How Sid Meier's protégé resurrected the classic strategy game — and almost destroyed it in the process.
Jake Solomon is waking up from a dream. And it's not a good dream.
In Solomon's dream, he's driven by an intense and grim determination to accomplish a nearly impossible task. This task consumes and terrorizes him. It separates him from his family. It forces him to confront his weaknesses and fears. And no matter how much he struggles, no matter how hard he tries, he comes up short and he fails. Over and over and over.
And then he wakes up, and it was all just a dream.
Jake Solomon was the lead designer on XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It is a game that almost wasn't. A game that Jake Solomon almost ruined. A game that almost broke him. But it is a game that, no matter what Solomon tells you, has become more successful than anyone could have imagined.
Anyone, that is, except for Jake Solomon. Jake Solomon just can't quite believe that yet.
Ask Solomon how he feels about the success of his game and he'll tell you that he just doesn't know. In fact, he'll dodge the question. Repeatedly. Nail him to the wall and he'll finally admit that all he thinks about, when he sees the game he's been making for the past half-decade and more, is not how much of a success it has become, but how much of a failure it used to be.
"I've fantasized about this for 15 years," Solomon tells Polygon. "There were long stretches of time when I did not believe this would be possible. I just didn't think it would work out. The game would probably not end up being very good. So I would fantasize about getting to this point where I am now. But it's weird, because when you do that ... It's never what you expect."
What Solomon expected was that he would make his game — the game that inspired him to become a game maker in the first place — and it would be a smash hit. People would love it, and him. People would play it as obsessively as he had the original. And that is what has largely come to pass.
I would fantasize about getting to this point where I am now. But it's weird, because when you do that ... It's never what you expect.
But what Jake Solomon also believed was that this would all be easy. That he was up to the task. That Solomon, protégé of one of the greatest game designers in the world, would knock XCOM out of the park with one swing and walk the bases in a shower of sparks. That didn't happen.
Here's what did happen: XCOM: Enemy Unknown was officially in development for five years. In reality, the game was in development off-and-on starting in 2003, when Solomon and a hand-picked team at Firaxis took their first stab at prototyping the game. They would fail. Twice. And then fail some more, leading Solomon to question his vision, his ambition and his competence. The fact the game was finished at all is a testament to trial and error, Solomon's dogged determination and the intervention of a man named Sid Meier.
"I think that each player is playing their own unique game. They are the stars, as we consider it. They're driving that story and creating their own unique story. That's fundamental to the enjoyment of these kinds of games. You're not going down the one single path that the designers created for you. You can take things in whatever way you want to. It's your game. It's not a game that belongs to us." — Sid Meier
Jake Solomon is currently in the middle of a long vacation — the first he's had since joining Firaxis over 12 years ago. He spends his days cutting down trees and chopping them up for firewood. He hangs around the house, annoying his wife, who, after five years of wishing he'd be around more, is getting used to him actually being around more.
"My wife was very worried when we shipped the game, because I was so consumed by it," Solomon says. "It bled into our personal lives. I'd talk about it a lot. She was very worried, like, 'What are you going to do?'"
It's no wonder XCOM bled into Solomon's marriage. It was, and probably remains, the singular inspiration for his 12-year career as a maker of video games.
Growing up, Solomon played the hell out of the original XCOM: UFO Defense. He played it for hundreds of hours. It captivated him. He could tell you everything about it, what worked and what didn't, and why it was the best game ever made. After Solomon graduated high school, at the urging of his parents, he started studying for medical school, but becoming a doctor wasn't in the cards. This was in 1995, the year the internet exploded and multiplayer gaming became an actual thing.
"[It] was a fucking amazing year in games," Solomon says. "All these games were coming out; everybody was playing games. It was the most amazing year. That's when I switched my major from pre-med to computer science."
In spite of the wealth of new games and experiences, Solomon was still playing XCOM. He decided, if he could have any career, it would be working at a company that made strategy games, making a game like XCOM — and if he had his druthers, making a game exactly like XCOM. Four years later, degree in hand, Solomon applied to work at Firaxis ... and got in.
"It was complete luck," he says. "I don't know how I got the job."
