Lessons from XCOM: Enemy Within

XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Enemy Within has easily been my favorite game of the past 10 years. Unlike a lot of XCOM fans, I don’t play it as a roguelike game (high odds of failure; permadeath of character); as I mentioned in a previous post, I tend to focus on building interesting teams. But there’s a problem: once I’ve built up my characters, both in terms of attributes/skills and equipment, the challenges become pretty mundane. I’ve already worked through all the interesting events (invading the underground alien base, invading the Exalt base, having the XCOM base in turn invaded); it’s mostly just picking off saucers until I’m ready to attack the alien mothership and end the game. After having conquered the mothership three times, I’m confident I can do it every time, and so it’s been well over a year or more since I played an XCOM game to conclusion. I just get to a certain point…and then I start a new game with a new team.

I have the same problem with a lot of 4X/sim games. They tend to become tedious in the endgame, that is, I know I’m going to win, but the game forces me to play out through increasing tedium and, in the case of 4X/sim games, increasing micromanagement, all when I know I’m going to win. Again, my reaction is to abandon the game and start a new one.

So this brings up what I believe are three important game design goals for Frasgird.

Goal #1: keep the game path unpredictable (to a reasonable extent) to the very end. A key part of the game is navigating the changes that occur due to recombining multiverses. That needs to be modeled in such a way that players can tell each other stories about the unexpected developments in the middle of a game. (“So, yeah, my trader heads back to Sosai and finds that the Fa’yen and the Fnerd sapient races are both gone from the entire system; instead, there’s some formerly extinct Forerunner race, and they are treating the human colonies as wildlife preserves. Or livestock ranches. I wasn’t quite sure which, but I was able to set up a mass immigration run to Frasgird.”) The trick here is not to force some subset of predetermined narrative events but instead to create them procedurally from prior events and/or randomly from a sufficiently large set of possibilities to keep things fresh.

With this goal, I need to be careful not to make things difficult merely for the sake of making them difficult. Switching back to Fallout Shelter, the rad roach invasions are mostly just annoying now, and having them propagate more makes less sense, since I have a more densely populated colony with greater firepower. On the other hand, if after I had built downward some number of levels (say 10 or so), one of my bottom-level vault rooms was suddenly invaded by a giant Tremors-like graboid, I would have to suddenly rethink my vault design, layout, and staffing going forward (or, rather, downward) — and that would be a great thing.

Goal #2: detect victory (or defeat) as soon as possible. Some games (Tomb Raider 2013, Dishonored) really are designed for you to complete all the missions. But a lot of games — again, particularly 4X/sim games, or even turn-based strategy games like XCOM — require you to play until a definite victory condition (sometimes one out of several) is met. I want a game design that can look at progress to date and current status, and simply say, “It looks as though you’ve won. Congratulations.” For those who want it, the game can have a “bitter end” option that requires you to actually complete a specific classic victory condition.

Goal #3: avoid endgame grind. This is really the purpose of goals #1 and #2. Many games confuse scope, difficulty, and complexity with meaningful fun — so they keep dragging things out as you go along. Instead of a grind, the game should shift gears to higher levels of abstraction — allowing you to automate or hand off more and more of the running of the game to focus on the increasingly larger issues.

More later.

Filed Under: CharactersGame DesignMainOther Games

About the Author

Webster has been doing game design since 1980, but only has one actual published game to his credit -- Sundog: Frozen Legacy (Apple II, 1984; Atari ST, 1985). This is his second.

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