Rant: XCOM and the State of AAA

I absolutely love watching interviews with the team at Firaxis who made the new XCOM.  These guys get it.  They not only get what made the original XCOM so great, but they know what makes their own game work so well, And I feel like that’s a dying art in the AAA industry.  So many games are so reliant on the tropes and mechanics established by every other game in the genre, that often you get the feeling that people included certain mechanics just because that’s what you do when you’re making a shooter.  So it’s crazy to see someone, and someone making a remake of all things, have a unified vision for their game and assess each mechanic based on its worth in achieving that vision.

Here are people making a remake to a game, which already had a massive fan-outcry against another remake for being too different from the original.  And they feel completely justified in changing around the core mechanics of the game because they know the game that they’re making.  The team at firaxis made more changes to the core mechanics of X-COM than most people making shooters make to whatever the last big shooter was.  What they kept from X-COM were the things you need to make it still be X-COM:  the setting, the atmosphere, the overall structure of the game.  They didn’t use X-COM as a base to build off of, they used X-COM as a goal to aspire towards.

I love watching interviews with these people who can talk with enthusiasm about making this game, who can talk about the reasons they did everything they did.  The fact that it was a fan-demanded remake of a classic strategy game ironically gave them the freedom to make the game they wanted to make.

I hate watching interviews with the people behind The Bureau.

The Bureau, to me, represents everything that’s wrong with the AAA industry, and is the antithesis of both the original X-COM and the Firaxis remake.  These are people who don’t understand the game they’re remaking, and subsequently don’t understand their own game.

They began the way most AAA studios start a game:  taking the cover-shooter genre and trying to mold it to the task at hand.  Is the game about zombies?  Hide behind cover and shoot at zombies!  Is the game about nazis?  Hide behind cover and shoot at nazis!  Is the game an adaptation of Oscar WIlde?  Hide behind cover and shoot at turn of the century dandies.

And then when the inevitable fan-backlash came, it was like they didn’t even understand what they had done wrong.  They had analyzed the original game, which to them was just “a game about alien conspiracy”, and made a game (read: cover shooter) based on that premise.  What else were they supposed to do?

So they had someone describe the original game in more detail to them.

“It’s a tactics game with permadeath and a kinda procedural mission structure,” they were told.

“Hm… I’ll have to figure out a way to make a game out of that,” they replied.

And thus they began the process of appending mechanics they don’t understand the purpose of, from a game they don’t understand, to a game which is almost entirely appropriated from previous games, and thus isn’t a game they understand.

In other words, they took this soup of Half-Life/Gears of War/Mass Effect which is the only thing they feed game developers at the AAA cafeteria, threw in some random chunks of X-COM and proclaimed they had created a masterpiece that lives up to the spirit of the original X-COM.

The original X-COM which was built from the ground up to craft the experience of fighting an alien invasion.  It’s the sort of design philosophy where you say “okay, what are all the things that you can do in an alien invasion story.”  And once they’d listed them out, they found a way to mechanically represent them in the game.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown took a similar approach of “okay, what are all the sorts of things you can do in X-COM.” And then found a way to do that with the sort of mechanically economic style that is Firaxis’ current MO.  Where X-COM is a game of optimizing minutiae, Enemy Unknown is a game of discrete binary decisions.  But they both have the same spirit.

Here’s the thing.  You could make an X-COM shooter and have it be good, if you built the experience from the ground up.  But the sort of person who would make an X-COM shooter in the first place is not qualified to do so.

The Bureau has been getting panned in reviews.  People talk about it as a betrayal to X-COM, which by all appearances it is.  But it’s something more than that.  It’s a betrayal of game design.  X-COM wasn’t some isolated magic moment in the 90s, it was the way games were designed back then.  The Bureau isn’t some isolated fluke of the current era either.  It’s how games are designed now.

The only difference is, in naming itself XCOM, it invites the comparison.

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