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XCOM: Clear Choices, Tough Decisions
by Harold Myles on 10/17/12 12:09:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


By mixing both tangible rewards, that progress the win condition, and panic management, that postpones the loss condition, XCOM's Alien Abductions events deliver a lot of tension while remaining an easy to understand mechanic.

One of the key features of XCOM, as well as the original X-COM, is that the game presents two different gameplay layers: the strategy layer and tactical layer.  These layers, while separate and discrete in gameplay style, are intertwined by various mechanics and sub-systems. Good or bad performance in one layer will likewise affect the other layer.  Additionally the games winning and losing conditions are each exclusively the domain of only one of either layers.  

The strategy layer presents the game’s only losing condition, while the tactical layer provides the game’s only winning condition.  The choice between winning the game and not losing the game isn’t always simple.   XCOM employs a surprisingly simple and transparent mechanic for making those choices even more difficult and ambiguous, and that is a good thing.

Paraphrasing Keith Burgun; a choice isn’t a choice unless its effect is ambiguous.
Periodically, on the strategy layer, the game presents the player with an Alien Abduction event.  

These events provide the player the opportunity to choose between not losing the game and winning the game.  How the player’s choice will affect either goal is clear and transparent. Impressively, that doesn’t make the choice any easier or less ambiguous.

The Alien Abduction events provide the game’s most direct mechanic for mixing these two layers together.  And it does so in a simple way:

  • Three choices
  • Each choice provides one benefit for not losing (managing panic)
  • Each choice provides one benefit for winning (progressing technology, gear and troops)
  • Each benefit can be clearly gauged seperately
  • Yet only one choice can be made

The conundrum of choice is achieved by blending the two different goals into a single choice.  Depending on the current game state, and some random mixing, the best choice for winning the game and the best choice for not losing the game may not be the same. In fact the best choice for winning may be the worst choice for not losing, and vice versa.

That is pretty much the end of this article.  I just wanted to describe the above mechanic because I thought it was one of the more interesting designs in the game.  Primarily because it is so simple yet achieves so much tension.  The rest of this article describes some more detail in how this system works for those that may not be familiar. And may make it more clear why the two rewards presented in the Alien Abduction events tend to favor two different game goals discretely.


The condition for losing the game is stated upfront in a clear way: the Doom Tracker.  For each country that reaches an elevated panic level, that country is permanently removed from the game, and the Doom Tracker is permanently incremented by one. When the Doom Tracker reaches eight then the game is over.  

A countries panic level is managed by successfully completing events presented on the strategy layer, such as the Alien Abduction events.  Choosing between these events the player can raise or lower the panic levels of the various countries, which is the player’s primary mechanism for managing the Doom Tracker.  And ultimately not losing the game.

The important thing to note is that this system does not provide a win condition.  The player can manage the Doom Tracker only to keep from losing, but it provides no direct mechanism for the player to win.  


Mirroring the strategy layer, the tactical layer provides the game’s only win condition: by completing the game’s last tactical mission.  

In fact, at the time of this writing, due to a supposed bug, the last mission can be repeated when the player’s squad is wiped out, even in Ironman Mode.  There is no way to directly lose the game through the tactical layer. 

Alien Abduction missions provide a method for managing panic, and additionally provide a more tangible reward: scientist, engineers, money, or highly skilled troops.  Each of these rewards allow the player to progress his capabilities, and enhance his chances of success in the tactical layer.

By mixing both tangible rewards, that progress the win condition, and panic management, that postpones the loss condition, Alien Abductions deliver a lot of tension while remaining an easy to understand mechanic.

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Tom Johnson
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The way you analyzed that mechanic, I think, also reveals something interesting about the way the rewards work. Since that mechanic forces you to weigh how panicky your countries are against how strapped you are for resources, it's most interesting when those are about equal to you, subjectively. The rewards are then structured in such a way as to always seek that equilibrium: the more you choose resources, the more panicky your countries get, and the more you choose to reduce panic, the further you fall behind on resources. So that choice should always trend towards being an interesting choice, providing you don't get into a state where you are just having massive success across the board.

Adam Rebika
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Where this mecanic is flawed in Xcom comes from the fact that the "winning conditions" can be easily acquired by other means. Money flows in at the end of every month, recruits are cheap to get and easy to train, and countries protected by sattelites give you free scientists / engineers. Also, as the rewards are not very diversified (troops / money / scientists / engineers), when you pick one reward instead of another, you don't really lose anything, as it is very likely that you'll get the reward you missed available again very soon. Therefore, you don't really lose anything by picking the "not losing" option, you only postpone your victory.

Michael Joseph
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Unfortunately, the game is designed to be played through, and not really played. I suppose that's ok for some types of games but you wouldn't have expected it with a game titled XCOM.

The decicisions you talk about don't really exist. The main reason is because the player is not really given a chance to learn on their own how to play once they've learned the rules. They are told how to play. Telling players how to play is one of the basic tenants of modern game design. In order to force a high pace of play, you tell the player what to do, they do it and then you wow and reward them with graphical flash as they execute their training (as opposed to giving them and then rewarding them with victory for solving real strategic and tactical problems).

This is in stark contrast to how strategy games used to be designed. There really is very little strategy or tactics in the new XCOM.

I respect the attempt at revitalizing XCOM, but I'm disappointed that they took the formulaic mass appeal path that results in a rather mundane game for people looking for more.

This is simply not a strategy game. And the tatical aspect is a complete illusion that panders to players. Leap frogging your squadmates from one cover to the next during yet another frontal assault doesn't really qualify as "tactics." There's no sneaking (which is why they make only token use of sound detection of enemies and no use of it by your enemies), no hiding your sniper atop a tall building and shooting unsuspecting enemies from halfway across the map, no taking advantage of various terrain (eg tall grass that provides natural concealment for that flanking maneuver), no silent take down of enemies, there is a "hunker down" but there is no "hide" or stealth mode, no going prone and crawling to a key spot on the map undetected, no multi-story buildings to search through which means no using a rocket launcher to shoot through the floor at an enemy upstairs that can't be seen but only heard by your squad member. That didn't exist in the original XCOM but it has existed in subsequent turn based squad tactical games like Silent Storm.

There's also a horror aspect to the original XCOM that they somehow managed NOT to capture. I think this is a combination of the one dimensionality of the player's soldiers and the "war" style battles that take place as opposed to the tactical search and destroy atmosphere of the original... particularly in the original when players were lulled into sense of security and they'd give up tactical advantages in order to hunt enemy lying in ambush.

Demanding and rewarding real thinking from the player is what has been sacrified for mass market appeal in todays industry. Is this the gamification of games? Is this what an XCOM game has to look like to sell x million units?

It's a sad testament that a 1994 game is still fundamentally superior in terms of gameplay to a big budget wannabe clone from 2012. 1994 XCOM was a game that strove big, 2012 XCOM is simplifed, streamlined, and small.

Original XCOM left you with the impression that had the technolgoy been there, they would have done more, not less.

Robert Swift
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Actually when you get to choose a mission reward, it's not obvious at all which kind of immediate contribution additional scientists/engineers will give. Sometimes you lack some scientists to start a specific research task but that's not displayed at that point.

Also, by using scientists and engineers as rewards they made the straightforward science/engineer management from the original (build space, add personal, pay wages, fire excess staff) more confusing and less deep. For example, you can now have a ton of scientists/engineers within a single lab/workshop.

In conclusion, I think adding scientists/engineers as rewards was a bad decision. They should have stayed strictly within the economical layer imho. By trying to flesh out one game mechanism (reward choice for missions), they weakened another one (the economical layer).