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XCOM: Enemy Unknown: the power of a tutorial, and balancing strategy with cinematics

XCOM: Enemy Unknown: the power of a tutorial, and balancing strategy with cinematics

“These are the most fun shows,” Garth DeAngelis, the lead producer of XCOM: Enemy Unknown told the Penny Arcade Report at PAX Prime. The XCOM team had given a panel at the show, and DeAngelis was now walking the booth, enjoying the sight of fans playing the game. I asked him if he ever took notes while watching people learn the game. “That was all the time when we first had a playable. When we first announced, I was constantly looking over fans’ shoulders, trying to dissect what they understand and what they don’t,” he explained. “I’m a little more comfortable with it now. We’ve done some focus testing, and there’s almost a sense of relief to see people be able to play the first hour of the game and not need any hand-holding.” It took Firaxis a long time, and much work, to get to the point where players could simply pick up the game and learn how to play through the included tutorial. That tutorial only came late in development, in fact, and after playing through it twice at different events I remain impressed with how quickly it introduces you both to the world of the game and the tactics needed to win. This is how it happened.

The tutorial was one of the last things added

The team let the public play only after the tutorial had been added. “We started focus testing seriously after we had the tutorial, because we wanted to lead with that,” DeAngelis said. The world has changed since the original XCOM games, and the first title may seem impenetrable to a modern gamer. “If you were to sit one of these guys down that love video games in front of the original XCOM? An 18 year-old kid. Ask him to learn and play that game. He wouldn’t be able to figure it out very quickly. Maybe after a few hours, and understanding all the movement systems,” DeAngelis told me. That wouldn't fly in the modern market; people would need a tutorial that explained the game's concepts in a simple and fun way before the game's complexity overwhelmed them. “In 2012, you can’t just release this sort of very deep, complex game if you want as many people to play it as possible,” DeAngelis said. They knew that they needed to get people into the game as quickly as possible, so they could learn those systems in a way that didn’t feel tedious. There was already a tutorial in place early in the game's life, but it was too limited in scope. “We underestimated the amount of tutorial that we would need. We partnered with this experienced designer from 2K Games, his name is Jack Scalici, and he came in and helped us. We were very busy building all the robust dynamic systems of XCOM, and all the sudden we’re eight months from ship, and we need to teach all of this to the player!”“[Scalici] came in with some really cool ideas and a small team to help us build this experience that would integrate some narrative, and also teach the player. He talked to the designers and asked what we needed to teach and where and when, and he laid it all out in a document and he helped us put together what you played today.” The goal wasn’t just to get people understanding the game, but to be “masters” at the basic strategy after playing through these lessons. The final tutorial is an interesting beast; you control a group of soldiers who are sent to investigate strange objects that fall from the sky and land on Earth. You learn how to move, how to take cover and, ultimately, how to attack. There is a sense of slowly growing dread, and when the bullets begin to fly there is a real sense of tension. It's an interesting piece of design; you learn the game, are introduced to the game's world, and the stakes are set very quickly. The game moves on from there, but after that first mission you have all the tools needed to tackle the rest of the game. The tutorial wasn't the only thing that took longer than you'd think to implement.

The evolution of the camera

“We do a lot of iteration at Firaxis,” DeAngelis said. “One of the mantras is ‘find the fun,’ and a lot of times finding a fun requires throwing out the things that you did, and rapid prototyping. We change direction often, truly being agile. We did that a lot with XCOM.” I’ve been able to sit down for a few lengthy sessions of play at various shows, and the way the game balances the cinematic camera and the more steady pace of strategy gaming is laudable. Firaxis seems to want to add drama to a genre that may seem dry to modern gamers. The results are interesting to play: A strategy game that also looks good in screenshots. The team showed a non-interactive early visualization of the game at its PAX panel. The video was created four years ago. “We had none of the code, none of the architecture was done, we didn’t even know what engine we were going to build in necessarily yet, but the art team said alright, we’re going to create this movie that shows what we want to do with game play,” DeAngelis told me. While much of the ideas from the video survive, it also showed things like time units from the original game that are eventually stripped out of the new Enemy Unknown. One of the many challenges during development was balancing the reactive camera with the game’s strategic play. “A lot of work went into it,” he said. “We had another internal movie created two years ago, just to try to balance the action camera. Let’s push it as far as we can in this pre-rendered movie.” They had a camera drop down to show soldiers getting hit. The camera zoomed in to show the aliens' movements. It showed the soldier's hand movements as they motioned to each other. Once they saw how far they could take the camera, they began to peel it back to reach a good balance. “Obviously game play comes first. We couldn’t let it get confusing to the player.” You can even turn off the cinematic camera completely if you want a more classical experience, but he said that no one on the team chooses to play without the camera. “We found the sweet spot. We have these moments of cinematics in the game that work with the procedural elements in the game, but they’re not overwhelming.” I asked what was lost during all that iteration. What did they leave behind that hurt? “If there was one thing from the original I know some fans of the game will miss, it’s alien base invasion. Which, because of some of the changes we had to make during the strategy layer, it just didn’t fit. We had a prototype of it and it didn’t fit, it wasn’t fun, but the concept of it was very hard for us to let go. It was very important to a lot of the fans of the original.” Right now the game’s team is getting ready for XCOM’s October 9 release date, but this close to launch there are many well-deserved vacations taking place as well. DeAngelis wasn’t willing to discuss what was coming next, but after four years of working on a game that will be out in a matter of weeks, who can blame him? Sometimes you just need to take a breath and enjoy watching happy men and women playing your latest game.