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How XCOM: Enemy Unknown overcame the accessibility stigma Exclusive GDMag Exclusive
How  XCOM: Enemy Unknown  overcame the accessibility stigma
April 5, 2013 | By Staff

Last year's XCOM reboot was a roaring success, with critics and gamers showering the Firaxis Games-developed title with praise. But before the design team could get to the point where the game was deemed fun, it had to overcome the stigma behind the word "accessibility."

In the postmortem for the April 2013 issue of Game Developer magazine, Garth DeAngelis, lead producer and level designer on XCOM: Enemy Unknown, discusses the decisions that went into building an optional, integrated tutorial into the game, while also peeling away low-level mechanics to keep the game snappy.

He also notes how this could become an issue at times, as some design elements stretched out into post-production, and features were still being implemented beyond the Alpha stages.

Here are some choice extracts from the postmortem:

What went right: Overcoming the "accessible" stigma

Even before beginning work on XCOM, we heard it all before: Games had become too easy. The development (or marketing) buzzword "accessible" translated to "dumbing down," the idea that developers would take an otherwise deep, rich, and satisfying game and distill its intricacies to its barest form so the entirety of the world could understand, buy, and play said game.

It sounds hyperbolic, but I've seen games with easy modes that literally played themselves, making failure impossible, so this stigma against accessibility wasn't without merit! Making a game "for the masses" could be the ultimate transgression, especially for a complex game with a hardcore past, and we anticipated that XCOM fans would be skeptical that our work would hold up to those who fell in love with the original.

While UFO: Enemy Unknown may have been magnificent, it was also a unique beast when it came to beginning a new game. We often joked that the diehards who mastered the game independently belonged in an elite club, because by today’s standards the learning curve was like climbing Mt. Everest.
As soon as you fire up the original, you’ll be placed in a Geoscape with the Earth silently looming, and various options to explore within your base — options including reading (unexplained) financial reports, approving manufacturing requests (without any context as to what those would mean later on), and examining a blueprint (which hinted at the possibility for base expansion), for example — the player is given no direction.

Even going on your first combat mission can be a bit of a mystery (and when you do first step off the Skyranger, the game will kill off a few of your soldiers before even seeing your first alien—welcome to XCOM!). While many fans on the team found this learning curve to be a part of the game’s charm and wore it as a badge of honor, we ultimately knew that, in 2012, we needed to enable gamers to experience the truly fun elements without overly testing their patience. But neither could we bear to dumb XCOM down.

We were on a mission to flip the perception on streamlining, to remove the stigma that accessibility equaled a dirty word. We wanted anyone to be able to give XCOM a whirl without expecting them to become fluent in the game’s many systems on their own accord. At the same time, we needed to preserve all of the richness, depth and challenge ingrained in the core pillars. If someone wanted to walk away from the experience due to the game's challenge, we were okay with that; but we didn’t want to alienate anyone simply due to a lack of information.

To accomplish this, we built an optional, integrated tutorial that peeled off the components of XCOM one layer at a time. It was important to keep this hour-and-a-half experience optional, as experienced players could save earth again without the tutorial force-fed to them (and we also knew some players, even in 2012, would want that old-school badge of honor by skipping the tutorial altogether, which is somewhat appropriate for certain types of X-COM fans).

The introduction to the game wasn't the only area we redesigned. Jake Solomon and the design team refined low-level mechanics from the original, such as removing Time Units and capping the squad loadout at six. Both of these changes were the result of internal playtesting over the course of many months, with the development team finding a combat "sweet spot" with respect to approximate time spent on a map and number of decisions made per turn (we found, depending on map size, battles should average 20 minutes, not to exceed 50 minutes on the absolute longest missions). Six units also made every decision vitally important, promoting group tactics with no moves feeling like unnecessary filler.

This "new era of accessible" mindset also helped the design and user interface teams build a platform-agnostic experience. This is an element that could have gone horribly wrong (and did have its inherent challenges, detailed later), but the team did an admirable job of crafting a historically PC experience for consoles as well. We knew games like XCOM weren’t traditionally available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but we’re extremely happy we could provide the same experience (without compromising features or "dumbing down" the console versions) across all platforms.

What went wrong: Design continued into post-production

XCOM required constant design iteration, with some features being implemented beyond Alpha. It may sound cliche, but Firaxis has always lived by the mantra "Find the Fun," and the company takes that very seriously. Sometimes, Fun can be a challenge to find, especially in a product that is unlike any other we’ve built before. XCOM boasts two interdependent systems that could almost be standalone games, and discovering that special synergy between the two was the key to unlocking the magic within the XCOM universe.