Solomon's design talent and passionate creativity helped him rise fairly quickly. He became a trusted member of Sid Meier's team, helping solve complicated problems and interfacing between Meier and other members of the staff. He described himself as Meier's minion, but in actuality he was more like a fixer.
Growing up, Solomon played the hell out of the original XCOM: UFO Defense.
"[Solomon] always spoke from the player's point of view, which to me is key," Meier tells Polygon, in a recent interview at Firaxis. "It's very easy to speak from a programmer's point of view and say, 'We could add this cool technology' or 'We could do this whiz-bang thing.' That's cool, but it really doesn't add a lot to the player's experience."
Dream job secured, Solomon immediately began lobbying to complete the circle and convince Firaxis to build his dream game. It became a running joke. There was no question in anyone's mind what game, if given the chance, Solomon would want to make. Finally, in 2003, they let him.
Solomon was given six months and a small team. His task: make a prototype for a new version of XCOM. It would be the biggest opportunity of his life. And he would blow it.
"We get that kind of feedback when we go to trade shows, conventions, GDCs [Game Developer Conferences], wherever; running into people who say, 'I played this game when I was a kid. When is there going to be another?' That kind of enthusiasm ... is really an integral part of what we do. We're very fortunate to be able to make fun, and to have that fun bounce back to us and energize us and inspire us again is great." — Sid Meier
"I was enthused by his enthusiasm," Meier says. "I love the [XCOM] game concept. I think it's a wonderful idea. It's a very exciting idea. It's a classic problem that we have of taking an idea that was great 10, 15, 20 years ago and bringing it into the present. What do you keep? What do you change? What does today's audience expect? What is the fan base for that [XCOM] expecting? How do you meet all those expectations?"
The man to answer those questions would be Jake Solomon.
Firaxis operates like the artist-driven studios of old: Game designs are driven by designers, not publishers, and teams rally around a central leader. What that leader says, goes. Solomon likens this to being the pilot of an airplane. Everyone else is on the plane. They sit behind the pilot and wait for him to take off. After that, it's time to hang on and hope the plane doesn't crash.
In order to make this system work, Firaxis has adopted an open attitude towards failure. It is nimble, able to change direction or — if necessary — completely cancel a project and move on to something different. After all, even the best designers can design themselves into a corner. The best airplanes sometimes crash. Sid Meier should know: He is, by any metric, one of the best game designers in the world.
"We have been willing to say, 'OK, we've tried this. It's not working. It's not fun. Let's do something else,'" Meier says. "I think the fact that our studio is willing to do that is what gives me the confidence that, at the end of the day, the product is going to be good, whatever the product is."
Meier designed what is arguably the most well-known and longest-lived strategy game of all time: Civilization. Now in its fifth iteration, Civilization has become the gold standard of strategy games, and its success allowed Meier and his business partners to build an empire in Maryland's Hunt Valley, where he and the rest of Firaxis focus on making one or two games at a time and making them great, however long that might take.
In the case of XCOM, that took almost 10 years.
"It was not clear at every moment that this project was going to happen," Meier says. "But it was clear at every moment that if this project happened, it would be because we were feeling good about the outcome and what the game was."
Meier got his start at a different time. There were fewer games, fewer companies making them and far fewer rules.
"A lot of us became game designers because there were games that we wanted to play that hadn't been made yet or hadn't been made the way we thought they should have been made," Meier says. "When I started designing games, the field was wide open. I was able to make a game about pirates, and railroads, and civilization, all sorts of cool topics that I thought were fun. Games hadn't really been made about them."
Making games can be easier now. The tools are better. The teams are larger. It's easier to pick up a game engine and crack together a prototype. But, as Solomon discovered in 2003, making a good game is still hard work. After working with his small team for six months, Solomon unveiled his XCOM prototype ... and it was terrible.
"I made one of the shittiest, shittiest prototypes of a game that anyone has ever made," Solomon says. "I mean, I'd only been in the industry for three years. I'm lucky I even got the opportunity. ... And it was so shitty ... I had so much to learn. It wasn't fun. It was awful. It was awful. I'm not only the guy who remade XCOM, I'm also the guy who almost fucking killed it."
Solomon and his programmer wrote an engine, and then borrowed free downloadable character models from Unreal Tournament. The music was lifted from the 2002 Mel Gibson vs. aliens movie Signs. The design was heavily inspired by the original XCOM, but took the game in random new directions that, combined, made little or no sense.
