The Bureau: XCOM Declassified – Creative Director Interview
GF: Is that frustrating, getting those mixed feedback signals and having to throw out things that you’ve spent a lot of hours working on?
MG: No, that’s the creative process. Few things are one-and-done. That’s the Hollywood fallacy: “Eureka, inspiration!” If you write, create, or do anything, you’re going to iterate, whittle. There are painters that start with a small thumbnail sketch and build upon it. It’s called “video game production” for a reason, and you’re producing something. I’ve worked long enough in the industry — 17 years, at this point — it’s just part of the process. The only thing that is frustrating I think, when you make a game, is when people see a game without all the appropriate context, and they have critiques and you know the critiques are just factually wrong. They’re entitled to their opinion and their sentiment, but you’re like “dude, that’s just not actually true.” It’s part inspiration, part desperation.
GF: When you made that shift towards tactical, you have that power wheel, was that the first thing you considered, when you added more tactics?
MG: No! We had a whole host of other solutions. We went through all sorts of different stabs, through something that was a little more like Full Spectrum Warrior, to saying “what if we did something that was isometric but it was all real time, like Predator Drone.” We kissed a lot of frogs. We spent a good year of trying schemes and prototype forms.
GF: What kind of iterations do you go through?
MG: The process is a mixed bag. There’s a lot of artwork that happens which is just taking screenshots of the game and drawing over those screenshots, just to think about things like information presentation, color schemes, and the blink, at-a-glance comprehension.
GF: What about a really granular choice like between time stopping and slowing down?
MG: That was the biggest civil war that occurred on the team during development. It’s funny, because no one’s ever asked that. That was the biggest problem. We were going to ask people who play third-person games to play something that is less about twitch and more about using their brains to control a team. We were like “ooh, that’s gonna be hard.”
We started with frozen time. What we wanted to do at the time was provide what we dubbed the “comfy cozy blanket” from which to make tactical decisions. We developed a lot with things frozen, you had all the time in the world, and a certain point we said you know what…
GF: …it’s too cozy?
MG: This is us being kind of chicken! Our charter was to do a unique perspective on classic XCOM. Classic XCOM — frozen time. It also allows you to scale — one of the best things about frozen time is that it lets you go from a squad size of like four to eight. In the orignal game I think you could even put like 16 guys in a Skyranger. So you had all the time in the world, and you could manage a more complicated thing.
We were like “we’ve got two dudes, and we’re freezing time, and if we’re going to be all about the battlefield commander doing things in the field, this is the co-op.” So let’s wrench it up to real time, or define that perfect time dilation…
GF: …you have to decide how slow it’s going to be….
MG: Exactly. We had a lot of play about how far to dilate the time. Is this too slow? Is this too fast? Can you stay on top of players sort of hunkering down and cowering? I’d like to say it was a lot of science, but it was a bit of focus-testing and gut reads. There were a lot of people on the team who said “this destroyed the game,” going from frozen to real-time, or time-modulated. But ultimately, I think everyone now realizes that it gives the game that little bit of tempo, that little bit of tension that requires everyone to be engaged.