Interview: XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s Garth DeAngelis

Lead producer on XCOM re-imagining.

At PAX East in Boston this weekend, we spoke with XCOM: Enemy Unknown lead producer Garth DeAngelis, where he told us of the game’s new features, why it should appeal to fans of the classic, his personal favorite game, and even did his impression of a Chryssalid (yup, we have the audio).

Read the full interview below. A new set of screenshots can be seen at the gallery.

Gematsu: Can you give me a rundown of what XCOM is, and what you’re trying to create with this new release?

DeAngelis: XCOM is a behemoth. It is a game unlike any other. It’s really something to classify in a genre. We call it “action strategy,” but it’s really two massive games jammed in one. You’re fighting this global alien invasion, and you have two modes. You have the strategy layer, where you’re managing these headquarters, you’re making these big sweeping decisions that affect the alien war, you’re responding to alien abductions, you’re engineering items, researching alien technology, building interceptors, expanding your base – and that’s really just the tip of the ice berg on strategy. And that’s only half the game – then you have the tactical portion, which is where the combat is. You’re making these intimate decision with each individual soldier human you have, and you’re battling the aliens with abilities, killing them, flanking them, all these different tactics – and then both modes interplay together, they play off of each other. Which I think that’s why the original fans are very excited about it. It’s sort of this special brew that the original XCOM development team came up with that we’re trying to do justice to.

What new items are in the tech tree that aren’t in the original?

Well, that’s a great question! We’re not talking too much specifics beyond the conventional items and weapons, which is like your first soldier class in part of the texture where you have your assault rifle, your light machine gun, your rocket launchers, your sniper rifle, your shotgun, things like that. There is certainly a lot of advancement you could do down the tech tree, but we’ve only revealed up to this point rookies and low-level, upgraded soldiers that have conventional weapons. You can do things such as healing your soldiers to prevent them from dying a permanent death…

When you say “permanent death,” do you mean “permanently permantently,” or permanently for the remainder of the match?

No, permanently, permanently. So if you have this soldier you love – I know it’s a new concept, right? A lot of games don’t do this. It’s scary. And it’s a catch-22, because it’s like, ‘that doesn’t sound fun, I don’t want to lose my guys.’ But it really does add to the magic of the game. When you know that you have these soldiers that you’ve invested in, that you’ve named, that’s part of your team, that you can lose them with one false move – it really adds a sense of tension and dread that is actually fun, and is part of the magic drew of XCOM.

I want to talk an item for your fans. Our support soldier class – just a good example of how they help augment and help the other teams – they can throw smoke bombs, which block visiblity and increase cover for your soldiers. So if throw a smoke bomb, which behaves just like a grenade, it creates this smoke volume that other soldiers, like your assault soldiers, close weapons specialists, can run into and have some protection, even if he’s not in cover, and take out an alien in close range.

Are incendiary weapons included? Is fire static, or does it expand through flammable materials, like it did in X-COM: Apocalypse?

There is dynamic fire. And you will die if you walk through. And fire happens when you throw a grenade, you use a rocket launcher. Yes, there are explosive materials that have a certain radius that can expand like gas pumps, and cars, and things like that. So, that was one of the core principal’s of the original that we wanted to keep.

Is auto-cannon still an option

Auto-cannon is not an option. No.

Why are squads being limited to six people? Do tanks take up a spot in your limit?

Tanks do take up one spot on your limit. We did a lot playtesting on ‘what is the magic number with our game that is appropriate?’ You’d think on the surface, why not let us bring 24 soldiers soldiers? If we want to bring 24, why not. The original allows you do that, but we are re-imagining the game, not remaking it. And we’ve done some different things on the tactical layers, such as the move action system, really promoting group combinations, really promoting leveling up soldiers through our sort of RPG light system, where you can get over 50 different perks in the classes. In order to best take advantage of those, we wanted each decision and move for your soldier to be meaningful. And we though that the scope of six soldiers max was the best to do so. Anything beyond that, we would start to have moves that are not as powerful, and the matches would start to drag on. We’ve done playtesting with time limits and things like that, and we didn’t want to cross that threshold of, ‘these matches are taking to long, I want to hurry it up, I don’t even need this extra guy.’ Six is plenty. You’ll find when you play the game six is a very good amount.