"It was not clear at every moment that this project was going to happen."
"It was mouse-driven and it was tile-based, but it was this weird sort of ... UI was not my strong suit," Solomon says.
The final product didn't have buttons, UFOs, buildings or fun. The maps were gigantic. Solomon calls it a "hotkey-driven fuckin' mess." Players were asked to memorize a mammoth amount of data just to control the game, then wander in a massive open area with only two aliens to shoot. It was "un-fun."
"That's about as far as we got, after six months," Solomon says. "After that point Firaxis wisely shut it down. That was the end of the first XCOM remake, thank God."
"I love designing games. I enjoy the process of watching them come to life. They start with just a wild and crazy idea and a lot of optimism. Then, day by day, you have to build a little piece of that final product. There are good days and bad days." — Sid Meier
The second chance
Four years later, Firaxis was at a crossroads. The console version of Civilization, Civilization Revolution, was in the works, but it was time for another version of the flagship franchise; it was time for another Civ for PC. And, unbeknownst to Solomon, other gears were turning, pointing toward establishing a new franchise entirely: the first game at Firaxis to be released without Sid Meier's name on the box.
Solomon's dream was about to come true, again. And believe it or not, he was going to blow it ... again.
"A team was available," Meier says. "We needed a game. [We said] 'What's the best idea we have floating around here that's not Civilization?'"
The decision: XCOM. After four years of working as the fixer between Meier and other members of the team, Jake Solomon had earned another shot at designing his own game. And again, there was no doubt in anyone's mind what game he would want to tackle.
"We knew the game. We felt it was in our wheelhouse," says Meier. "Strategy. Exciting fun stuff. For a lot of reasons, it made sense. With Jake's enthusiasm and talent, it seemed like the right thing to do."
Firaxis President Steve Martin ("Not that Steve Martin," Solomon notes) asked Solomon for an updated design proposal. Solomon wrote one, then presented it to the company's directors. Some time later, he got the nod.
Civ Revolution was still deep in what Solomon calls a "gnarly" crunch, and he was still very much a part of that project. He'd work on Revolution during the day, then go home at night and plug away at his concept for XCOM.
"At this point I didn't know we would use the Unreal Engine," he says. "So I was writing all this code that would later have to be thrown away. I'd come home at night and work on the game until late, late at night."
Over the next five years, Solomon would hardly see his wife and family. A child would be born and not see its father for almost a year. Solomon would reach a breaking point, unsure if he could ever make the game work. Unsure if it would be fun. Wondering if he would let his family, his company and his mentor down.
"I grew up playing Sid's games," Solomon says. "But when you work for somebody day in and day out, you view them as ... I could tell he was brilliant. I could tell he was a genius. But the way he makes it look easy, you're kind of like ... This is where I got into trouble."
The process of building XCOM would be the most difficult and transformative of Solomon's career, but it would begin with a supremely confident Solomon feeling certain that he'd nailed it; early and under budget, less than a year into its five-year development cycle. Firaxis kicked off development on XCOM and the latest iteration of its PC strategy game Civilization V at roughly the same time. The two teams — Civ V, led by Jon Shafer, and XCOM, led by Jake Solomon — divided up the Firaxis staff between them.
"I knew I had certain guys I wanted to work with. There's a natural affinity between groups of guys," Solomon says. "My lead artist, Greg Foertsch ... I told him what I thought the updated game was going to look like; how it was going to play. I walked Greg through the design of it."
The first step was making a "tone video": a short video encapsulating the spirit of the game Solomon envisioned. The plan was to show the video to the rest of the Firaxis team to drum up support, and also to publisher 2K, to drum up money.
"He and I would talk for about a half hour a day," Foertsch tells Polygon. "What we wanted to do, what we wanted it to be. Having that kind of roll-up time before we did the movie, where it was just like, 'What are we shooting for? What do we think it's going to be?' It was a really casual conversation. It was easy to start pulling everyone else into it once we were ready and we felt like we had a good sense of what we were going to make."
Solomon returned to the Civ Rev team, to finish his work there, while Foertsch and a team of artists focused on making the tone video. Based on Solomon's design, the video showed off a lot of what would eventually end up in the game (aliens, cinematic cameras, action moves) and a lot that would eventually get left by the wayside (almost everything else).
