Creative Anger 1: X-COM: Phoenix. An Introduction.

(if we can’t get the X-COM name rights from Take 2 we can always call it Raspberry or Doom Wombat)

This project is a remake and expansion of the classic PC title “X-COM” and its sequels. It will attempt to introduce new, key elements of gameplay which were not present in the original, while at the same time expand and cross over into a new genre, which is always risky. In addition, many elements of the original work must be kept in place and remade only as necessary.

In order to do this, the first and foremost item is to identify the original work, its elements, determine which core elements, systems and flavor we are going to keep, which ones we are going to discard, what kind of new elements we are going to introduce and determine the best possible ways to integrate them seamlessly with the main vein of the work, making sure they are conceptually sound.

The original X-COM:

X-COM and its sequels are considered by many to be the seminal game in the Tactical Squad Action genre, a type of game which has spawned a few titles over the years in the same vein (e.g., Jagged Alliance, Commandos, Silent Storm, Laser Squad Nemesis, UFO: Aftermath, etc.)

The main gameplay in X-COM revolved around the player primarily taking control of a small squad of soldiers fighting an alien invasion of planet Earth. The game was clearly divided into two distinct gameplay sections; the Geoscape, a representation of planet Earth as a moveable globe, which allowed players to detect and intercept incoming alien spacecraft as well as access other game functions and a tactical action view in isometric perspective, where the action proper took place and the player had control of his squad during missions.

The main vein of X-COM’s gameplay was the automatic detection of alien spacecraft, their interception in a pseudo-automated way by the player and, if the interception was successful and the spacecraft downed, the deployment of the player’s selected squad to the crash site in order to finish off aliens, capture them or recover alien technology. This main avenue of gameplay was randomly varied by the game in a few ways: many times aliens would assault a city in the world and the squad had to be sent to repel the attack. Also during the late game, aliens could find out the location of player bases and launch attacks against them that had to be fought off. The bulk of player time spent was during the tactical combat with his squad, by a very large margin.

X-COM also had other thinner, but no less important layers of gameplay: Squad members could be trained and their equipment improved. Players could design the layout and defenses of their own bases. Player performance in responding to interceptions and alien assaults directly impacted the funding they received monthly (game time) from different nations. Players could hire researchers and engineers to analyze alien items and, once understood, manufacture them. Players could customize their interceptor and shuttle crafts.

X-COM: Phoenix – Challenges and advantages.

The main challenge of this design is to recreate and expand on all those layers of gameplay  in order to create a new and fun experience that harkens back to the original in the right places. This is not an easy task because of a number of factors, mainly:

–          X-COM was a single player game. Translations from that framework to a multiplayer one can be difficult. And a translation to a MMO framework, harder still.
–          Conceptually speaking, large parts of X-COM consisted of content being sent the player’s way. An MMO framework traditionally works in opposition to this.
–          X-COM only had to retain internal consistency for one player, whom dictated the progress of the whole game. A MMO framework has to retain simultaneous consistency for many, at different stages of progress.
–          X-COM completely lacked in-game social aspects.
–          X-COM only had persistent worlds by virtue of saved games.
–          X-COM had no concept of PvE and PvP as we commonly understand them. It was a self-contained style of play.
–          Players had the option to speed up time while on the Geoscape, and the squad action was turn-based.

Some other elements can be translated easily and in a relatively more straightforward fashion:

–          The “one squad against many increasingly difficult encounters” flavor can be easily translated to “many squads against many types of encounters” if stratified properly according to type of squad and difficulty of challenge. There is a lot of room to create, fill in and improve ‘between the cracks’ of the original flavor.
–          Research and manufacturing lends itself well to typical MMO progress tracks, whether individually or collectively.
–          Squads can be easily translated to, or made into subsets of guilds or other player associations.
–          Performance and funding can be relatively easy to measure and apply.
–          Training and squad/character progression in terms of stats, skills and equipment can also be easy to translate.