How do sponsors work? Are they simply giving funds, and being overturned by aliens, or are they active and present in-game such as the corporations from X-COM: Apocalypse?

They are active and present. We’re calling the sponsors “the council” in our game. They represent the different countries around the world. And they are what is funding this super secret organization, which is XCOM, to allow you to continue to research, to engineer these super advanced products. You need money from the council. In order to get money from them, you need to protect them and keep them happy. And there are different ways you can do that, and that is dynamic, it can change. If a country in South America is getting attacked, their panic meter could rise to a certain amount, and you could lose them for good, and you can never get funding again from South America if you don’t do a good job at protecting them. And there’s different ways you can protect them. You can deploy sattelites over the countries to make sure that you have coverage for any alien craft that fly over them, you can intercept them, and sort of get ahead of the aliens. In the beginning of the game, you’re very reactant, you’re reacting to the alien attacks on abduction missions. Once you’re able to do interception and have enough satellites, you can then take the fight to the aliens through the interception jets and become a little proactive. And that’s the key to keep the funding coming from the council.

We were told during our demo that if you lose up to eight countries’ funding, you could lose the game. Is that a permanent game over? What if you have a save file?

Yes, that’s a permanent game over. Well, if you have a save file, you can reload. But there is a mode we are going to talk a bit more later about – we are going to have a mode called “Iron Man,” which the original fans should really like. That’s one save file. If you lose a soldier, he’s gone. You can’t reload, you can’t overwrite that save file. For the hardcore gamers out there, I think they’ll really like that level of challenge.

As far as soldier editing goes, will the name list be changeable? Are you able to change the color of their armor individually?

That was one of my favorite things when playing the original, was naming my soldiers after my friends and family, and my high school and middle school. Going out on a mission with my dad and seeing him get beat by Chryssalid. It made the story and the player’s set that much more provactive and that much more powerful. So you’ll certainly be able to rename your soldiers, customize how they look, their race, their skin color, their hair style. In addition, which the original did not do, you’ll also be able to customize how they play. So after they get promoted, you’re going to be able to level them up and give them different abilities that are custom to that soldier, which makes them even more powerful. So you’re not just talking about aesthetic changes to the original, you’re also talking about key tactical gameplay, that you can lose a few soldiers.

In the original X-COM, Plasma Cannons meant win, so long as you left Battleships alone. What are you doing for air-to-air combat in Enemy Unknown?

We’re taking a lot of time to balance the air-to-air combat. We will certainly have a lot of the things from the original that fans should be happy about, and we’re in the process of balancing that right now.

Are the placement of alein ships randomized in premade maps, similar to the placement of bases in a StarCraft title?

We have procedural elements of each map to make it feel different. Certain maps, like a lot of the crashed alien ships have landed, the spawn point of the soldiers can be in different spots every time you encounter that map – which you won’t even encounter that map in two full playthroughs. We have a lot of content that you’ll have to play through the game fully twice to see each map. But if you sat and played a third of fourth time, while you may come across the same map again, you’ll start in a new location. For example, you may have played in your first playthrough in the southwest corner of this map. When you encounter it again, you might start in the northwest. And it’s this completely different level flow leading to the alien ship. The alien spawns are different, the alien types are different, so each map really will feel dynamic.

Are grenades still in?

Yeah! We talked about smoke grenades, so that’s one of the first perks you can get from one of your support soldiers. You throw that smoke grenade, you can really use that to augment your fellow soldiers to move in closer.

Is destruction physics-based? If I take out majority of one floor of a building, will the entire structure collapse?