"The design was pretty far off, in terms of the actual mechanics," Solomon says. "Design-wise, in my mind ... Enemy Unknown was going to be almost an exact remake of the original game."
In the pitch video, you can see the beginnings of a train wreck. Solomon's design adheres to the hardest of hardcore strategy components of the original XCOM and then adds more. There are tons of soldiers, shot modes and time units. But perhaps what would eventually cause the most drama and confusion over the next few years was the one thing Solomon wanted in the game more than anything else: random maps.
"If you can imagine the image of me out there marching forward alone, nobody behind me, for a long time, until I had to turn around ... I wanted random maps in the game," he says.
Solomon carried that flag for a long time. He wanted the game's levels to be procedurally generated, so that players could play the game forever, essentially, and never once see the same map. The programmers told him it couldn't be done. There was tension.
In the video, you can see the beginnings of a train wreck.
The programmers believed they were already pushing the limits of what could be done in their game. XCOM would have a "fog of war" effect, revealing portions of the map only when the player had a unit that could see them. They were also building destructible environments, so that when players shot at parts of buildings or vehicles, those things would break apart in realistic ways. These were elements many players would expect, but they added complexity to the design. And they took time. Time everyone but Solomon believed they didn't have.
"It came down to a question of ... If we do this, if we do procedurally generated maps, they said that they were going to look like shit," Solomon says. "It wasn't going to look like any of the other games. I mean, we're not trying look better than every other game out there, but it wouldn't have even looked comparable. We would have looked like fuckin' shit."
For Solomon, it was a heartbreaking moment, and his first inkling that the XCOM he wanted to make might not be possible.
"It was crazy to think that we were going to do all of these things we were already planning, and then do random maps," he says. "I'm glad that they talked me out of it, because I think it actually ... I don't know. Even when I think about it now, it makes me nervous. If we'd gone down that road, it really would have been a problem ... I don't even know if we would have finished it, to be honest with you.
"They were right and I was wrong. I still miss [the maps], though."
By 2009, the tone video had given way to a "vertical slice," essentially a short demo displaying the core concepts as Solomon envisioned them. And there were a lot of them.
"In our vertical slice, we had eight to 10 soldiers," Solomon says. "We had time units; we had people disembarking from the Skyranger into a procedurally generated level ... it was very much like the original game."
Minor disagreements aside, development had been going well. Almost too well, as Solomon remembers it. He believed they were progressing from concept to game in near-record time. He felt like they were going to float to the finish line ahead of schedule and deliver a knockout product.
On the afternoon of April 23, 2009, with their vertical slice completed, Solomon and his team left for a well-earned drink. They thought they'd nailed it. Solomon's wife found him in his basement at 3 a.m., out-of-his-mind drunk and stark raving mad.
"My wife still hates that story, for good reason," Solomon says, "But it was like we'd shipped the game. It was this huge celebration. And we were really only 10, 11 months into the project."
After they recovered from their revelry, the XCOM team showed the vertical slice to the rest of Firaxis. Responses were mixed: People either loved it or hated it.
On the love side were hardcore fans of the original XCOM, who shared Solomon's affinity for the complexities of the game. On the hate side was everyone else, who couldn't understand what they were even looking at. The realization started to sink in that Solomon and his team had wasted more than a year designing a game that, outside of a small, core group of passionate fans, would be a complete failure.
"Up until that point I sort of felt like ... It just all seemed to be going so well," Solomon says. "The game looked great. Nobody had been able to play it because it had taken a really long time to get the game code running, but it looked great. We were thrilled that we were making a new XCOM. It was so exciting. ... But in the weeks after the vertical slice, when the feedback started coming in, that was the first moment when I ... I grew up as a designer.
"That was my first realization that this whole first year had basically netted us something that wasn't very fun. We were stepping on this path where I started to realize ... this game is not going to work."
Vertical slice video
"Every good game design has three or four core ideas that are going to make it fun for the player. You have to believe in those core ideas. Once everything comes together, it's going to be fun. It's going to be awesome. You have to keep that vision and that idea in mind." — Sid Meier
The green recliner
Sid Meier's office is the first door on the left.
