XCOM 2: How Firaxis crafted a superior sequel

We spoke with members of the seasoned strategy studio to discuss the process of making a relevant sequel with XCOM 2, and the rebirth of difficult games.

GameSpot staff
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GameSpot staff
7 min read

XCOM 2 released a week ago, and with it, a two-year process of brainstorming, iteration, and experimentation came to a close. Much like the acclaimed XCOM: Enemy Unknown -- the 2012 reboot of a series absent from the spotlight for 15 years -- the sequel had high expectations to meet. But with XCOM 2, Firaxis had much less time to meet them.

Playing XCOM 2 means exploring a multilayered system, with everything from procedurally generated maps, to stealth-oriented combat, to character creation tools. After over 60 hours for our review, and dozens more following release, we sat down with producer Garth DeAngelis and designer Mark Nauta to discuss the challenges of making a sequel, the rebirth of difficult games, and the process of balancing a strategy title.

GameSpot: With XCOM 2--especially following Enemy Within -- you really had to create a full, fleshed-out sequel, and not another expansion. Can you talk about that process?

DeAngelis: It was a scary time, but it was an exciting time. Design has some core things that they wanted to do with [XCOM 2], but they also considered community feedback, which is very, very important too.

I get excited when certain goals align, and there were two high priority goals that did align with what our creative director Jake Solomon wanted to do. And it was also reflected in the community. Those were: procedural maps on the tactical side, and making the strategy game system a little bit more open-ended.

I remember he and I talking about that while the team was beginning work on Enemy Within. We had to figure out all these problems. We had to rewrite pipelines, we had to make things in new ways, but take knowledge from what we learned in Enemy Unknown and say, "How can we apply this?" We had some early prototypes on the strategy side that Mark was heavily involved in.

Nauta: Yeah, I think when trying to make a sequel, there's obviously some stuff you just want to build on and some stuff you want to completely shake up. And game design is all about iteration. Jake and I would go through a bunch of ideas, and we'd pull back on some of them.

We had to be careful of not putting stuff in just for the sake of it being new. It had to serve some gameplay purpose and fit the theme of the game.

DeAngelis: From my perspective, I don't get my hands as dirty as these guys who figure out all the low-level problems, but seeing that all come together, around those tactical and strategic pillars, was exciting. Will it work out to feel like a sequel? That's always what is a little bit unknown.

Procedural maps were also a risk. It's this long term sustained thing that really works out well and works like a siren call to bring the player coming back, because they have not seen the same layout twice.

What that accomplished was, you don't go back to that same exact museum map at night time, that had the same boulevard layout every single time, or the same gas station, or the same exact spawn points and path to completion. That's such a big component of this sequel, is now when you go into XCOM 2, it's a different game every single time you play.

There seems to be a lot more focus on narrative this time around as well. Could you talk about that?

DeAngelis: The design team always starts with mechanics first, and moves from there. But you're right, we did double-down on the narrative. The story, the number of cinematics, all that sort of stuff is really cool as you go through it. It feels like, to me, a AAA third-person action-adventure title that happens to have a great story. But now it's implanted in your very deep strategy game as well, which is pretty rare for the strategy genre.

Speaking of mechanics -- the fact that you drop into many missions under concealment, and set up ambushes like a guerilla force might -- that's different than in Enemy Unknown, where the aliens always knew where you were right away.

DeAngelis: You are a guerrilla force now. You're trying to take down the Advent network, and there are also time pressures that come along with that on a lot of the missions. XCOM 2 is a game about solving tactical puzzles, but also taking down aliens, and countering their abilities rather than staying in the shadows the whole time.

XCOM has always had several layers. There's the tactical layer, the strategic layer, the research layer, and the individual soldier layer. How did you balance the iteration process for each one?

DeAngelis: What's the magic answer, Mark? How'd that all get balanced?

Nauta: Well, I work with [creative director Jake Solomon] a lot, and he's actually talked about how this game was a lot harder to get those tweaks and balances exactly right just because it is so big, with so much stuff, and it's so varied across playthroughs.

It's also a sequel, so you have to look at what worked well in Enemy Unknown, and what we could have done better, and apply it to XCOM 2, which is a very different game in a lot of ways.

DeAngelis: Process wise, they get together and speak very low-level about the mechanics, about different systems, how they want them to play, how they want them to behave interdependently. Then they start opening it up to internal playtests as early as possible. Then it's just taking feedback, filtering it, iterating from there, tweaking those spreadsheets.

I forget exactly how the saying goes about the sophomore effort, but whether you're talking about a musician or an author--or in this case, a development team--you have your whole life to prepare for your first book, or album, or game, and then you only have what? A little more than two years to prepare for your next one? I imagine that must be intimidating.

DeAngelis: It was a lot less time than Enemy Unknown. There's no doubt about it. A lot less time.

Nauta: I think everyone on the team worked extremely hard, but also smart. The artists, engineers, sound people, everybody.

DeAngelis: Yeah, this team cares about this franchise. We all really feel lucky, almost an honor and an obligation, to do well by this franchise. That's sort of the magic in game development. It's up to each individual to put that love into that piece of the game that they own. I think a lot of the people on the team did that and I hope it will be reflected when people play.

It just strikes me as odd. For all intents and purposes, XCOM: Enemy Unknown seems like it should have been more of a niche game. It can be hard as hell. It was also a reboot of a series that many people playing games today might not have had exposure to.

DeAngelis: I think there's a little mini renaissance happening when you look at things like Dark Souls and Bloodborne and FTL from a few years ago. I think gamers appreciate systems that are deep, complex, but not complicated, and have interesting challenges. That's what makes games fun -- when you overcome those.

I think that there was sort of, in the early 2000s, mid-2000s, this sort of mantra of, "let's just handhold." That's still happening to some extent. But I think gamers are wanting to get beyond that a little bit, because games are all about solving problems in a very playful and fun way. You have to have a real problem so then you can have that feeling of overcoming. XCOM is all about that. We embrace that, we wanted the game to have teeth, we love games like that, and that's part of the DNA of this franchise.

Nauta: Yeah, I mean there's something very satisfying about playing through XCOM, just because your achievements in the game feel very earned. You took the risks, you put your guys on the line, you sacrificed guys and came out on top. You get that sense of "fiero." You overcame.

DeAngelis: That's right. Did you read Reality is Broken? That's where I heard fiero. I don't know if you read that book, but it's actually a very interesting concept, and there's science behind it of what's actually happening in your brain when you overcome those problems.

Nauta: Yeah. I think a lot of gamers love that feeling. That's why they're playing a thing that is presenting you with a problem that might otherwise be too difficult. Overcoming is rewarding, but also proves it was never impossible to begin with.

DeAngelis: That's right. That sense of literally throwing your arms up in the air, which you do at sports games a lot. That is the sense of fiero Mark is talking about.

Nauta: XCOM is a tough game, but the main goal of XCOM is not that we want it to be superhard. We want you to have the best experience possible. We're not just trying to make the aliens beat you the whole time. We want you to have this fun experience that is difficult, but is also rewarding for you. That's what Firaxis delivered with Enemy Unknown, and that's what we're hoping to deliver with the sequel. There are just many more ways to reach it this time around.