There are also a number of technical, non-gameplay challenges to overcome, namely:

–          The move from a pseudo-3D Geoscape+ isometric perspective action portions to a complete 3D environment at all times.
–          “Locking” the visual style in a way that connects to the original, while at the same time offers a modern experience.
–          Moving into and maintaining a persistent world with dynamic environments.

The first and largest fork on the road is easily identifiable, and the most critical: We can approach this in two ways. One, to only borrow the setting and the lore, building a completely different type of game in which we can accommodate new concepts more easily (in the way World of Warcraft, a MMO, has zero to do with Warcraft 3, an RTS). Two, to buckle down and try to retain as many of the good elements of the original work, as they are, as possible; the adaptation work will be much harder, but in general lines the final product will be a more original offering.

What to do?

9 thoughts on “Creative Anger 1: X-COM: Phoenix. An Introduction.”

  1. The original X-Com games were amazing, I often spent many many hours playing them because the complexity and vastness of the game was very fun. I say that unless you plan to make an MMO, try to retain most if not all of the features in the others. Particularly the last one: Apocalypse. Definitely keep the constant alien attacks (Both squad-based and vehicle-based), that was the best part of the whole game.

  2. 1. X-COM is one of my top 5 games of all time.
    2. The meat of X-COM is a turn-based game. To do it real-time would be an injustice.
    3. In a bizarre coincidence, the lead designer of X-COM is also named Julian.

  3. Both approaches have their pros and cons.

    Yes, simply borrowing setting and lore, then turning around and building something entirely new that has nothing to do with the original genre looks to be the most comfortable option. You wouldn’t be restrained by having to comply to what it was. More room to mess around. But at the same time it does feel a little bit lazy. A bit nasty too, since chances are you’d be tossing aside many things that made the original so good, and many players would be expecting one way or another. It’d feel like dating a girl you know you don’t like, just to say you’re dating. A bit of a waste of time to you, and unfair to her if she likes you.

    On the other hand, trying to keep too much of the original in terms of mechanics will run you into translation problems very early on. Some things just do not pass over at all to different genres, and some other things just end up lost and aimless despite your best efforts. You run the risk of ruining a perfectly good thing and ending up with a collection of systems that, true, may pay good homage to their heritage, but do not work well together and do not add to any meaningful whole.

    So it’s important from the get go to define what you definitely want to keep, and what you definitely want to toss aside, and don’t look back. You know you want to keep the core of the thing intact (in spirit, even) because that’s where the creamy nougat center is. You also know that with the core and just the core, you don’t do much at all. That core needs to be accompanied by all those other layers of gameplay to finish rounding the whole thing up.

    I’m thinking that’s where you’re gonna have more room to maneuver and change things – on the layers, and not the core. But whatever you do with those layers, it must end up being good and not just cosmetic shenanigans, because you run the risk of people playing for all of ten minutes and rightfully declaring this is just X-COM with prettier clothes, and while nice, they’re not marrying her.

    I’m spending a lot of time thinking of how the original was so heavily divided between Geoscape and proper squad action, and the more I think about it the more I realize that division has got to go. Once it’s gone, I think the road will be much clearer.

  4. I found it amusing that it only became apparent that you wanted to consider an XCOM MMO in the latter half of the article.

    What makes you think this would translate well into an MMO at all? Why not set your sights a little lower and create a faster-paced, non-MMO upgrade to the original games?

  5. “What makes you think this would translate well into an MMO at all?”

    Don’t know. What makes you think it wouldn’t translate well? (not being an ass, honest question).

    I guess it’s because I have a very clear picture of the original in my head – God knows how many months of /played I dumped in X-COM back in the day – and I can see all the layers and elements. I don’t see them as “closed” or “finished” because those same layers have a lot of room for expansion and transformation. They were “closed” and “finished” as far as X-COM went, that’s true. X-COM never tried to be any other kind of game. But what I see in those layers, elements and mechanics is a great starting point to transform and expand the whole thing. I don’t see them as finished or unable to be expanded at all.