Walking into Firaxis, you're presented with three options: left, right or center. The building — a former McCormick Spice Company warehouse — is split roughly in half, with offices and workstations for one team to the right and those of another to the left. At any one time, those two teams will be working on different projects. If you want to skip the workstations and visit the trophy wall, the kitchen or the wall-sized print of a photograph of the infamous Blair Witch Woods, you'll take the middle corridor, straight through the center of the building. If you work on XCOM, you'll go to the right. If you're working on Civilization, you'll go to the left. And if you do go left, then Sid Meier's door is the first door you'll see. On the left.
Meier's office is spacious, but not as spacious as you might expect. It is also cluttered. It is the room of a man who does a lot of thinking. The walls are covered with shelves, which strain under the burden of a residue of the entire history of video game design: books, photographs, game boxes, manuals, knickknacks. Meier's desk rests roughly halfway into the room, off to one side. Beside his desk is an anomalous green chair.
The green chair is a large, overstuffed La-Z-Boy recliner. It is has been worn by years of good use. It looks dramatically comfortable and the shocking kelly green color suggests that this is a piece of furniture that would find no other home than in the office of a man who answers to practically no one.
When Jake Solomon comes into the office for work, he walks to the right, to the XCOM side of the building. His path does not ordinarily take him by Sid Meier's office. Yet during the development of XCOM, more often than not, he'd make an unscheduled detour, walk left, enter unannounced into the office of his mentor and then take up residence in the green chair. In April of 2009, he practically lived there.
In April of 2009, Solomon had hit a wall with XCOM. The vertical slice was a failure. His design was a failure. And he was facing the possibility that his career as a designer was also a failure. Struggling with these realizations, he spent a lot of time in Meier's green chair. Solomon calls it his "therapy chair."
"He claims there's something about sitting in that chair that allows him to collect his thoughts," Meier says. "Things become clearer. Whenever I come to my office and I see him sitting there, I know it's time to have a little chat and we're going to move on and solve this problem."
Over almost a decade, Solomon and Meier developed a nuanced relationship comprised of equal parts employee – supervisor, mentor – student and father – son. Two programmers with a love of games. Two creative minds with radically different personalities.
"We're very different people," Solomon says. "This sounds silly, but he's like a father figure to me. He's so important to me."
"Whenever I come to my office and I see him sitting in the chair, I know it's time to have a little chat."
Solomon describes himself as vulgar, loud and obnoxious ("I curse a lot"), whereas Meier is "the nicest human being you have ever met." Meier, however, when pressed, refuses to characterize Solomon's personality, saying only that he and Solomon have "different personalities, but not different sensibilities."
"We believe in the same kinds of games," Meier says. "We believe the same things are fun. So in terms of games I think we're pretty compatible. But in our personalities, our extroversion versus introversion, and in many other ways, we're different.
"Part of our design process is not to insert our personalities into the game. It's more to insert our sensibilities, our ideas about what makes good games. In that regard we're pretty compatible."
Sid Meier works alone. In his not-too-spacious office with the overfull bookshelves and the overstuffed green chair, Meier writes much of the code for the various games that have his name on the box. Then the teams of artists and programmers at Firaxis work to make that code into games. Working with the art and program teams to make sense of what Meier has written is where someone like Jake Solomon comes in — working with Meier to make sense of what they send back to him.
"I was always a champion for Sid to the programmers," says Solomon. "I would also champion the programmers for Sid. ... He would make these games. I would work with him as a programmer, and I'd also be playing the game and giving him lots of feedback. We had a really tight relationship.
"This is kind of what Bruce Shelley did for Sid as well. Sid makes the game, you play it and you say, 'Hey, I didn't like this, or this part was really boring.' It got to the point where Sid and I were really close. I'd say, 'Aw, this is fuckin' terrible!' And Sid, all mild-mannered, would say, 'OK ...' Based on feedback he'd change this or change that. That was the point where I thought, 'Hey, I can do this. I'm telling Sid Meier how shit should go. I must be the world's best fuckin' designer if I can sit here and tell Sid Meier what's the problem with his game.'"
Working side by side on games like Pirates! and Civilization Revolution, sharing ideas and solving problems with Meier at his desk and Solomon in the green chair, the two formed a bond and developed a shared language. It would be this bond that helped convince Meier that Solomon was ready to try his hand at designing his own game. And it would be this bond that would help pull Solomon out of the depths of the failure of his vertical slice.
