Inside XCOM's bold visuals

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown's absorbing visual style strives to give the niche strategy genre a mainstream makeover.

"It happens all the time!" begins Firaxis Games producer Garth DeAngelis, just as we're about to share a story of a friend who asked about this "new shooter" called XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

Before we can dive into our anecdote though, DeAngelis giddily jumps into his own: "I was demoing the game, before it was announced, to the publisher in their offices. I was setting it up, making sure the build played well. I was going through the script ... there's a sniper shot and a grenade blowing up with a close-up glam-cam ... and one of the IT guys who was helping me peeps his head in and goes 'So what game are you playing?'

"I say 'I'm playing our game, XCOM.' He says, XCOM? Isn't that the Firaxis title? No offense, but I don't really play Civilization ... you guys are developing this?' And like a moth to the flame, he's pulled into the room and is, like, 'Do you mind if I sit down and watch this? I'm more into shooters and stuff, but this looks really interesting.'"


Strategy gets sexy

While much of the positive buzz surrounding the unique visual style of XCOM: Enemy Unknown - a re-imagining of MicroProse's mouse-and-keyboard classic, X-Com: UFO Defense - seems to suggest all other turn-based strategy titles are uglier than an autopsied alien, DeAngelis' account accurately captures what separates it from its competition; it's not that its contemporaries are stubbornly sticking to the boring, bland, grid-based graphics that once defined the substance-over-style genre's visual presentations; heck, from Sid Meier's Civilization 5's stylized art deco look to the detail-drenched realism of Total War: Shogun 2, strategy games have actually spawned some of the prettiest presentations the medium's ever seen.

It's just that XCOM is frequently noticed for its graphics before its gameplay. And, as DeAngelis enthusiastically reminds us, it's sometimes mistaken for an all-out action title. "We see this a lot at shows like PAX and E3; I'll be out on the floor and hear guys walk by and be like, "Oh, what shooter is that?"


Of course, establishing an art style that could potentially pull trigger-happy fans from Call of Duty's front lines doesn't happen by accident. On the contrary, one of Firaxis Games' earliest goals for XCOM was crafting an experience that places as high a premium on engrossing graphics as it does intuitive functionality; not simply complementing the cerebral gameplay with a pretty paint job, but creating an immersion-amping atmosphere that plays just as pivotal a role as the mechanics.

While proud of his studio's previous success in delivering deep, design-driven experiences, DeAngelis also sees XCOM as a corner-turning opportunity to strive for something outside its strategy-focused comfort zone. "The team was pushing for a distinct visual style that could compete with other genres right from the very start," he says. "Civilization is certainly more of a God game ... it's more pulled out; it has a pretty defined visual style. But our art team said, 'We do want to take elements from action games and RPGs and we want to break out of the classic strategy box a little bit.' Art's important on every project, but for XCOM it's been a pillar from day one to really push not only what Firaxis does, but what is the norm in this genre."


The man behind the makeover

The daunting task of establishing a style that would convince twitchy fingered console gamers to notice the sort of experience generally enjoyed by hardcore PC players fell to 17 year video game industry veteran, art director Greg Foertsch, who, ironically, didn't know he wanted to make games for a living until he was already doing it. "I kind of stumbled into this," he says. "I used to play Atari 2600. And, I don't know if I should admit this, but when I was in high school I would do the art for cracked video games; I didn't actually crack them, but the people who did would ask me to do art for them. So I had an idea of what I wanted to do."

Following high school, Foertsch earned a degree in illustration from the Maryland Institute College of Art before scoring an internship at MicroProse - just a year prior to the developer releasing the soon-to-be cult classic X-COM: UFO Defense.


"I spent four years in art school, just painting and drawing, but not really paying attention to the technology. I didn't know much about it ... I did my term papers on an Apple IIe computer that I got in '75. But I happened to be going to school in Maryland and MicroProse was in my backyard. When I first started there, they sat me down with a stack of floppy discs and a 386, and said 'Good luck. Have fun.' And I'm like, 'I don't know how to do this. Can someone help me install DOS?'"

Foertsch, who describes himself as a social guy who doesn't lock himself in a closet and later emerge with 20 paintings, loved the team-driven, collaborative atmosphere at MicroProse, but still wasn't sure he was following the right career path. That all changed when MicroProse co-founder Sid Meier left to form Firaxis Games in 1996 and invited Foertsch to join his new venture.

"I never really knew how long I'd stay with this," Foertsch says. "At first, it felt temporary, plus MicroProse was going through so many problems. Once I started at Firaxis, I remember I was one of five artists at the time. We had a penthouse suite in my office. We had a window. I'm like 23 years old looking out the window going, 'OK, this is for real. This is really my job.' That was the moment when I was like, 'OK, this is real art.'"


