When designing nearly any type of game, you want your players' victories to feel meaningful. Nowadays, games often reward success with positive feedback systems like cutscenes, in-game items or achievements, but for XCOM: Enemy Unknown
lead designer Jake Solomon, the real way to make a player value success is to put something meaningful at stake.
Solomon is currently in charge of rebooting one of the industry's most revered strategy franchises
, which built a reputation for mercilessly punishing players for making unwise decisions. This brutal, hardcore approach helped XCOM
find a solid audience in 1994, and Solomon believes it's still just as valid today.
"I think there are certain things that are sacred about this franchise," the Firaxis designer told Gamasutra in a recent interview.
"In terms of the game's mechanics, you need to make sure you have things like permadeath. You have to have real consequences, because that's what made games like XCOM
Solomon wants players to feel a real sense of loss if they make too many mistakes. Helpful NPCs will abandon your cause, all soldiers will remain dead for good, and misspent resources will be lost forever. With so much at stake, Solomon hopes players will fight tooth and nail for their victories, and cherish them dearly when they achieve them.
"I think without those kinds of consequences, it's hard to have a real success. If you're playing a strategy game or a tactical game, they're less about getting checkpointed through a narrative driven experience, and much more about learning a set of rules and then applying those rules. If there aren't real consequences there, than you can't have real successes either," he said.
Solomon said he's all for story-based games that push players to victory with generous checkpoints, but to him, those titles aren't about achieving success; they're about experiencing a narrative. With XCOM
, he wants players to engage with with a system, and he believes any systems-driven game should make a player feel that their actions really matter.
"When it comes to a game where you have to learn rules and apply expert knowledge of a system, part of the appeal is that there are more consequences; you have to be more calculating. Success should feel real and earned, since I think that just resonates more with the player," he said. "It even applies to multiplayer games, since those carry a real emotional consequence."
Of course, if a systems-driven game offers those consequences, players will sometimes end up feeling a sense of loss (or occasionally anger), but to Solomon, this emotional rollercoaster makes a game's positive elements seem all the more powerful.
"It's like you have higher highs and lower lows, so I guess it's like heroin at some point," Solomon joked, "You need the hardest shit, and you keep wanting more and more."