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Published on April 1st, 2013 | by G. Bargas, Managing Editor

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Editorial| An Art Shaped Box: Pulling XCOM from the Depths of 1994

During the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, Calif., many designers, engineers, artists and otherwise ventured out for inspiration, networking or the general job hunt. Among the busyness of the conference, many talks are held for all aspects of the industry itself. Such as implementing humor in Borderlands 2, to hearing the low-down on sound engineering for your would-be video game creation, there are a lot of talks filling almost every meeting hall. One of which I had the opportunity to attend was  ’Art Direction Autopsy: XCOM: Enemy Unknown.’ Like many out there, studios with large-scale publishers still start with the most basic of approaches to launch a games development cycle.

Greg Foertsch, project art director at Firaxis Games, said he was thrilled when someone told him that the characters of XCOM: Enemy Unknown resembled action figures. Before the real-time strategy received a major reboot, before creating the bare bones things like the engine that would eventually run the game, there was a pitch.

The trailer below is an example of exactly what the team at Firaxis Games envisioned when they set out to venture back down the path of UFOs and the assimilation into popular culture. For many, the 1994 game titled X-COM: UFO Defense was the epitome of strategy games and it was heralded for its emphasis on the alien nostalgia. “Are we sure we want to do this?” should have been Firaxis’ first thought.


The goal was simple: make a game that was leaps and bounds better than the 1994 release. This may sound simple given the technological advancements from then and 2007, which was the year plans for XCOM: Enemy Unknown started to form. From the developer’s standpoint, the game had to include a turn-based system, tactics/strategy, environmental damage and the impending “fog of war.” Other essentials included non-linear gameplay mixed with involved action from the player’s standpoint. How was this going to be emphasized? Through one of the most important elements that makes video games a different medium: the art.

“All art and art direction is a reaction to design.”–Greg Foertsch

Foertsch admitted there were various “obstacles” preventing the game’s initial start. The aforementioned engine, or lack thereof, wasn’t even in place. However, simple things like camera angles were still unanswered strategic questions. There wasn’t exactly a “contemporary reference point” to pull info or specs from, leaving a lot of ground to be covered by the development team.

It was interesting to see the amount of detail involved in essentially creating the backdrop to XCOM, simply to lay a blank canvass atop. Even with the trailer standing as an entry way for 2K Games to fund the project, there was  still the probability of it succumbing to the woes of the industry. Much like the many other XCOM games in the series, there was the possibility of it too not making it past the brains and computers in a development studio.

Cancellations often occur when there isn’t enough support, progress or when the bad simply outweighs the good. In an effort to bring XCOM to fruition, such simple things as “UFO lore” and a “clearly defined visual direction” were ingrained into the design of the game. As mentioned before, the art style was part of the game’s DNA and not necessarily mutually exclusive. It was interesting to hear about the team dynamic when implementing such things. The team often felt comfort and celebration with beer-themed Friday’s, but at times those cheers were short lived.

Goal setting isn’t simply something you do when your during school projects. It was a primary focus in level design, not to mention completing the game. The team set minor goals of completing small things such as 25 levels done by the 25th of the following month. This was part of the process Foertsch also talked about on larger projects. Moving the team from a Macro-to-Micro approach he felt was best in such the case, the game being the Macro aspect and minor things, such as levels, being the micro.

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The true meaning for "chunkifying" all assets. This image shows the before and after moves of the characters seen in the game.

The true meaning for “chunkifying” all assets. This image shows the before and after bulking of the characters. This was done for performance in-game.

Having a strong team atmosphere is key for any group working together. The team hit performance roadblocks with various constraints. Such things as character designs being too detailed, and other performance issues as simple as seeing in dark areas of a house. Foertsch made it very clear that “presentation trumps style,” inevitably also being a part of the team’s DNA as launch deadline became closer.

Even though the game was essentially completed, Foertsch made a comment that the game was “done, but not done.” With many people working against a deadline, there’s no doubt that someone on the project might still feel that they wanted to do more with this or less of that. At the end of the presentation, I was able to ask Foertsch if there was anything he felt wasn’t exactly complete, or anything he would like to have worked on further.  He simply stated there were a few things that he would have liked to have done to the camera, characters and some of the customization of the game.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown released mostly to universal praise. However, would this be the same outcome if things were changed? Would it hurt it? That surely leaves the mind to wander. Unless a sequel is in the works for this RTS title, the outcome is simply unknown.

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About the Author

I am Greg, aka LaWiiG. Thanks for coming to take a look around! Retro is the way to go! Do yourself a favor and show love by playing retro games.



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