As beautiful as it is brutal

Flash-forward 17 years and almost as many games - most with Sid Meier's name in the title - and Foertsch is describing how that "real art" is now a huge part of what drives XCOM's visual style. "I'm continually reminded of my traditional training," he says. "Our process in making XCOM is very organic. It's much more like painting and much less like filling in a spreadsheet." A traditionally-inspired trait even the untrained eye could recognize is XCOM's liberal use of rainbow-shaming colors; as vibrant as it violent, the game doesn't shy away from showing the gorier side of an alien invasion - like Sectoids feasting on human corpses - while also favoring the brighter side of the painter's palette.

"We didn't want to make another gray and brown game," says Foertsch. "We tried very hard to push the color a little bit. Not only that, we also wanted to see what the color was and what the light and dark was. A lot times in making games, guys go their separate ways; somebody makes the pictures, somebody makes the trash cans, somebody makes the cars. When you mash them all up and see them in-game, there's often lots of noise. Much like a painting, we block in everything in color and dark and light to make sure it all works that way; then, the very final task on the levels is to add a richness to the texture ... to actually add texture to them."



An alien invasion anyone can enjoy

The decision to build a strategy game that would engage the brain as much as the eyes was fueled by Foertsch's and his team's goal to not only please existing series fans but also potential new players who wouldn't know a Sectoid Commander if it was attempting to meld with their mind. "We want to create something that looks cool ... looks fun for everybody," he says. "We want to reach as many people as possible and have them get into the game, understand it, and see that it holds up against anything. That was always the goal. We're really trying to get anyone to play this game; even if you weren't a super big fan of the original, you'd know what it was. We wanted to appeal to more people and really push the graphics for mainstream."

Of course, as the makers of so many reboots and re-imaginings - in more marketable genres than turn-based strategy, no less - have learned the hard way, pleasing faithful fans while also pulling in new players can be tricky. Foertsch's solution is "stylized realism," a delicately balanced artistic approach that incorporates the aforementioned painterly qualities, but also subtly draws on the original X-COM's aesthetics while injecting them with a heavy dose of recognizable pop-culture touchstones. The end result, as its name suggests, falls somewhere between the realism of a military a shooter and the stylized appeal of Team Fortress 2.


Classic X-COM collides with pop-culture

While Foertsch cites everything from action figures to ant farms in discussing the title's familiar, yet slightly twisted look, it tends to be this mix of old and new that players most identify with. Whether it's old-school strategists noticing Enemy Unknown's Skyrangers look not-so-suspiciously like UFO Defense's similar troop transports or newcomers comparing XCOM's Sectoids to a little gray menace they once saw in an X-Filesepisode, connections happen often.

As DeAngelis explains, finding the sweet spot that satisfies seasoned strategy fans who still hold a 17-year-old title near and dear to their hearts, while also turning the heads of those who'd rather shotgun zombies in the face than manage resources, is no cake walk.

"The art of the original game is the seed for almost every decision we made," he says. "And it might have grown or just turned into something wildly different, but we always started with that source material, the original UFO Defense. The alien designs are great examples of that, where you can see that the art team would look at that original 2D sprite and understand what the design of it was, what the spirit of the alien was. But then how do we modernize it almost 18 years later to make it feel appropriate in 2012, yet still retain the spirit of that 2D image?"


For Foertsch and his team, meeting this challenge meant not just staying true to the original spirit, but also drawing on the familiar in much the same way UFO Defense did back in 1994. "The one thing we really have in common with the original game is not so much that our Sectoid looks like their Sectoid; it's that their Sectoid is rooted in UFO lore," he says. "So more than us having something in common with the original X-COM, it's that the original X-COM had something in common with pop culture. We played more on that aspect of it, so the first alien you encounter has to be a little alien because that's what everyone knows an alien as. We wanted to enter into things that people already know how to relate with ... things that resonated with them. Just like the game's first map with the gas station ... everybody knows where the gas station down the street is ... everybody's got one."

The motivation behind Foertsch's approach is far more sinister than it sounds. Sure, it seems like he's inviting players into a familiar world with its mom and pop filling stations and neighborhood bars, but he's actually enticing them into a state of comfort or complacency in the hopes of scaring the skivvies off them when they least expect it. "We figured if we started the player with things they knew, then we could start twisting things as the game goes along," he says. "We really wanted to play off that. So, the first UFO you encounter will be a saucer, but that doesn't mean the last one is going to be a saucer."