Destruction is – our team does such a good job at making destruction work, but it is a very challenging problem. We were able to make destruction a – you know, it works just like the original. You’re able to take out cover, you’re able to take out walls. Making bulk, full buildings collapse was a little bit outside of the scope of our schedule, but you will have these dynamic play-fields as different shots are taking out cover and walls, and totally changing the level flow.

I can imagine how difficult that’d be!

On the subject of off-base hangars, we’ve heard you get to station aircraft around the world. How does that work?

After you deploy sattelites, eventually, you could start protecting more of the world, start bringing the fight to the aliens by monitoring their flight patterns. You could then deploy interceptor jets to these mini-hangars whereever the sattelites are. So you still have one core base where all the cool stuff, which is where that ant farm – you saw the demo right? Yeah, it’s a side-view. It’s 3D, but it’s a side-view. That’s your ant farm, that’s your main base, that’s where you do all the cool customization and make it look how you want. But then you can deploy interceptor jets to be all around the world after you have satellite coverage there, which helps you to intercept the UFOs quicker.

This game has been boasted in the press as the X-COM for classic fans. But aside from older elements, what new elements specific to the FIraxis re-imagining have you added? Aside from what you’ve already told me, that is.

I’m really excited about the soldier advancement system, which the RPG-like soldier perk. That’s really exciting. That wasn’t in the original. It makes me feel even more attached to my soldiers, and I was really attached in the original. The art team has done a tremendous job of upholding the spirit of the original with the same aliens repaying homage in a lot of ways, but really making them feel modern, and making the aliens feel menacing. We have the cinematic cameras that sweep down into the gameplay field, so you feel like you’re playing something a little more action-oriented. We think the core gameplay elements of a turn-based game are critical for the decisions that you need to make, but we wanted to make it feel more dynamic and more alive as you’re going through that process, so we hope that it comes off well.

What signs of reassurance can you offer PC players who feel the game is being “downgraded” for console gamers?

Well, I can certainly assure you that. I mean, Jay is – he really is – I can’t imagine someone more passionate as the original. He sees that thing as holy. And he would not do anything to water down the original. You hear that sometimes, we don’t have every single element from the original, but I can guarantee you we have added more than we’ve taken out. When we talk about things like the RPG soldier class system, about the level of customization you can do in the base, there’s so much more content that we’ve added, and I assure you they’ll have a fun time if they give it a chance.

Are you planning mod tools? Or rather, how much mod support are we looking at? Will there be ‘Developer’s Choice’ maps?

That’s something we would love to do. We’re not committing to it as an absolute, but I know that our team would absolutely love to explore that, post-release.

Are you creating the game with download content in mind?

Yeah, we are. We certainly have no announcements [at this time], but we are thinking about DLC.

How do you feel about the on-disc download content debate?

I totally understand why folks would feel shunted by that. It’s totally reasonable. It’s – I don’t know – I guess I can’t comment on it so much as a developer, it’s very hard to make a game and plan for something that you have to deliver robust content 30 days later. But it’s certainly something I can understand why folks would get aggrivated over.

Aside from XCOM, what other game franchises are you interested in?

I’m actually a huge tactical squad-based gamer. My favorite game of all time is Final Fantasy Tactics. I loved, and it might be pure nostalgia, but that was the only game where I lied to my parents, and said to my parents ‘I’m sick, I can’ t go to school,’ so I can stay home and play it on the PlayStation. And then the PSP version – The War of the Lions – it was just a phenomenal game. So yeah, I was very much addicted to that game.

I’m curious to whether you’ve played any of the NIS strategy games such as Disgaea 4 or Phantom Brave?

Yes, I have played Disgaea. I only played the original Disgaea, it certainly pulled the – the narrative was a little bit too hokey for me, but Nippon Ichi makes really awesome stuff.

Can you do your best impression of a Chyssalid when it runs up at you? I’m going to publish it.


Haha, awesome. Thanks for your time, Garth!

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