"'Our job is to make a fun XCOM and we've completely failed at it,'" Solomon recalls saying at the time. "It was a really hard moment, because up until that point, I had probably not had any real stress. When the feedback started coming back, I was thinking, 'Holy shit. Here I am. I'm the designer. I have this vision, and almost unequivocally, everyone thinks it's not fun.' That's when, as a designer, you start to think, 'OK ... I have no answers.'"
As you might expect, Sid Meier has been in this place before as a game designer. He even has a name for it. He calls it "The Valley of Despair."
"You start a project with very high hopes and expectations and visions of what the game is going to be and how awesome it's going to be. Some of those are realized and some of those are not. In the middle of the game, not everything works, not everything looks as good as it should and you're a little burnt out. You've seen it a hundred times. You're maybe wondering whether you're the only one that's having fun, the only one that likes this game, the only one that believes in it. You have to push through that with a little bit of faith. ... That's the Valley of Despair." — Sid Meier
The Valley of Despair
One of the lessons Jake Solomon learned over the years from Sid Meier is that, as a designer, you can't ignore the feedback. Feedback is fact. If someone has a feeling about your game, that feeling is irrefutable. It is something you must take into account. And if enough people have the same feeling, then there's a problem and it must be addressed.
After playing the vertical slice of Solomon's second attempt at making XCOM, most people had the feeling that it was terrible.
"It was a pretty big setback," Solomon says. "It was a pretty big failure. That wasn't the end of it, either. ... You have this big team of developers who you love, who you shake hands with, who trust you and give you all this time and passion to work on these ideas of yours, and then you've got this company that's relying on this big title, and then you've got all these people at the publisher, and they basically are all looking at you."
Solomon's plane had taken off. His passengers were sitting behind him. The plane was on fire.
Looking back on the vertical slice now, Greg Foertsch can't believe how terrible it was.
"It was so bad," Foertsch says. "We made the '94 game now. ... It just didn't feel right. We changed the movements and all that. Going back now, I just don't remember it — when I played it the first time around — being quite as painful."
Solomon admits now that the game he had envisioned was overly complicated.
"It's hard to even describe now," Solomon says. "I don't know what I was thinking. It was the original game, and then over the top of that I had put ... soldier abilities ... a cover system ... new alien abilities ... new weapons. It was ... incredibly complicated — not complex. Complex is fun, complicated is bad. This was a very complicated game. It was more complicated than the original."
Solomon and his team had reached a failure point, and after long hours spent crying in Meier's green chair, Solomon knew what he had to do.
"I went to [Foertsch and Lead Programmer Casey O'Toole] and I said, 'Look, we have to start over. I have a new idea. But everything we just worked on for 10 or 11 months or whatever, we're gonna have to scrap it.'"
It was a gut-check moment. Solomon was admitting to his design leads that he had wasted more than a year of their lives, and then asked them to believe that what happened next wouldn't lead them to another dead end.
"That's where that trust comes in," says Foertsch. "You have to trust that this guy is covering his side of it. He's covering his side of it; I'm going to cover my side of it. We're going to meet in the middle. We're going to end up with something that's good. And you try to give that guy as much time as you can, to take as much heat off him as you can and let him develop what he's doing."
"Complex is fun, complicated is bad. This was a very complicated game."
Casey O'Toole is more sanguine.
"Obviously, when we started to make [the vertical slice] we thought we knew what we were doing," says O'Toole. "We thought we had all the answers. It seemed like the obvious route to go. Then you get there and you have this realization where you're like, 'Man, this is like pulling teeth. It's just not fun.' It's just part of the process.
"A lot of companies make a design document or they have a design and that's it. But everything we do is more alive and more fluid. It changes constantly. That's part of the development process for this company. It's expected that you're going to run in and make a little bit of a U-turn. What you thought was going to be good and fun is going to change into something that you actually discover to be good and fun."
What would end up not making the cut were a lot of design elements pulled directly from the original game and some that Solomon had pulled out of ... the ether (he would say "my ass"). The team went back to the drawing board, focused on what did work and what was fun and forged a new plan that would take them through another three years of iteration, evaluation and potential failure. It would be another two years before the game would be playable again.
