Q: Let’s talk about the new stuff. What can players expect in XCOM 2?

Greg Foertsch: More fidelity. Everything feels enhanced, and the strategy layer is one of the coolest things because the aliens are really playing against you and the procedural nature within that... that specifically feels much more alive. It’s a much more dynamic feel, and when you actually get to the missions, the fidelity of everything there has been kinda ramped up too. It’s hard to describe the game, but everything feels like it’s been cranked – in a good way – and the player experience will hopefully be good and go in line with that.

If you were attached to your characters before, hopefully you’ll be even more attached to them now because of more character customisation options. You’re going to be able to do more things to them, you’re gonna see more [camera angles], and you’ll definitely see them die in different ways [laughs]. We’ve looked at this as adding more value and adding things that make the player experience better, as well as adding more fidelity and depth.

Q: On the topic of customisation, was that something that fans were vocal about? Or was it an in-house decision

Firaxis talks XCOM 2

Greg Foertsch: We spent a lot of time seeing what the players’ experience was, and we read about a lot of people losing the game, which is how we ended up with this narrative. I think that the attachment people had to their soldiers was huge, so we really wanted to kind of expand on that. When we started XCOM 2, we wanted to add the procedural elements, we wanted to make emergent narrative better, and [we wanted to improve] character customisation. All of that stuff kind of cycles into each other. So yeah, that was a really conscious decision.

We were actually really amazed at how in love people felt with their characters, even with how limited the customisation was in Enemy Unknown. So with this one we really wanted people to have more fun with it: make more people, and make them look the way you want to make them look. So there’s patterns, colors, you can name your gun... and even guns become characters now, right? It’s been a super fun process, and I think it’s added a lot of depth and a lot of immersion for the player.

we read about a lot of people losing the game, which is how we ended up with this narrative
Greg Foertsch, art director

Q: The game is set 20 years after Enemy Unknown, and begins with Earth and humankind under the heel of the aliens. How did you get to that point and decide to take the narrative in that direction?

Greg Foertsch: When we sat down and shipped Enemy Unknown, as we were talking about what we’d do next and what we’d do with XCOM 2 we were like, “Man... everybody died!” That was when perma-death sort of reemerged for gamers, but we realised how many people lost the game including ourselves in the studio! Our lead engineer lost the game the first time he played – he got absolutely wiped – and he was like, “I built this game, how am I losing!?” And so we started realising how many people were sharing this experience of Enemy Unknown and then restarting.

We felt like the one common thread that we had whether you finished the game or not was that you at least lost at one time, and so that was kinda like one of the seeds – we didn’t want to do a conventional linear story. By doing it the way we’ve done it, it kind of frees us up to reimagine the world of XCOM a little bit, and look into the weapons, the armours, and some of that kind of stuff. And so it’s a very different look to what we had in Enemy Unknown. We definitely meant to make it something different and not something people had ever experienced before. It’s gotten a lot of reaction like, “Wow, that’s crazy!”, but when you start thinking about it, it makes more sense… XCOM being a resistance force really makes sense. You’re building the David versus Goliath scenario, and I think a lot of people can relate to that. It’s been really freeing artistically, and I think design-wise as well.

Firaxis talks XCOM 2
XCOM being a resistance force really makes sense. You’re building the David versus Goliath scenario
Greg Foertsch, art director

Q: How difficult does the game’s procedural generation make your job?

Greg Foertsch: It makes fixing bugs a bitch! [laughs] I mean, it’s hard. When we first started, I was worried about having to make compromises visually. We certainly didn’t want to make a game that wasn’t visually compelling, and after Enemy Unknown we really wanted to make something better, but we had to figure out a way to do this. After we made Enemy Unknown, we figured out how the game played, and we had some metrics that when you could get a little distance from them, you’d know what the mechanics were, then sit down and go, “Oh okay, I get this.” As you started to look at all of those things and all of the levels, you’d question what was common, what were the move distances... you could start to figure out how to make this procedural. It was just a natural evolution.

Firaxis talks XCOM 2
Firaxis talks XCOM 2
Firaxis talks XCOM 2

But I was a little bit worried. I was like, “How are we going to handle this and how is this going to work?” But in the end, I think the fidelity of the game is fantastic, and it holds up really well. I don’t even think you can actually see the procedural nature of the game. We’ve added knobs as they dictate and need to be there, and so we didn’t just rush in and add all of these procedural elements, we slowly added, from a macro to micro system. And it’s really flexible – you can make the world as procedural as you want, or you can make it as fixed as you want, or anywhere in between. So you can make it 70 percent procedural and 30 percent static, and so on. I think modders are going to have a great time – they can make static levels or they can make procedural ones like we have. It’s definitely added some complexities, but I think you’re just embracing it from the get-go.

Q: You mentioned that one of your engineers lost Enemy Unknown. What kind of stories have come out of the studio so far regarding XCOM 2?

Greg Foertsch: The team is funny as we’ve all been working together for a long time which is kind of unusual in the industry, and so this is the same team that in a lot ways made Railroads, which was way before XCOM. So we’ve had three or four games together, and because of this, it’s a very low drama team and we have a lot of fun with each other.

The multiplayer tournament in the office has been really fun lately, too. It’s been the artists and the level designers basically playing. They’re trying to find exploits they can use and they will absolutely exploit until it gets nerfed! They have no shame. And so that’s been a really fun thing. But yeah, it’s been a long road and it’s hard to think of all of it.

Q: From a purely narrative standpoint, will XCOM 2 be easy for new players to jump into?

Greg Foertsch: Yeah I think we’ve tried to structure the set up phase of the game so that if you don’t know XCOM you can learn how to play the game and understand where the narrative’s going. If you do understand XCOM, even if you’re the experienced player, there’re enough narrative hooks in there that still makes it a compelling experience. So I think we’ve tried to ease people in like we did with Enemy Unknown and try to make it as unnoticeable as possible that you’re kind of working through the game.

I don’t see the barrier being very deep and I think it’s a story of resistance that everybody can relate to and understand.

Firaxis talks XCOM 2

Q: How long can we expect XCOM 2 to be?

Greg Foertsch: Oh it completely varies depending on who’s playing it. It’s definitely an investment of time! [laughs] The number of missions can range, but if you’re looking to do a three-hour game this is absolutely not your thing. But if you want to have a really cool experience and then be able to go back and play again, and again, and again, you won’t see the same maps. Like, you could play multiple times and you won’t have the same experience, so if that’s the kind of game people want, that’s the kind of game we’ve built.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add? How about a tagline?

I think modders are going to have a great time
Greg Foertsch, art director

Greg Foertsch: Oh wow, “XCOM lives”, maybe? Oh – “Death or Glory”, yeah. I’m hoping that when people get into it they’ll have those moments that resonate with them that I think a lot of people had on Enemy Unknown, and for them to have even more of them and even richer ones. I think we’ve enabled people to have a really fun time and actually have the ability to walk away from the game and have a lot of memories of cool things... to actually have stories about their soldiers.

And I think that’s one of the things that made XCOM: Enemy Unknown special, but I hope at the end of the day when this gets in people’s hands, they have even more of that: there’s more stories, there’s more images shared, and there’s more that make their own character pool and have all of their friends and people they hate in there. And you know, the people they hate go out as rookies to get blown up! [laughs] Everyone has their own little way to approach it. Hearing people’s stories is amazing, and now with modding it’s going to be that much more. At the end of the day, I think that’s all you can ask for – for people to have those sort of encounters and that connection to the game.