E3 2015: Talking Procedural Generation and Mods in XCOM 2

The tactical and ever so nail-biting strategy game is back as Firaxis and 2K Games revealed XCOM 2 prior to E3 2015. Now players will be able to experience the deaths of even more comrades as their memorial continues to grow. While Enemy Unknown was a surprise hit, Firaxis is looking to up their game by introducing procedural maps, mods and even more to this PC exclusive. During our time at E3 this year, we sat down with Art Director Greg Foertsh at Firaxis Games to talk about their upcoming title.

Hardcore Gamer: What can you tell me about the story of XCOM 2? How long as it been since Enemy Unknown?

Greg Foertsh: In the storyline it’s 20 years in the future. It’s 2035 and you lost the fight in the first third of the campaign in Enemy Unknown. It’s where we’re mentally cutting it. So you never developed any of the crazy stuff, you lost early, and for the past 15-20 years you have been underground. Now the time is right and you’ve decided to come back and reclaim Earth.

Why the decision to basically use the bad ending of Enemy Unknown?

It was funny. We had a lot of ideas for where we’d go with two while we were developing Enemy Unknown, and after the game came out and all the fans were posting stuff, it was amazing the metric for how many people lost. Face planted and lost multiple times. So it seemed, the strange part about XCOM is that people would lose and restart entirely, unlike a lot of other games where you just don’t do that. So it seemed like a really natural place for us to go to take more of an alternative history approach instead of a much more linear narrative. It felt like something most players would relate to having like “wait a minute, the first time I played it I lost. As if, after I played and I lost, now I’m playing the sequence of the game I lost.” It was something we honestly didn’t think many people had done. It’s so easy to do a linear path, and we wanted to take more of an alternate history approach to see what would happen.

Was it something at the beginning of development you knew you were going down this path?

Yeah. At the beginning of development, after we finished Enemy Unknown, the four of us, the Lead Producer, Creative Director, Lead Programmer and myself, we wrote where we wanted to go with XCOM 2 and we had a little time to figure everything out. The very first thing was procedural levels; that was the very first thing we wanted to put in the game. We started ironing out all the little pieces we wanted to do – wanted to make it modable. Those were two of the biggest things we have to go towards, and after making Enemy Unknown, we knew how to do that.

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Considering how small the Avengers ship is, their new mobile base, how limited are XCOM’s abilities and technology?

A lot of that stuff we’re working through, but with the Avenger, it’s a smaller, compressed space, and it’s named after The Avenger in the original game. UFO Defense, not The Avengers. *laughs* It’s like I have to point that out. All the people who haven’t played the original game don’t know it’s from the original XCOM. But, the whole strategy side is really cool and something we’re ironing out and going to talk about that a lot later.

How does the base building work in The Avengers ship?

Similar mechanics to Enemy Unknown, just more in a confined space. It’s much more of a… for a lack of a better description, it’s more of a submarine so the spaces are more intimate, closer.

What has been tweaked and overhauled in the gameplay-side of things?

So we added concealment, squad-based concealment which is really cool and is a different mechanic. A lot of that again is from user feedback where every time you stumbled on the aliens, they got the jump on you, so we wanted to turn that around on them a bit and address it. There’s also hacking, there’s loot, and there’s all sorts of cool stuff added. On top of that, we tried to take all the characters, whether they’re enemies or soldiers, and really push them apart. We didn’t feel like they were different enough in Enemy Unknown. We wanted to create separation and contrast between all the different elements of the game. That’s sort of how we approach the art side, too, with all the different environments, we really pushed them as far apart from them as we could to offer different experiences, so they’re dramatically different spaces. That’s kind of our approach, both on the design side and the art side.

Speaking of the concealment, you get the jump on aliens on most maps, but can you play a stage entirely stealthy without engaging?

The way concealment is designed is to be broken. It gives you a heads up and a jump on the enemies, but it’s certainly something the player can stay in for as long as they want. But it’s not really designed to be stayed in the entire time.

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We saw the introduction of swords into combat. How does that affect the gameplay considering XCOM has always been a firefight heavy game when you have to be in cover all the time? What benefit is it to run out expose yourself?

It’s one of those things that plays well with the amount of damage it deals with different percentages and values. It gives that class and soldiers something that’s cool and the abilities grow with that class as it goes.

What are some of the new classes and adjustments to existing ones?

We’ve shown in the demo the Specialist, which has the Gremlin, and again, the Gremlin will grow as the character grows. The Ranger, which is the melee character. And in the trailer we have the Sharpshooter and the Grenadier, and we’ll probably go into those characters sometime soon. But those are four of the new classes we have.

Do you have a personal favorite of the four?

Personally, the Ranger is more of my personality. We’re also showing some of the character customization with the hood and some of that stuff. There are some significant things you can do to customize your character to make them feel more personal.