Combat pre-visualization video
"I guess it comes down to the feeling that we're, in some sense, being creative. That we're doing something. It's not a science. We don't have all the rules figured out. But if we're smart and creative today, this game will be better than it was at the beginning of the day. That's part of what motivates us." — Sid Meier
Jake Solomon was slowly emerging from the Valley of Despair. Work was progressing on a new direction for XCOM. Bad design was being thrown out the window. Good design was replacing it. The system was working. And, almost unbelievably, the game was still on schedule.
But now Jake Solomon had a new problem: One of the game's two main design elements wasn't working. At all.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is almost two games. In the first, you lead a squad of customizable and upgradeable supersoldiers into combat against aliens. In the second, you enlist the support of nations around the world to contribute funding to the XCOM project. One part tactical combat, one part strategic resource gathering.
From the days of the earliest prototype in 2003, Solomon knew what he wanted to do with tactical combat in XCOM. It needed to be turn-based, like the original, but also cinematic, like modern games. He knew the key was in mixing those two elements, and throughout all of the long and tortured design process, the tactical combat had never changed. The strategic side, however, was a mess. Solomon simply had no idea how to make it work.
"I couldn't make it work with all the things that I'd added to it," Solomon says. "And so I started to iterate on the strategy game. I started to change it. I started to add all these different elements to it. I made it a turn-based game. Then I made it another real-time game, but it's like a real-time tower defense version of the strategy layer. Then I made a turn-based card-based strategy game, which should horrify people.
"That was when I was waking up in the morning and like ... I was not even wanting to go into work, because I knew I was so far off the path at that point. I'd iterated so much that it didn't even look like XCOM."
Meier encouraged Solomon to completely scrap what he had already made and start over.
"I couldn't make it work with all the things that I'd added to it."
Casey O'Toole describes the meeting that followed:
"The leads were in a conference room and it was not ... It was not a good meeting," he says. "Jake was basically saying, 'I've gotta change this. I've gotta throw it out and start over again.' It was brutal. And I'll admit, I was one of the first ones to be like, 'Oh, God, I don't know if this is such a good idea.'"
Meier and Solomon hammered out some ideas and then created a prototype XCOM strategy game using cards, model tanks and pieces from the board game Risk.
"We drew on paper or on the whiteboard," Solomon says. "We'd draw the earth and we'd say, 'OK. Alien invasion strategy game. This is how it works.' From a very high level, which is where you have to start. You have to say, 'What are the big choices? What's the player doing every turn?' That can be real-time, but there are these discrete moments where the players are making choices. What are those choices? What is the player weighing? What are they doing?"
Over the course of two weeks, Solomon would continue to design the tactical game on the right side of the former spice building, and in the afternoons he would sit in Meier's green chair on the left side. The two would spend hours playing their homemade XCOM strategy board game, tweaking and refining and solving the problem, one roll of the dice at a time.
Solomon was terrified. He was emerging from his lowest point as a designer — having failed to make a game. And now he was desperately trying to resuscitate the strategy element. If he and Meier couldn't figure it out, he'd be lost again. Looking back on it now, it's not the terror he recalls most clearly.
"If you had told the 15-year-old Jake that he'd be making board games some day with Sid Meier in his office ... " Solomon says. "It was just the most amazing thing."
Eventually Meier and Solomon refined their makeshift strategy game to the point where they needed to make a major decision regarding how to move forward. Meier suggested a turn-based solution; Solomon advocated real-time. They were at an impasse.
"[Meier] said, 'Look, OK. We are both programmers,'" Solomon recalls. "It was a Friday. He says, 'Let's go home over the weekend. I'm going to write a prototype. You write a prototype. We'll get back together. We'll play each other's prototypes and we'll see what we think.'"
Meier and Solomon, both workaholics, spent their respective weekends writing XCOM strategy game prototypes and then compared notes the following Monday. The decision: They would do it Solomon's way. The team immediately began working on turning Solomon's real-time prototype into the final version that exists in the game — with a few additions stolen from Meier's turn-based version.
"There was no way I could have done it on my own," Solomon says. "That's a pretty clear example where he doesn't just mentor me. He actually contributes to design. He has a playable XCOM strategy prototype on his machine that he made because he and I were trying to figure stuff out."
