Friday, June 10, 2011

Gaming at a Crossroads

Before and After: The original X-Com (Top) and the series reboot by 2K Games (Bottom)


It is perhaps appropriate that my inaugural blogpost would be about X-Com which has been in the news over the past year leading up to E3. X-Com is a game franchise that has spanned nearly two decades and is home to a rabid fanbase of oldskool strategy gaming purists. Admittedly, this is probably the game that singlehandely turned me into the gamer I am today. I couldn't even begin to estimate how many hours of my life were lost to fighting aliens and saving the planet. For all the younger gamers that have no idea what I'm talking about, a bit of history is necessary.

In the Beginning

The original X-Com was a series of games made by Mythos Games/Microprose in the early 1990's. These were DOS games which required you to know your way around a command line well before Windows and point and click mouse interfaces became common. The first X-Com game occupied less than 5MB of diskspace - impossibly small by today's game standards, and came on 1.44MB 3.5" floppies.

Despite the miniscule size, X-Com was a very ambitious game for its time. It perfectly melded tabletop style wargaming with bits of resource management and RPG elements. The premise of the game was that extraterrestrials were visiting Earth for conquest. The various Earth governments banded together to form X-Com, a force specifically tasked to interdict and destroy the alien threat. Success meant increased funding for X-Com while failure meant alien subversion of various areas/governments and decreased funding.

During a typical game, you spent your time recruiting soldiers, scientists and engineers. Soldiers were used in later turn-based battles, while scientists and engineers were used to research new technologies and then putting them into production. Bases needed to be built across the world and managed in order to detect and battle alien incursions. Money was the central limiting factor which forced you to balance upgrades and expansion. The tech tree in the X-Com series were always huge and were divided between weapons, craft, power, technology and alien lifeforms.

Isometric, turn-based combat (Top) Information on Sectoid Autopsy in UFOPaedia (Bottom)

The game featured elements of RPG style leveling of troops, weapons and structures, and turn-based battles required proper squad level tactics to successfully complete. Proper management of resources were required for continual progression and eventual success. It was a deceptively simple gaming formula, and yet was a difficult game to master. The addictive gameplay was like getting hooked on virtual crack. The series spawned many sequels with the latest being the series reboot by 2K Games. For more detailed info, here's the X-Com Wiki link:

Fast Forward

Over the past year, a series reboot was announced by 2K Games, which was originally greeted with cheers by the loyal fanbase. However as more details leaked over the web culminating at this year's E3, fanbase emotions have run the spectrum from consternation to fear and now, outright anger. Many oldtimers feel that using shooter mechanics ruins the more cerebral combat of games past. To a certain extent, I have to agree with this argument.

The X-Com series has always played more like tabletop wargames rather than shooters. Success in battle hinged on using the the right troops and weapons with the right capabilities and stats. Combat resolution, while affected by chance, came down to successfully making a die roll. The new X-Com by 2K Games is proposing to change that mechanic to emphasize twitch reflexes.

However it can also be argued that this change is more evolutionary than revolutionary in nature. Tabletop wargames were the direct progenitors of the first computerized, turn-based strategy games. Over time, turn-based games like X-Com evolved into real-time strategy games such as Starcraft or Command & Conquer which required faster reflexes.

In an industry dominated by shooters, it certainly makes financial sense for developers to take that twitch factor to the next level by bringing a first person or third-person perspective to the X-Com franchise. We've seen various examples of RPGs such as The Elder Scrolls: Obilivion, Fallout 3 and the Mass Effect series using first or third person mechanics with all the stat-tracking and die rolls happening invisibly in the background. Done well, an RPG doesn't necessarily need to be a number-crunching exercise and can still provide that sense of progression and accomplishment with a more visceral and direct presentation.

The Crossroads
The real, underlying issue here though isn't the choice of gameplay style or presentation. It has more to do with the financial incentives involved with making a game. Games on modern consoles can cost anywhere from 10 to 20 million dollars to develop. Triple AAA titles, along with their expanded staffing requiremens and advertising budgets cost even more. Over the last several years, independent developers and publishers maximized their financial returns by supporting multiple gaming platforms. Recently, however, thanks largely to Nintendo's uber-successful Wii, an opinion has also formed that making games simpler and more accessible to a casual audience helps to create larger overall demand and sell-through. Herein lies the danger, one that is fully appreciated by the X-Com fanbase.

2K Games has chosen to update the X-Com reboot by making it more like a shooter, and the reasons for that are rather self-explanatory. The more cynical among us might even see this as a pure money grab by creating a shooter and exploiting the X-Com name. It isn't trivial to create a good RPG wrapped in shooter mechanics. In fact, it can be argued that in the worst case scenario, the whole X-Com experience could be severely dumbed down to the point that it becomes literally a brainless point and shoot twitch-fest.

It is a given that developers and publishers need to make money for the gaming industry to continue to thrive and grow. However, what 2K Games needs to keep in mind is that X-Com is a well loved franchise with a lot of history behind it. They need to respect and pay homage to the bits that made the X-Com series special to its fanbase while they update the gameplay for the 21st century. Is it possible to make a RPG-esque, strategic shooter? Absolutely - and many examples exist. So it is incumbent upon 2K Games to do the right thing in its revival of the X-Com brand. They should create an intelligent, action oriented RPG, keeping the resource management, research and tech-tree elements intact. Here's to hoping that 2K Games does this right and helps to revive a classic franchise.

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