    “Why not set your sights a little lower and create a faster-paced, non-MMO upgrade to the original games?”

    Well first of all, because this is just a fun mental exercise. It’s not that anyone is gonna go build this thing, so I really don’t see any reason to be so limited from the get go. Second, because non-MMO upgrades, remakes and homages have been done already. I’m already borrowing the X-COM baggage as starting point, I think the rest of it should be more original than just a remake with prettier graphics.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’d adore a 1:1 remake with prettier graphics. I’d play it until 0’s and 1’s start falling off the thing when you shake it. But where are the mental gymnastics in designing a 1:1? If you’re not limited, go for the gusto that’s what I say. :)

  6. Atlantica Online did a decent job of adapting small party turn-based combat to an MMO. It’s more in the Final Fantasy genre than X-COM, though. But their mercenary system could be a place to start when looking at how to manage squad advancement.

    Strategic turn-based combat would require more finesse since the AO version doesn’t involve map movement.

  7. I would argue to avoid making the same mistake as the later games in the X-Com franchise – Interceptor and Enforcer. To whit, what people loved about X-Com was the gameplay first, and the reinterpretation of 50 years of UFO lore second.

    I’d start with the assumption that every player controls a single X-Com base. See how much of the basic gameplay you can keep the same. The only real problem, as I see it, is that you can’t allow the player to lose. The aliens can’t win.

    A few ideas for spitballing:

    1) Keep the gameplay turn based, with a clock for how long the player has to give orders — and make this a component of gameplay. Squaddies with leadership skills can grant you more time on the clock, either as a passive ability (you get 3:00 every round instead of 2:30) or one you can toggle (using the command skill grants you +30s). Aliens can use psionic abilities that reduce the time you have to give orders.

    2) Emulate the come-to-you gameplay. At any time you log in, there will be alien abduction missions in the area around your base. You can respond to them, and invite other players to participate in joint missions.

    3) Consider a miniatures-style point value for missions. Easy missions have a cap, more difficult ones have a higher cap. Each soldier and piece of equipment costs points to bring into a mission. More experienced troops and more advanced equipment cost more. This passively allows old hands and newbies to play together.

    4) Funds are awarded on a per-mission basis rather than monthly. You probably can’t permanently cut off funding from nations, but you can reduce or eliminate the reward for botched missions.

    5) Make the city terror missions the PvP battlefields. Imagine there’s a “superfund” of money, above and beyond what the player earns for missions. That gets parceled out each day to those at the top of the terror mission leader board. It’s bonus money above what you’d earn from PvE missions. The terror raids are public instances. The point is to kill as many aliens and recover as much alien technology as possible. You can do that by being faster /more efficient than other players, or you can gank their squaddies to keep them from reaching the rewards.

    6) Alien base raids are the equivalent of conventional MMG raids, and tickets to them are unlocked by success in abduction missions (say you have to collect enough data from grounded UFOs to figure out where they are). The reward for these is rescuing abducted NPC humans. Rescue a scientist, you get a skilled research NPC. Rescue a soldier, you get a squaddie. Rescue a politician, they get you bonus rewards for every mission.

    This was a pretty fun exercise.

  8. Admittedly, I’ve played very little of Interceptor, Enforcer and Apocalypse. Did play TFTD, though. So I don’t think anything from those is intentionally gonna bleed into this one.

    On to your points:

    “1) Keep the gameplay turn based, with a clock for how long the player has to give orders — and make this a component of gameplay.”

    That’s what I’m tentatively leaning to at this point. There’s really not much room to make things real-time without messing up the game’s core at the same time. It’d be a completely different game, and not in a good way.

    Right now I’m thinking a short, but ample as long as you’re paying attention, global round clock for issuing orders to your avatar. Simultaneous order turns with a resolution phase for humans and alies is -very- tempting, but there are problems to be solved there (more on the PvP than the PvE side).