"We never know. We know that we like the game. We know that we're having fun. We know that it's the best work that we can do. But every game is an adventure from the beginning to the end. We were very pleasantly surprised with the response [to XCOM: Enemy Unknown], with the enthusiasm, with what we're hearing from players. It was surprising. A smidgen of relief, probably, because again, you never know what the response is going to be." — Sid Meier
Things are a lot quieter for Jake Solomon now. XCOM: Enemy Unknown was released to mostly positive reviews. The game's Metacritic average sits at 89. It's selling well. Add-on content is available and more is on the way. There's even talk of a sequel.
Jake Solomon, Greg Foertsch, Casey O'Toole, Garth DeAngelis and the XCOM team at Firaxis (plus Sid Meier) did it: They resurrected Solomon's favorite game and made it work. The airplane landed safely.
Solomon has largely stepped back to let others take the controls now. There's DLC to develop and release. Post-mortems to conduct. Vacation time to cash in.
Solomon interrupted his own long, postgame break to talk to Polygon for this story. Then he extended the break to witness the birth of his second child, born just slightly too late to be technically called a "production baby." It's hard to tell what he's prouder of: his burgeoning family or the game that removed him from their embrace for over half a decade.
On the surface, Jake Solomon doesn't seem proud of XCOM at all. Instead he seems conflicted. Almost in shock. Like he can't quite look head-on at the fact that he's accomplished his lifelong ambition. Ask him about his feelings on the subject of the glowing reviews, or massively positive fan reaction, and his eyes dart to the side, his head falls and his voice, normally a room-filling roar, drops to a whisper. He responds like a man staring down the barrel of a bad diagnosis.
"My relationship with [XCOM] is so complicated," Solomon says. "I put so much emotion into this game and spent so much time on it that ... I really don't know how to describe my relationship with it. It's hard for me to imagine.
"To some extent it's incredibly gratifying that people like the game, that the team is going to be taken care of, that there's a future here. That's all that matters. But from another angle you're kinda like ... Now all of a sudden it's just over. It's a very strange feeling."
At Firaxis, the work of sweeping up after the chaos continues. According to DeAngelis, the task now is to take what they've learned and apply it forward, to try and make the next project (no one will confirm if there will or won't be another XCOM) run a touch more smoothly.
"We really have to change some things to make it better," DeAngelis says, fresh from a meeting with the entire XCOM team. He spent most of a morning getting hammered by line level developers over the disarray of the five-year project. Although the prevailing mood in the room was "overwhelmingly elation," the people in the trenches would still like to do it differently next time.
"Not enough time, not enough money, we need more people. Scope was too big for that amount of time. It's the classic stuff. It really is," DeAngelis summarizes. "I don't think there's ever been a game shipped where they have no post-mortem to write. ... There's always things that go wrong."
"Now all of a sudden it's just over. It's a very strange feeling."
But would the tone of the meeting have been different, say, if XCOM hadn't been a success? DeAngelis says: "Oh yes."
"I feel really bad for developers that kill themselves, like we did, and then they have a game that's like a 60 Metacritic or something. I can't imagine ... I truly have empathy for that. It's gotta be a terrible feeling. ... But we sort of won. We got a victory out of this, because we ended up with a really good product. ... Winning cures all. We did it."
Solomon is finally able to face the facts. He's made a successful game. He is, by definition, a successful game designer. But the process has enlarged his perception of what that means. He is simultaneously more confident and less sure of himself. He has, in other words, matured.
But despite coming of age, settling back in with his family and starting to take a look at what might come next, Solomon still has his doubts. Foremost among them, what to call himself now.
"I guess I'm not the lead designer now," Solomon says. "That's actually very weird to wrap my head around, that I'm not ... I don't know what I am now, but I'm the former lead designer of XCOM.
"There's a part of me that's like, 'Is this going to be my last interview? My last official role on the original XCOM?' I can't even believe that's over. It's a weird moment. I'm so glad to be here. I'm so glad everything worked out. But then part of me's like, 'Well, I'm sad to have it over with.' It just sort of ends here."
[Video: Jimmy Shelton, Pat McGowan]
[Design: Warren Schultheis]
Image credits: 2K Games