Great wall of XCOM

With no current technology available to spit out Foertsch's "stylized realism" in a few key strokes, his team had to concept and iterate the hell out of everything, from the biggest extraterrestrial evil-doers to the tiny medikits most players won't even notice until their health dips dangerously into the red zone.

DeAngelis, who calls himself a "wannabe artist," describes the first time he saw XCOM's early artwork: "I remember when I came on board in level design, just seeing the concepts hanging on the wall got me a little more giddy than I'm proud to admit. I don't think that much usually goes into a strategy game, but these guys, they wanted to figure out every nook and cranny."

While sketches of cool extraterrestrials, rocket ships, and space marines dominate theXCOM art wall, it's the numerous pages of passionately drawn weapons, gear, and gadgets that grab our attention. Which brings us back to those medikits; while players will no doubt remember exactly how to use the life-giving gadgets when some big-eyed bastard's about to turn them into a pulpy puddle, will they care - or even notice - what the actual device looks like? When posed with this very question, DeAngelis responds with a chuckle: "Yeah, the medikit. You know, sometimes Greg and I do butt heads ... the medikit ... I don't know why he needed 18 iterations on that. That's part of the passion of these guys ... everything from 2D images and the research archives, to the smallest 3D objects ... we have really dedicated artists on this game."


Drafting a dozen-plus takes on a medikit, an item often represented by a white box adorned with a red cross in genres widely considered more artistically ambitious, might sound excessive, but Foertsch justifies the seemingly obsessive attention to detail. "It's about how an item is going to work, how it's going fit, what makes sense," he says. "There's a lot of back and forth. At some point, the medikit was actually something attached to the outside of the shoulder; at one point it was put in packs. So it's been through a couple of design revisions that caused it to receive a little more effort."

Even more challenging than ensuring users are treated to an eye-pleasing visual cue every time they slap on a band-aid, is creating items that have no context at all within the real world. Foertsch elaborates, "The toughest stuff are things that we don't know what they look like ... things that are hard to quantify. It's not like you can look up a plasma rifle like you can an M16 and go, 'Oh, that's what we're making. For some of the things that have no reference, it's a much more difficult process. We gave everything as much love as we could because a lot of it had no context. So yeah, we spent a lot of time concepting."


Form meets function, fun, and some frustration

Of course, concepting isn't just about iterating on a design until it looks as cool as possible; it's making it look as cool as possible and functional. Most players hurtling up the sides of structures in search of that perfect sniper perch from behindXCOM's grappling hook will never know the stress the slick little gadget saddled Foertsch's team with. We, on the other hand, won't ever trigger the device without recalling his pained account of its design. "The grappling hook was a total nightmare," he says. "Things that actually add functionally within the game ... it's not so much getting the right asset, but making it work in the game, working with animation. There's a lot of back and forth because these things have to go from the model to the animators to programming to working. Those things take quite a bit of time."

While navigating the design complexities of the grappling hook had Foertsch reaching for his own personal medikit, bringing the beyond-creepy Thin Man to life was far more fun than frustrating. Foertsch cites everything from The Matrix and Men in Black to Signs and Aliens - whose influence is easily identified in the concept of the motion tracker-esque targeting painter - as big screen inspirations, but the menacing humanoid's origins are rooted in a decidedly different cinematic source.

"We looked at a lot of stuff, but for the Thin Man we got to the point where ... well ... Raiders of the Lost Ark." More specifically, Foertsch is referring to Arnold Ernst Toht, the bespectacled Nazi whose hand is branded with the Staff of Ra's headpiece; fans of the film will also remember him as the dude who had his face melted from his skull later in the film. Foertsch, evidently excited over the prospect of unleashing this sort of nightmare-conjuring imagery on unsuspecting players, continues, "He's one of the creepiest characters ever in movies ... those round, metal-rimmed glasses, the plastered over hair. We wanted that sort of creepy, semi-natural, but not really natural look for the Thin Man."

Much like the close-knit squaddies thwarting the extraterrestrial threats in his game, Foertsch values teamwork above all else, describing the artists he oversees as "talented and mature." Traits he believes are integral to achieving Firaxis' goal of not only having XCOM ultimately recognized as a "cool strategy game," but more importantly, as a "cool game."

That's really the make-or-break caveat though, and one Foertsch has seen countless other development teams struggle with. "There are lots of great looking shooters that don't have very good gameplay, and there's lots of strategy games that are really cool to play, but don't look very good," he says. "You've got to work with that marriage of design and graphics and come up with something that manages to satisfy everybody. My job is really to figure that out. Hopefully, this time, I did OK."