One aspect of Enemy Unknown that was fun was the competitive multiplayer mode. Will that be coming back?

Yeah, we’ll have multiplayer.

Nothing to announce right now?

Nope. We’ll have multiplayer. *laughs* I mean, the one thing that’s cool about multiplayer is, and this goes back to the mechanics with what’s different is, the procedural system is enormous and multiplayer matches involve that, as well. When you play on a map it won’t be a “multiplayer map.” It’s going to have random elements to it. Procedural elements to it that will make multiplayer different every time you play it. But we’ll get into multiplayer further down the road.

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Speaking of procedurally generated maps. Why the decision to go with that over pre-designed maps?

It was one of those things in Enemy Unknown that we really wanted to do, but there isn’t like another XCOM game out there, so as we were making Enemy Unknown, we had to figure out the game and really figuring out procedural at that point a stone too far for us. So, there were a lot of complications with it and now after Enemy Unknown, we have a lot of metrics, we understand what exactly this is. There are some easy metrics that determine sizes of things and distances, and it allowed us to analyze it and come up with a system that is very robust, so even if we didn’t do procedural, I still would do levels the way I’m architecting them now to save a lot of extra work we did in Enemy Unknown that I don’t think was really visible to the player. But it was something that we felt we needed to do so, we got time of day is dynamic, we got weather, destructible floors and ceilings now, destructible structures. All of that plays into the procedural system.

Then we got this procedural system that, again, we really wanted to make something flexible that also modders could go through. So, you can make these levels as static or procedural as you want them to be. They can be 30% static or 70% procedural, or vice versa. You could stitch it together if you insisted on doing that. So all of our levels are procedural and it’s not just a visual thing so the mission objectives are procedural, as well. Depending on what mission you pull, and the level that loads, it’s a completely different experience. It’s pretty robust. We wanted to make sure that the game was super replayable. Those were pretty big things for us.

Being the Art Director, what other pieces of work have influenced you for building XCOM 2’s new world?

Oh wow. There’s tons of movies that we’ve looked at, like Elysium to Oblivion to Blade Runner. There’s a large pile. Game-wise it’s a tough one. I don’t think I drew much from other games. It has been mostly movies. A lot of sci-fi stuff we looked at. I mean there are sci-fi games. We looked at Dust and some other stuff. A lot of weapons, characters, environments and other things. We try our best to make things as original as we can so we try to steer away from that kind of stuff.

Having seen the demo, it looked like there was pre-determine enemy backup that would arrive. Is it all scripted or is there a bit of randomness to it?

Reinforcements are a procedural system as well. So reinforcements will come in while you’re playing the game. That’s another layer to the player experience that changes and alters what you see and how you play it. So even if you would happen to see another portion of the map that you’ve seen before, the mission objective would be different, the time of day, enemy placement. Everything makes it a very different experience.

Given the scenario that aliens have successfully invaded Earth, would you be on the rebellion side or would you try to work with the aliens?

Oh, I would be on the rebellion side. Absolutely. *laughs*

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What have you been able to do by focusing on one system (PC) rather than dividing your time between consoles?

Having focused on the procedural systems and the modding, that kind of dictated the decision to go with PC. Half the procedural was something very big and something to focus on, and when you tie-in the modding community and that it’s proven on PC, it was a natural kind of evolution and that’s where we are.

Considering how procedural the game is, how do mods work?

They can create their own parcels. You can say “I want a level that all it ever draws is parks,” and you will get all propaganda parks. You can say “I want all buildings, and I want them all this close to each other.” You can do whatever you want with it. It is really REALLY robust. Even though something draws on the street, that’s all procedural, too. You will never see the same street layout. Ever. It just won’t happen. And you can add to that. You can add cars, advent checkpoints, you can put whatever you want down and all that stuff will be drawn on the streets, along with the buildings being procedural, along with the parks and parking lots. That level you saw, that park is one of our levels. That fits into the plot so that’s a plot parcel system. The plot is the road network, and it may not be roads. The roads are a good example, but it’s just a connective tissue layer.

So the parcel will drop down in their locations with different kinds of things and different sizes to them, and they’re not all the same size, and it will pull for pools. It will be intelligent where you can say only use from these, and then on the roads it stitches down its own sub-procedural level. It’s super flexible. And again, you can make it 100% procedural or you can change it. It’s completely up to the modder and up to us as developers, like all of our stuff is procedural, even the narrative stuff. I’m really happy with that system and, getting back to your question, it really lead us to that inspiration. At the end of the day that’s what we were focused on and the modding community is great on PC. I hope it gets more robust and flexible on consoles, but that’s where it was when we made that decision.

Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us and we wish you well with XCOM 2.

Thank you. We’re pretty excited about it. It’s a really robust game and I hope everyone likes it.