original when I was a teenager, when it first came out. I spent a long time in that game, and I loved it to death. And I played every sequel in the series as well. So it's really exciting for me to be able to actually participate in that legacy now.

With the split between the shooter elements and the strategic elements, what's the interplay like between those? How much is up to the player in terms of guiding the flow of the game?

JP: Allowing the player to choose is one of our main pillars of this game. Obviously XCOM has always had that strategic element, and this iteration of the game is no different. You have your base, and it's where you're going to make strategic decisions. You have resources which you need to manage, and opportunities will come and go on the map over time.

And you'll be able to make a decision about "What is the best thing that I could be doing right now to conduct my investigation, to keep my organization running, to keep the funding going, to maintain the flow of research and alien materials that I need, to ultimately defeat this threat?" So we're never going to force you to take a certain course of action or force you to play this mission now. It's very much in your hands as to how you're going to approach the situation.

Total War is another series that's framed in a large-scale strategic element. The implications and actual results of your strategic decisions are played out as real-time strategy. In that game it's RTS and in your game it's FPS. Does that analogy apply here?

JP: Yeah, I think that's more or less right. Obviously, as an FPS, we're doing a lot to just keep you in the shoes of the person on the ground. So we have that strategic framework, but you're going to experience it through the eyes of the protagonist as well. So you go into your base and you walk around and you make the decisions as that character -- we don't pull you back to a top down view or an abstract view.

But yes, the game has this flow, it takes place in these two phases -- you go to the base, you make your strategic choices, then you go out into the field and you enact those choices. So you might decide that you want to harvest some elerium, which powers your research and powers your alien technology.

You make that decision at the map in the base, but then you actually have to go and follow through -- you have to go out into the field, and there might be other opportunities and distractions and other things that come up while you're out there, but ultimately, it's up to you.

Like when you're out there -- "Do I push forward and try and get that elerium, that strategic decision that I made?" -- or is something else becoming more important? And then if you don't get that elerium, or you do something else, there might be consequences. Maybe elerium was critical to keep your research going; now you won't be able to afford that upgrade that you wanted, but you've made ground in some other area.


I assume there's still a defined narrative that occurs over the arc of the game. If it's up to you to make strategic decisions, presumably there's still an underlying story that's going to happen no matter what.

JP: Yeah, that's right. There is a narrative backbone to the game, and there are characters whose lives play out in the context of this invasion. And you're going to get to know those people, and events will happen as you play through significant story-based events.

But quite a lot of the story is actually told through your actions, so research of this enemy is one of the main narrative drivers in the game, and it's one of the core player activities.

Every time you go out in the field, you're going to be facing these unknown enemies, and you're going to have to learn about them in order to fight them, and that's how you unlock a lot of the discoveries and technologies. But it's also how you unlock a lot of the story in the game.

There's a narrative journey there in finding out what these things are, what they're capable of, why they're here, and how you can stop them. So that aspect of the story is very player-driven, and it subjects to how much the player wants to read into it or how deep they want to go.

Is the story going to tick along as you complete missions, or will it be driven by gameplay milestones?

JP: Because it's a very systemic game, it's completely unscripted in terms of what the player can do, and what he's going to achieve next. So we watch how far the player's come and watch what he's managed to achieve, and we use that to decide when to unlock the next piece of the story.

From a design standpoint, does it feel intimidating making a game like this? With the demands of triple-A action game development, it's enough to ask a studio just to make a high-quality shooter where you play through a bunch of levels and you're done. You're basically making two games that have to slot together. Is that a challenge organizationally or design-wise?

JP: Yes, it is a very big challenge, and there are not a lot of people out there making systemic FPSes, either. It is a learning process, but I think ultimately, it's going to do well on the screen -- it's something that's very fresh, and it's very XCOM as well.

Do you have individual design leads for the shooter component and the strategy component?

JP: Yeah, we do. We're working closely with the Novato studio, so we divide the work up as best as possible to try and solve some of the challenges with cross-oceanic development. You know, there are time differences and everything like that.

We have a team over there who's dedicated to leading the design side of the field operations -- the FPS combat and stuff. And we have a team in Canberra who's dedicated to the story side of things and the campaign side of things. But it's extremely close-knit. We have to make sure these things work together extremely tightly. We are making one game, so we really have to make sure that wherever the work is being done, it doesn't start to diverge.

But at the end of the day, the game did spend a long time in pre-production, so there's a very strong concept behind it and so it's really just a matter, at this point, of executing.

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