Trying to focus concurrently on both gameplay layers was challenging. We spent various milestones on certain features that didn’t progress as we’d hoped. By mid-production, the strategic layer was a turn-based card system for various months, and it stagnated while the team focused on improving combat. Ultimately, the strategy layer was molded into the version we’re satisfied with, but it was neglected for too long and required a late Half Life-inspired Cabal process to get there—we (myself, Solomon and other members of the dev team as necessary) would meet every morning, every day, until each component of the strategy layer had a concrete gameplan and a clear implementation schedule.

Additionally, the tutorial and narrative, critical components of the game, couldn’t be pushed to final until the design was locked. And since the design tentpoles ran late, the narrative team (including animators, writers, and audio) came under immense pressure to finalize high-quality cinematics in an extremely short timeframe.

The extra design time helped make the game as good as it could possibly be from a gameplay perspective, but it's worth asking whether we could have made tough calls on certain systems earlier in the schedule. This is one of game development’s largest challenges: holding a game's design to immovable deadlines can be stifling to the iterative and tricky-to-quantify creative process. Shipping an unpolished combat game with a completely disconnected strategy layer would have spelled disaster for the future of XCOM, so we kept the process malleable much later into the schedule, allowing the team to find the answers through discovery and experimentation.

Practices like the design cabal helped the team focus on areas of the game that weren’t fun, but in a perfect world, we would have locked down as many high-risk systems as possible as pre-production wrapped up. We did ultimately cut content, but the bulk of our wishlist shipped in the final product, which was great for the game but taxing on the team.

More in the April issue

The April issue of Game Developer magazine is now available via subscription and digital purchase. You can subscribe to the print or digital edition at GDMag's subscription page, download the Game Developer iOS app to subscribe or buy individual issues from your iOS device, or purchase individual digital issues from our store.

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Jimmy Albright
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I tried really hard to enjoy my time with XCOM but I had probably the buggiest gaming experience I've had in a looong time, even trumping things like Skyrim on PS3 and Battlefield 3 beta.

Jeremy Reaban
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Granted, I was a huge fan of the original game, so probably not the target audience for the remake, which seemed to be console gamers.

But I found the opening section a very big turn off. Any time a strategy game takes the control away from the player and forces a scripted scenario is just bad.

I realize the new Xcom wasn't really meant to be replayed over and over and over like the original, but still, trial and error is ultimately the best form of learning, not having your hand held in an overly cinematic manner. I wish developers would stop with all the patronizing tutorials these days, they're frustrating. Just let people play the game as soon as possible. We're not children. We're capable of figuring things out on our own. (Heck, children are capable of figuring out games on their own)

John Flush
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I always find it amusing to see praise upon praise from review outlets and such, then if you talk to a gamer nothing but attacks come out about the game. There has got to be some disconnect here. Either the complainers need to pack up and quit - really, quit trying to enjoy this hobby and find something else. Or the reviewers need to realize their customers are the consumers, not the developers or publishers (but I'm pretty sure they see it the other way as it brings in the ad revenue and perks).

I actually skipped the game because of the rating... though with an iPad release I might not be able to hold out any longer as I'll be able to put on my nice pair of headsets and not worry about my family / kids overhearing. Sure I could have 'head-phoned' it by now on my computer, but honestly with the industry (reviews) saying one thing and all the gamers saying the opposite, I figured I would just wait until I could get it for $10 or less before I bothered.

Rikard Peterson
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"nothing but attacks"? That obviously depends on who you talk to. Most I've heard about the game (including my own experience) has been positive.

Jan Zheng
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I was a huge fan of the original, and felt the newest iteration lacking in complexity and depth. Research was pretty much linear (by the end of the game you'd have researched everything), resource / mission management was too streamlined. For example, weeks would go by with no missions, and then all of a sudden you'd have to choose between two or three missions. I liked Apocalypse because sometimes you'd end up sending out separate squads to investigate many incidents at a time

Ian Morrison
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Since everyone else here seems to be dogpiling, I figured I'd just chime in and say "I fucking loved XCom: Enemy Unknown". Maybe I'm missing something, since I never played the originals, but it was a tense, atmospheric, challenging experience filled with gut wrenching highlights like the deaths of important squad members and risky gambles that paid off spectacularly (or just blew up in my face). It wasn't perfect, and I'd have loved to have had a more in-depth strategic layer, more variety in mission structure, or more time spent in QA, but it was one of my favourite games of last year.

I will admit that the tutorial was pretty irritating, though. An hour of "do exactly what we say to continue" got irritating fast.