    “2) Emulate the come-to-you gameplay. At any time you log in, there will be alien abduction missions in the area around your base. You can respond to them, and invite other players to participate in joint missions.”

    That’s one thing along the vein of what I was thinking. Ideally there would be a mix of ‘come to you’ and ‘go to it’ missions. I haven’t really thought yet about joint missions (and by extension, grouping in general) because I didn’t want to focus on that without having the shape and flow of the game world set in stone first. I think one determines the other.

    “3) Consider a miniatures-style point value for missions.”

    That is a good idea to have as variant. I’m not sure I’m gonna go in that direction, though. I guess it all depends on how hard that hard cap is; there will be points in which players would conceivably be locked out of content due to no fault of their own (as long as I’m understanding the cap concept correctly). Grouping mechanics is enough of a roadblock on flow as it is, I’d hate to throw another one -having to worry about caps- right after the first one.

    “4) Funds are awarded on a per-mission basis rather than monthly.”

    This -is- something I’ve been thinking about. If we go with a ‘squads = guilds’ concept, I was thinking squads would receive a weekly (real time) stipend from the game’s U.N., which they can increase at their leisure by responding to threats and/or selling items to the market.

    Of course that stipend is variable depending on performance. Allow catastrophic failures in one part of the world, and the funding from that zone will decrease. This is also tied with the mechanics of the game world I’ve been thinking about. It will be possible to flat out -lose- zones to the aliens if left unchecked and threats in that area unresponded for a long time. So that stipend has the potential of either drying up to zero or being reduced to a minimum amount. What I would like to achieve is for any squad, at any point of the game, having to worry about focusing on defending a few zones to maximize their stipend from those, or try to spread and cover as much as possible, balancing the occasional zone loss with a higher overall amount of missions and bonuses completed. Only very large squads would be able to do both, and it should come naturally due to squad size and player availability inside those squads.

    During missions, I was also toying with the idea of definite and easily identifiable objectives and mission parameters that would reward or punish squads. Civilians safe at the end and in-mission objective completion would be bonuses, for example. Civilians dead and property damage would be money deducted. Still thinking about the mechanics of this. Aliens would have completely different objectives and performance bonuses altogether, of course.

    “5) Make the city terror missions the PvP battlefields.”

    Definitely an option. Depends on how we structure factions and PvP.

    “That gets parceled out each day to those at the top of the terror mission leader board.”

    But how do we determine who’s on top first? Kills? Objectives completed? An abstract metric that combines everything? I’d be hesitant to put in any of this until we have the PvP structure well determined and we establish just what the heck do we want out of PvP.

    “6) Alien base raids are the equivalent of conventional MMG raids, and tickets to them are unlocked by success in abduction missions (say you have to collect enough data from grounded UFOs to figure out where they are).”

    I was leaning to something like this, but haven’t thought it up properly yet. I’m not super keen on the idea of of having to earn “tickets” (or jump through any other artificial kind of loop) to access important content. And base raiding, one way or the other, is indeed important content.

    Something I was toying with: I think the act of simply “finding” where bases are located should be a huge undertaking. X-COM was, all in all, a secret organization. Same for the aliens, they’re not gonna broadcast where their bases are (and if you recall, you had to put in some game time in the original to spot alien bases at all). I do like the idea of simple mission progression and “playing the game normally” inching players towards base discovery. It should be a really heavy undertaking, but the upside of this that I was thinking is that once a base is found, it is -found-. Appears on the enemy map. Prime target for all, finder and faction mates. And that base should be as good as wiped out if not properly defended, heavily and immediately.

    Bases should be a huge prize. Bases are everything. Without bases there’s no squads and no interception. Without interception, the enemy roams free.

    This needs further thought, but I really don’t want bases to be something easy to setup (resources-wise) and irrelevant to lose. Any side that loses a base should be a major hit, and just having a base found should send out a huge, ginormous red flag to that faction. Defend it or lose it. Now.

    “This was a pretty fun exercise.”

    It sure is. Thanks for the ideas! ;)

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