David Serrano
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XCOM: Enemy Unknown overcame the accessibility stigma?

According to the sales stats available on-line, XCOM: Enemy Unknown sold approximately 665,000 console copies worldwide. Since this number may not be entirely accurate, let's double it to be safe. Let's say the game sold 1.3 M console copies worldwide. The worldwide active installed base for the 360 and PS 3 (combined) is 86.3 million. So in the best case scenario, XCOM: Enemy Unknown appealed to slightly over 1 percent of the active worldwide console audience.

According to the available stats, the PC version sold approximately 350,000 copies. Since this number probably doesn't include NPD data, let's double it to be safe. Let's say XCOM: Enemy Unknown sold 700,000 PC copies. Steam has approximately 50 million registered users. So in the best case scenario, the game appealed to roughly 1.4 percent of Steam's audience. If you factor in the number of digital copies sold through other services vs. the total number of members for each service, it's highly likely that XCOM: Enemy Unknown appealed an even smaller percentage of the worldwide PC AAA audience than it did on the consoles. And even if we triple the sales stats, we are still only talking about a game which appealed to a single digit percentage of the existing audience.

Now... out of the tiny percentage of players who purchased the game across all platforms, what percentage quit as a result of the high difficulty levels? On average, 7 to 8 players out of 10 will quit playing before reaching the end of any AAA game, including the best sellers. Which likely means XCOM: Enemy Unknown was "accessible" to a couple hundred thousand players out of an existing worldwide audience of over 100 million.

So how can anyone honestly claim this game, or other games that featured roguelike (or roguelike inspired) difficulty levels "overcame the accessibility stigma?" It's simply not based in reality, or on facts. The sales stats for these games have only confirmed that mainstream accessibility and appeal barriers are created when developers create gameplay they know is severely misaligned with what the average person in any segment of the market defines as play, or as a game.

Michael Joseph
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You raise many very interesting points David.

Seem the article is only trying to communicate that XCOM sold enough copies to avoid failing financially and that this modest success was not predicted by many who thought the brand was too difficult to exploit. Afterall, why did it take so long to revive the franchise?

But the creators would have us believe that it was the game they designed that succeeded whereas the reality is that it was their marketing that played the most significant role in whatever sales figures they achieved. They exploited the XCOM name to magnify their marketing punch because XCOM is held near and dear to many geeks who run websites today and those geeks are going to talk about a revival of an endeared title.

There is NO WAY TO KNOW how much dumbing down the game actually contributed to sales versus how much was due to marketing.

So I think it's worth asking if trying to break perceived accessibility stigmas is even the right way to approach making ANY game. "Accessibility stigma" is such a loaded phrase. Frankly, the original XCOM although less forgiving than most games and having more depth than most games is NOT complex or difficult to understand.

Accessibility stigma almost seems to refer to any game that is not a visceral roller coaster for the mashed potatoes for brains to get off on.

This notion of having stripped away complexity to win over some of the masses is... I dunno.. lame to put it mildly. Those aren't the types of games I want to play at least. They're not the games I want to make either.

p.s. I have seen the post mortem given by Julian Gollop where he expresses support for Firaxis XCOM. A good post mortem but that aspect was disappointing.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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It was accessible alright, to the point of being entirely broken.
If anything, XCOM 2012 is the prime example of how -not- to streamline a game (namely by sacrificing complexity, but retaining difficulty).

If anything, XCOM needed another way for its combat system to work without cover and without to-hit percentages. Yes, sacrilege, burn the heretic, XCOM was always about the hit percentage. Yet its the most primitive way to communicate the intent of XCOM's core ("shit happens").

Better level and unit design, enemy placement, patrols, AI and equal fairness (no free turns for aliens) would have created a more interesting battlefield than the random chance of a 99% shot missing while retaining player control over the units themselves.

XCOM 2012 is a relic trying to be hip and new, ultimately succeeding only in alienating the original player base while not being able to entice a new player base due to its 90s design. It should have either stayed its original self, with all the jankieness this entails, or went the full reboot route with modern mechanics.

Michael Joseph
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"If anything, XCOM needed another way for its combat system to work without cover and without to-hit percentages. Yes, sacrilege, burn the heretic..."

"or went the full reboot route with modern mechanics."

I think you are absolutely right. I think the thinking behind the design of this new XCOM was constrained by the thinking common to modern mass market console game development.

I think there are obvious directions the franchise (or clones) can take IF one stays in the PC mindset and logically extends the concept in that direction and that is where you will see real innovation.